With their previous S3851w-D4 38" 5.1 Sound Bar System, the company offered casual home theater fans a simple, inexpensive, and well-performing audio solution capable of providing a genuine surround sound experience without all of the hassle that comes with more complex receiver/speaker combos. Now, with one of their latest 5.1 soundbar systems, the SB4501, VIZIO has brought back everything that made their last lineup great while also adding a few improvements here and there to sweeten the deal even further.
Aimed at delivering compact, plug-and-play surround sound, the 40-inch 5.1 soundbar is a no fuss speaker system with plenty of connectivity options, separate satellites, and a wireless subwoofer.
Living up to the easy, painless setup that VIZIO is known for, The SB4501 comes complete with everything a customer needs for speedy installation of the system. In the box, users will find the 40" sound bar unit itself, the wireless subwoofer, two rear satellite speakers, a remote control, wall mounting tools, and a plethora of handy connection options, including an HDMI cable, a digital optical cable, a coaxial audio cable, a stereo RCA to 3.5mm cable, and separate audio cables for each satellite speaker.
The soundbar unit measures 40” W x 3” H x 3” D and weighs 7.5 lbs, offering a sturdy but still comparatively light form factor. The unit features 3 x 2.75" Full-Range Drivers with a left, center, and right channel. Meanwhile, the compact satellite speakers measure just 3"W x 5.9"H x 3"D and weigh a very light 1.6 lbs. Each satellite uses 2 x 2.5" Full-Range Drivers. Finally, the wireless subwoofer measures 9.7" W x 10"H x 9.7"D and weighs 12.5 lbs. The subwoofer features a 6" Long Throw (High Excursion) Driver and is rated for a clear line of sight wireless range of 60ft. Together, the entire system has a sound pressure level of 102 dB with less than 1% Total Harmonic Distortion.
Right off the bat, users familiar with previous VIZIO soundbar models will notice some pleasing aesthetic improvements. While the mostly all-black design of the 2014 lineup certainly got the job done just fine, the SB4501 features simple but attractive matte silver caps and black grills on all of its components, giving the system a delicately sleek and modern appearance. Inputs remain similarly positioned on the back of the soundbar unit, along with a row of buttons for Volume, Bluetooth Pairing, Input, and Power across the back top for easy access.
Despite a few visual changes, the included remote control is essentially the same as before -- which is mostly a good thing. The remote offers a convenient black and white LCD display for menu selection and a standard but functional button layout with essentials like Power, Input, Volume, and Playback options. By pressing the Menu button and cycling through the LCD, users are also given several more options for adjusting various settings -- including individual speaker levels, treble, bass, a Night mode, and DTS TruVolume. When selections are made on the remote a row of LED indicators on the front left side of the soundbar will light up based on volume, level, and mode changes. Unfortunately, like the previous model, the screen on the remote is not backlit which makes viewing the display difficult or downright impossible in low light situations. Since I like to watch movies and shows in the dark (like a proper home theater vampire), this did prove to be a minor annoyance.
With everything unpacked and ready to go, setup really could not be simpler. For the purposes of this review, I did not use the included wall mounting brackets and instead placed the soundbar in front of my TV and the rear speakers on stands. The unit is designed for TVs 47-inches or larger, and the system looked great with my 50-inch plasma. Once powered on, the soundbar and subwoofer automatically paired together wirelessly. Though the satellites still need to be plugged into the subwoofer, the included speaker wires are nice and long, offering flexible distance options for users like me who need to place the subwoofer in the front of the room (that's where the only power outlet is). And with the addition of an ARC capable HDMI in and HDMI out connection on this model, VIZIO has made things even easier for users to achieve the best quality audio from their devices.
For testing, I primarily used the system with a Sony PS4 connected to the soundbar unit through HDMI, and the unit connected to my TV through the soundbar's HDMI out. Likewise, I also tested the speaker with the PS4 audio connected through a digital optical cable and the video running directly to the TV. In both cases, the connections worked perfectly, with proper video passthrough and sound. I also tested some material using a PS3 connected through the HDMI in and out on the soundbar, and though I initially could not get the sound to work, after restarting the system and soundbar a few times, everything suddenly came into order. I'm not sure what the initial issue was, but thankfully the glitch did not repeat itself.
