What is the Samsung HW-Q90R?
So what's different? For a start, Samsung has redesigned the subwoofer, addressing criticisms that some people had concerning the previous design and ensuring the Q90R's immersive audio soundstage is built on a solid bass foundation. Samsung has also improved the Game Pro sound mode, and added the Adaptive Sound mode. The HW-Q90R isn't cheap, costing £1,499 as at the time of writing (May 2019), but those looking for a genuinely immersive soundbar might find it's just the ticket.
The HW-Q90 only comes in one colour, which this year Samsung refers to as 'Carbon Silver', and the soundbar is really designed for larger screen sizes. The main unit measures 1226 x 83 x 136mm (WxHxD) but it should be discreet enough to fit in front of most TVs. If size is an issue, Samsung includes brackets for wall mounting, although the main unit weighs in at 8.8kg so bear that in mind.
The overall design is attractive rather than flashy, which makes sense as you don't want the soundbar drawing attention to itself. However, Samsung has managed to cram plenty of speakers and amplification inside the svelte chassis. In total there are seven channels: three front speakers (left, centre and right), left and right width speakers, and two upward-firing speakers for the front left and right height channels.
In keeping with the minimalist design, there is only a simple LED display over on the front far right of the soundbar. When you use the controls it lights up, providing information on the volume, inputs and various settings. The only actual controls on the soundbar are a few basic touch-sensitive buttons for power, input selection and volume at the top centre.
The use of wireless rear speakers makes positioning and installing them easier, with no long cable runs from the front to the back of the room. However, don't forget you will need to plug them into wall sockets because they're both active with built-in amplification. There are two-pin power cables for this purpose that connect into a groove in the underside of each speaker, thus keeping things tidy.
The HW-Q90 includes an updated wireless active subwoofer that uses a rear-ported bass-reflex design with built-in amplification and a side-firing 8-inch driver. It is designed to complement the main soundbar and rear speakers and is equally as well-made. The new sub has been developed to deliver more effective bass, and measures 205 x 403 x 403mm (WxHxD) and weighs 9.8kg.
Connections & Control
The number of HDMI inputs is disappointing considering the price, but you can connect up to three sources directly to your TV, and then send the audio back via ARC. The inclusion of eARC would help mitigate the limited HDMI inputs to a degree, assuming your TV is also compatible, but to date Samsung has failed to deliver the promised update.
The only other physical connection is an optical digital input, but in terms of wireless, you get built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. On the underside, there's also a USB port but this is for service updates only, along with a connector for the two-pin power cable, a button for Wi-Fi setup, and a button for pairing the wireless surround speakers and subwoofer if necessary.
The buttons also have multiple functions, so holding the Woofer button up for five seconds disables the ability to control the soundbar using your Samsung TV. You can use the left and right buttons to skip music files forwards or backwards, and if you hold the right button down for five seconds you can turn Anynet+ on or off. Doing the same with the left button turns auto power link on and off, while holding the up button for five seconds completes Id Set when connecting with an accessory item. Finally, holding down the sound control button for five seconds brings up a choice of frequency bands, while doing the same when the soundbar is off will reinitialise it.
Samsung HW-Q90R Features & Specs
To deliver this 7.1.4-channel system, the HW-Q90 utilises no fewer than 12 speakers built around a total of 17 drivers. The front three channels are composed of three drivers each, with each speaker using two woofers and a wide-range tweeter. These nine drivers create a solid front soundstage that is augmented by the other eight channels, which all use a single driver for each speaker.
All 17 drivers in the system are powered by individual amplifiers with a total of 512W, although Samsung hasn’t specified how this amplification is actually allocated to each driver. A lot of the amplification will be used by the upgraded subwoofer, and the system as a whole has a claimed frequency response that goes from 34Hz to 17kHz, with the subwoofer handling the lower frequencies.
The HW-Q90R has been co-developed between Samsung Audio Labs and Harman Kardon (a Samsung subsidiary), with the latter ensuring the sound is dynamic and spacious while retaining clear voicing. In terms of audio formats, the Q90 doesn't just support Atmos and DTS:X, it can also decode Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby TrueHD, along with DTS Digital Sound and DTS-HD Master Audio.
There are some handy automated features for gaming as well. If you have a PS4 or Xbox One connected via HDMI to a 2019 Samsung TV, then it will detect your console and automatically select the low input lag game mode. If the HW-Q90 is connected to the TV via HDMI as well, then it will instruct the soundbar to select the Game Pro sound mode. If you then decide to do something other than gaming (such as watch an app or Blu-ray), the TV registers the metadata and switches itself and the soundbar out of game mode.
The Game Pro mode uses all the speakers to create a more immersive experience that places you inside the game. For film fans there's also the Surround mode, which upscales content to use all the available speakers, including the overhead channels. This mode actually works surprisingly well, producing a more immersive experience by creating the impression there are overhead channels with 5.1 and 7.1 content. Finally, the Standard mode simply decodes the audio format, without processing, as 2.1, 5.1, or 7.1.
