Dolby Atmos systems are a bit of a passion point for me.
While expensive analog Atmos systems like the Sonos Arc, the Bose Soundbar 900, and numerous systems from Sony are getting better every year by leaps and bounds, budget Atmos systems are also pulling ahead. This is thanks in part to the growth of systems that virtualize the Atmos effect without the use of analog height channels.
The Vizio M-series soundbar is one of the latter systems. The $329 5.1 configuration I’ve been reviewing comes with a soundbar with three channels, a wireless subwoofer, and two rear surround speakers that connect to the subwoofer. Vizio also sells a $179 configuration that only includes a soundbar and sub, as well as a $499 5.1.2 system that adds analog height channels to the soundbar. I wanted to look at the 5.1 because, depending on your room, not having to factor in analog height channels can be a good thing. $329 for a whole home theater system is also a super compelling deal no matter how you slice it.
In my time with the M-series, I found it to offer a very compelling entry point for people who may be interested in Dolby Atmos, but could be taken aback by the asking price of 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. Do not however take this to mean the M-series comes without compromises. There are many tradeoffs here that continually remind you of the price tag this system came with.
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The soundbar itself is fairly sleek. The housing is entirely plastic, but it has a neutral gray color and a good texture that makes it feel closer to metal. Both the soundbar and rear speakers have a sloped look to them towards the back that should help it sit discreetly under your TV. The front mesh is fabric instead of plastic or metal, and could fray over time if you have particularly rambunctious children or pets.
The subwoofer is a pretty boring gray box, with the air valve on the back and the woofer on the base. It’s pretty small and definitely isn’t designed to fill a whole room with rich bass considering Vizio recommends you place the sub right by your sitting area.
To set up the M-series you plug the soundbar into your TV’s HDMI eARC port (ARC on older TVs), then connect the rear speakers to the subwoofer, making sure to match everything with the color-coded speaker wire and ports. Once you plug both the soundbar and sub into power, it should connect with your TV after you turn it on. While the M-series does have an HDMI passthrough port (which is rated for 4K/120Hz for game consoles), eARC means that it will accept Atmos signals from any device connected to your TV. This also isn’t a “SmartCast” branded soundbar, so no need to worry about Wi-Fi setup or firmware updates down the line.
The worst part about the M-series, and Vizio soundbars in general, is the speaker wire that Vizio includes to connect the rear speakers to the subwoofer. It’s absolutely awful. To start, the wire is extremely cheap and flimsy. I know from past experience that a cat can chew through this wiring in about two seconds and completely destroy the speakers. To make matters worse is the sheer length of the cables, just over 25 feet. It’s absurd, stretching all the way across a medium-sized room and then some.
Depending on your home theater setup, Vizio is expecting customers to buy stands for the rear surrounds to put right behind your seats, or run the wires back to the wall, since you need to place the subwoofer by your seating area for the best experience. If Vizio had included shorter speaker wires with a braid on them for durability instead of this rat’s nest waiting to happen, I’d have no problem with forcing wired surrounds on buyers. For me, this just made me extra grateful that my Sonos system only works with wireless surrounds.
Decent Atmos, weak bass
While I still put the Sonos Beam as the king of virtualized Dolby Atmos, Vizio is no slouch. When strictly evaluating how convincing the Atmos effects are, Vizio is delivering most of what I’d reasonably expect from a virtual Atmos system.
When playing Atmos content, you’re able to hear effects all around you even where there isn’t a speaker placed. My go-to Atmos sequences from Blade Runner 2049 were comparably immersive to much more expensive soundbars. For people who’ve never experienced Atmos at home before, this is the kind of audio that will make people understand the difference between Atmos and traditional surround audio.
Vizio is no slouch.
It’s not the total surround effect that I got from the Sonos Beam or my Sonos Arc. Effects that should sound like they come from above you aren’t at all convincing. But this is a definite step up compared to most budget soundbars.
Keep in mind, this is just about the actual Atmos effect on display here, or Vizio’s processing algorithms. While Vizio is doing an impressive job of creating Atmos effects, the quality of the audio experience as a whole is remarkably lacking. The audio capability of the hardware here ultimately leaves me unable to wholeheartedly recommend this system.
To start, bass here is extremely lacking to a concerning degree. I actually thought the subwoofer on my first review unit was broken. At high volumes, I’d hear it sputtering and struggling to output low-end. A replacement unit was in better condition, but the sub was still clearly straining to keep up with the rest of the system when cranked high.
Overall dynamic range was also pretty poor. In heavy action sequences, explosions, and other effects just didn’t have the impact I’d want to see. The lacking bass certainly wasn’t helping. I also struggled to discern dialogue in louder sequences. This is in spite of a dedicated center channel on the soundbar.
Just go bigger
The audio experience of the M-series is the biggest reason to pay up for a more premium system. Although it’s $120 more expensive, the Sonos Beam provides better overall audio quality by itself than the entire 5.1 M-series does.
Vizio has created a great case study in the need for great hardware to go with great software. This system has two major Achilles heels that prevent me from recommending it.
The first is the overall quality of the setup and the cheap wires needed for the surround speakers. It brings you right down to earth the instant you start setting the system up as you scratch your head figuring out not just the best place to put your surround speakers, but also how to best hide the unsightly chunk of wires.
This system has two major Achilles heels.
The second is bass. Whether it’s including a better subwoofer to begin with, or making it so the soundbar and rears can output good low-end from the jump, Vizio needs to do better on delivering low-end that actually improves the experience. I’m not asking for cinema-level bass, just something that won’t rattle if I want to turn the volume up.
Vizio has proven it can trick my ears into thinking I own a pretty decent surround system, now it needs to bring hardware to match.