Soundbars often promise to play surround, but few really approach the performance of separate surround speakers. It's hard to crack, but Sennheiser thinks their Ambeo Soundbar finally manages to get the holy grail of surround from one device. But there is a considerable price tag attached to it.
Introduction Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar
In the past year, tech journalists were constantly plagued by Sennheiser. The Germans stood at every fair with a demo of a new soundbar that sounded spectacularly good, even in a glass booth that was quickly and quickly shot down on a noisy show floor. But that Ambeo Soundbar with its thirteen built-in speakers just didn't come. Why? In the head-fi world, Sennheiser is known as a perfectionist, an attitude that they apparently used when it came to the brand's first soundbar. The brand wants to make a big impression with the Ambeo Soundbar, because not only is this the very first soundbar of a brand that is best known for headphones and pro-audio. It also includes technology to output 3D sound that was developed at a great cost with the German technology institute Fraunhofer. This has all translated into a soundbar with a considerable weight, a nice size and an impressive price tag. 2,500 euros for a device such as this must be a record, we think. Can the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar live up to the high expectations?
Muscle bundle requested
While we were testing the Ambeo Soundbar in one room, we had the Yamaha MusicCast Bar 400 in the living room. The contrast between the two could not be greater. The Yamaha soundbar does not count on 6 kilograms and is quite compact, the Ambeo weighs around 18.5 kilograms (and is in a package that adds five kilograms or more). So it's best to think about the placement beforehand, especially if you dream about mounting on the wall. The message is firm anchoring.
In terms of design, the Ambeo Soundbar is absolutely German. Seducing yourself with sparkling design finds or graceful, fine lines doesn't work at all. It is black, sleek and large. So functional design, somewhat softened by the rounded corners and by the better building materials.
The width of 126.5 centimeters is not so unusual for a soundbar, because that is roughly the same as the width of a 55-inch television. But the height and depth (13.5 and 17.1 cm) are much more than with a conventional device. Because of the speakers at the top, you cannot slide the Ambeo Soundbar into furniture or under your TV. Well, the latter is very difficult to do anyway due to the altitude. In short, if you want to get started with this soundbar you may need a wide TV unit that can also carry some weight.
The Ambeo Soundbar is very well equipped in terms of connections. You hang it on your television via HDMI-ARC, and there are also three HDMI 2.0 inputs to which you can connect peripherals such as a Blu-ray player, TV decoder and console. This is useful if the television is on the wall and the Sennheiser soundbar is on a piece of furniture, as was the case in our test room. The cables from the peripherals work your way up to the soundbar and from the soundbar only one HDMI cable goes to the screen. Also positive: the HDMI ARC connection is future-oriented, because HDMI 2.1 compatible with eARC support. So if a streaming video app comes on your TV that plays lossless surround formats, you can easily send that stream to the Ambeo Soundbar.
All connections, including the optical digital input and the analog aux input, are processed in a deep niche at the back of the soundbar. That's good, because you can hide cables from view even better. Plugging in the plugs is a bit trickier. The niche is so deep that you have to tilt the soundbar – think of the weight – to achieve everything properly. We really only miss a USB input for a disk or stick with its own files. The available USB port is only for repairers who manually update a firmware.
Sennheiser has not made it too complicated when it comes to streaming. There are no own music apps or an obscure streaming platform from a third party. The Ambeo Soundbar is Chromecast -compatible, making it appear in apps from almost all streaming services after setup. Tap the cast icon in Spotify, Deezer, YouTube, Qobuz, Tidal or one of the other compatible services (but not Apple Music), and you can send the music to the soundbar.
You also use the Google Home, by the way. app to connect the soundbar to the WiFi network for the first time, in exactly the same way as other Chromecast products. It's simple: the Google Home app detects that there is a new device in the house, after which you can connect the soundbar to your own network in a few steps. It all goes very smoothly and efficiently.
Bluetooth is another option to get music wirelessly at the Ambeo Soundbar. This can be useful if you want to stream music from a device that is not on your network, such as a visitor's smartphone. Unfortunately, there is no support for better Bluetooth codecs, such as aptX or LDAC.