In terms of other features, the HW-Q90R includes built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which allows users to effectively access their music libraries and streaming services. There's also support for numerous lossy and lossless audio formats including AAC, WAV, OGG, ALAC, AIFF and FLAC, with high-resolution support up to 32-bit. Samsung even includes high quality, UHQ 32-bit upscaling for supporting devices.
The soundbar supports the SmartThings App, which makes setup easier and allows for controlling it along with other connected devices. The HW-Q90 also works with Amazon Alexa, allowing for hands-free control and enabling you to listen to music via Spotify Connect. That's a solid selection of features, although it's worth pointing out that the soundbar doesn't support Samsung's own Bixby, nor does it support Google Assistant, Chromecast or Apple AirPlay.
Setup & Operation
The upward-firing drivers on the soundbar should hit the ceiling towards the front third of the room, creating the front overhead channels. The upward-firing drivers require a low, flat and reflective ceiling to work best, and the side-firing drivers are designed to bounce off the side walls, creating the effect that there are side speakers.
The wireless speakers and subwoofer should pair automatically with the soundbar, creating the full 7.1.4-channel system. All you need to do then is get hold of an Atmos or DTS:X test disc and an SPL meter (if you don't own one, there are plenty of free SPL apps for your smartphone) to set the levels for the centre, side, front top, rear, rear top and subwoofer channels.
For the best results, ensure the rear speakers are equidistant from the main listening position, because the level control for the rear speakers affects both simultaneously, so you can't change each one individually to allow for one being further away than the other. If you take the time to position everything carefully and set the channel levels correctly, the result is a cohesive soundstage with well-integrated bass.
At this price point, it would be nice to see Samsung include proper built-in test tones like those found in the Sony HT-ZF9 or an automated room EQ setup with a dedicated microphone like the one used by the Bose SoundTouch 300. It's even possible to use the microphone in your smartphone for set up, like the Sonos Beam does, so there's room for improvement in this area.
If you have a recent Samsung TV it will configure automatically for the soundbar, but if you have a TV from another manufacturer you'll need to make sure that ARC is setup correctly. You can either use the provided controller, your TV remote, or the SmartThings app. This allows you to play audio through another Samsung device using Group Play, and also a range of other smart home appliances.
If you have an Amazon Alexa device in your home, you can even use your voice to control the soundbar. Make sure you change the soundbar's name in the SmartThings app to something like Living Room, for example, and then search for 'Samsung Wireless Audio' under skills in the Alexa app and enable it. You'll then be able to control the HW-Q90R by using phrases such as "Alexa volume up on Living Room".
For testing, I connected lossless sources directly to the soundbar via the two HDMI inputs: LG UP970 UHD Blu-ray player, and a PS4 Pro. I connected an Apple TV 4K and a Humax FVP-5000T set top box directly to my TV, and then sent the audio back to the soundbar via the HDMI-ARC (Audio Return Channel). I also sent the audio from the TV's built-in video streaming apps back to the soundbar via ARC.
It seemed like a good idea to listen to some two-channel music first, just to get a handle on how the system sounded in terms of balance and clarity. The HW-Q90 didn't disappoint, delivering an excellent stereo performance that suggests Harman Kardon has done its job in terms of tuning the soundbar to deliver a performance that would please even the most demanding of music fans. The stereo imaging was impressive, with clarity in the vocals and precise placement of instruments.
Listening to Kate Bush's back catalogue I was impressed at how well the Q90R handles her unique songs, which are full of unusual instrumentation and orchestration. The drum beat that runs through the alternative version of Hounds of Love is delivered with a precise urgency and the cellos are beautifully rendered. The wide range tweeters also deliver her vocals without sounding shrill or sibilant, and the soundbar had plenty of clout, going loud without becoming strained or harsh.
I also listened to various tracks streamed from both the iPhone X and the Samsung S9+, and again the HW-Q90R did an excellent job of handling tracks from the likes of Suede, The Waterboys, and Nick Cave. I found that streaming from the UHQ-supporting S9+ was superior to the iPhone X, but whatever you use the Samsung soundbar proves itself to be a great performer when it comes to music. The Standard sound mode worked best for me, delivering the music as 2.1-channel audio.
The 5.1 soundtrack of Star Trek: Discovery (Netflix) is a fairly lively affair, and the HW-Q90 did a great job of delivering the soundstage with both precision and verve. The dialogue is always clearly focused on the screen thanks to the dedicated centre channel, while the music is spread across the front of the room. The effects are steered from speaker to speaker, and the sub delivers a tight and controlled bass presence. The battle with Control at the end of season two is a standout example of what this soundbar can do.
How much of a surround presence you hear will often depend on the mix itself, with some soundtracks using the rear channels more aggressively than others. Those who feel the surrounds aren't as effective as they like, can try the Adaptive Sound mode (it can also prove useful when listening at lower volumes). However, give the Q90R an excellent 7.1 soundtrack like Edge of Tomorrow (Blu-ray), and you'll hear plenty of surround envelopment and loads of bass, as ordinance explodes around the room.
