This brings us to VIZIO's new S3851w-D4 5.1 Sound Bar System. With this latest 38" model, the company is pulling out all the stops at a very affordable price, forgoing any attempts at virtual surround sound in favor of the real deal by including two dedicated rear satellites and a wireless subwoofer to go along with the main three channel speaker unit. But how does the budget-priced system actually perform? Is this really the inexpensive, easy to use, compact surround sound solution it claims to be? Well, let's break it down step by step.
The S3851w-D4 comes packaged with everything a user will need to quickly and painlessly setup their audio system. In the box, customers will find the 38" sound bar unit, the wireless subwoofer, two rear satellite speakers, a remote control, wall mounting brackets for each speaker, and several connection options -- including a digital optical cable, a coaxial audio cable, a stereo RCA to 3.5mm cable, and separate audio cables for each satellite speaker.
The sound bar itself measures 38" x 3.6" x 2.8" and weighs a light but still sturdy 6.4 lbs. Three separate audio channels are included in the unit, allowing the single bar to act as a left, center, and right speaker. The left, right and center channels each feature 3.0" full-range drivers. Meanwhile, each satellite speaker measures 3.2" x 7.4" x 2.8" and weighs 1.2lbs. Both feature 2.5" full-range drivers. Finally, the subwoofer measures 6" x 11" x 13.6", weighs 11.2lbs, and features a 60 Ft wireless range. The overall system offers a sound pressure level of 100dB with less than 1% total harmonic distortion and a low frequency of 50Hz. Visually, the entire system is decidedly low key but still attractive, offering a functional and pleasing design.
Since everything is essentially packed right in the box, setup proves to be exceedingly simple and quick. Users simply need to connect a power cable to the sound bar and subwoofer, connect the rear satellites to the woofer with the included speaker cables, and then plug the desired components (Blu-ray player, game console, TV, etc.) directly into the back of the sound bar with the appropriate audio cables (no A/V receiver is required). Though this is all quite painless, it should be noted that the power cables are relatively short, so the sound bar and subwoofer will need to be positioned pretty close to an outlet or power strip. Thankfully, the satellite speaker cables are nice and long, giving buyers some leeway when it comes to placement in relation to the sub.
Once all the cables are connected, customers just need to power on the sound bar and subwoofer. The two units will then automatically pair together wirelessly. Users can then switch to the desired input with the included remote control to start enjoying the system. The remote itself features a small black and white LCD screen and a fairly standard button layout. By cycling through the menu on the LCD, users are given several more options for adjusting various settings -- including individual speaker levels, treble, bass, a Night mode, and DTS TruVolume. Unfortunately, the screen on the remote is not backlit which can make viewing the display difficult in low light situations. In addition, a row of blue LED indicators on the front of the sound bar will light up based on volume and level changes made with the remote.
For the purposes of this review, I did not use the included wall mounting brackets and instead simply placed the sound bar in front of my TV and the rear speakers on stands. The unit is designed to be paired with displays that are 42" or larger, and the system looked great with my 50" plasma. For all of my audio testing, I primarily used a Sony PS3 connected to the sound bar with the included digital optical cable. The speaker offers native support for standard (not lossless) Dolby Digital and DTS sound decoding along with DTS Circle Surround for 5.1 matrixing, DTS Studio Sound for PC applications, and Bluetooth streaming for playback from mobile devices and computers.
To test the S3851w-D4's surround sound performance I used a wide variety of Blu-ray movies and TV shows, including 'Skyfall,' 'The Avengers,' 'Game of Thrones,' and 'Saving Private Ryan.' The opening scene of James Bond's latest adventure proved to be a great initial demo, and gave me a strong opening impression of the speakers. The motorcycle chase sequence was lively and immersive, and the system's surprisingly deep soundscape was immediately clear. The vehicles seamlessly panned across the front unit and the rears when appropriate, and ambient traffic noises spilled out into the room with a convincing sense of atmosphere and surround activity. Likewise, various crashes, whizzing engines, and gunshots came through with robust bass presence that was more than adequate for my apartment living room at the default levels -- proving that VIZIO didn't skimp on the low frequencies here.
Factoring in the system's size, results were similarly impressive across the board with the rest of my demo material. The "Blackwater" episode of Game of Thrones has become one of my "go to scenes" for testing bass, and the S3851w-D4 didn't disappoint. The chaotic battle scene was enveloping with a deep and commanding presence that belied the system's small size, and the infamous wildfire sequence produced a very distinct and powerful low frequency cue. Likewise, smaller sounds and quieter moments were adequately conveyed as well, creating a moody ambiance marked by creaking wood and distant war drums. Leaving Westeros behind for the shores of France, the opening Omaha Beach scene from 'Saving Private Ryan' was also noteworthy, providing an appropriately assaultive soundscape for the speakers that blasted whizzing bullets across both the front and back with solid imaging, separation, and bass.
