Welcome to T3's Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar review. Vizio is a serious player when it comes to audio and video products, in fact it’s the second biggest manufacturer of TVs in the US, and the largest maker of soundbars, though it's only recently making a big impact in other markets.
The arrival of the new Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar (AKA the SB36512-F6) immediately piqued our interest, because it's the kind of comprehensive package you get from high-end soundbars, but for around half the price of a similar set up in the best soundbars from LG or Sony.
Vizio also refers to it as the 36-inch 5.1.2 Soundbar and, as the name suggests, it’s 36 inches wide and boasts a 5.1.2-channel system with a separate subwoofer and rear speakers. The latter gives this compact multi-channel system the ability to completely immerse you in the whizz-bang action of modern movie soundtracks.
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Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar review: price & features
The Vizio SB36512 delivers some serious sonic value-for-money, cramming in plenty of cutting-edge tech for a £599/$499 price tag. Unlike most of the competition, this soundbar delivers a Dolby Atmos experience using actual speakers, rather than psychoacoustic trickery. The result is a performance that’s not only more engaging, but also considerably more immersive.
The soundbar itself has three forward-firing drivers for the front left, right and centre channels, along with two upward-firing drivers for the overhead channels. These drivers literally bounce sounds off the ceiling, creating the illusion of speakers above you. There’s also a pair of passive radiators built into the soundbar to give it an added bass kick.
The separate active subwoofer uses a 6-inch driver to produce low frequencies down to 40Hz, and connects wirelessly with the soundbar. There’s a pair of wired rear speakers that physically connect to the subwoofer, which handles the amplification, and having these at the back of the room produces a proper surround experience, making a big difference.
The SB36512-F6 can decode Dolby Atmos object-based audio, but can also handle less immersive formats like Dolby Digital and DTS. In fact the only format it doesn’t support is DTS:X, which is a shame because it certainly has sufficient speakers to effectively deliver this alternative to Atmos. It's not a dealbreaker, because aside from some Blu-ray discs it isn’t especially widely supported – but it does mean the soundbar misses out on being future-proofed should it become more broadly used.
Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar review: sound quality
The soundbar impresses right out of gate, with an expansive front presence that sounds considerably bigger than the main unit’s 36-inch width. The dedicated centre speaker ensures dialogue remains clear, and the rear speakers provide plenty of surround activity behind you. The subwoofer also plays its part, laying down a foundation of bass that underpins everything.
The effectiveness of the upward-firing drivers will largely depend on your ceiling, and the lower and more reflective it is, the better. Vizio recommends a flat ceiling with a height of between 2.2 and 3.6m for the best overhead effects. When you combine all these elements the result is an enjoyably immersive sonic experience, particularly with Dolby Atmos.
The Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar is skilled at placing effects in three-dimensional space, creating a sphere of sound that extends to the sides, behind and above you. This is primarily thanks to the inclusion of rear speakers, something the Vizio’s competition at this price are missing, and the result is genuine immersion. There’s also plenty of precision as sounds are seamlessly steered from speaker to speaker.
The overall presentation retains excellent tonal cohesion, ensuring effects sound the same as they move from one channel to the next. You can also fine tune the performance using the remote app, setting each channel individually so that the sound field remains balanced. This ensures no one channel dominates, and also makes sure the sub doesn’t swamp the system with bass.
This soundbar might struggle in a larger room but it’s ideal for the average living space, with a muscular delivery that lends itself to action movies. Explosions hit with seismic force thanks to the well-integrated subwoofer, and bullets ricochet from speaker to speaker with detailed precision. However, no matter how cacophonous the soundtrack, dialogue remains clear and focused.
The height effects are often a delight, with thunder rolling overhead or aircraft roaring above you. These effects tend to be more focused at the front of the room because there are no rear height channels, but it remains an engaging experience with the rear speakers helping to fill the space behind you. Overall the SB36512-F6 delivers an authentic Atmos experience that’s sure to please.
It’s no slouch with music either, and the front speakers deliver excellent stereo imaging combined with impressive clarity and detail retrieval. The sub adds a well-timed low-end kick to drums, and the placement of instruments is enjoyably precise. The mid-range is solid thanks to the built-in passive radiators, and the higher frequencies never sound sharp or strained.
Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar review: design & usability
The Vizio SB36512-F6 isn’t going to win any design awards, it’s boxy and slightly boring with wrap-around black fabric and metallic grey end plates. The use of screws in the corners of these end plates gives the aesthetic a slightly industrial look, but at least the subwoofer and rear speakers match the soundbar. At 36 inches wide this soundbar is ideal for 55-inch TVs and smaller.
The overall build quality is reasonable considering the price, and along the top of the soundbar you’ll find controls for power, input, Bluetooth and volume up/down. At the front, down the left-hand side, are a series of LED indicators, and although the manual contains detailed explanations for the different combinations, unless you’re a Bletchley Park codebreaker you won’t remember.
The connections are all located in a pair of recesses at the rear of the soundbar, and these include HDMI, optical digital and 3.5mm analogue inputs. There’s also an HDMI output with ARC, which allows you to send audio back from a compatible TV (including Dolby Atmos from supporting apps). There’s also a USB (MP3 and WAV), Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for wireless streaming.
The soundbar comes with a well-designed remote control that includes a small LED screen at the top, allowing you to scroll through the settings in the menu system. However the best approach is to use Vizio’s SmartCast Mobile App (iOS and Android), which not only turns your smart device into a controller but also makes setup more intuitive thanks to a clearly laid-out interface.
Vizio has helpfully included everything you need in the box, so you get a choice of three cables: HDMI, optical digital, and 3.5mm to stereo phono. There are also cable ties, a wall mounting template and brackets for the soundbar and rear speakers. The latter come with colour-coded 8m long cables, and should be installed just behind the main listening position at roughly ear height.
The fact the rear speakers are wired might be slightly off-putting, after all no-one likes running cables around their living room, and it also limits the distance from the subwoofer to the rear speakers.
However, having them wired to the sub (rather than the soundbar) and then giving the sub a wireless connection to the bar means you don’t have to put the sub at the front of the room, so you've got a good amount of flexibility overall. And the wired connections won’t suffer from drop-outs, which often happens with wireless surrounds.
Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar review: verdict
The Vizio SB36512-F6 is an excellent Dolby Atmos soundbar that delivers a genuinely immersive soundstage from a compact and well-engineered package. The looks might be boring, but the sound is anything but, with an entertaining delivery that creates an engaging three-dimensional experience. Whether its a TV show, movie or music this multi-channel combo is sure to please.
The features will also put a smile on your face, with extensive connections, handy controller, and intuitive remote app, plus everything you need to quickly and easily setup the system is included in the box.
It’s not perfect of course,– the lack of DTS:X is a disappointing omission, wired rears might put some off and the front LED display requires a PhD – but in all other respects the Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar offers superb value for money.
Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar review: verdict
For a more elite version of what this Vizio setup is trying to achieve, look to the Samsung HW-Q90R, which uses 17 drivers to give 7.1.4 surround sound – it has upfiring drivers at both the front and rear for a more complete 3D dome of sound than the Vizio can quite pull off. It's a fair bit more expensive, but is still good value for what it gives you – check out our full Samsung HW-Q90R review for everything you need to know.
If you think you could live without the rear surround speakers, but still want a big, tall front soundstage, then Sony makes an ideal option – read our Sony HT-G700 review.