The Adaptive Sound mode can be useful, but the Surround mode is also surprisingly effective, upmixing 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks to take advantage of the overhead channels. Sometimes it works so well that you'd swear it was a genuine Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack. For gamers, the Game Pro mode is great for taking the multichannel game soundtracks and highlighting directionality and effects, thus making the experience more realistic. Obviously, none of the sound modes can be applied when the soundbar is decoding an Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack.
The sixth episode of this series takes place in a funeral home during a thunderstorm, and is largely shot as a series of long takes. As a result, the sound mix is highly directional, with voices, bangs, and other effects coming from specific directions. There's also the sound of thunder rolling overhead, and some fairly deep bass moments to add to the more frightening jumps. The HW-Q90 handles this episode brilliantly, delivering the full immersive experience and scaring the hell out of me.
I then moved on to Ultra HD Blu-ray, and I popped on one of my favourite current Atmos soundtracks – Aquaman. This particular film uses bass as a weapon, and the action in the film is underscored by titanic amounts of low frequency energy. The new subwoofer on the HW-Q90R gave an excellent account of itself, handling all the big bass moments in the film well. It doesn't go as deep as a good budget subwoofer, but it's more discreet. It's also more controlled and refined compared to the sub included with the N950.
Aquaman also has plenty of immersive elements in its sound design, especially during the many underwater sequences, leaving you feeling soaked in brine. Overlord (4K disc) is another current favourite, and the opening parachute drop is a great example of effective use of the overhead channels coupled with an excellent LFE track. There is flak exploding all around, and when an explosion tears through the plane all the channels are in use. As the protagonist falls spinning through the air, the effects move from channel to channel with pinpoint accuracy to suitably disorientate.
Dolby Atmos is the only immersive option when it comes to streaming, and it dominates the physical disc market as well. However, there are plenty regular and 4K Blu-rays that include DTS:X soundtracks, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a recent example. This is a cracking new mix that makes good use of the overhead channels, either to deliver specific effects or create a sense of environment. Dialogue always remains clear, but Hellboy's huge gun sounds like a howitzer and his big red hand delivers punches like a sledgehammer.
Ultimately, the Samsung HW-Q90R is a superb soundbar, and when it comes to Dolby Atmos and DTS:X it is unmatched. If you want to add immersive audio to your living room but don't want the complexity and mess of installing a nine-channel AV receiver and 5.1.4 speaker system, then the Samsung is the ideal alternative.
- Superb sound quality
- Improved bass performance
- Genuine 7.1.4-channel layout
- Dolby Atmos & DTS:X
- Easy to set up
- Attractive and solid build
- Limited audio calibration
- No eARC
- Only two HDMI inputs
Samsung HW-Q90R Soundbar Review
Samsung HW-Q90R VerdictThe Samsung HW-Q90R is a fantastic soundbar system that currently exists in a class of its own. There is no other soundbar package available that offers a genuine 7.1.4-channel system with a wireless subwoofer and wireless rear speakers combined with four overhead channels.
The difference in performance compared to any other Dolby Atmos/DTS:X soundbar is quite profound because without the addition of the surrounds and rear height channels, all the immersive audio effects are focussed at the front of the room.
Put on your favourite Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack using the Q90 and you'll be delighted with the enveloping audio, which places effects within a 360 degree soundstage that projects over the listener. Music sounds excellent, dialogue is clear, and the sub delivers deep bass that is well integrated with the rest of the system.
The HW-Q90 isn't cheap but to get a system approaching this level of performance would require buying a minimum nine-channel AV receiver and a 5.1.4 speaker package. The chances are that such a system would cost at least as much as the Samsung system, and it wouldn't be as easy or unobtrusive to install.
There are some handy additional features like SmartThings, Amazon voice control, and Adaptive sound, while the system itself looks nice and is very well made. The number of HDMI inputs is disappointing, and so is the lack of eARC support, but in all other respects this is an impressive package that deserves to be best in class.
What are my alternatives?In terms of soundbars, there's literally no direct alternative but you could consider buying the Samsung HW-Q80R. This soundbar and subwoofer combination is identical to the HW-Q90R but doesn't include the rear speakers, and as a result it only costs £999. If you want to add surrounds at a later date there's the optional SWA-9000S wireless rear speakers, but these don't have any upward-firing drivers.
In terms of the competition, there's the LG SL10YG (£1,199), the Sony HT-ST5000 (£1,199) and the Yamaha MusicCast YSP-5600 (£1,299). However, all of these options are soundbar and subwoofer combinations like the HW-Q80, apart from the Yamaha which doesn't even include a sub. Since they all lack rear speakers, they will only create a front-heavy immersive audio effect.
Of course if you like the prices of the alternatives but still want a proper immersive audio experience, there is another option: you can still pick up the HW-N950 for £1,199 as end-of-line stock. The Q90R does offer marginal improvements over the N950, but the two are still largely the same and the latter remains an excellent 7.1.4-channel soundbar, especially at its reduced price.
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