Is it just me or is the premium category of the Dolby Atmos soundbar exploding?
Last weeks IFA 2022 in Berlin was a literal showcase for sophisticated and complete soundbars, with Philips revealing the powerful and elegant Fidelio FB1 ($899 / €899 / $1,316 AU) and Sennheiser or Ambeo Plus ($1,499 / £1,297), a compact version of their regular ambeo offer (now updated on behalf of Ambeo Max).
Based on the specs alone – as well as my subjective impressions after the demos at the IFA – both models are clear candidates for our list of the best soundbars next to the formidable Sonos Arc. But they weren’t the only premium soundbars to make their debut in Berlin. TCL was also showing off its X937U, a 7.1.4 soundbar system that really looks poised to steal some thunder from the Arc.
At around $800/€800/$AU$1,200, or $100 less than the Sonos Arc, the X937U is a very powerful soundbar package for the price. The 7.1.4 channel system features Dolby Atmos and DTS:X processing and supports Dolby Vision pass-through on its 3 HDMI ports (including one with eARC).
In addition to making an HDMI connection from a TV, broadcast box or disc player to the X937U, listeners can wirelessly stream high-resolution music to it using the DTS Play-Fi protocol. It also supports streaming via AirPlay, Chromecast and Spotify Connect and works with Alexa and OK Google voice commands.
Unlike the Sonos Arc, the X937U comes with wireless surround (with front speakers and upfiring for Atmos) and a wireless subwoofer. Three 2-way speakers are used for the left, center, and right channels, and full-range speaker drivers for the remaining channels, rated at 1,020 watts in total.
What you see on the surface of the X937U soundbar is an attractive gray fabric wrap (TCL says it uses “eco-friendly” materials) that is also applied to the surround speakers. What you don’t see is the Ray-Danz acoustic lens design that works with the speaker drivers to expand the soundstage and create a more immersive effect without digital processing.
Sitting down to listen to the X937U, I was impressed by the powerful and dynamic sound the system was able to muster in the sprawling, but not too crowded, TCL IFA booth. Achieving sufficient volume will not be a problem with this soundbar! While the high-ceilinged showroom was a far less than ideal setting for demonstrating Dolby Atmos, I still experienced some degree of immersion and certainly heard the immersive surround sound effects.
Premium soundbars: the wave (sound) of the future
Two days before my encounter with TCL’s X937U soundbar at IFA, I attended a Philips presentation for its new Fidelio FB1, where the company shared data indicating that premium models were the fastest growing segment of the bar market. sound – rivaling even the entry-level cheap offerings that have been continually popular. The result of the presentation was that viewers are eager to get not just better sound from their TVs, but fully immersive 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos sound.
Systems like the TCL X937U, Philips FB1 and Sennheiser Ambeo Plus, all featured at the IFA, are well-designed premium offerings that deliver 7.1.4 sound in a compact form factor – in the Sennheiser’s case, from a single, fully integrated soundbar.
Both Philips and TCL models also feature DTS Play-Fi, a wireless streaming technology similar to AirPlay and Chromecast that is distinguished by its support for high-resolution audio up to 24-bit/192kHz. Not only that, but Play-Fi also supports multi-channel streaming, and at IFA DTS, parent company Xperi announced an update to Play-Fi expanding its capabilities to immersive sound 7.1.4.
Among these three new offerings, the Sonos Arc is about to have some serious competition in the premium soundbar space. TCL’s new system looks particularly promising, as it delivers 7.1.4 sound using a full range of physical speakers rather than Atmos virtualization processing – something used by the Sonos Arc and Sennheiser Ambeo Plus. And it costs $800, making it more affordable than most other premium Atmos 7.1.4 sound packs by far.