Samsung HW-E551 2.1-channel Soundbar Review

Samsung's new soundbar is as much 2 in 1 as it is 2.1

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Highly Recommended
Samsung HW-E551 2.1-channel Soundbar Review
SRP: £300.00

Introduction

Modern displays just get slimmer and slimmer and whilst there are numerous advantages to having a TV the width of a credit card, the one area that suffers is sound. To quote Scotty in Star Trek, “you can’nae change the laws of physics captain”. Sound works by moving air, the larger the speaker the more air that is moved and the bigger the sound. If you've got tiny speakers, hidden away at the bottom of chassis and firing downwards, you really can't expect a full and immersive sound experience with plenty of bass. The truth is that modern TVs sound rubbish and no amount of DSP tricky or fancy speaker design will make any difference. So what to do?
Well the obvious answer is to buy an all-in-one surround sound package but some people (and especially their significant others) aren't too keen on having their lounge festooned with speakers and cables. As a result the demand for soundbars has grown significantly over the last few years and Samsung's latest entry in this growing market is the HW-E551. It represents an interesting stage in the evolution of the soundbar, offering a choice between the conventional single unit beneath the display or a two speaker configuration on either side. This approach caters for a variety of different setups and the inclusion a wireless subwoofer allows for even greater flexibility. This all sounds very interesting but do they sound any good? Let's find out...

Design and Installation

As you would expect from Samsung the design of the HW-E551 is suitably stylish, with a grey metallic finish and black grilles. Unfortunately the metallic finish is a bit misleading and when you get up close, you realise the chassis is actually made from plastic. Although this isn’t obvious when sat down to actually watch TV and the effect is rather attractive. The contemporary design will certainly compliment many of today’s ultra-thin TVs, especially those made by Samsung. However, it’s a shame that Samsung don’t offer alternative colours because we found the styling didn’t go quite as well with the gloss black bezel of our Pioneer Kuro. If you come from the ‘any colour you like as long as it’s black’ school of thought, you might prefer an alternative to silver and grey.

The unique selling point of the HW-E551 is that they can be configured as either a single soundbar or as a pair of more traditional stereo speakers. This approach is clever and certainly gives the user a greater level of flexibility in terms of set up and installation. There are, in fact, four different possible configurations, the first two of which are with the speakers as one soundbar, either mounted on the wall or sitting on a stand. The other two options are with the speakers in the stereo configuration and again they can either be mounted on the wall or on stands. Samsung provide wall brackets and stands for all these different configurations, so in terms of setting up the HW-E551, it couldn’t be easier.

Samsung HW-E551

If you decide to go for the soundbar configuration, you combine the two speakers together using a special connection and then secure them using a bracket. You have a choice of using the provided stand or wall bracket, depending on your preference. When combined the soundbar is 109cm long, cylindrical in shape with a diameter of 5.5cm and weighs 1.7kg. This makes the soundbar configuration ideal for TVs with a screen size of between 46 and 50 inches. There is an LED display to the right of centre, an on/off button and volume control on the far right hand end and a power socket at the rear, also just to the right of centre. This is where you connect the power adapter, so bear that in mind when positioning the soundbar, especially if wall mounting. The LED display, amplification, power socket and volume control are all on the righthand speaker when used in the stereo configuration.

If you do decide to go for the stereo configuration there are covers for the connectors at the bottom of the two speakers. These covers are locked with screws and are styled like the speakers themselves, giving the impression of a slightly larger speaker. You can then choose between mounting the speakers on the wall using the provided brackets or using the provided speakers stands. When combined with the covers and stands, each speaker is 65cm high but since the right-hand one contains all the amplification and electronics, it is far heavier. You connect the left-hand speaker to the right-hand speaker using the speaker wire included with HW-E551 and the speakers have spring clip terminals at the rear. In this configuration, the volume control is at the top of the right-hand speaker and the LED display at the bottom, although of course it's now on its side. As with the soundbar configuration, you will need to connect the power adapter to the right-hand side speaker, which again needs to be considered if you plan on wall mounting the speakers.

Samsung HW-E551

The HW-E551 is a 2.1 system meaning that it comes with a subwoofer which follows the speakers in terms of looks, sporting a similar gloss metallic grey finish that is also made of plastic. The subwoofer itself is active and measures 290 x 290 x 370mm and weighs 7.7kg. It is rear ported and communicates with the speakers/soundbar wirelessly using the 5.2/5.8GHz band, giving it a claimed range of around 9m. The connections include two HDMI inputs, an optical digital input, a USB 2.0 port and auxiliary in using a 3.5mm jack. The HW-E551 comes with a USB cable and a stereo RCA to 3.5mm adapter cable included. There is an HDMI output with ARC (Audio Return Channel) for connecting the HW-E551 to your TV and passing the audio from the TV back to the speakers. At the rear, there is also an on/off switch and a hard wired power cable that measures 1.5m in length, which might limit your installation options. The decision to include all of the connections on the subwoofer and then connect that wireless to the speakers, dramatically reduces the number of cables and means the only connection to the soundbar is the power adapter lead.

