Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: Legendary sound

Ambeo is a term coined by audio specialists Sennheiser to describe 3D audio. The German-based manufacturer offers a handful of products under the Ambeo umbrella, and the biggest – quite literally – is the Ambeo Soundbar.

One reason it’s so large is that, to bring the promise of 3D audio to life, the company has lobbed in no fewer than 13 drivers. And to help it deliver a truly cinematic experience, this soundbar has full support for Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and MPEG-H 3D.

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Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: What you need to know

The Ambeo Soundbar is a monster: Sennheiser hasn’t constrained the size to that of your average-sized soundbar, which allows it to include an impressive array of drivers. 

At its core, the soundbar has nine drivers facing forward, with a further two on the sides and another two at the top. This configuration allows it to project sound above and all around you, to give the full effect to the room-filling metadata used by as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

Unlike its rivals, however, the Ambeo-enabled soundbar doesn’t come with a subwoofer or rear-facing speakers, which might well put off enthusiasts looking for a truly immersive experience.

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: Price and competition

And make no mistake, this is a soundbar aimed at enthusiasts. At a cool £2,200 it’s the most expensive soundbar on the market.

It costs significantly more than my current favourite Dolby Atmos and DTS:X-enabled soundbar, the Samsung HW-N850, which can now be found for £658 (down from £1,100 when I originally reviewed it), and the HW-N950, which adds rear speakers to the mix for £1,179 (down from £1,500). One could also consider Samsung’s later, more expensive models, the HW-Q80R and the HW-Q90R at £905 and £1,355, respectively, but both are near-identical to their predecessors.

If you’re open to having cables running around the room, and even ceiling-mounted speakers, you might alternatively consider a set of passive floor-standing and bookshelf speakers that hook up to a receiver. Sets from Pioneer, Onkyo, Denon and Sony come bundled with audiophile-grade speakers for under £2,000, although you can spend a lot more if you wish. Some sound systems cost over £5,500: the sky’s the limit.

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Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: Design, features and connectivity

Let’s start off by talking about the size, shall we? The Ambeo Soundbar is humongous. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever come across, measuring 13.5cm high, 17.1cm deep and 126.5cm wide. To put this in perspective, the Samsung HW-N850 is 8.3cm high, 13.5cm deep and 123cm long. 

The bar’s size may be a problem if you’d like to place it in front of your TV as it’ll most likely obstruct the view. And you can’t place it in a cabinet either as those upward- and sideward-firing speakers need open air around them to create the surround-sound effect. 

There is the option to wall-mount the speaker, but for this you’ll need to purchase a £50 accessory – and be strong enough to lift the 18.5kg bar into its mount.

In addition to all this, another large piece of equipment that you’ll have to factor into the equation is the 68cm-tall microphone that’s used for room calibration. This sits on a rigid metal pole, so it can be awkward to store away; Bose and Sonos have much smaller stow-away solutions.

One aspect of the soundbar you can’t fault is its build quality. It has a brushed-metal top plate, with metal grilles protecting the top-firing speakers and a hard fabric material that wraps around the front and sides. It’s functional too: there are seven physical buttons at the top of the soundbar, an OLED display and a 2.5mm jack input for the calibrated mic at the front, with an illuminated Ambeo logo on the right. The latter can be dimmed or entirely turned off, though it’s nice to know when the Ambeo technology is actually active. 

Sennheiser also includes a weighty remote, which provides everything you need when controlling the bar from afar. It has preset EQ profiles, volume and source controls, a one-click mute button and an Ambeo button that enables or disables the surround-sound effect.

For connectivity, the bar has a selection of ports underneath. There’s a female USB Type-A socket for media playback and charging; an HDMI eARC output; three HDMI inputs; one optical TOSLINK input; a coaxial subwoofer pre-out; and RCA auxiliary inputs.

Finally, there’s an Ethernet port for an optional connection to your router. Connecting the bar to the internet lets you send Chromecast audio to it, and install firmware updates. You don’t need a cable for this, though, as the bar also has built-in dual-band Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth connectivity is available too, although, the Ambeo Soundbar only supports the SBC and AAC codecs. The omission of the higher-quality aptX, aptX HD and LDAC codecs is unfortunate, but I suspect audiophiles will prefer for the Chromecast function anyway, as it can be used through popular media apps such as BubbleUPnP.

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Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: App and setup

Once you manage to find a space for the bar, and have plugged in all the necessary connections, it’s time to get it running. The setup process is painless enough, but I found it odd that I was required to install both the Google Home app and Sennheiser’s own Smart Control app. The former is essentially required to connect the bar to your Wi-Fi network;  Sennheiser tells me it’s looking to incorporate that capability into its own app at a later date.

