This Soundbar Isn’t the One I Covet, but It’s the One I Deserve

Illustration for article titled This Soundbar Isnt the One I Covet, but Its the One I Deserve

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

We’re all guilty of lusting over top-of-the-line gadgets despite the fact that a cheaper one will usually do. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Vizio M-Series 5.1 M51a-H6 soundbar. It’s a good, solid option that supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X for a not-so-ridiculous price. Still, it’s hard to feel hype about it.

Part of this is because this is meant to be an affordable, middle-of-the-road alternative to the sleek, higher-end soundbars out there. It’s hard to get pumped about “good” when “great” is out there. Another reason is even expensive Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbar systems also don’t always live up to their own promise, let alone cheaper alternatives. In many cases, soundbar-centric home theater systems are the pits at simulating height. It leaves you with a decent, but imperfect effect. The M51a-H6, depending on how you configure the two satellite speakers, has the same problem. It’s not bad. You might cluck your tongue, shrug your shoulders, and get on with your day.

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The first two words that come to mind as I think about the M51a-H6 are competent and convenient. As a 5.1 system, you get a soundbar, a subwoofer, and two satellite speakers that can go on either side of the soundbar or sit behind you as rear speakers. The soundbar itself is low-profile, and rather nondescript looking with a dark gray matte body, fabric grille, and physical controls up top. Inside, Vizio says it’s got 9 speakers, with separate tweeters and woofers. It measures 36 by 2.2 by 3.5 inches (WHD), making it a good option if you have stubby TV legs or a smaller console. The satellite speakers look like mini soundbars, laying flat instead of standing up vertically. The 6-inch wireless subwoofer is also shorter than most I’ve tested, but depending on your space this could be a good thing. As with most soundbars, you also get a remote. It’s incredibly fine. If you’ve used one remote, you’ve used them all. It is mildly annoying to add yet another single-use battery-powered accessory, but it does give you a more convenient way to toggle through specific pre-set sound settings.

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In the back, the M51a-H6 has an HDMI input and output (eArc/Arc compatible), an optical input, a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack, and a USB port for updates. It also supports Bluetooth—so it can double as a speaker for your phone—and you can use it to amplify Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa devices that might not sound too hot on their own. Unlike some other Vizio soundbars, you don’t get the option of using SmartCast, a Vizio app that lets you control home theater gadgets from your phone. This might be a bummer, but personally, I was fine with the omission—I find that app to be a bit finicky.

Setup was blessedly simple. You plug the appropriate HDMI cords where they’re meant to go and bada bing, bada boom, you have a working soundbar. There are no pairing shenanigans you have to contend with either. All you do is plug it into the power source, and press the power button. The only thing that requires much thought is how you might want to configure the satellite speakers. In my space, I was able to place them behind me to my left and right, with the subwoofer off to the side of my couch in a “traditional” 5.1 setup. But if you don’t have that capability, you could alternatively have all the speakers in a front-facing configuration. That said, this isn’t ideal for true surround sound. The connecting cables for the satellite speakers are sufficiently long and color-coded, but depending on your layout, you might want to invest in some cable ties to prevent yourself from tripping. (I’m not kidding, those cables are very long.) You can wall-mount the M51a-H6, but I can’t say how easy that process is as I didn’t do that myself.

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Illustration for article titled This Soundbar Isnt the One I Covet, but Its the One I Deserve

Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

So far, this is all standard soundbar stuff! Nothing flashy or gimmicky here, which is actually a blessing when it comes to Dolby Atmos soundbar marketing. But convenience isn’t the only reason why you’d buy a particular soundbar. At the end of the day, you want a much better audio experience than your TV’s crappy native speakers.

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As far as regular 5.1 surround sound goes, the M15a-H6 is pretty good. I watched all of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy and season 1 of Amazon’s The Boys and everything sounded peachy. Cars zoomed in the right directions and explosions boomed—though they weren’t quite as rumbly as systems I’ve tested with larger subwoofers. I have a hard time hearing dialogue sometimes, but that wasn’t much of a problem. And even at louder volumes, there wasn’t any noticeable distortion. So I was sort of surprised when I tested how the soundbar handled music.

