Samsung HW-Q950A Home Theatre Soundbar Review
This flagship soundbar pulls no punches in delivering a larger-than-life, immersive audio experience, says Michael Darroch…
11.1.4ch Home Theatre Soundbar
AUD $2,099 RRP
When you think Samsung, inevitably, the first two products which come to mind are likely to be the South Korean giant's Galaxy smartphones and its market-leading QLED televisions. Whilst soundbars have been part of the company's line-up for some time now, it's an area that hasn't traditionally attracted the same headline fervour as some of its other product ranges.
Recognising that its well-regarded displays needed a sonic punch to match, Samsung has invested heavily in world-class audio technology. This included, among other things, creating an expansive Hollywood audio laboratory to ensure that it could gather extensive experience, knowledge, and technology to redefine what a Samsung home entertainment experience could be.
The AUD $2,099 Q950A is Samsung's 2021 flagship soundbar, and while it can best be described as iterative rather than revolutionary, can it improve on its already well-regarded predecessor, last year's Q950T? The headline news is the peerless 11.1.4 channel capability for Dolby Atmos and DTS-X audio reproduction, lifted from the already impressive 9.1.4 of the outgoing Q950T by implementing additional side-firing drivers into the surround units. Beyond this, Samsung has included a host of other technologies – some designed to work exclusively within the Samsung ecosystem, such as Q-Symphony, SpaceFit, and TapSound, and others able to work independently, such as AutoEQ and Adaptive Sound.
In terms of connections, we have two HDMI 2.0 inputs and one eARC HDMI output, allowing passthrough of 4K60 and 8K30 signals. There's an obligatory optical input, as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Smart connectivity is via Apple Airplay2 and Amazon Alexa, with Google Assistant left out here, but still able to be integrated via your TV and eARC rather than to the soundbar direct. Support for the major audio formats can be found, but not MQA or DSD. HDMI 2.1 is a stand-out exclusion here, particularly when the Q950A, with its 'gaming' sound mode and flagship position, seems like the perfect partner to a QN90A/900A display with 4K120 capabilities, but ultimately this would likely add to the already premium price point. Additionally, the soundbar market hasn't quite reached the HDMI 2.1 tipping point yet. The solution is to connect your 4K120 gaming console direct to your HDMI 2.1 TV, with eARC taking the sound back to the Q950A.
In the box, we find the soundbar, wireless surround speakers, wireless subwoofer, HDMI and power cables, along with the remote control. Users familiar with any recent Samsung TV or soundbar products will recognise the style of the remote – it's the classic sculpted design that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, with central directional controls and toggle switches for volume and subwoofer level that are easy to locate and operate in the dark for the main functions you might need.
Samsung has played it safe with the design of the Q950A. The new release follows the same visual appearance as the outgoing Q950T, complete with a neat fabric wrap around the slim-profile bar. However, it sports angular grills on the sides serving the purpose of breaking up the visual look, and providing an outlet for the four drivers that disperse most of the additional channels in this 11.1.4 design. Measuring in at 1,323x69.5x138mm and 7.1kg for the soundbar and 210x403x403mm and 9.8kg for the subwoofer, the Q950A is a modern take on the soundbar. It won't look out of place nestled under your TV, be it on your wall or TV unit.
Hiding within this bar are no less than fifteen drivers, with each of the main L/C/R channels having two oval bass units and a smaller full range driver. This is also the same unit that's used for the four side-firing channels and the two up-firing Atmos channels. There are no published specifications for the drivers or amplifier output, but Samsung's position on this is clear; it wants the user to judge performance by ear, not by numbers.
The wireless surrounds are the most obvious change to this year's model. The additional side-firing driver leaves the overall dimensions very similar at 125x203x141mm but replaces the basic plastic side panels with the requisite fabric wrap. This gives the surrounds a more premium appearance to match their increased function and makes them slightly larger and heavier compared to other soundbar wireless surrounds, yet still compact compared to a traditional bookshelf speaker.
While driver and chassis layout remain visually unchanged from the Q950T, I did speak to Samsung to see if I could dig a little deeper into whether there have been changes under the skin. The excitement was palpable among the team as they spoke to just how serious they are about improving the reputation of their audio products in the market.
Pivotal to this push is the Samsung Audio Lab – an expansive 18,000 square foot facility in Los Angeles, California, which exists with the explicit purpose of refining and improving Samsung's soundbar and TV audio capabilities. It's staffed by a team of engineers, research scientists, and musicians, with in-house facilities such as world-class anechoic chambers and dedicated listening rooms.
Samsung says this team has been a critical part of ensuring each new product improves the end-user experience. In the case of the Q950A, while understandably protective of specifics, the company says numerous improvements have been made, such as tweaks to the full-range drivers and the bass driver magnets to improve performance. There have also been software changes and adjustments to crossover and EQ calibration, ensuring the Q950A offers greater performance over the outgoing Q950T, despite sharing the same appearance.
The basic setup of the Q950A is as simple as consumers are accustomed to now – plug-and-play. However, Samsung has included a range of features that could be considered above and beyond typical soundbars. When it comes to activating some of these, some users might find a little frustration.
For example, the small display is set on top of the unit facing upwards, so is impossible to see from the comfort of your seat. This means you will be standing in front of the soundbar to adjust settings before sitting down to see how they sound. The display only shows three characters at a time with scrolling text, and the small timeout means it resets to the main screen before you've been able to digest what you are seeing. This can make menu navigation quite tiresome until you become familiar with the functions.
