What is the very best soundbar of the moment? Champion Samsung is again making a bid for that title this year with the HW-Q950T. This successor to the HW-Q90R goes one step further – although it only shows its full potential in combination with a high-end Samsung television.
One of the best high-end sound bars of last year? The Samsung HW-Q90R. One of the better for that? The HW-K950. It is in that list that the brand new HW-Q950T belongs, because this is the new audio flagship from Samsung. The price tag of 1,500 euros may have already revealed it, but we are talking about a very special soundbar from the highest class. It is one of the few on the market that can truly offer 9.1.4. Or in other words: an overcomplete Dolby Atmos experience, including height channels at the front and rear. This is possible because the soundbar is packed with speakers (20 pieces), comes with a wireless subwoofer and comes with two wireless speakers that you place at the back of the room. “Okay, we’ve seen that before”, you might think. The difference is that these additional devices are double speakers. As with its predecessors, the rear speakers contain a speaker for the surround channel and a speaker for a height channel. That is quite unique.
A big novelty with the HW-Q950T is especially interesting for people who have invested in a high-end Samsung TV: Q-Symphony. As if the twenty speakers of the HW-Q950T were not enough, you can let the TV speakers play along with the soundbar with certain Samsung televisions.
For those who are wondering where the difference is with last year’s HW-Q90R, which is now also attractively priced in the shops: the new Samsung soundbar is really a different model, with a different design and with 9.1.4. The previous Samsung topper offered 7.1.4.
Strong in standards
In terms of connectivity, you can find the HW-Q950T with few shortcomings. Naturally, it is eARC compatible, which we require in 2020 and which enables the playback of uncompressed surround with height channels. Even if that audio track comes from a source (such as a console) that is connected to the TV itself, provided the TV itself supports eARC.
The 65Q950TS television that Samsung supplied with the HW-Q950T soundbar for this test comes with a separate One Connect box to connect all external devices. A thin cable runs out of the box to bring power and the video signal to the TV set. Because you no longer have to fumble behind the TV to plug in HDMI cables, such a box is really very handy, especially if you want to keep all cables out of sight and you want a sleek-looking installation. The chance is therefore small that you still want to connect HDMI sources to the soundbar, the One Connect box is more convenient. But not everyone has such a high-end TV or even a Samsung device. In that case, the two extra HDMI inputs on the HW-Q950T are really practical. It’s true that rivals like the Sonos Arc are all going for just one HDMI port, but we still like to see a few extra inputs on top models. If you connect a video source to this, you can count on 4K and HDR support. Since this is a Samsung, we are not surprised to see HDR10 + also appear in the list of supported HDR standards.
Speaking of formats, against the prevailing trend, the Q950T supports DTS: X in addition to Dolby Atmos (and the lower Dolby formats) and its predecessors. We see a strong focus on Dolby in both TVs and sound bars, while DTS is left to the left. This may have to do with the strong following that Atmos has with publishers of Ultra HD Blu-ray, streaming services and games, but there is still DTS content in the world. Even with recent releases, but also a lot of Blu-rays from the past, eg. A pat on the back for Samsung in this one. We should note that recent Samsung TVs have dropped DTS support for media that you play over the network or from a USB stick. If you connect a Blu-ray player to your TV, there is no problem, but if you want to watch ‘backups’ of films, you will not get any sound with video files with DTS. The solution to this niche problem: play your files via an external player.
Own streaming approach
When it comes to streaming, Samsung continues to follow its course: no Chromecast and no Airplay, but Bluetooth and Spotify Connect. There is no longer an app with streaming options, as there was in the past at Samsung. The company has opted for a few years now to centralize all operation of almost all products in the SmartThings app. In itself useful that everything happens in one place, but that app does not offer many options per connected device.
In terms of streaming, the offer seems limited, but Samsung may have the tendency (like most TV manufacturers) to think in its own ecosystem. If you hang the HW-Q950T on a recent Samsung TV, you can stream music via Airplay – via that TV. You will also find various apps from streaming services on the television. The same is also true if you connect this soundbar to a recent TV set from another brand; Sony and Philips offer Chromecast thanks to Android TV, LG also has Airplay on board. If you still want to listen to music without switching on your television (and you don’t want to work via Spotify or Bluetooth), then you will have to connect an external streamer to the optical or auxiliary input.
Despite all the extras, the HW-Q950T remains an easy to set up device. The speakers and the subwoofer should automatically connect to each other, which was effectively the case with us. The subwoofer is of medium size, an upright rectangle that is best placed in the front of the room.