The M15a-H6 had a pretty neutral sound profile with the Music EQ setting—not too bass-heavy, not too muddy on the mids, etc. Again, it wasn’t as thumpy as some other soundbar systems I’ve tested but you wouldn’t expect that from a smaller subwoofer. The trouble came when I put on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” to test treble. The treble itself was fine! Stevie’s vocals were crisp if a bit hollow. What was weird was I heard a subtle popping noise. I didn’t have the volume at max, so that was a little concerning. I switched to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License,” a more bass-heavy song, and I heard the faintest pops there too. Just to be sure I wasn’t hearing things, I asked my husband if he heard any popping, and lo, it wasn’t just me. Bafflingly, the popping disappeared on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a song I use to test how soundbars handle dynamic shifts in volume. There was no crackling or distortion, but it also didn’t do that song justice either. All in all, the M51a-H6 would be fine for casual house parties, though I wouldn’t crank it up too loud.

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Small boy subwoofer! It’s so teeny!

Small boy subwoofer! It’s so teeny!
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

For Dolby Atmos content, I watched several scenes from The Mandalorian, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Disney+ with the Movie EQ setting. The sound was pretty good, there was a mildly tinny, hollow quality to it. I admit it’s not that noticeable unless you’ve heard a really great soundbar and happen to have a few others on hand for comparisons. The Sony HT-G700 is another Dolby Atmos soundbar on the more affordable end, and it handled regular dialogue and music without that hollowness. But unless you’re a serious audiophile, it doesn’t majorly detract from the content you’re watching.

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As for spatial sound, you get a good sense of depth and lateral space. You can clearly hear which direction spaceships are nyooming and where the explosions are occurring. Again, explosions didn’t rumble quite as much as I’d have liked, but it sounds better than single soundbar solutions like the Sonos Arc or the Panasonic SoundSlayer. During Kylo Ren and Rey’s Force Skype sessions in The Last Jedi, it did a decent job of recreating that echo-y sound effect and signaling where a certain character’s voice was projecting from. It just wasn’t as crisp or well-done as Vizio’s higher-end soundbar system, the Vizio Elevate.

Where it struggled was in simulating height. This isn’t a problem limited to the M51a-H6. Like the Sony HT-G700, this soundbar doesn’t have any upward-firing speakers. The only reason I felt any degree of height is the way I configured my setup, the satellite speakers sit above ear level. But I only heard spaceships flying overhead when they were swooping from the front to the rear. If the sound didn’t play on the rear speakers, I simply didn’t get a sense of anything happening above me. If you were to use a front-facing configuration, I doubt you’d get any sense of height at all.

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The overall sound quality is fine—not great, but also pretty decent considering this soundbar has a suggested retail price of $350. (It’s currently listed as $250 on Vizio’s website, and you might also be able to find it for even cheaper at Costco.) And compared to the SoundSlayer, which retails for $300, this is a much, much, much better investment provided you have the space.

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Look. I am a cheapskate. I dug the $1,000 Vizio Elevate’s rotating speakers and sound, but I would have a hard time forking over that kind of moolah when my TV cost just $600. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels sort of silly to skimp on your TV and then go ham on your home entertainment system. Compared to the $500 Roku 5.1 Surround Sound System and the $600 Sony HT-G700, the M51a-H6 holds its own, and for a couple hundred less. You don’t really have the ability to add on additional speakers, in case you ever wanted to expand your setup, but for under $350? Eh, it’s really hard to beat that kind of value.

To be honest, if I were making a wishlist for someone else to buy me a 5.1 soundbar system with Dolby Atmos, this probably wouldn’t be my No. 1 pick. I’d probably choose something more expensive, with upward-firing speakers. If I were paying with my own money? I’d be plenty happy with this soundbar.

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README

  • An inexpensive 5.1 Dolby Atmos compatible system that doesn’t sound like total crap
  • This is a no-fuss system; easy to set up and should fit nicely in smaller spaces
  • It’s not going to outperform some higher-end speakers, but you get good sound quality for the price
  • You’re not going to get the best Atmos experience, because there are no height channels
  • It really is hard to beat the price, and it can be found discounted further at Costcos and Sam’s Clubs

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