TCL doesn’t just want to become a TV superpower. Also in the field of soundbars, it puts a lot of energy into developing devices that have to come out strong. This year they are even presenting a Dolby Atmos flagship, the TCL C935U . But can TCL really play along with the established names? In any case, they play out one trump card: a competitive price.
The new C935U is a 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos soundbar that will become the flagship within the TCL range next fall. It also has the specs that come with such a status, including many inputs, a hefty external subwoofer and support for Atmos and DTS:X. But it’s price that makes the TCL stand out from many rivals. The C935U would be in the shops for 599 euros – and that is very sharp.
You can theoretically expand this TCL with wireless rear speakers, but those devices were not yet available when we could test the device. We understand from the manufacturer that those rear speakers may not be for sale separately. If you want that, you will have to buy the full package in the store right away. You should then choose the box with the reference ‘X937U’. Please note: we are looking at this TCL soundbar in an absolute first; it will only be widely available in the shops from the autumn.
Specifications of TCL C935U
|What||5.1.2 sound bar|
|Inputs||HDMI-eARC, 2 x HDMI, optical|
|Streaming||Bluetooth (SBC), Chromecast, AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Play-Fi|
|Surround codecs||Dolby Atmos (and older), DTS:x (and older)|
|Extras||room calibration, many effect modes|
|Dimensions||104 x 12.5 x 6.5 cm|
TCL itself says that the C935U is designed to be combined with a 55- or even a 65-inch TV. This includes the top models from its new C635 and C735 series. But actually that statement is a bit strange, because with a width of 104 cm the C935U is not extremely large at all. It’s not a giant Philips Fidelio B97or an LG DNGR11, soundbars that are really designed to fit the largest screen sizes. The TCL even looks a bit small when we park the soundbar next to our 55-inch wall-mounted LG OLED55C9. As is often the case with Dolby Atmos soundbars, it is designed to stand alone on a piece of furniture. The speakers at the top of the C935U must be able to radiate freely. However, thanks to how the side speakers are built in – see further about RAY•DANZ – it is less critical to keep free space on the left and right of the soundbar. And of course you also have the option to hang it on the wall.
In terms of design, you have two options with a soundbar: you just make it an eye-catcher or bet on restraint. TCL opts for the latter strategy with the C935U. It presents itself very soberly, thanks to a dark fabric that makes up almost the entire soundbar. Even up close, you can barely see the keys on top. There is a display, but it hardly ever works. It is hidden behind the textile on the front; you only see it when something is actually shown. For example, when changing the volume.
The accompanying wireless subwoofer is a hefty thing. It is also quite functionally finished, as is often the case. For the best sound, it is best not to place it too far from your TV screen.
Although the C935U looks like just about any other soundbar on the outside, it is built a bit differently internally than the norm. It has three front speakers, for example, not the usual one or two. The extra speaker is used to make dialogues better match the screen.
The C935U also includes an audio technology that TCL introduced a few years ago. It’s called RAY•DANZ, and is essentially a sophisticated waveguide that broadly radiates the sound waves coming from the speakers. It is applied here for the outer two channels, so that they sound very wide. Waveguides are of course used more often, but TCL is taking a bigger approach. With the original RAY•DANZ soundbar you got an immense soundstage, also because the technology was applied very extremely, which led to a very special design. We do not have that incredible wow feeling directly with the C935U, but it is noticeable that the soundbar can set up a wide soundstage.
Play-Fi and more
DTS’s Play-Fi platform didn’t seem to get off the ground for a long time. It’s been around for years, but outside of a few American brands, no one was really convinced by this streaming platform. In 2022, that will really change, because we see more and more Play-Fi compatible products coming along. Also big names: after Philips for its TVs and soundbars, TCL is now also following.
You can therefore set the C935U with the Play-Fi app from DTS, among other things to connect it to your WiFi network. This is done in an old-school way: you have to manually select a temporary WiFi network and then enter the details of your fixed network. If that is successful, you have a lot of streaming options via the Play-Fi app and you can also use AirPlay 2. Spotify subscribers will also see the TCL appear as a speaker in the Spotify app. Chromecast is a last option, but you have to register the soundbar with the Google Home app after setting it up via the Play-Fi app.
The DTS Play-Fi app does have its eccentric sides. For example, it does not play hi-res material by default. If you wish, you must first place the device in a ‘critical listening mode’. And if we play music from a DLNA share, chances are we’ll tap somewhere and be thrown all the way back to the services overview. If you have multiple Play-Fi devices at home, you can share music between those devices. In the app it is very easy that you type wrong somewhere so that you unintentionally switch speakers. In short, the user experience could all be smoother. Incidentally, this is not something TCL can do anything about. You will experience exactly the same if you use any other Play-Fi device.
That being said, Play-Fi does offer many ingrained streaming services, such as Tidal and Qobuz. That part works very smoothly in our experience and shows nicely. Playing internet radio is also smooth. When it comes to sound quality, we found the experience a bit hit and miss. Now scaling back the bass and sub bass, plus choosing the Music mode, pop and urban genres sounded pretty good. But that tweaking was really necessary. So musically not such an out of the box experience.