If you want to play your own music files in high quality, there is another option. Since the Ambeo Bar is DLNA / UPnP compatible, you can send your music from a server to the soundbar with a DLNA media player app such as BubbleUPnP or Glider. In addition, it also plays hi-res PCM and DSD.
Tuning via its own app
The Ambeo Soundbar comes with a remote made of metal. This is sturdy and feels valuable, as is the case with a product from this price range. In principle, you only need the remote control if you have external sources on the Ambeo Soundbar and want to switch to the appropriate input. You can adjust the volume with your TV remote, if you work with an HDMI-ARC connection with your television. You also use the Sennheiser zapper to switch between sound modes, which is certainly interesting if you listen at night or watch a program with a lot of music (such as a concert film).
When you stream music, use the app of your favorite music service. Yet there is its own Sennheiser app that belongs to the Ambeo Soundbar. It works as an alternative to the physical remote, but it also does more. In the app you can switch between sound modes, but you can also adjust them via four sliders. Here you can, for example, add or remove more basses, but also adjust the spatial display. Remarkable: before the app wants to work, you have to give permission for this by pressing a button on the soundbar. The children don't just hijack the speaker!
The Sennheiser Control app can do a lot, but fortunately the Germans don't make it too complicated. In the main screen you are immediately at the most important functions. The difficult things are tucked away a little further, a smart move not to make things too complex for ordinary users.
The essence of the Ambeo Bar is in the name 'Ambeo' , a label that Sennheiser invented a while ago for a new microphone recording technology with accompanying microphone arrays. Ambeo is actually a whole platform: a way to record and play 3D sound. When it comes to the Ambeo Bar, it is actually about software that can accurately control the thirteen built-in speakers of sister company Neumann. In terms of effect, the technique is somewhat similar to Yamaha’s Sound Projection technology, as used in the YSP-5600 Atmos soundbar. The software controls the drivers so that sound in beams or rays travels through the room in a very focused way. Combine that with smart phase shifts (causing some frequencies to play at a later time than others) and algorithms that “misuse” the reflections in your room, and you get the ability to make sound seemingly come from elsewhere.
Yamaha's technology has been around for a long time and has proven its effectiveness several times. The algorithms in the Ambeo Soundbar, however, are from Sennheiser himself, who consulted the Fraunhofer Institute for this. This is a German cluster of research groups, co-funded by the government, that conducts practical research in a variety of areas. You may know the Fraunhofer name from the MP3 codec, but that is certainly not the only work of this institute.
Ambeo technology works by responding to the characteristics of your living room, such as the distance to the floor , the ceiling and walls, and how strongly these surfaces reflect sound. That is of course different with every house. Also the position of your furniture, where you sit when you watch TV and the placement of the soundbar play a major role.
To determine all this, the Ambeo Soundbar must make a measurement of your room at first use. It does this through a supplied microphone and by playing a series of test tones. This measurement is not difficult to perform, among other things because Sennheiser supplies a good microphone that is permanently mounted in an excellent position. Anyone who knows the small puck microphones of AV receivers will be surprised. The Sennheiser microphone is a long rod that is connected via a hinge on a metal base. It is quite bulky, but after use you can fold it up and put it back in the box. The length of the bar is no coincidence. The idea is that you place the microphone in the seat from which you normally look at the TV screen; the bar then ensures that the microphone is at your ear height. A measuring microphone that is placed too low or too high often results in less good results with AV receivers.
The Ambeo Soundbar gives you sufficient warnings before playing the test tones. A good thing, because they sound very loud. You don't want to do this late in a row house or even stay in the room. Pressing the button and then drinking a cup of coffee in the kitchen is our advice.