You are supposed to give the wireless speakers a permanent place. This makes the Samsung slightly different from some of its rivals, such as the JBL Bar 9.1 . That JBL also comes with speakers for the rear, but they are models with built-in batteries that you can click onto the soundbar if you don’t need them. The Samsung speakers each need a power outlet. That is also different from some rivals, such as certain LGs that only have one plug and work with a cable that runs from rear speaker to rear speaker.
The soundbar itself looks different from previous Samsungs. The long rectangle shape with a low profile but a greater depth is familiar. Those extra, upward-facing speakers simply have to be placed somewhere. Due to its modest height of just under 7 cm, you can place it in front of most televisions. With the QE65Q950TS that we received from Samsung, it was no problem at all.
The HW-Q950T gets a slightly more unusual appearance because the corners are cut off at the front and a speaker grille shows, while the rest of the soundbar is covered with a black fabric. Anyone who closely follows the AV world will not be surprised that the textiles are supplied by Kvadrat, the Danish upholstery fabric manufacturer that supplies more and more audio manufacturers. “If only we had taken shares in those guys”, we think. Other brands that embrace Kvadrat, such as Bang & Olufsen, Harman Kardon and Dali, tend to choose a more Scandinavian-looking fabric, slightly gray interlaced with threads in a different shade. Samsung just goes for a classic black, which makes the soundbar less of a hip design statement. But maybe that also makes it more timeless.
Overall, the HW-Q950T is not a garish presence in your room. Of course it remains a more robust soundbar and you have those extra speakers that you have to place somewhere, but it depends on your interior whether this is really a challenge. Incidentally, a bracket for wall mounting is included and there is a screw thread on the back of the rear speakers. So you might be able to hang them on the wall behind your sofa. Please note: in our opinion, the rear speakers work best if you do not place them right next to your sofa, but more obliquely behind it. Basically in the same place where you would place surround speakers.
Four sound modes
Samsung does manage to undermine a big plus of its high-end soundbars this year with a minus. There are more Dolby Atmos soundbars with separate rear speakers, but what Samsung always did fine was a separate volume control per channel. For example, you could turn those rears a bit louder if they were a bit further away or screw up the volume of the height channels if your ceiling was higher. Every room is different. That adjustment is still possible, a good thing. Less is that you can only do this via the remote with feedback via the screen of the soundbar. Unfortunately, it has been moved from the front to the top of the HW-Q950T, so you have to hang above the soundbar to adjust. Not handy, because adjusting the channels is best done from your seat. It’s not a huge disaster but it would be more practical if you could also adjust it via the SmartThings app. We asked Samsung if that will be possible, and will add their feedback. We must not forget that we started here with a brand new product.
You won’t find an insane amount of settings with this soundbar. Via the remote – a typical well-thought-out curved Samsung box – you can quickly and effectively control things such as the volume and the woofer level. There is also a button ‘Sound Mode’. Press to switch between four modes: Standard, Surround, Gamer and Adaptive. It is important to know that Standard is the most realistic. If you receive 5.1, the soundbar will play 5.1. If stereo is supplied, you will hear stereo (the rear speakers will not work, for example). In the other three modes, all audio is brought to 9.1.4 (and therefore all speakers), with the exception of original Dolby Atmos and DTS: X soundtracks. They remain unchanged. You will then see ‘NOT’ appear on the display of the soundbar.
We find that you have the choice to bring stereo or 5.1 to a full 9.1.4 experience. The Sonos Arc, for example, cannot do this, making the experience with the Sonos considerably less impressive with video without an Atmos trace. It is true that the Surround mode and sometimes the Adaptive mode of the Samsung can sound a bit artificial, especially with music. When we listened to the live video of Gorecki’s Third Symphony, performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki but especially with the lament of Portishead icon Beth Gibbons, in Standard mode we were quite impressed. In Surround mode it did indeed become more enveloping, but the strings that echoed along the rear speakers almost turned into synthesizers. Of course it depends on what you are listening to, but in general we find the HW-Q950T as a music reproducer just the strongest in stereo. In Adaptive mode we also experienced sudden volume jumps, for example when the opening credits of ‘Big Bang Theory’ started playing after a first scene.
Close to a surround set
The HW-Q950T is an expensive soundbar. This high price is partly explained by the presence of the extra speakers that you place at the back. But they are also really worth their money. Thanks to the additional speakers, the Samsung soundbar can create an enveloping soundscape that an ordinary device (without rear speakers) cannot match. But also compared to other sound bars that are equipped with rear speakers, the HW-Q950T stands out above ground level. We are not surprised, because the previous Samsung soundbars already performed at the highest level. By the way, unless stated otherwise, we have tested without Q-Symphony below. After all, this feature is limited to a few newer Samsung TVs, and we think the target audience of this product is somewhat larger than that.