Samsung HW-E551

The remote control is surprisingly plain for Samsung and is just made of simple black plastic. It is also quite small, although that does mean it fits comfortably into the palm of your hand, and it's sensibly laid out. It includes all the buttons you need for controlling the HW-E551 including on/off, source selection, volume, mute, subwoofer level, DSP sound effect selection and basic controls for file playback. In addition it can be used to control a Samsung TV, if you have one.

Setup

Once you’ve decided on the configuration and chosen where to position your subwoofer, you need to wirelessly link the subwoofer to the main unit. The subwoofer’s linking ID is preset in the factory, so the subwoofer should link automatically when switched on. This connection is indicated by the Link LED on the top of the subwoofer, which lights up blue. When the main unit has been off for over 20 minutes, the subwoofer will go into standby mode and the standby light will come. However once you turn the main unit back on, the subwoofer will immediately exit standby mode and reactivate.

Once wired up, you can connect all your devices to the HW-E551 and with two HDMI inputs and an optical audio input you should be able to cover most options, including the audio from the TV thanks to ARC. Using the supplied adapter cable, you can also connect the stereo analogue outputs of another device to the HW-E551 via the 3.5mm jack. The HW-E551 can also connect with devices via both Bluetooth and USB, which makes it pretty flexible. There is a useful LED display which shows you which type of connection is being used - HDMI-1, HDMI-2, D-IN, AUX, BT and USB, as well as the volume level etc. The display can be dimmed or set to auto which automatically turns the display off after 5 seconds.

Features

As far as features are concerned, Samsung describes the HW-E551 as a Crystal Surround Air Track Active Speaker System which is just a rather ostentatious way of describing a 2.1 speaker system with an active subwoofer. The term Air Track relates to Samsung’s proprietary three-way Air Track speaker, which means that the speaker can be positioned either vertically or horizontally. The Crystal part of that description on the other hand, relates to the Crystal Amplifier Plus, which is Samsung’s proprietary digital amplifier technology. Samsung claim that the amplifier is designed to filter sound sources twice to minimise distortion. We’ll reserve judgement until we get to the listening tests but we’re not expecting miracles.

The inclusion of Bluetooth is, however, a genuinely useful feature and means that you can easily pair the HW-E551 to a compatible device such as an iPod or smartphone and listen to music. Once paired the device’s name scrolls across the HW-E551’s front display before showing the word CONN and ‘[Air Track] E551’ appears on the device. The HW-E551 supports Middle Quality SBC data (up to 237kbps at 48kHz) but it does not support High Quality SBC data (328kbps at 44.1kHz). In addition, only one Bluetooth device can be paired at a time and once paired, the range is up to 10m. The HW-E551 can also play music from a connected USB device connected to the port at the rear of the subwoofer. In the case of both Bluetooth and USB connected devices, the HW-E551 is unfortunately limited to MP3 and WMA files. The USB port can also be used for any future software upgrades by downloading the update files from the internet and copying them to a USB drive.

If you connect a Blu-ray player, DVD player or digital TV receiver to the HW-E551 you can take advantage of the built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. This is another useful feature as it allows the user to benefit from the full discrete 2.1-channel audio, rather than being limited to a stereo downmix. Whilst the HW-E551 doesn't include Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio this is no great loss because given the limitations of the speakers and the 2.1 channels, it is unlikely you would really be able to take advantage of the higher resolution formats. As with all Dolby Digital compatible devices, the HW-E551includes DRC which is designed to balance the loudest and quietest parts of a soundtrack when watching films a low volume at night.

The HW-E551 also includes a range of DSP sound modes for different types of material. The choices are Music, News, Drama, Cinema, Sports and Game, as well as an Off mode for those that prefer their audio unadulterated. Along similar lines, you’ll also find a 3D Sound feature which, in lieu of rear speakers, is designed to provide a greater sense of envelopment. There is also an Audio Sync feature which adds an audio delay of between 0 and 300ms, as well as a Smart Volume feature. This is designed to automatically adjust the volume so that it remains consistent despite any fluctuations in levels caused by channel changes or scene transitions. Finally the HW-E551 includes Samsung’s Anynet+ (HDMI-CEC) function, which allows you to control other compatible devices with your Samsung remote control.