The speaker offers native support for standard (not lossless) Dolby Digital and DTS sound decoding along with DTS Circle Surround for 5.1 matrixing, and Bluetooth streaming with aptX for playback from mobile devices. In addition, a Night Mode which decreases subwoofer activity and a TruVolume mode for evening out loud playback are included as well -- and though they worked as advertised I preferred to leave them off. For testing, I used the Bitstream audio setting on the PS4 and PS3 which allowed for proper decoding of native surround sound material. If the PlayStation systems were switched to PCM, the soundbar no longer recognized the satellites during surround sound speaker tests like those included on the DTS demo disc. Instead, the rear channels simply played through the front soundbar unit, and all regular content seemed to be matrixed using DTS Circle Surround.
Out of the box, most users will immediately notice that the subwoofer is dialed quite a bit higher than it will likely ever need to be. With that in mind, for most of my testing, I preferred to keep the unit about 3 to 4 levels down from the default setting. Likewise, the satellites are also boosted compared to the front three channels, but considering their small size and room placement, I actually ended up preferring this dynamic. Thankfully, users can control the satellite levels as well if they'd like to tune them in for a more traditionally balanced profile.
Not surprisingly, here's where the SB4051 really shines. Switching between a variety of Blu-ray discs and streaming material, the system handled everything I threw at it with engaging presence and room-filling audio. To start things off, I used this review as the perfect excuse to catch up on the second seasons of 'Orphan Black' and 'The Americans' (yes I'm very behind on my TV binge watching). Both shows immediately revealed the soundbar's versatility with sequences that oscillated between subtle and more aggressive. Throughout it all, dialogue (and all of Tatiana Maslany's accents) remained clear and full, and the satellites presented a genuine surround sound experience.
Other demo disc material included 'The Martian,' 'Game of Thrones,' 'Skyfall,' 'The Avengers,' 'Inception,' and… 'Jupiter Ascending.' Yes, that latter flick might be a narrative mess, but it sure does have a killer audio mix! The scene where Caine flies around on his rocket boots while trying to keep Jupiter safe from an onslaught of enemy fighter ships was especially impressive through the SB4051, resulting in a fully believable soundscape full of whizzing laser blasts that seamlessly transitioned about the room, and deep explosions that brought some aggressive and cohesive rumble.
The opening motorcycle chase scene in 'Skyfall' and the climactic alien invasion in 'The Avengers' were also standouts. Dialogue in the latter scene could come across as a tad soft, but the way that background action continued to bustle about through the surrounds was very immersive. And, as always, "The Battle of Blackwater Bay" from episode nine of the second season of 'Game of Thrones' made for great demo material, and the soundbar did a solid job with all of the controlled chaos.
Sure, overall fidelity, range, detail, and imaging were not on par with my Pioneer 5.1 speaker system, and front channel separation wasn't as wide as a dedicated three speaker setup, but considering the size and simplicity of the VIZIO unit, audio performance was quite impressive. Likewise, though bass activity could definitely come across as overpowered at times, balance issues seemed to be a little less severe than those found in the previous S3851w-D4. For instance, I did not notice any troublesome rattling during 'The Avengers' finale like I did in that earlier model.
With that said, the subwoofer did still become a bit unruly with other material and specific low frequencies. The car crash scene in 'Inception' brought some noticeably overpowered LFE, even with the subwoofer levels dialed down, causing the system to rattle a bit while making the sub's location readily apparent. Thankfully, with proper adjustments, moments like this were infrequent, but it's still clear that the woofer needs some taming from the manufacturer.
Wild as it may be, however, the sub packs an undeniable punch, giving the system a genuine home theater feel that other similarly priced units just can't muster. Likewise, the system is capable of going loud without introducing much in the way of distortion, and most users will rarely need to raise the volume more than halfway, leaving a lot more power left to tap if ever necessary.
