SAMSUNG HW-MS650 soundbar
Samsung HW-MS650 soundbar Significant word eating required here as we are gobsmacked by our time with Samsung’s Sound+ soundbar.
With just a bar, no subwoofer, Samsung has us throwing out our preconceptions on bar quality.
So, let’s remain calm. We should keep perspective on what is, after all, a soundbar. Just a soundbar. There’s not even a wireless subwoofer with it. Just a bar. Just a soundbar.
OK. So. Regular readers may have gathered certain signals from many previous reviews indicating that we don’t generally recommend soundbars, particularly soundbars under $1000. We dislike many of them, especially for playing music, and instead recommend perhaps considering a nice neat pair of active speakers either side of the TV instead. Soundbars without subwoofers fare even worse, and Samsung’s MS650 doesn’t come with one, just the bar — 128cm wide, offering three channels of audio, no pretence at surround, though we note there is an optional wireless rears ‘kit’ available ($249).
Despite those past soundbar experiences, we always endeavour to begin a fresh review with an open mind.
“All very straightforward”, we wrote as we began installation. “Reassuringly heavy. Sleek top — though the brushed-aluminium look is rather reflective, just a little distracting reflecting your TV picture. Connections bay is underneath, exiting to the rear.”
There are the usual connections: optical in, auxiliary minijack in, then HDMI in (best used for whatever box is your main source of movies), and HDMI out to your TV, with ARC (Audio Return Channel) so the Samsung can receive audio from the TV when it’s playing from its TV tuner, external inputs, or the many online sources available to today’s smart TVs. It can also play via Bluetooth from a compatible Samsung TV.
Samsung’s multiroom app serves to connect the bar easily with your home Wi-Fi, by which we could conclude it will also work in concert with the rest of Samsung’s multiroom audio family.
The remote control was familiar from our previous review of the company’s Atmos-enabled K950. The remote is small and pleasingly minimal, with rocker switches at the bottom for volume and bass adjustment — these rather foxed us first time we met, but (wiser now) we like this solution of a single ridge which can pivot to adjust up or down, or press to mute. Otherwise it’s just power, settings and info buttons, a subtle four-way-andselect ring, and then three buttons for different sound modes.
Regular readers will also know what we tend to think about sound
modes, especially on soundbars, which rarely benefit by further messing with their already compromised clarity. And sure enough, here we mainly avoided the first two buttons — ‘Surround’ on/off, and ‘Mode’ which shuttles through ‘Standard’, ‘Music’, ‘Clear’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Movie’ sound options.
Instead we used the third button, which turns on ‘Smart Mode’, this seemingly taking a reliable guess at what will work best, and thereby largely making the other options redundant. Very rarely did we find we preferred something other than the Smart button was doing already, not that you get any clue exactly what that is. For video, whether TV or movies, the preferential choice was clearly down to ‘Movie’ or ‘Smart’, and ‘Smart’ may have often been ‘Movie’ anyway. The ‘Music’ sound mode for music may provide a simple stereo, but also stripped out useful bass and peaked up the mids rather over-insistently. Rather go ‘Movie’, or ‘Standard’, or just stay ‘Smart’.
Sound modes sorted, we were absolutely delighted to find the Samsung delivering a fine fist of music, which is the traditional big fat fail for soundbars under $1000. Our listening notes get more and more enthusiastic, starting with “this is quite a pleasant musical sound, you know?” but soon rising to note that Sledgehammer (playing from the final Australian days of Pandora) had a good solid and true kick to the bass and kick drum, plus a clear non-spitty vocal, and the beautiful brass stabs and squawks up at the top. “Plenty of level too,” we noted. Then, underlined, “Where the hell is the bass coming from?”
Yes, where indeed. There’s no subwoofer with the MS650, and we’ve never met a soundbar without one that we’ve liked, because obviously they can’t do bass and so they sound thin, or cut off at the knees. Our exceptions would be the differently-shaped Q Acoustics M4, and some few of the soundbase solutions, notably those from Z-Vox. But none of those expends costs on smarts and networking; they deliberately concentrate on sound. We figured perhaps it was economies of scale that were allowing Samsung to deliver smarts and sound at this price, but given its performance, there is clearly some remarkable engineering and sound work too.
