In this review we look at the Philips Fidelio B8, a soundbar with support for Dolby Atmos, a slim design and a wireless subwoofer.
Soundbars with Dolby Atmos
Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a soundbar builder, must have a top model in his assortment with support for Dolby Atmos. As you may know, Atmos is the next big trend in surround sound in cinemas (including as part of Dolby Vision) and it is now coming to your living room. Atmos takes the classical surround setup with 5 or 7 speakers at ear height and adds speakers that are higher up. Installing in or against the ceiling is the best option, but sometimes speakers are used that radiate upwards and reflect on the ceiling.
However, true surround arrangements are as popular as a yellow coat color in family cars, and people tend to watch soundbars because of the cabling and costs. And that’s how you get to Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbars. They have to use a lot of technology to recreate the spaciousness you expect from Atmos. That sounds like a mission doomed to fail, but the EISA Award-winning Yamaha YSP-5600 and the Samsung HW-K950 both prove that it is possible. The Philips Fidelio B8 that we are testing here is the third Atmos soundbar to reach the market, but soon rivals will appear at Onkyo and Sony.
Philips Fidelio B8 with Dolby Atmos 5.1.2
An Atmos arrangement is described with three digits separated by two dots. The Philips Fidelio B8 is a 5.1.2 soundbar: 5 surround channels at ear height, one (wireless) subwoofer and two height channels. Those height channels are not surprisingly in front. That is also what Dolby recommends if you indeed work with only two instead of four height speakers. In our opinion, however, four height channels are much more superior to two, but at the same time we realize that this is almost impossible to achieve with a soundbar.
To make 5.1.2 possible, Philips uses a whole arsenal of speakers. A total of eighteen are present in the soundbar, although you can not see them thanks to the sleek, modern design. For the height channels, there are two dome tweeters at an angle of 45 ° at the top of the B8, which means that you can not slide this soundbar into a piece of furniture. As with other Atmos sound bars, it should be free with ‘view’ on the ceiling. Philips also provided two large centrally placed speakers that produce the center channel. With good effect, because this channel serves among other things to show dialogues and that is something that the B8 certainly does well.
The B8 comes with a wireless subwoofer that you can set up elsewhere in the room. He does not go too high in terms of frequencies and (mainly) sends bass along the bottom, so you have a lot of options to place him. The subwoofer does not necessarily have to be at the front of the room, as is sometimes necessary with cheaper sound bars. Nevertheless, do not put it too close to a wall or in a corner.
The supplied remote is a typical Philips cabinet, not exciting but of good quality and with a clear layout. The B8 can be mounted on the wall, but as with the HW-K950 you get an unconventional result. The soundbar does not hang flat with the bottom against the wall, as usual, but is attached to the wall with the thin back. As a result, the Philips sound bar extends a bit further than normal.
HDMI or optical?
You can connect the Philips Fidelio B8 to your television via an optical cable or via HDMI. Which of these two you choose is more a matter of convenience with the B8. Via HDMI you can control the volume of the B8 via the remote control of your television. In theory, HDMI also has advantages on audio, because you could receive Atmos sound on the HDMI cable via the ARC (Audio Return Channel) channel. In practice, however, many TVs seem to return the surround output via ARC to Dolby Digital 5.1. Some new models (such as LG’s newest OLEDs) do not do that and stick to the better Dolby True HD, but the majority do. Consequently, in order to enjoy Atmos, you can connect your source (perhaps an Ultra HD Blu-ray player) directly to the B8. That’s a good thing, because there are two HDMI inputs for players, decoders, consoles or other devices. Currently there are no streaming services in our region that support movies with Dolby Atmos. In the US there is the rental service Vudu. Should Netflix start with it anyway, then you may not have to watch the Smart TV on the smart TV for that Atmos stream, but you can use an external device, such asan nVidia Shield.
The presence of two additional HDMI inputs on the B8 is a plus, especially with televisions hanging on the wall. You can replace up to three HDMI cables with one, for a tidier suspension. The HDMI connections are provided in a recess at the bottom. Certainly with the HDMI-ARC connection there is not much room, which can give a problem with more massive HDMI plugs.
We are a bit surprised that the HMDI inputs on the Philips Fidelio B8 HDMI version 1.4, not HDMI version 2.x. In itself this is not a big disaster, because also via HDMI 1.4 you can play 4K video on an Ultra HD television. However, HDMI 1.4 does not support HDR video or HDCP 2.2. This means that you can not view HDR video and that in certain situations you need to view 4K source material in Full HD resolution. This is brand-dependent, says Philips when we asked a question about this. With a Philips TV you still get to see 4K video, in the resolution 2.160p@24. But in our test setup, we used a Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player connected to the Philips Fidelio B8, which in turn was connected to an LG OLED55B6 4K TV.
If we played an Ultra HD Blu-ray such as ‘Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ or ‘Roger Waters: The Wall’, then that was only possible if the Samsung player on ‘car’ is allowed to transmit the image, which resulted in a Full HD stream. If you force the player to send out 4K video, there was no picture because HDCP 2.2 does not send 4K to unsecured readers. This is because HDCP 2.2 must be a protection against pirate versions of 4K films. In short, with some setups with Ultra HD televisions and sources you have to do some more research at the B8 to discover if the resolution is affected. If you are in that situation, you still have the option of hanging the Ultra HD Blu-ray player directly on your TV and sending the sound over HDMI-ARC to the Philips Fidelio B8. That is in Dolby Digital, not Dolby True HD, but that difference is not necessarily noticeable in this configuration.