The added value of the Samsung soundbar with its extra speakers was evident in the grim and impressive ‘Joker’ (Dolby Atmos via the Apple TV app on the Samsung TV). The ominous atmosphere in this film, supported by a gloomy soundtrack, is immediately conveyed well. At times it is really impressive, and not necessarily with the big action scenes. If at some point in a nightclub Joaquin Phoenix takes a chance as a stand-up comedian, for example, and walks down the hallways towards the stage after his preparation, we hear the sound of the audience and the previous act moving across the room in function of how the Joker-to-be walks. There is not suddenly a big change in sound when a sound effect moves to the rear speakers. This homogeneous sound field is what we expect from a discrete surround setup, but not immediately from a soundbar. With the JBL Bar 9.1, the rear speakers were a bit less powerful than the speakers in the soundbar, for example. The clapping also really sounds like it takes place in a large room, an effect that is even more amplified when you can use Q-Symphony.
The ability to properly fill the room – provided you place the rear speakers properly – is also evident when going through the official Atmos demos from Dolby. At ‘Santeria’ the jungle sounds are all around us, creating a thick, convincing atmosphere. The ‘Amaze’ demo also transmits the Samsung brilliantly: the clattering rain is realistic, the thunders … er, thundered through the room, and the beating of the birds’ wings sound convincing. ‘Audiosphere’ is an excellent demonstration of the separate channels, with a ball dancing around in a circle and high-pitched triangle-like sounds. The moving sound effects are well positioned, the height channels in the front also come off the soundbar well. At the moment, those front channels are a bit predominant. It can be solved with the separate volume control, but again: it would be nice if you could do that easily from your chair. When we replayed Audiosphere with Q-Symphony turned on, the height channels were even better defined and higher in the room. That was really a remarkable difference.
When going through the demos and watching a number of films, we do get the impression that the HW-Q950T performs best in a larger room. Due to the gigantic 8K TV that Samsung included that had to be placed in front of our wall-mounted LG, the soundbar is a little closer to us than usual during tests. The rear speakers are also more likely to be next to the sofa than a little behind it. Both of these things mean that the HW-Q950T does not necessarily perform poorly, but we are convinced that in a slightly larger room with a greater distance between sofa and soundbar and with the rears half a meter behind the seat, the result would be even better.
Both when it comes to spectacle films such as ‘Old Guard’ (Dolby Atmos, via Netflix) and ‘Hobbs and Shaw’ (Dolby Atmos, Ultra HD Blu-ray) as well as more subtle works, the HW-Q950T delivers a very convincing experience. It is worth adjusting the volume levels of the channels according to your situation. In Hobs and Shaw, for example, the music in the soundtrack came in quite violently through the rear speakers. We had to lower that a bit to bring it all back into balance.
In short, we think that with the HW-Q950T, Samsung now comes very close to a surround setup with discrete speakers. But not quite yet, and that simply has to do with the limitations of a soundbar and the accompanying sub. The big helicopter scene in ‘Kong: Skull Island’ to the tones of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabath is excellently presented in many ways. It is compelling and in soundbar terms it is only inferior to the Ambeo Bar (2,500 euros). The Samsung subwoofer really performs at a very high level, but as an experienced expert of discrete surround setups, we do miss the definition and tightness that a high-end sub can deliver. Well, nobody is waiting for it, but with a top soundbar like this we often think: “It’s a pity that you don’t have the option to add your own subwoofer. “We bet that if we replaced the supplied sub with, say, the Monitor Audio Silver W12 that we have in the test room, the overall experience would be spectacular. We can of course make this consideration – we have to be honest – with any soundbar.
Let’s immediately talk about the HW-Q950T’s biggest flaw: its price. The price tag of 1,500 euros is significant. Surprisingly, it still does not make the Samsung soundbar the most expensive on the market, because you have Bang & Olufsen and Sennheiser for that. For that amount, however, you do get a complete package that comes very close to a discrete surround setup with an AV receiver that costs the same or slightly more.
The HW-Q950T is not a revolutionary product, but that is because its predecessors already performed at a very high level. The big change from last year’s HW-Q90R is the Q-Symphony collaboration with the speakers on certain high-end Samsung TVs.
Without a doubt, the HW-Q950T is a true flagship offering one of the best surround sound experiences you can get from a soundbar. The wide support for Dolby Atmos and DTS: X, the two extra HDMI inputs and – especially – the rear speakers that also display height channels make this soundbar an absolute winner in the segment. There are a few small things here and there that could be better, but nothing that is a deal breaker or stands in the way of a high score.