Samsung HW-E551 £399
3rd May 2012 | 09:15
A 2.1 Air Track TV audio system that's a soundbar and hi-fi
Interest in one-piece soundbars is booming. According to the market analysts at GfK, the UK will see sales leap to 120,000 pieces this year, up from 75,000 in 2011.
Their appeal is easy to understand. If you can't fit a multi-speaker sound system in your living room, a single, wide-dispersion enclosure, helped by a subwoofer, is reasonable compensation. But with the new Crystal Surround Air Track HW-E551, Samsung has broadened this appeal further.
Rather cannily, the main soundbar has been designed to split in two to form a left/right pair of cylindrical speakers; owners have the choice of conventional stereo or solo soundbar configurations. It's ideal if you want to change your system at a later date.
This idea looks likely to catch on. The Samsung HW-E551 already faces competition from Panasonic's own 'transformer' bar, the SC-HTB550.
File format support: MP3, WMA
Wireless subwoofer: Yes
Remote control: Yes
Total output (claimed): Soundbar 80W nto 3oms, sub 150W into 3ohms
Power consumption: 50W average peak
The Samsung HW-E551 design is predictably slick, although what appears to be a smart metallic finish on both the speakers and the subwoofer transpires to be plastic. When locked together, the soundbar is 104cm wide, making it suitable for larger screen sizes.
The subwoofer, a rear-ported design, communicates wirelessly with the main soundbar over the 5.2/5.8GHz band, which opens up opportunities when it comes to placement.
The operating distance of the wireless link is said to be around 9m. Of course, the thing still needs mains power (as indeed does the soundbar), which will limit your options.
Priced at £399 in the UK and $399.99 in the US, the Samsung HW-E551 goes up against recently released sound systems such as the Logitech UE Air Speakers, the Philips Fidelio SoundRing DS3880W and Sony SRS-BTV25, all of which are cheaper.
The Samsung HW-E551 features a number of convenience features that make the system easy to live with. The subwoofer turns itself off automatically when there's been no activity for 20 minutes, springing back to life only when required.
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It's also Bluetooth compliant, which is ideal if you want to pair and share music from your mobile.
Unusually for a soundbar, the unit also offers an LED text display, which makes navigating inputs and DSP modes a good deal easier than it might otherwise be. There's also a neatly integrated manual dial, for volume control and Power, built into the end of the right-hand speaker.
The subwoofer is the conduit for all audio sources. It sports a pair of 3D-compatible HDMI inputs and an output. One of these is ARC (Audio Return Channel) compliant, which means the TV itself can become a source for the sound system. There is also a digital audio input and a USB reader compatible with MP3 and WMA files.
Usability and performance
Assembling the Samsung HW-E551 initially appears somewhat daunting, thanks to a multitude of brackets and components. However, it does all slot together rather logically. After that it's plain sailing.
It quickly becomes apparent that the Samsung HW-E551 represents a significant step up from the thin two-channel noise typically made by modern flatscreen TVs; in its default setting, the system offers real volume and a crisp mid-range that doesn't mangle dialogue.
Samsung claims power output to be 80W per channel (albeit into 3ohms), with the sub rated at 150W. But these are marketing specifications and shouldn't be compared with rival products.
We can confirm, though, that it sounds loud enough in an average sized living room. On average, the system draws around 50W at the mains, confirming that it can pack a wallop.
The subwoofer itself delivers a sizeable level of slam, moving air and adding weight when on-screen action demands it. One reason for this potency is that all its energy is unleashed at 50Hz. The sub doesn't actually reach down as low as you might imagine.
If you feel the sub is being too enthusiastic, it can be dialled back. However, dialogue thins very quickly. And while its wireless nature does enable you to tout it around the room, the sub's actually best left in close vicinity to the soundbar, for better integration.
There are a number of DSP modes available to tune the output, not always to great advantage. News is dialogue-centric and lacks body, while Music has an overly crystalline edge. They're jointed by Sports and Game. Our favourites ultimately proved to be the Drama and Cinema, both of which are plump and appropriately visceral.
The system also boasts a 3D sound mode, which supposedly creates a virtual surround effect. While this may widen the soundstage a tad, it never actually felt as if it was enveloping anything.
An additional processing embellishment, Smart Volume, dynamically adjusts the output level depending on content, but the end result is rather unsatisfactory, with tell-tale pumping evident.
The Samsung HW-E551 is arguably the most sophisticated 2.1 system currently available. The hybrid design is neat and the wireless sub behaves impeccably, shutting down when required.
The versatile 'transformer' soundbar design is excellent, and Bluetooth compatibility for mobile phone streaming is extremely useful.
The system's feature roster is good too. Purely from a convenience standpoint, the inclusion of Bluetooth has to be considered a plus, and the user display on the soundbar is also a welcome convenience.
However, while fun with Drive and Dexter, a lack of genuine depth on the subwoofer means it doesn't really pull off more complicated audio. Not only does it fail to deliver anything of note below 50Hz, it's not exactly whistle-clean at the higher registers, either.
There is some unwanted hash around 10kHz, which undermines wider clarity, and the 3D surround sound mode is unconvincing.
As a sonic upgrade for a TV, the Samsung HW-E551 represents fine value, and the punchy sub is a crowd pleaser. Sonically it's not perfect, but for general TV viewing these caveats are unlikely to prove an issue.