Complementing the system's engaging movie performance, the SB4051 provides very solid music reproduction as well. For this review, I primarily listened to MP3 tracks through my PS4, and Bluetooth streaming files and services like Spotify and Tidal from my Samsung Galaxy S4.
In both cases, music came through fairly well with a mostly balanced audio profile. Using the Bitstream setting on the PS4 resulted in 2.0 music being presented through the front channels only. In contrast, Bluetooth streaming music appears to default to 5.1 matrixing -- though the surrounds can still be disabled using the remote.
Offering another nice upgrade over the 2014 model in this range, the unit also includes aptX support through Bluetooth resulting in noticeably higher quality playback. To demo the unit, I played a variety of tracks from my usual array of testing materials, including songs from Radiohead, Gnarls Barkley, Otis Redding, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Pink Floyd, Daft Punk, and Norah Jones.
In general, whether streaming or playing directly through the PS4, music performance was very pleasing. Radiohead's "Life in a Glasshouse" featured distinct instruments and separation without losing sight of Thom Yorke's crooning vocals, and Pink Floyd's "Money' offered surprisingly immersive surround sound presence using the system's matrixing when played through Bluetooth. Likewise, the subwoofer blended well with all of the material, resulting in a cohesive system.
With all that said, the SB4051 tended to favor the higher-end of the mid-range and could come across as a tad bright with some material (Gnarls Barkley's "Cazy," for instance). Likewise, Norah Jones' usually lush vocals on "Don't Know Why" sounded a little sharp and sibilant for my tastes. Adjustments to treble in the menu yielded some slight improvements but the unit still veered toward the highs.
Finally, to cap off my music testing on a high note, I threw in the recently released Blu-ray of 'Roger Waters The Wall.' This was by far the most impressive sounding music material I demoed on the system, and the concert came through wonderfully. Surround presence was not as nuanced as it was on my usual 5.1 setup, but the soundbar, satellite, and subwoofer worked well together to create an enveloping experience with strong separation. Sadly, there were a few moments when the sub got a little too excited again, but in general, there was little to complain about here.
Beyond Bluetooth and connected devices, a USB port is also included directly on the soundbar with support for WAV audio playback from thumb drives.
To sample gaming performance, I dusted off my PS3 and played through a few levels of 'Star Wars: The Force Unleased II' and 'Uncharted 2.' Both games provided great demo material for the VIZIO system, and with the bass dialed down, performance was excellent.
With the surround satellites and three channel soundbar unit working together, the SB4051 created a totally immersive soundstage that belied its small size, fully enveloping me in the games' atmosphere. Roaring Tie Fighters, slashing lightsabers, and laser fire all made their way around the room, appropriately positioning themselves in relation to their location on screen.
'Uncharted 2' makes especially good use of surround sound to help users engage their enemies and plan their attacks, and using the added satellites makes it easy to tell when characters are behind you. Atmospherics are also greatly enhanced, constantly redirecting effects like whizzing bullets as you move about the world and rotate your character.
With strong movie and gaming performance, and solid music performance, the VIZIO SB4051 5.1 Channel Soundbar System proves to be a versatile and immersive compact surround sound solution. Though the subwoofer does have some balance issues with specific LFE cues, after adjusting levels to personal preference, the unit mostly evens out. Likewise, VIZIO has included a few key improvements over their previous generation models in this size range, offering new support for HDMI and aptX Bluetooth, and a sleeker design aesthetic.
While a small system like this is not meant for true audiophiles who want all of the latest and greatest (and expensive) premium tech like lossless Dolby Atmos and upfiring speaker drivers, a package of this type is perfect for more casual home theater users who want to save some space, money, and installation hassle without sacrificing a full surround sound experience. Whether set up in a smaller apartment or a larger living room, the SB4051 packs enough power to provide a compact and immersive soundstage.
For users looking for a space-saving 5.1 solution that does not require a receiver or intensive setup, this is a great bang-for-your-buck, plug-and-play home theater solution. Recommended.