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USE / LISTENING IMPRESSIONS
Before you read my subjective impressions of the sound, one disclosure must be made: The Samsung HW-D550 sound bar had the challenge of following in the footsteps of a truly exceptional speaker system. The last audio system in the media room was a Paradigm MilleniaOne and MilleniaSub 3.1 speaker system powered by an Anthem MRX-300 receiver, with the frequency response of the system fine tuned to the room acoustics using the computer-aided Anthem Room Correction system. The sound quality of this system was superb, as I reported in my recent review of the Paradigm Millenia home theatre speaker system, and the manufacturer's suggested prices of all this gear totals nearly $3200, many times the $450 MSP of the HW-D550. I tried to put the audio performance of the Samsung sound bar in balanced perspective, but this can be a difficult task without other products of the same price and class to compare and contrast.
The Samsung HW-D550 was hooked up as the center component in the small 10 x 12' media den with...
- a Samsung 58" 1080p plasma TV
- a WD TV Live media streamer
- a HTPC
- Shaw HD PVR
HDM-to-mini-HDMI cables were used, mostly. The digital optical input was used between the HTPC and the HW-D550. At first, the HW-D550 was placed directly on the TV equipment stand, a 5' wide Ikea stand which uses hollow honeycomb door panels for the shelves. There are two very small rubber feet near the center along the front edge of the unit and a couple of matching hard plastic nubs that act as back feet. The right and left extremes of the sound bar are basically unsupported, as those four points are where the unit makes contact with the surface upon which it sits.
The subwoofer was set on the floor to the left of the TV, and plugged into AC. As mentioned earlier, there is no cable to the sub because the signal is sent wirelessly from the sound bar.
Samsung HW-D550 sound bar on cabinet 6" in front of 58" TV.
The first thing I tried was a bit of channel surfing on the cable TV. The absence of a center speaker or channel did not leave any subjective "hole" in the middle of the sound stage; the left and right speakers are close enough together to prevent this effect.
Seven different sound modes are available: Music, News, Drama, Cinema, Sports, Game, and Pass (untreated original sound). I started with the PASS mode, to establish some baseline reference before trying any of the other settings, using some HD movies in my media collection. The sound was fairly clear overall, with plenty of volume, but the quality not exceptional.
- Music mode seemed to boost both bass and highs, which generally did improve the sound on pop music. With music, only Music or Pass mode sounded acceptable to me. In these modes, the overall sound was pleasant, but with softened transients and a distinct lack of sparkle with sounds like the shimmering of cymbals or bells. The midband was smooth enough, but with traces of a shouty quality at times. The bass was adequate in overall volume (and it was easy to set the sub level with the remote control), but lacking in definition so that sometimes the exact type of bass instrument used or the unique way it was being played could not be discerned clearly.
- The best dialog clarity was achieved with Cinema or Drama. Which mode worked better depended on the program material. There were some midband tonal colorations that sometimes made dialog a bit difficult to follow. With either of these modes, the sound was always superior to that of the TV's own internal speakers.
- News, Sports and Game modes boost the midband dramatically, lending an unpleasant "shouty" quality to the sound. I found them all unusable with any program material.
- Switching between modes causes the sound to blank out momentarily, for an annoying second or two. To avoid the annoyance, I fiddled a bit with the mode at the beginning of a movie or program to get the best setting, then restarted the movie and did not change the mode again. With live TV, I usually set it to Cinema or Drama and did not change it unless the dialog was really difficult to follow.
- 3D Sound can be activated in any mode. It typically enlarges the sound field, often resulting in improvements, but the realism or effectiveness varies. It automatically turns off when switching from one mode to another.
- S. (Smart) Volume is a compressed mode which reduces the sonic peaks. Generally useful only to reduce the annoyance factor of the soundtrack for others in the house.
The sub is not really a sub; it is a woofer. I doubt there is any useful output below 50Hz, at any volume level. It's not highly defined but OK with most video soundtracks as long as the volume is not set too high, and there isn't much deep bass in the signal to overload the speaker. The transition between sub and sound bar seemed smooth enough, as long as the sub volume was not set too high.
Music by itself is listenable through the Samsung HW-D550, but more acceptable when it is the soundtrack for a music-intensive movie or a music video. The visual stimulus of the video reduces my focus on the audio, and makes me more tolerant of less than great sound. This probably applies to a lot of people.
The Samsung sound bar suffered some resonance effects that hindered clarity in the midband, especially, I'd guess, in the 150~400 Hz region. This is the octave and half where the bulk of spoken voices lie, and unfortunately, there are some audible tonal peaks in this band. At higher volumes, occasional buzzing at higher frequencies were also noted. Both of these effects seemed directly related to the plastic construction of the sound bar itself. Holding the sound bar in my hands reduced the "hummmm" resonance that afflicted some male voices, and made dialog more intelligible, and the higher frequency buzzing effects also disappeared.
At this point, I realized that the top surface of the equipment cabinet was exacerbating the resonances in the Samsung sound bar. On a hunch, I placed a couple of magazine-style books under the sound bar, hoping to reduce the mechanical/acoustic coupling to the cabinet.
Samsung HW-D550 sound bar on on a couple of books to help reduce acoustical & mechanical coupling with the cabinet.
This impromptu "stand" helped the overall clarity of the sound, although there were still traces of the resonant effects in the lower midband. A more effective stand or other method of decoupling the sound bar from the cabinet would probably help further. Still, after the books were introduced, the system was used for both music playback as well as watching videos for several days, and the experience was generally pleasant.
Compared to the sound of the $250 Soundscience Rockus 3D | 2.1 speaker system by Antec, the Samsung HW-D550 was smoother overall, and generally superior for video soundtracks but sometimes a bit muted. The Rockus suffers from a "hole-in-the-middle effect", with no center speaker for dialog. The Rockus has much hotter top octave that generally made it sound more open, especially with music, and it also had a more dynamic, punchier sound. By comparison, the Samsung sounded too hemmed in; there is little "expansiveness" to the sound.
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