The trouble with 4K televisions, like the wonderful KS8500 we recently reviewed, is that you need a multitude of tools in order to get the most out of the display, which you likely shelled out more than $1000 for.
Of course, how much you spend depends on what kind of user you are. If you’re like me and don’t tweak your TV setup to the Nth degree and don’t mind not having best-in-class surround sound to enhance your movie night, the buck stops with the screen. But, I imagine there is a large contingent of consumers buying a 4K panel in 2016 that want to have the best possible arrangement.
One of the first tools to look for after a TV purchase are speakers, but the world of home audio can be a Bermuda Triangle of confusion for the average user. Often, a great choice is a soundbar, a single unit that can enhance your home theater audio, be built upon later and offer user-friendly simplicity.
To pair with its great lineup of 4K TVs, Samsung has released several soundbars and speaker combinations that not only offer great sound, but impressive usability. That’s clear with the HW-K850, and it’s pricier brother the HW-K950, two options that take all the work of building a home audio system and simplify it, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Unboxing the HW-K850, the soundbar Samsung sent me to test, at first seems like a daunting task. It comes in a box that stretches nearly six feet long, three feet high and weighs far more than your brain thinks it ought to. Once you actually open the packaging, it becomes clear the shipping materials are all bark and no bite.
The soundbar itself is, while several feet long, not obnoxiously heavy or hard to figure with your existing TV setup. Most of the weight comes from the wireless subwoofer which, while you do have to find a place to stash given its substantial size, stays out of the way thanks to its lack of a wired connection.
Once you’ve got it out of the box, the HW-K850 isn’t daunting in the least. It’s a well-built machine, but won’t blow you away in the hardware department given it’s designed to be hidden, or at the very least understated, achieving the feat with a simple design and all black finish. I would have loved a few more aluminum flourishes at this price point, but I can’t knock the craftsmanship on display. A nice touch is the LCD panel on the front, which displays input and volume, but also knows when to get out of the way, automatically turning off a few seconds after you’ve made an adjustment.
Then there’s the setup. You can either connect the soundbar to your TV wirelessly or via a myriad of cables. Either way is incredibly simple to configure, especially if you are using a Samsung television, as I was, but I imagine it would be equally simple with any TV.
To connect wirelessly, all you need to do is connect the soundbar to your home WiFi system via the Samsung Multiroom app. Once that’s done the TV will automatically recognize the soundbar as an audio output device and you just need to switch the soundbar to the right input setting. Again, this is all made incredibly simple if you’re using a Samsung TV, and while I can’t say how easy it would be to with an LG TV, for example, my experience with most WiFi connected TVs leads me to believe there would be few headaches no matter the brand in use.
For a wired connection, it’s the same process as connecting anything to your TV has been for years. Plug in the HDMI cord, follow instructions on screen if need be, turn the soundbar to the right input, and that’s it.
When everything is up and running, you can begin to utilize the HW-K850’s 11 speakers, including two upward firing drivers that work in tandem with Dolby Atmos technology to create a surround sound effect from left, right and above with a single audio device, and the wireless subwoofer. The sub, by the way, connects automatically with the soundbar and I didn’t have to fiddle with it once during several weeks with the device.
The HW-K850, with all those speakers, is capable of delivering exceptional sound but, much like the KS-8500, is at the mercy of the source material. I found a slight uptick in quality from the TVs built-in speakers when watching cable, slightly more with UHD streaming from Netflix or Amazon Prime, and a wealth more quality when I connected the soundbar to a 4K Blu-ray player.
The issue is that you can only utilize the soundbar’s full capabilities, including Dolby Atmos, when using a wired connection and not all sources (Netflix, Amazon Prime, what have you) support technologies built into the HW-K850. There is no doubt, particularly with music (both diegetic and otherwise), explosions and other action sequences, that the soundbar enhances the experience no matter how you’re watching. But it doesn’t really impress unless you have everything you need to maximize its potential.
When you do, though, the result is great. I am generally one to shy away from bombastic audio setups when it comes to TVs because I prefer not to enrage my neighbors and don’t want to a movie with a firm grip on the remote. The HW-K850, and I mean this in the brightest of ways, gave me anxiety. The booms throughout a film like Sicario were deep and guttural, enhancing that particular movie’s magnificent score by a considerable factor, while also making every gunshot fully realized and rich.
The sound quality was generally excellent, but the surround sound aspect wasn’t. The stereo imaging at work is great but the Dolby Atmos concept, while neat, never materialized for me. Part of this is certainly due to the room I had the HW-K850 in. For something like Dolby Atmos to work, the sound emitted from upward facing drivers needs a lower ceiling to bounce off. The ceiling in my living room is vaulted, and thus the sound had too far to travel to have any real success. The HW-K850 is capable of 3.1.2 surround sound, and you can connect other Samsung speakers wirelessly to achieve it.
As a speaker, 11 speakers to be specific, the HW-K850 doesn’t need to only emit the sounds from your television, though that is what it does best. I didn’t find it terrible with music, it was fine, but I’ve had more success with devices like the Mu-so Qb. I was particularly disappointed with the bass response given the soundbar’s separate, dedicated, hefty subwoofer. This could be chalked up to file quality, I generally used Spotify for music during my review period, but again I’ve had better results with similar files on other speakers.
If you’re none the wiser, the HW-K850 will more than meet your needs for any type of audio, but if you have a tendency to be picky, I’d look elsewhere for speakers to dedicate to music, or avoid having the HW-K850 as your sole audio device.
The big question surrounding the HW-K850 is the same as that of the KS8500, is it worth it? As a soundbar, it’s perfectly serviceable and does what it should when given the proper source material to work with. At $999.99 retail, though, it’s an awful lot to ask. Yes, the HW-K850 improves the sound quality over your TV speakers, but that’s the least it should do. Does it improve it so wildly that you’ll never second guess spending the money on it you did? No. At least not for me.
If I were to spend that much cash, I would want a soundbar that offered a true surround sound setup, like the K950, and was more versatile. Consider this, though. Perhaps what you’re paying for with the HW-K850 is not just the sound quality, but also ease-of-use. In that light, it becomes a much more intriguing buy for many people. There are so few headaches with the HW-K850 and that has to be worth something. But that brings us back to the original question.
Is the HW-K850, with its 11 speakers, Dolby Atmos technology, dedicated wireless subwoofer and exceptional usability, worth $1000?
Depends on who you ask.