Throughout my esteemed career reviewing tech gadgets the past decade, I’ve never been given a soundbar to check out. If I asked for one I probably could have got one sent to me, but I just didn’t really care about soundbars – that was until Sennheiser decided to get in on the action with the AMBEO. As a fan of Sennheiser headphones and microphones, I figured it was worth dipping my toes into the soundbar scene with what Sennheiser is offering.
Sennheiser’s Ambeo has “13 high-end drivers” that “delivers a 5.1.4 sound experience” and is Dolby Atmos certified. It’s a beefy boy too, weighing almost 19kg and measuring close to 1.3m wide. You might need two people to unbox it! You can wallmount the Ambeo with an optional wall mounting bracket. Definitely need two people for that job!
Feature wise it’s got 3x 4K HDMI 2.0 inputs, HDMI 2.1 eARC output, every audio codec you could think of and 802.11ac wi-fi/Ethernet connectivity. Disappointingly the Ambeo does not support AirPlay 2 or Spotify Connect, just Bluetooth and Chromecast. Even with Bluetooth it only supports AAC or SBC codecs, not the superior aptX or LDAC. For iOS users, the only way to send music to the Ambeo wirelessly is either lossy AAC Bluetooth or via an app that has Chromecast support.
Setup and calibration is easy (a mic is included in the box for calibration) and I was up and running in just a few minutes. To get Sennheiser’s Android/iOS app going you need to first pair the device to the Ambeo over Bluetooth (also a piece of piss). Then the Sennheiser app can “find” it and tell you to install the Google Home app so the Ambeo becomes available for Chromecast stuff. Oh and it’s Chromecast audio only, not video.
The Ambeo’s remote feels sturdy in the hand and has rubber grips on the base so it won’t slide off any surface, but the button placement is poorly designed. It’s not as bad as the Apple TV remote (the height of remote control hubris), but countless times I held it the wrong way around or got the source and volume buttons mixed up. You may not actually need to use the remote much as it supports ARC so you should be able to use your TV’s remote to control volume and switch sources, but my ancient TV doesn’t support ARC very well.
There’s a smartphone app that can act as a quasi-remote, but it’s pretty useless. It takes ages to connect and loses connection randomly. However, if you want to adjust the EQ on any of the audio presets, the smartphone app is the only way to do it. It’s also the only way to apply software updates to the Ambeo, so you’re gonna want it installed on your smartphone despite it’s suckiness.
So cut the shit, how’s it sound mate? It sounds awesome – for a set of stereo speakers. I’ve listened to a lot of “all-in-one” speakers over the years that are geared towards music and the Ambeo is the best I’ve ever heard. It’s incredibly clear and crisp, with thumping bass. I’m listening to some music on it right now as I write this and thoroughly enjoy the audio. Well done Sennheiser.
Surround sound however, I was totally unimpressed with. My living room setup is just a cheap Onkyo TX-SR373 5.1 amp and some Accusound speakers & sub, but it gets the job done. When playing the Dolby Atmos demonstration Blu-Ray disc there was lots of swirling, zooming and flying audio, it was cool. Playing the same demo videos with the Ambeo connected was disappointing. There was a slight feeling of immersion, but it all took place far away from the rear or top of my head. All the action was happening where the soundbar was located.
I scratched my head wondering why there’s so little rear audio action. I calibrated it again, with the mic sitting at exactly in the middle of the speaker, about 3 meters away, at ear level where I sit on the couch. Still nothing. I double checked my output sources (Apple TV & Xiaomi Mi Box S) were actually giving out a 5.1 or 7.1 signal and according to the Sennheiser app they were. Perhaps it’s my living room setup, which is a very common open-plan style arrangement. So I took it in my study (4-walled room) and was still not feeling the immersive audio promised.
Other reviewers are full of praise about the Ambeo’s surround qualities. Digital Trends: “Effects like a fluttering bird circling my ears or a leaf floating around my head buzzed shockingly close from the sides and even back, while overhead effects like a tropical rainstorm were almost scary realistic” and Home Theater Review.com: “As the helicopter turns around, I could pinpoint the sound of the helicopter come from above and behind me as it flew back the way it came”.
I didn’t experience any of that. Sure, I could detect the sound moving around the speaker itself, but certainly not over my head of behind me. Either those reviewers are seriously embellishing or I’m a dumb deaf idiot.
Like I said at the start, I’ve never reviewed soundbars before so I don’t know if this is expected behaviour and I’m being too harsh or the Ambeo simply isn’t delivering, but either way, if I spent four grand on this beast expecting half decent surround sound, I’d returning it. It’s too expensive as a simple stereo soundbar and not good enough as a surround soundbar. There simply wasn’t enough action in the rear sound stage. Based on my experience with the Sennheiser Ambeo, I would strongly recommend anyone after a true surround sound experience think hard about using a soundbar at all.