Audio Performance

In their marketing literature, Samsung claim that the HW-E551 has a power output rating of 80W per channel, whilst the subwoofer is rated at 150W. Needless to say, in reality, this is hardly the case, although having said that it is able to produce a surprisingly big sound in either its soundbar or speaker configuration. It will certainly be enough for the average sized living room and is far better than the sound you will get out of the built-in speakers on a TV. The fullness of the sound is no doubt attributable to the active subwoofer, which can genuinely pack a punch. Obviously it can’t reach the sonic depths of a serious subwoofer but for one included in a budget soundbar package, it is actually rather good. In fact, if anything, it can be a little too energetic and for this reason you might want to experiment with placement in order to integrate the subwoofer effectively. This process is helped by its wireless nature, which means that as long as there is a wall socket nearby, you don’t have to worry about cables. We found that keeping the subwoofer reasonably near the speakers themselves generally helped to reinforce the front soundstage. If needs be, there is a Subwoofer Level control with can adjust from -6 to +6 and can be used for a bit of fine tuning.

In listening tests we found that the HW-E551 delivers a very pleasing performance with both TV, movies and music. For normal TV viewing the HW-E551 is able to deliver a well-defined soundstage with dialogue cleanly delivered. However when we move on to movies, it moves up a gear, rendering even the most complex of soundtracks with a degree of precision that is surprising at this price point. There is a balance and richness to the overall performance that is ably supported by the subwoofer, which offers some nicely integrated bass. The HW-E551 also handles music well, not only delivering a tight low end but managing to render female vocals without becoming shrill. There is a far greater composure to the performance than we expected from a soundbar, although we generally preferred to use the HW-E551 in its stereo configuration. Whilst it obviously won’t replace a good separates system, there’s nothing stopping you from using the HW-E551 for everyday music listening.

As we mentioned earlier, there are a number of DSP modes available but as is usually the case we found that they proved detrimental to the overall sound quality. We felt that dialogue in particular suffered, expect for the News option, which is obviously dialogue heavy. The Music option ironically robs the HW-E551 of some of its musicality and whilst the Sports option did widen the soundstage it also had an adverse affect on the commentary. In fact the only option that was bearable was the Cinema mode which gave a slightly fuller soundstage to the audio, in much the same way as the 3D Sound mode. However whilst both these features did widen the stereo soundstage, they can never really replace the genuine sense of envelopment that rear speakers will provide. In the end these are all unnecessary gimmicks because with a bit of careful setup, the unprocessed performance of the HW-E551 is good enough to keep those looking to beef up their TV’s audio more than happy.

Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

The Good

  • Great sound quality
  • Flexible installation
  • Soundbar or stereo configuration
  • Wireless subwoofer
  • Attractive design
  • Good connections
  • Bluetooth compatible
  • Price

The Bad

  • Build quality could be better
  • Remote is a little uninspired
  • Black option would be useful

Samsung HW-E551 2.1-channel Soundbar Review

The HW-E551 is an impressive entry in the growing soundbar market, combining originality, attractive design and great performance into a very tempting package. The looks are pure Samsung, with an attractive use of metal and grey resulting in a product that will compliment many modern TVs perfectly. Whilst the build quality is a bit heavy on the plastics and the remote rather uninspired, the overall package represents excellent value considering the price. Our only suggestion would be to consider making an all black version to match the TVs of those who prefer the black bezeled variety.

The flexibility of the HW-E551 in terms of installation is excellent and owners have a choice of either a soundbar or stereo configuration, along with the option of a stand or wall mounting. The active subwoofer connects wirelessly to the main unit which also provides greater freedom and the decision to put all the connections on the rear of the subwoofer increases the flexibility still further. The connections include two HDMI inputs, an optical digital input, an analogue input, a USB port and an HDMI out with ARC. The HW-E551 also has built-in Bluetooth allowing you to play music wirelessly or via USB, although it only supports MP3 and WMA files.

The HW-E551 delivers a surprisingly big sound in either its soundbar or speaker configuration, certainly enough for the average sized living room and is far better than the sound you will get out of the built-in speakers on a TV. The fullness of the sound is no doubt attributable to the active subwoofer, which can genuinely pack a punch. In listening tests we found that the HW-E551 delivers a very pleasing performance regardless of content. There is a balance and richness to the overall performance that is ably supported by the subwoofer, which offers some nicely integrated bass. In fact, anyone looking for superior sound from their current TV should certainly consider the HW-E551 - they won’t be disappointed.

Highly Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
.
7

Connectivity

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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