The new VIZIO 36″ 5.1 SmartCast Sound Bar is sleek and affordable.
For the past decade, VIZIO has been on a journey to becoming a well-known tech company with a wide range of competitive entertainment devices and accessories. During this time, their HDTV and 4K TV models have grown in popularity thanks to their competitive specs and performance while staying within the average consumer's budget.
In the past, we have reviewed several products from VIZIO including a recent review of their M50-D1 4K TV. This time around, the company has sent us their newest 36″ 5.1 SmartCast Sound Bar which has just been updated for 2017 to evaluate for our reader's benefit.
Beyond the 36″ 5.1 System which retails for $249.99, VIZIO also released several other models for 2017 including a 36″ 2.1 System, a 32″ 5.1 System and a 28″ 2.0 Soundbar. While the remainder of this review will focus on the high-end 36″ model, many opinions and observations will still be relevant for the lower-priced models.
VIZIO supplied this unit for evaluation purposes, but we are not financially compensated for this review with no bias in the content or outcome. Our opinions and perspectives are based on our own experiences using the supplied demo product.
Design & Build Quality
This year's model offers a similar design to the closest model in the previous generation which also retailed for $250 and sported a 38″ soundbar length instead of the newer 36″ version shown in this review.
Consisting of four pieces, the system offers the soundbar, two identical side speakers, and the subwoofer. Unlike previous generations, the soundbar is longer in depth than height, so it is more difficult for the device to fall over or become accidentally damaged.
The 2017 model's port selection offers a mini-jack (1), RCA (2), coaxial digital audio RCA (1), optical digital audio (1), USB type A (1) and HDMI (1). Each soundbar comes packaged with a 5″ HDMI cable which is convenient for those who will be using HDMI-ARC.
The subwoofer and speakers in the 2017 version offer a more appealing look with silver casings embossed cleanly with the VIZIO logo. I find this design to be sleek, allowing these components to become more of a focal point than an eyesore.
The top of the soundbar is made up of a mesh material with five embedded buttons. These buttons are used to control necessary controls like power, input, Bluetooth and volume levels.
VIZIO's pricing is on the more affordable scale compared to more premium competitors like SONOS, yet the build quality of the system is satisfying enough that I have no complaints about craftsmanship at this price-point.
With high-end models competing in the space exceeding prices more than double that of VIZIO's system, I was impressed with this model's feature set. Offering a 5″ driver, the subwoofer is wireless allowing you to set the soundbar up in the front of the room by the TV and separately placing the subwoofer in the rear or side of the room.
The two rear speakers connect only to the subwoofer making the overall number of cords needed to set up the system less obtrusive. You will still need to run these two dedicated wires to the rear speakers though. I used some basic wire clips to secure the cords neatly into place and keep it as appealing to the eye as possible with this type of system.
The 5.1 surround sound utilizes the soundbar coupled with the two speakers and subwoofer to provide a truly immersive audio experience perfect for movies and video games, giving you that next-level experience while enjoying your favorite content. For the audiophiles out there, the system's frequency response ranges from 50 Hz to 20 kHz with a sound pressure level of 101dB.
Beyond the 5.1 surround sound experience, this model packs native Bluetooth compatibility as well as an integrated Google Chromecast for audio playback. The support for Chromecast means you can cast audio from your smartphone or computer directly to the sound system without the need for any syncing of Bluetooth or additional wires needed as long as you are using a supported application (iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, etc.).
Setup & Performance
The initial setup of the soundbar was rather simple, and the included instructions did a great job bringing me through the installation process. As I stated earlier, the soundbar itself can mounted or placed by the TV and connects directly to it.
The subwoofer can be arranged anywhere to the side or behind your viewing area with physical wire connections to each of the two speakers. By default, the subwoofer will automatically pair with the soundbar, but if this doesn't happen when you first set up you can manually pair them.
Adjusting the system's settings can be done through the included remote, but I found the small LCD screen to be less than ideal for tinkering with settings and opted to use the VIZIO SmartCast app which is required for hooking up the soundbar up to the Wi-Fi.
I wouldn't consider myself an audiophile, but I do have a great deal of experience testing various audio products and have a good sense of audio quality. Based off this, I was impressed with VIZIO's 2017 iteration of their 36″ 5.1 Smartcast Sound Bar based on its crisp, true-to-life sound throughout a wide frequency range coupled.
With 5.1 surround sound, watching your favorite supported content allows you to pick out more audio cues and elements that you'd generally miss bringing a more immersive experience to your viewing experience.Throughout my testing experience, I was met with a positive experience overall, but I did run into one negative aspect that I think is worth mentioning.
Chromecast reliability is not the best I often run into problems connecting to the soundbar via Spotify on my laptop or mobile device despite it showing up correctly in my supported devices for streaming.
When trying to stream music to the VIZIO 36″ 5.1 Smartcast Sound Bar, it works about 50% of the time. I can and have been able to connect successfully, but the reliability of a connection is weak and something that needs to addressed at some point. Upon further troubleshooting and research, it does not seem to be a network issue on my end.
I spoke with my VIZIO representative who sent me a replacement unit to verify if the issue was isolated to that one device. After further inspection, it appears the problem has to do with some incompatibility with the Spotify service and VIZIO's line of soundbars.
From some Google research, I found multiple instances where users had trouble casting to Spotify in the past with earlier generations of VIZIO soundbars:
The strange issue is that the other streaming services I tested that support Chromecast streaming is confirmed to work without hiccups including Pandora and iHeartRadio. Since Spotify is the leading provider of music streaming (and the only service I rely on for music consumption), this is a significant problem for some potential buyers.
I am able to seamlessly stream Spotify to my original Chromecast which is plugged into my Samsung 4K TV connected to the soundbar via an HDMI Arc. As soon as I try to directly connect from my mobile device or Mac to the soundbar itself (bypassing the use of my TV entirely), I start to run into the spotty connection problems streaming music via Spotify.
This is a weird issue that I think would have been resolved between Spotify and VIZIO before this new generation launched. Ultimately, it could be an issue entirely dependent on Spotify's end. However, the fact that it does not happen when streaming Spotify to any other Google Cast devices or on the original Chromecast makes me think it seems to be an isolated event happening with VIZIO's line of sound bars.
VIZIO's upped the bar with the 2017 version of their 36″ 5.1 Smartcast Sound Bar improving its design and feature set. While it offers stellar audio quality and craftsmanship for the price, we did experience unreliable connections when streaming music via Spotify directly to the sound bar.
At under $250, this soundbar does offer some of the best audio performance providing cinematic 5.1 surround sound for enjoying your favorite movies or TV shows and is still a great buy if you can get past the Spotify casting issue. If you are not a Spotify user or can stream your music to your TV via a traditional Chromecast, then this should not be a big of an issue.