With all that said, the speakers did occasionally reveal certain limitations. While low frequencies are surprisingly strong, the system isn't as adept at highs. To this end, the sound bar leans toward the dull side and this can leave dialogue sounding a hair muddy in certain instances. Speech is always clearly audible, but it lacks some of the precise clarity and fidelity that higher end speakers produce. Adjusting the bass and treble levels in the menu will yield some improvements in this regard, however, and thankfully users have the option to dial things down to their personal preference.
For comparisons sake, I also sampled several scenes with the sound bar and then with my usual Pioneer SP-PK52FS 5.1 Speaker System, and the differences were understandably evident. There were definitely times when smaller nuances of the audio got drowned out a bit by more aggressive effects on the VIZIO system, and the level of distinction between frequencies and layers within the design work wasn't as accurately conveyed. On that same note, overall dynamic range was decent but not great -- though this issue is likely more of a result of the sound bar's lossy decoding than the speakers themselves.
To its credit, the front unit does an admirable job of creating a genuine three channel soundstage, but the 38" bar can't reach the same level of separation as three dedicated speakers, and this does limit the system's overall sense of space. Finally, the subwoofer wasn't always as seamless as I would have liked, and there were some scenes when the sub's location was a little too apparent. Isolated instances also produced a slight rattle in the sub during intense moments (this was particularly true of the climax in 'The Avengers') and some LFE cues were far too aggressive and unbalanced under the default settings. Thankfully, adjustments to the subwoofer's levels in the menu did help to mitigate some of these hiccups, and users will likely want to readjust the settings from their default to better suit the size and dynamics of their room.
As a whole, these caveats were all relatively minor and I was never left questioning whether this was a true 5.1 system. Despite a few issues here and there, the sound bar, sub, and satellites worked very well together to create a real surround sound movie watching experience that managed to produce a relatively enveloping and powerful soundfield from a very small setup.
To demo the unit's gaming performance I loaded up a few PS3 titles, including 'Killzone 3,' 'God of War: Collection,' and 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II.' Much like it did with movies, the S3851w-D4 really shined here, creating an immersive experience that convincingly and naturally spread the game's effects around the room. 'Killzone 3' was especially impressive, and it really felt like I was in the middle of a living, breathing battlefield. As I moved about the environment, the sound shifted around me with seamless imaging and I was able to pinpoint the direction of enemy fire based on the sounds' placement around the room.
The rest of the games offered equally strong performance, and the speakers handled the constantly changing environments well with great surround sound presence. Some of the issues I noted with movie playback were also apparent, however, albeit to a lesser degree. Low frequencies felt particularly unbalanced with 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II,' but some adjustments in the settings yielded better results.
Finally, for music testing, I primarily used a mixture of concert Blu-rays and MP3s. First up, was the Blu-ray release of 'The Grateful Dead Movie.' The band's eclectic style came through in full force, and the sound bar did a great job of conveying the gentler tracks and the more aggressive songs. All of the instruments had a deep, clear presence and separation between the elements was smooth, creating a room-filling sound. Likewise, ambient crowd effects hit the rears naturally and vocals were full-bodied, completely avoiding the tiny, brittle quality sometimes associated with smaller speaker setups of this type. Again, highs weren't as distinct and pronounced as I would have liked and the front soundstage was comparatively constrained -- but given the compact size of the system, the music sounded quite good.
Next, I sampled a few MP3 tracks through the PS3's USB port, including songs from Arcade Fire, Gnarls Barkley, Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead. While the music sounded decent, the MP3's did bring some of the system's weaker points to light, revealing an occasionally flat and dull sound with a slightly overpowering low end. With that said, the songs still carried solid stereo separation. In addition, with the surrounds toggled on, the system automatically matrixes the audio to 5.1, but honestly, for most tracks I didn't really see much benefit to this as the added immersion was a little indistinct.
In addition to playing MP3's through the digital optical connection, I also tested the system's Bluetooth streaming to play a few songs directly off of my Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. To pair the device I simply needed to hit the Bluetooth paring option in the remote control menu. Then I could find the sound bar on my phone and voila, within seconds, the two devices were connected and I was able to play some music. The volume output was noticeably lower than when playing through the PS3, but this may have been an issue with my phone and not the soundbar. Regardless, toggling the DTS TruVolume mode helped to even things out and the music played just fine.
Serving as a kind of middle-ground between a traditional 2.1 sound bar system and full 5.1 speaker setup, the VIZIO S3851w-D4 38" 5.1 Sound Bar System offers a genuine surround sound experience with a compact design and attractive price. While the included satellites do limit some of the space-saving qualities usually associated with sound bar units, the additional speakers really help to bolster the soundstage, creating a surprisingly enveloping experience from such a small source. There are a few issues here and there, but considering its size, cost, and ease of use, movie and gaming performance are both deep and immersive. With its lacks of HDMI and lossless audio support, this clearly isn't an audiophile geared device, but for those looking for a simple, easy to setup, genuine surround sound solution on a budget, this is an impressive contender. Recommended.