After measuring the room you can get started. For our test, we connected an Xbox One X and a Samsung UBD-K8500 directly to the Ambeo Soundbar, so that we could certainly deliver bitstream sound. Just this: we talked about Ambeo as the technology that makes sure that surround sound is reproduced in your room as if separate speakers were placed. However, that does not mean that the Sennheiser soundbar has problems with, for example, Dolby Atmos. On the contrary, the device handles almost every relevant surround codec, including Atmos and DTS: X . If you provide a soundtrack without height channels, for example a movie in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 or music in stereo, you can choose to switch the Ambeo 3D function on or off. When switched on, the soundbar will upgrade the signal to 5.1.4. The Ambeo Soundbar is also the first audio device we meet to support MPEG-H, a Dolby Atmos alternative that is apparently becoming important in Asia for TV broadcasts.
Before we started our test, we already had the Ambeo Soundbar heard in other settings. At trade fairs – which doesn't say much due to a lot of environmental noise – but also during a long demonstration at the EISA Convention in Antwerp. The Sennheiser made a big impression there by raising the height channels in the front and back of the room. However, the room was not exactly acoustically optimized and about twenty people were present. After all, bodies are also acoustic objects and influence the sound – and of course you can't get twenty at the best listening place. A demo was very strong at the Convention: Sennheiser recorded a football match with an Ambeo microphone, and when played at the Ambeo Soundbar it really sounded like we were in the stadium. Nothing artificial about it.
In our living room the virtual surround effect on the left is somewhat less impressive. We can quickly guess the reason. On one side there is only a small piece of wall and then a large opening to the next room. The next wall is quite far, more than the five meters that Sennheiser prescribes as the maximum distance. With some adjustments we solve that problem, after which a very impressive surround field is created. If we grab the racing scene from “Ready Player One” we hear all sound effects very well placed. The only thing that is really too challenging are the few effects that are normally heard behind you. Without rear speakers this is difficult, and even then. Only with an AV receiver such as the Arcam AVR850 with Dirac or Anthems MRX-1120 with ARC Genesis really works. We are releasing a few more test discs on the Sennheiser, and every time we hear a surround sound that we do not expect from a soundbar. In our memory, the YSP-5600 did not do badly in this area either, but the test is now a few years in the past, which makes it difficult to really make that comparison. From that different listening session, we know that in the best conditions the Ambeo Soundbar can almost match the performance of a separate surround setup, except for a few specific things. You won't miss that. In a less suitable room (for example very large or with an opening on one side) the display will be a little less convincing. But, to be honest, you would have problems in that room anyway. Also with separate surround speakers
The very good low reproduction of the Ambeo Soundbar is almost as strong. You can connect an external subwoofer to the soundbar via a cable, but it is not really necessary. Incidentally, Sennheiser is breeding an optional wireless sub-extension for the Ambeo Soundbar and has even built in the necessary radios – but it is not certain whether that sub will ever come. Now there are more sound bars that use all kinds of tricks to produce basses, but the basses of the Sennheiser sound very natural, sharp and detailed. That makes the reproduction of music much better, but also action films with a lot of detail. “But soundbars often produce a lot of bass sound,” you might call? Yes, but soundbar subwoofers often initially sound impressive because they put a lot of energy into the layer, but it is often very messy. Something you immediately notice with the Ambeo in big action scenes and explosions, such as 'Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado' (Ultra HD Blu-ray, Dolby Atmos), where gunshots not only sound through the room but also – and this is it – appear realistic. Moreover, the full character of the layer is an asset in the display of dialogues that sound anything but thin. The low frequencies play a major role in the intelligibility of voices.
The price of the Ambeo Soundbar does not make this device an obvious choice for the average consumer. It probably won't be an impulse purchase. Sennheiser is not a brand that usually promotes prices, so it will be 2,500 euros. Solid. The installation of the robust Sennheiser soundbar is also more challenging than normal. 18.5 kg on the wall requires a good anchorage.
But for the high price you do get a soundbar that is actually unworthy of the name soundbar, in a positive sense. The technology in the Ambeo Soundbar is nothing short of spectacular. You will be served real 3D sound. How good? That depends on the room, but in the best case it comes very close to a discreet surround arrangement of separate speakers. The realistic representation of the height channels is really astonishing. Because the Ambeo Soundbar is so good at creating a surround field, it also performs excellently as a stereo viewer for music. This is the new reference in terms of sound bars.