Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review: High-end sound for a high-end price

A soundbar is an attractive alternative to a full-blown outboard speaker system. It offers better sound quality than a TV’s built-in audio, and it’s much more convenient to set up and use. On the other hand, a soundbar can’t reproduce a fully directional surround or immersive soundfield like a system with separate speakers located around the listening area.

Or can it? That’s the goal Sennheiser set for itself with its Ambeo Soundbar. This high-end behemoth sits near the top of the soundbar price range and claims to reproduce a virtual 5.1.4 immersive soundfield—a claim that has some merit, though it never fooled me into thinking I was listening to an actual immersive multi-speaker system.

Updated April 23, 2021 to report Sennheiser has released a firmware update for the Ambeo Soundbar that adds support for Sony’s immersive 360 Reality Audio technology. We returned our review unit shortly after this review was published, so we won’t be able to evaluate the new feauture, but we wanted our readers to know about it.

Ambeo feature set

The Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is massive, measuring about 50x5x7 inches (WxHxD) and weighing almost 41 pounds. It sports a total of 13 speaker drivers—six 4-inch long-throw, cellulose-sandwich cone woofers, five 1-inch aluminum-dome tweeters (two of which fire to the sides at an angle), and two upfiring 3.5-inch full-range drivers powered by a total of 500 watts. The frequency response is said to extend from 30Hz to 20kHz (-3dB).

Sennheiser

A total of 13 drivers include nine that fire forward, two that fire to the sides at an angle, and two that fire upward (not seen here because their grilles have not been removed in this photo).

So, how does a single soundbar—even such a large one—simulate the effect of a 5.1.4 speaker system? In this case, it uses all those drivers and some serious DSP to direct the surround and overhead channels to the room’s walls and ceiling, where they are reflected toward the listening area. According to Sennheiser, the effect is best if the walls and ceiling are no more than five meters (about 16 feet) from the soundbar; otherwise, the reflected sound might be noticeably delayed.

To accomplish this feat of virtualization, the Ambeo Soundbar must be calibrated to the room in which it will be used. In addition to the soundbar itself, the package includes a 28-inch-tall, free-standing calibration microphone attached to its own heavy base and a long cable that connects to the front of the soundbar. To calibrate the unit, you place the mic so its top is at ear height in the listening position and hold the Ambeo button on the remote or the top of the unit. The soundbar plays a series of sweeping tones and then calibrates the DSP based on what the microphone picks up from reflections in the room.

Physical inputs on the back include three HDMI 2.0a ports (18Gbps), one ethernet port, one Toslink optical port, and one pair of RCA analog-audio jacks as well as a 2.5mm microphone input on the front for the calibration mic. It also provides several wireless inputs, including Bluetooth 4.2 and dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac). Finally, it has Google Chromecast built in, and it can join a UPnP media network. Outputs include one HDMI 2.1 port with eARC and a subwoofer pre-out with an RCA connector. A USB port supports service and firmware updates but not media playback from storage devices.

sennheiser ambeo connections Sennheiser

The soundbar’s rear-panel connections include (L-R): stereo analog-audio input, subwoofer line output, Toslink digital-audio input, three HDMI 2.0a inputs, one HDMI 2.1 output with eARC, ethernet port, USB port for service and firmware updates, and AC power receptacle. An integrated cable tie keeps the cables tidy.

The Ambeo Soundbar can decode a wide range of audio codecs, including virtually all varieties of Dolby (including Dolby Atmos) and DTS (including DTS:X and DTS 96/24). Other supported codecs include DSD (the format used with SACD discs) and MPEG-H, a relatively new codec intended for use with next-generation TV broadcasting via ATSC 3.0. It can also upmix stereo and 5.1 content into a fully immersive soundfield.