Helping to offset this is the ability to link your Q950A to the Samsung Smart Things phone app, which allows you to control the main features. However, advanced options like level setting do not appear in the app and are still a stand-up requirement. Ultimately when you look at the layout of the drivers within the package, you can see why Samsung designers have chosen this position. Still, it's an area that could use some redesign, both physically through placement and size of the display, through to the ergonomics of the structure and text within the menu system.
In addition to a 5-band equaliser included in the Smart Things app, one of the more advanced setup features is the new Samsung Auto EQ. This uses an inbuilt microphone in the subwoofer unit to set the subwoofer latency and EQ performance based on the room environment. Tempted to write this off as a gimmick, I found that once tuned, turning this on made an easily noticeable improvement to the system's bass performance. Even setting the subwoofer level at its maximum +6, the Auto EQ 'on' could coax more low-frequency response out of the subwoofer.
I could not test some of the other features without a Samsung TV, such as Samsung's SpaceFit and Q-Symphony options. These clever technologies work to share room correction EQ data from the TV to the soundbar. The end result is allowing the TV speakers and soundbar to work in harmony to improve object tracking audio using proprietary algorithms – another product of the Samsung Audio Lab.
You may be wondering, with an impressive 9.1.4 channels on offer in the Q950T, could 11.1.4 be any better? The answer is a resounding yes. While the Q950T used both side-firing drivers on the main soundbar and some 45-degree angle-firing drivers to help widen the soundstage and wrap the sound around the listener. The Q950A builds on this by adding additional side-firing drivers into the redesigned surround speakers, meaning that the physical surround units become the official 'surround-rear' speakers, with the combined front and back side-firing drivers providing two reflected surround channel pairs and a reflected wide channel pair.
The result is quite simply the most immersive surround sound experience you can obtain from a soundbar today. It cannot be understated just how effectively the reflected channels create an expansive, bigger-than-life sound field. The Q950A left my room sounding incredibly large and spacious, bringing the action to life with a vastly improved ability to place sounds within the 360-degree horizontal plane of the environment. Add in the up-firing reflected height channels, and you end up with an expansive three dimensional sound space which is a credit to the efforts of the Samsung Audio Lab team.
Watching the bombing run scene from Unbroken, I felt as though I was sitting inside a B-24, sensing every rattle and shudder as the aerial workhorse lumbered through the sky to its target. The perception of a wide-open listening environment really helped amplify the scale as the Zero fighters zoomed towards me, particularly as you lift the volume to apartment-unfriendly volumes.
With the compact 8-inch subwoofer and the size constraints of the soundbar format, the Q950A is never going to replace a full-size speaker set, nor is it meant to. This comes to bear in scenes like the opening chase in Baby Driver, with the musical cues featuring detail and excellent imaging but lacking in body and presence. Still, despite its compact proportions, Samsung's engineering team has done an exceptional job in ensuring the Q950A maintains a bright tone that balances well against the output of its neatly packaged subwoofer. It's a synchronised dance that manages to give you brilliance and detail, which serves to offset the lack of midrange punch that a soundbar inevitably struggles to deliver, ensuring an overall engaging and enjoyable listening experience.
Other scenes play more to the strengths of a soundbar package, such as Bladerunner 2049, with the haunting Hans Zimmer synth-filled soundtrack given appropriate texture, while the gunshots ricochet around the room convincingly. The subwoofer managed the crashing waves and deep engine notes as Joi and K fly out to the junkyard, with authority that belies its small size.
I can never listen to an Atmos system without rolling through the 2016 Dolby Atmos demo disc, and these demos really helped showcase the best aspects of the Q950A. The Amaze demo had me almost feeling the flaps of air as the bird made its way around the room – the additional side-firing surround and wide channels in the 11.1.4 format partnering perfectly with the object-based processing to provide a soundstage much larger than I expected.
Although there is a slight loss of clarity as the sound reflects from the side of my room for the wide and side-surround channels, this is made up for in the extra presence and imaging you get from having these channels present. The extra drivers clearly add so much to the overall experience.
Musically, the Q950A performs admirably. While it can't quite match offerings like the Klipsch Cinema 1200 for body and dynamics, it's still perched highly among the soundbar category's best offerings. One of the best ways to experience music on a Dolby Atmos soundbar is Yello's Atmos Edition of Point. Out of Sight rewards listeners with an engaging and active three-dimensional electronic journey. Drum rolls and vocal cues make their way throughout the Atmos sound field, benefiting greatly from the Q950A's ability to give a spacious and detailed performance. The same limitations are at play here, with midrange performance being a compromise. Still, again the Q950A manages to elevate itself by capitalising on its strengths – the synthetic riffs in Arthur Spark piercing overhead with convincing energy like bursts of real electricity in the listening space.
The premium price tag of Samsung's new Q950A may be hard to swallow within the soundbar segment. Yet, it proves that you can have an engaging and rewarding entertainment experience without your loungeroom looking like a recording studio.
Aiming to deliver market-leading audio to partner with its displays, the Q950A blends comprehensive streaming and compatibility options, innovation, and the highest discrete channel count yet in a soundbar, to bring unprecedented 3D audio at this price. Samsung's improvements over the Q950T are compelling, and the Q950A delivers what I believe to be the most impressive Atmos reproduction available from a soundbar today.
With a 20 year passion for home cinema ensuring he will never be able to afford retirement, Michael’s days involve endless dad-jokes and enjoying the short time before his son is old enough to demand the home theatre becomes a temple to Frozen II.