The Smart Control app lets you toggle settings, adjust the Ambeo effect and check the bar’s connectivity status. One of the first things you’ll want to do is calibrate the soundbar to your room’s acoustics: to do this you’ll need to plug in the tall microphone and position it wherever you’ll be sitting, at head height. Once it’s in place, you can press and hold the Ambeo button on either the remote or the bar for four seconds to initiate the calibration. It’s recommended you step away while it’s underway, so your body doesn’t interfere with the acoustics of your room.

When the process is complete, the difference is like night and day. The overall sound quality is remarkably improved, and the surround sound effect is much more striking.

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Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: Sound quality

Once calibrated, and with Ambeo enabled, the Sennheiser system delivers the best surround sound effect I’ve ever heard from a soundbar. It’s jaw-dropping, mind-bending and awe-inspiring. The combination of 13 large drivers and Sennheiser’s Ambeo 3D technology is fully vindicated.

If you’re wondering what Ambeo actually does then, in a nutshell, it dynamically upmixes stereo content for a 5.1 surround sound system. For content that’s encoded with height information (that is, Dolby Atmos or DTS:X) it also processes the audio for greater immersion.

This sort of virtualisation can’t ever replicate a true surround-sound system with multiple speakers dotted around the room, but it works amazingly well. I’ve seen many soundbars try to implement similar tricks, but none have done it as well as Sennheiser – and that includes Samsung’s HW-N950 and HW-Q90R, which come with rear speakers. This one really is the best in the business. 

Indeed, the question is why you’d ever want to disable it. I asked Sennheiser this, and was told that it’s in case you want to add the soundbar to a larger system or if you’re a true purist wanting to listen to music in its raw 2.0 stereo form; and to those wondering what happens to the Dolby Atmos or DTS:X handshake when Ambeo is disabled – the soundbar maintains the surround sound metadata throughout the chain and only downmixes it to stereo at the very end; essentially you can continue to watch Dolby Atmos and DTS:X content without having to worry about the other speakers in our system suffering. Clever technology.

I tested Dolby Atmos performance using a demo disc supplied by Sennheiser, and I can confirm that Ambeo makes an incredible difference that you can really hear and feel. With the preset Movie EQ selected, the experience is exactly as if you were using a true 5.1.4 system. And that held true when I popped Transformers: Age of Extinction into my 4K Blu-ray player: I heard robots flying overhead, gunfire coming from the sides and speech thrown at me from the centre channel. A truly cinematic experience.

Of course, soundbars aren’t just made for movies, but for music too – so I set the soundbar to Music mode and used the Chromecast function to try out a few of my favourite songs. Here, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the surround sound effect wasn’t overdone. My current go-to test track – “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars – really puts surround-sound systems to the test, as some struggle to separate the vocals from the instruments and lose the artist’s voice in the mix. The Sennheiser soundbar, however, gave a lifelike reproduction with an incredibly airy and open soundstage. No other soundbar I’ve reviewed can match its prowess in this department.

The same could be said about its frequency response. High and mid-range frequencies aren’t recessed in the slightest, and provide plenty of energy in Calvin Harris’ “Slide”. Yet again, the soundbar provides best-in-class performance, with a much more engaging sound than the comparatively restrained-sounding Samsung HW-N850/Q80R and HW-N950/Q90R.

The Ambeo Soundbar’s weakest aspect is the bass. On one hand, the mid-bass frequencies are tight and controlled with plenty of grunt, but on the other, the sub-bass response lacks that heart-pounding rumble. That’s not to say the Soundbar is incapable of playing lower-end frequencies: on the contrary, it extends down to 30Hz, which is lower than competing soundbars from Samsung that include a dedicated subwoofer. Unfortunately, the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar simply fails to rattle the room with those low-end tones.

This ultimately detracts from the overall experience: Sennheiser recommends that, for the best musical experience, you should add a 10in or larger subwoofer to handle the sub-80Hz frequencies.

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Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: Verdict

With or without a dedicated subwoofer, the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is the best sounding all-in-one system I’ve ever come across. It far surpasses the Samsung HW-N850, Q80R, HW-N950 and Q90R, which I’d previously rated as the best soundbars money could buy. With support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, all the right connectivity inputs and outputs, a sleek remote control and a  proprietary audio calibrator, it’s a fantastic package.

The price, however, is an issue. At £2,200, the Ambeo Soundbar is far more expensive than its all-in-one competitors, and sits in the same territory as full-blown surround sound systems. In addition, its size means it can’t realistically be placed in front of any modern-day television, so it’ll have to be wall-mounted instead. And for me the biggest problem is the lack of a subwoofer; without it, you’ll be missing out on that heart-pounding experience you’d expect from a premium audio system.

Buy now from Sennheiser

Ultimately, though, if you’ve got money to burn – and you’re willing to pay the extra for a dedicated subwoofer and a wall mount – then you won’t find a better all-in-one audio solution.

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