Solid Dolby Atmos on a budget

Dolby Atmos systems are my passion.

While expensive analog Atmos systems like the Sonos Arc, Bose Soundbar 900, and many systems from Sony are getting better every year by leaps and bounds, budget Atmos systems are also getting ahead. This is thanks in part to the growth of systems that virtualize the Atmos effect without using analog height channels.

The Vizio M-series amplifier is one of the last systems. The $329 5.1 configuration I was reviewing comes with a three-channel soundbar, wireless subwoofer, and two rear speakers attached to the subwoofer. Vizio also sells a $179 configuration that includes only the subwoofers and subwoofers, as well as a $499 5.1.2 system that adds analog height channels to the speakers. I wanted to look at 5.1 because, depending on your room, not having to include analog height channels might be a good thing. $329 for an entire home theater system is also a pretty compelling deal no matter how you slice it.

In my time with the M Series, I’ve found that it provides a very compelling entry point for people who might be interested in Dolby Atmos, but could be surprised at the asking price for better systems. Vizio has come a long way with its virtualization technology, speaking as someone who used one of the company’s first Atmos systems in virtual mode. However, don’t take this to mean that the M Series comes without compromise. There are many trade-offs that constantly remind you of the price this system comes at.

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elegant stripe

The speaker itself is rather elegant. The body is made entirely of plastic, but it has a neutral gray color and a good texture that brings it closer to metal. Both the speakers and the rear speakers have a tilted rear view that helps them sit discreetly under the TV. The front grille is fabric rather than plastic or metal, and it can deteriorate over time if you have particularly naughty children or pets.

The subwoofer is a very dull gray box, with the air valve on the back and the tweeter on the base. It’s quite small and certainly not designed to fill an entire room with rich bass, considering Vizio recommends placing the submarine close to your seating area.

To set up the M Series, connect the speakers to the TV’s HDMI eARC port (ARC on older TVs), then connect the rear speakers to the subwoofer, making sure everything matches the color-coded speaker wire and ports. Once both the speakers and subs are connected to power, they should be connected to your TV after you turn it on. While the M Series has an HDMI pass-through port (rated for 4K/120Hz for game consoles), the eARC means it will accept Atmos signals from any device connected to your TV. These are also not “SmartCast”-branded speakers, so you don’t have to worry about Wi-Fi setup or firmware updates down the line.

The worst part about the M series, and Vizio amplifiers in general, is the speaker wire that Vizio includes to connect the rear speakers to the subwoofer. It’s very horrific. To start, the wire is very cheap and easy. I know from past experience that a cat can chew on this wire in about 2 seconds and completely destroy the speakers. To make matters worse is the considerable length of the cables, which are just over 25 feet. It’s ridiculous, runs all the way through a mediocre room and then some.

Depending on your home theater setup, Vizio expects customers to purchase rear surround mounts to place directly behind your seats, or put wires back into the wall, since you need to place the subwoofer next to your seating area for the best experience. If Vizio had included shorter speaker wires with braid on them for durability instead of that rat’s nest waiting to happen, I’d have no problem forcing a wired surround on buyers. For me, this made me very grateful that my Sonos system only works with wireless surroundings.

Decent Atmos, weak bass

The small rear speakers do an impressive job of creating Atmos effects.Samuel Polay / Input

While I still put Sonos Beam as the default king of Dolby Atmos, Vizio isn’t flabby. When rigorously assessing how convincing the Atmos effects are, Vizio delivers most of what I would reasonably expect from a default Atmos system.

When playing Atmos content, you can hear the effects around you even when there is no speaker. My Atmos transition sequences from Blade Runner 2049 It was immersive compared to more expensive soundbars. For people who have never experienced Atmos at home before, this is the kind of sound that will make people understand the difference between Atmos and traditional surround sound.

Physio is don’t slouch.

it’s not sum The surround effect you got from Sonos Beam or Sonos Arc. The influences that must seem to come from above you are not at all convincing. But this is a definite step forward compared to most budget speakers.

Keep in mind that this only pertains to the actual Atmos effect shown here, or Vizio’s processing algorithms. While Vizio does an impressive job creating Atmos effects, the quality of the audio experience as a whole is noticeably lacking. The audio capability of the hardware here finally makes me unable to recommend this system wholeheartedly.

There is no Wi-Fi on the board but it can still play Bluetooth audio.Samuel Polay / Input

To start, there is a severe lack of bass to an alarming degree. I actually thought the subwoofer on my first review unit was broken. At high volumes, I could hear it swaying and struggling for a low-end output. The replacement unit was in better shape, but the subunit was clearly still struggling to keep up with the rest of the system when at high crank.

The overall dynamic range was also pretty poor. In heavy action sequences, explosions and other effects didn’t have the effect I wanted to see. The minus bass certainly wasn’t helpful. I’ve also struggled to feature the dialogue in higher sequences. This is despite the presence of a dedicated center channel on the speakers.

just be bigger

$330 for the entire system is a tempting offer.Samuel Polay / Input

The M Series audio experience is the biggest reason to pay for a more premium system. Although it’s $120 more expensive, Sonos Beam offers better overall sound quality by itself compared to the entire 5.1 M series.

Vizio has created a great case study on the need for great hardware to go along with great software. This system has two main types of Achilles heel which prevent me from recommending it.

The first is the overall quality of the setup and the cheap wiring needed for the surround speakers. It takes you to the floor as soon as you start setting up the system as you scratch your head figuring out not only the best place to put your surround speakers, but also the best way to hide the ugly part of the wires.

This system has two main Achilles heel.

The second is bass. Whether that includes a better subwoofer to start with, or making it so the soundbar and rears can get a good low end out of the jump, Vizio needs to do a better job of delivering the low end that really improves the experience. I’m not asking for cinema-level bass, just something that wouldn’t bother me if I wanted to turn up the volume.

Vizio proved that it could trick my ears into thinking I had a pretty decent surround system, and now it needs to bring the right hardware.

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