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by on March 30, 2018
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IT SEEMS LIKE a sick joke, at first. You just spent hundreds, possibly a thousand bucks on that brand-new 4K TV in your living room, and your home theater-nerd friends are already telling you that you need to spend a more on a soundbar and subwoofer?

Need is a strong word, but your friends are right—you really should buy a soundbar. Your TV has tiny, tinny speakers and you’ll notice the difference immediately. After testing, I can say that Vizio’s SmartCast Soundbar System is one of the best affordable options to amp up your audio. For $228, you get a decent 36-inch soundbar, a wireless subwoofer, and two small left and right surround sound speakers. Honestly, you don’t need surround speakers to have a good listening experience, but they don’t hurt, either.

Sleek Design

The first thing you’ll notice about Vizio’s soundbar is how sleek it looks. The soundbar has a low profile, sitting only 2.1 inches tall, low enough to sit below the screen of most TVs. It’s covered on the front and top in a nice black fabric, with silver plastic caps on the ends, giving it a subdued, minimalist look. Even the power, Bluetooth, input, and volume buttons on the top are covered in the mesh fabric, which makes them appear almost like touch buttons, though they do have a physical press to them.

The simple design extends directly to the white LED lights, which run vertically on the left side of the bar. They act as volume indicators, lighting upward as the volume rises, and help when you’re manipulating every setting, from bass to treble to the power of the surround speakers. They’ll also flash in different formations to explain problems, which can be confusing until you bust open the 48-page manual to read up on what each pattern means.

A similarly-styled black and silver subwoofer, and sits about a foot tall. It syncs wirelessly with the soundbar, allowing you to place it next to your couch or chair (optimally). You’ll want to keep it there, too, because the two 5.5-inch-tall satellite speakers are not wireless. They plug right into the subwoofer with two very lengthy cords, which should be long enough for most sized rooms. I sat them on small tables on either side of me, but you may want to invest in some stands (try these Sanus stands) or wall mounts, depending on the layout of your room. Keep them pretty close to your couch, but slightly behind you, so you can get the most from the surround effects.

Vizio includes small feet for the soundbar, and a number of useful cables, including a 3.5mm audio cable, 5-foot HDMI for ARC connections (on newer TVs), 5-foot optical cable, RCA coaxial cables, and even a few velcro ties so you can keep your cord clutter to a minimum (how thoughtful!).

Control and Casting Concerns

I have a love/hate relationship with Vizio’s included infrared (IR) remote. It’s better than the dinky remotes that come with many speaker systems, and even has a small LCD screen, but it did frustrate me from time to time. The LCD screen is basically big enough to say one short word, letting you know which input you’ve selected (ex: optical or Bluetooth), but it’s hard to know exactly how to switch between menus.

Eventually I figured out that I had to press up and down on the directional pad on the remote to switch and left and right to turn settings on and off, but not before busting open that manual. I’m not even sure how I did it, but I accidentally put the entire speaker into demo mode at one point, which meant it wouldn’t listen to any commands or even turn off. I thought it was broken. Thankfully, the manual has instructions for turning that off, too.

There’s definitely a learning curve, but once you do get the hang of it you can alter a lot of options. Sadly, not quite all of them. To get the most out of the speaker you’ll also have to download the Vizio SmartCast app for iPhone or Android. It will let you enable Chromecast and control the soundbar from your phone.

Chromecast is a nice bonus, much like it is on Vizio’s E Series TV (which we awarded our WIRED Recommends badge), but it took me the better part of a day to get it to actually stream anything on Spotify, Pandora, or Pocket Casts. Eventually I did get it working, but every other Chromecast or Google Home device has just worked. At least one other reviewer had similar problems—others indicate it works fine. Luckily, Bluetooth pairing is simple enough, so you can connect and play music that way without hassle.

Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom

For the price, Vizio’s combo of soundbar, subwoofer, and surround satellite speakers do a killer job immersing you in whatever movie or Netflix show you’re streaming. Its strengths can be immediately heard in a movie like Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The movie’s intro has a giant battle between Resistance bombers and a First Order Juggernaut Star Destroyer. With surround turned on, I could hear groups of TIE Fighters whir all around me as the battle unfolded, and since everyone is in a rush in Star Wars, characters often talk from behind the camera as well. Hearing voices and blasts move from from front to back can make a movie feel even more immersive than some theaters.

The soundbar itself puts out tight treble, but it tends to sound a little boxed in and tinny when you crank the volume. High notes come through clearly, but low mids sound a little washed out and there’s virtually no bass. Thankfully, the sub balances things out nicely. Again, keep that sucker close, though. It’s not powerful enough for you to feel the rumble of an X-Wing engine firing from across the room. The same goes for the rear satellite speakers, which did have some audible hissing at higher volumes.

Music sounded clear, but not quite as warm as a speaker made primarily for music. I also had to turn off a weird setting called TrueVolume, which is supposed to level out the volume, but ended up causing songs to play loud, then soft, then loud again in a chaotic way. Even with the setting off I noticed it again on a couple of Spotify tracks, like “Try to Make It” by Sloan. An episode of The Walking Dead also got loud and soft when I streamed it on PS4 (not Xbox One, oddly), though other shows seemed fine.

Instant Home Theater

So, setup isn’t perfect, you’ll have to get used to the remote (I'd suggest using the app), and I’m not sure how well Chromecast will work out for you. Even with those issues, the Vizio SmartCast SB3651-E6 is a fantastic 5.1-channel sound system. For less than $250, you’re getting a solid soundbar with three channels of audio (left, center, right), a subwoofer, and two satellite speakers that will elevate any TV’s sound in clear, noticeable ways. If you don’t yet own a soundbar, it’s hard to find a better package for less than $300. It’s complete home theater in a box.

In its lineup, Vizio has a couple of cheaper options that should be pretty close to what I tested. The company sells a similar 38-inch Soundbar (2 channel only) and subwoofer combo on Amazon for only $150. Just make sure you buy a version with a subwoofer. No movie is complete without a little bass.

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