Six weeks we ran it, being constantly astonished. Halfway through, after a quizzical WTF email to Samsung Australia, we heard that this ‘Sound+’ series of bars has come out of Samsung’s California Audio Lab. We’d heard of this, and of Allan Devantier, the ex-Harman (Infinity, JBL) guy who had set it up and built a team even before Samsung then went on to purchase the whole of Harman. And as chance would have it, Allan Devantier was coming over to Sydney for a launch of the larger MS750 soundbar. After talking with him (see interview overleaf) we now know rather more about Samsung’s California Audio Lab and how it is being used to optimise the latest generation of Samsung audio products.
So there are nine drivers working away in the MS650 — a tweeter and a pair of racetrack woofers for each of the three channels (see cutaway image). The California Lab’s impressive measuring chambers are used not only to tune the bar’s fundamental performance, but also to identify any distortions produced across a range of input signals. The trick is then to introduce corrections via DSP which are the precise inverse of the distortion they predict will occur in the system from any given input. That, of course, will vary with the specific music or soundtrack, so such distortion cancellation requires, as Devantier says, a rather clever algorithm.
Yet the result, he says, is greater bass extension, with the corrections also ensuring that the soundbar’s woofers never bottom out at high levels. And this goes much of the way to explaining what we were hearing.
For TV and movies we used the MS650 in our main viewing room for a full six weeks. A Blu-ray remastering of The Dirty Dozen not only looked superb, truly movie-like on a big TCL UHD TV, it sounded great too — the brass blasting clear, bright and rich during the theme, the military band slamming its big drum beats with real impact. On the magnificently sound-directed
Twin Peaks (via Stan), dogs barking over the opening scene of Episode 11 were so entirely natural and environmentally delivered that we had to pause the episode to be sure they weren’t coming from outside. The MS650 isn’t one to fuzzily phase things up to create a faux surround effect, yet sometimes it could surprise by the width and depth with which it would render a good soundtrack. We rewatched the middle of Twin
Peaks Episode 8 for a fourth time — guts and seat-arms clenched as we were immersed once more in surely one of the most amazing sequences of sounds and images to be broadcast via the latest age of streaming. The Samsung goes plenty loud when you want it, yet it neither shouts in the midrange nor wallows in the usual flabby bass from a bar of this size and price.
We ended our review period back on music. The Samsung app gives you access to Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, TuneIn, network shares (via Wi-Fi through the app) and Murfie. But we could also say things to the Google Home device in the room like “Hey Google, play Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited to the Oppo”, triggering (via analysis in some US data farm) Spotify to play though a Chromecast plugged into the Oppo and thence on via HDMI to the Samsung bar. It seemed not to suffer from such routing one bit, and again, we enjoyed accuracy, detail and moving musicality — this wasn’t just ‘good for a soundbar’, it was price-comparable standmount speaker quality. And get them big bass pedals on Hackett’s Afterglow and on Shadow of the Heirophant’s spectacularly ‘prog’ closing anthem. Throbbing Taurus bass pedals. Coming from a bar. Just. A. Bar…
There’s no way around this — the Samsung MS650 is one of the very few bars under $1000 we can recommend, and the first soundbar we’ve ever lived with at any price where we haven’t been itching to finish reviewing and go back to the high quality German speakers we use as our daily reference, with monobloc power amps driving them. This bar needs no wireless subwoofer to fit in your home — you could add one, and those wireless rears, if you want that larger-scale cinematic sound, but we like the bar alone, for its impressive but never overwhelming bass (those small subwoofers do tend to throb away when the ads come on, assuming, of course, you ever watch anything with ads these days). The MS650 has a hi-fi level of musicality, and in this regard we think its performance to be unprecedented at the price.
Balance... quality... soundbar. Never thought we’d be writing those three words together in a sentence.