There is not always much to say about a soundbar remote. That is different with this TCL. For starters, it is equipped with a small screen on the rounded top. That is visually special, but how it is used is also quite unusual. You choose options on this screen (such as which upmix codec you use) before it is sent to the soundbar with an additional push of a button. That takes some getting used to, and is unnecessarily complex. Why not just use the screen on the soundbar to show choices? So that you have immediate feedback on a pressed remote button? That’s how most soundbars do it – for a reason.
Much more impressive is the TCL app that matches the soundbar. It does require registration with TCL to use – we think less – but it is clear. You immediately see what is playing and adjusting the sound modes is very easy. What we did not find in the app were the different effect and upmixing options, which can only be selected via the remote. But: the app we used was still a beta test. The app is expected to be ready when this soundbar hits stores in September.
Calibrate in two steps
The app offers a two-step room calibration. More and more manufacturers are offering this feature, and that’s a good thing. After all, sound bars often end up in acoustically difficult spaces and often produce a lot of bass energy. Such a calibration function measures the living room by playing test tones and adjusts the sound to avoid problems. TCL does things a little differently than usual. For example, you have to connect your smartphone to the WiFi network and connect it to the C935U via Bluetooth. Even more unique is that the first measurement calibrates the microphone of your smartphone. In this way, we believe that TCL is the first to tackle the problem of smartphone microphones that all register sound slightly differently. This is the reason why, say, Sonos only offers the Trueplay function on Apple devices, because only Apple would consistently use the same microphone. TCL solves this by taking a measurement very close to the soundbar, so that the device can determine which deviations your microphone has. This is followed by a measurement with a test tone at your seat. The measurement itself takes a few minutes. Remarkable: you can make and save multiple measurements and select them afterwards in the app. In theory, for example, you can make a measurement right in front of the TV and a second one for when you lie down in the corner with an L-shaped seat. Judging by our measurements In theory, for example, you can make a measurement right in front of the TV and a second one for when you lie down in the corner with an L-shaped seat. Judging by our measurements In theory, for example, you can make a measurement right in front of the TV and a second one for when you lie down in the corner with an L-shaped seat. Judging by our measurements
One thing you quickly notice in testing is how extremely different each sound mode is. Listening to music in movie mode is really much more unpleasant than in music mode, for example. So you have to be active with the sound modes. It would be smart for TCL if they attached a standard sound mode to certain inputs that is automatically selected. If you are streaming, ‘Music’ will be chosen, for example.
Also the effect modes (including some that take stereo material to surround level) each sound really different. The C935U offers a lot by the way. You can count on Dolby Surround and DTS Virtual:X, but also on TCL’s own AI Sonic – which can be set to three levels. You clearly get more choices here than is usually the case.
The Atmos demos where we always start more, the TCL withstands relatively well. In terms of bass, there is nothing to complain about, because the thunder on ‘Amaze’ reverberates through the room. With ‘Audiosphere’ the sound effects move well through the room, with height effects that separate quite well from the soundbar. It’s not the best result in this area, but certainly not a bad performance. Also in ‘Horizon’ we get a good impression of how the spaceships fly into the screen, and there is also the experience that we are sitting outside at the part with the fireflies. We do, however, quickly tend to set the subwoofer to its lowest setting. It’s too overwhelming. TCL tells us that they are still working on tuning the sub.
The TCL gets it right with the soundtrack of ‘Station Eleven’ (Dolby Digital 5.1), a gripping post-apocalyptic TV series based on the bestselling Emily St. John Mandel of the same name. Dreamy music plays grander in space, completely separated from the dialogues. And that keeps us ‘in’ the story – handy, because Station Eleven tells what happened by sometimes jumping very dynamically between the present and the past. A good example is the moment when, while acting on stage, an adult Kirsten flashes back in very short fragments to the moment when she learned by text message as a child that her mother had died of an epidemic. It is very atmospheric, thanks to the wide sound image that the TCL creates.
The TCL soundbar performs at its best when we use it for a movie night with real Hollywood food. ‘Godzilla vs Kong’ (Dolby Atmos) for example, where we fast-forward to the spectacular scene when the giant lizard attacks the ships carrying Kong. Just before that, there is a part where the deaf girl visits King Kong in a rain shower; clever is how the C935U digests those transitions from muffled sounds to loud pops. The water falling from the sky also sounds quite realistic. And then there’s the totally over-the-top fistfight between giant ape and lizard, where half the American Pacific fleet is crushed. That sheer sensation – the explosions, the planes crashing, missiles flying away – is successfully conveyed by the TCL. Compared to entry-level soundbars, it does so with more definition and a wider soundstage. Compared to the expensive high-end Atmos soundbars, the C935U is a bit less refined, especially in the low end. It is interesting that the Game mode also seemed a bit more balanced with films.
Conclusion TCL C935U
The TCL C935U is a competitively priced Atmos soundbar that works well with spectacular action movies, but can also successfully reproduce more refined soundtracks. The separate center channel provides a good dialogue reproduction and there is a wide soundstage. The C935U offers rather decent Atmos performance and comes with features that you expect on more expensive soundbars, such as room calibration. We’re not crazy about the Play-Fi platform, but there are plenty of other ways to stream music as well. But it is especially with movies that this TCL C935U excels.
Pros of TCL C935U
- DTS:X Support
- sharp price
- Room calibration
- Sleek and sober design
- Powerful movie and game performance
Negatives of TCL C935U
- Remote is weird sometimes
- Waiting for update to tame sub