Unlike the competition, the Philips Fidelio B8 does not really have a streaming door. Both the Yamaha YSP-5600 and the Samsung HW-K950 offer streaming music via both network and streaming services, and can even be enabled in a multiroom story. None of that at the Philips, which also does not show an on-screen interface. All the information you need (such as the level of the sub or the selected sound mode) appears on a white LED display that is placed coolly behind the speaker grille, as with almost all recent Philips sound bars. The LEDs are dimmable, so the display does not dominate too much in a dark room.
To listen to music you have some options. You can connect a CD player via the coaxial or optical input. You can also insert a USB stick at the back to play music files. As with the Fidelio B1, this is not so convenient. You have to track down the music files you want to hear through the small screen on the soundbar, but no metadata is shown. That makes the USB playback option a little better if someone wants you to quickly play a few songs.
The Bluetooth option is much more practical, especially if your smartphone supports NFC. You simply tap the smartphone against the side of the Philips Fidelio B8 and the connection is made. The Philips soundbar supports aptX and the AAC codec, the latter is useful to make the audio from iPhones and iPads sound better.
Test in the rain
One of the ways to quickly test how well Dolby Atmos works at a soundbar are the Rainstorm, Encounter and Santaria demos on the official Dolby test disc. The interesting thing about these demos is that the soundtracks – a rainstorm with thunder in the distance, SF-like environment and a jungle – switch between 5.1 and Dolby Atmos 7.1.4. With a setup with separate speakers around, the difference is immediately noticeable, but what about the B8?
With the eyes closed you can clearly hear the demos between surround formats. Atmos is a lot more spatial, there is more depth and the basses seem more intense. At the same time, we are missing out on that more complete Atmos experience, in which you can get the feeling that the rainstorm takes place above and around you. It is now hanging in the front. The Philips Fidelio B8 thus provides a broad vertical soundstage in front (and that has added value), but it all stays in the front of the room.
We now make the comparison with a discrete Atmos arrangement, which is of course a completely different thing. Both financially and in terms of impact on space, an AV receiver with 9 or 11 speakers in space is a lot bigger than a soundbar like this. You can not pay the B8 on that. But there are also other Atmos sound bars, and they also envelop you more. The HW-K950 from Samsung with its two wireless rear speakers and the Yamaha YSP-5600 (if placed in a room that is suitable for the sound projection technology) we both tested and made more impression. Their price tags are more substantial, especially in the case of the 1.799 euro Yamaha.
Crucial for a good, spatial Atmos experience at the B8 is the Height setting on the remote. You have the choice of four modes: out, low, medium and high, depending on the height of your ceiling. In our test room, the ceiling is three meters high and the high option was required. We would advise you to experiment with this in combination with the Bass control.
We also included the Ultra HD Blu-ray of ‘Lucy’, the general maligned Luc Besson SF movie with Scarlett Johanssen and Morgan Freeman that we secretly really like. The Ultra HD Blu-ray comes with a relatively good Atmos soundtrack that contains many directional effects during the final shoot-out scenes, even if Lucy enters a virtual world in Matrix style. The Philips Fidelio B8 is doing well to disassemble the left-right center, noticeable when the Yakuzas fire their weapons from doorways. That is a merit of the Ambisound function that Philips has been applying to sound bars for a while. If a dino scarlet almost devours a little later – it is a remarkable film – the B8 also brings in enough depth. It sounds a bit more ‘3D’ than a regular 5.1 soundbar, but it is not really all-encompassing.
Roger Waters’ The Wall concert registration on Blu-ray is highly recommended if you want to discover the advantages of Atmos for pure music reproduction. However, you should switch the Philips Fidelio B8 to Music mode to make it a more balanced listening experience, because in the Movie mode the subwoofer blows something too emphatic and too woolly. But surprisingly enough the B8 sounds quite musical, much better than the Fidelio B1 that we visited a while ago.
Conclusion Philips Fidelio B8
The Philips Fidelio B8 is not the best Dolby Atmos soundbar on the market. But just add some nuance: with a price of 999 euros he is a lot cheaper than competitors and also ‘only’ aims for a 5.1.2 experience. But it is not really cheap, so you have to be sure that it offers what you are looking for. The limited streaming options and the lack of HDMI 2.x (with a lack of HDCP 2.2 as a result) are things that you have to take into account, especially if you want to watch Ultra HD Blu-ray’s. Depending on your wishes, that can be a dealbreaker.
Soundly you can take that somewhat overblown term ‘Skyquake’ seriously. The large subwoofer gives the B8 soundbar a very solid foundation and it is also a better sub than we usually see in sound bars. That together with Ambisound makes the Philips Fidelio B8 an impressive and broad soundstage, fun for a movie night at your home. This sound bar sounds pretty impressive and bombastic. But you do not experience an enveloping, complete Atmos experience. For that you still have to save a little longer.