Soundbars are now the goto place where you can make TV sound better than ever, and Sennheiser’s Ambeo isn’t just about better, but bigger overall.
Making your home entertainment experience better than ever isn’t just the job of a good TV, it’s also something great sound can help with. Great entertainment can get even greater when it’s matched with fantastic sound, making it critical to get it right.
There are plenty of options for either, but the moment you look at the improved quality in 4K Ultra HD, it’s well worth considering what sound is like when you jump to what constitutes ultra high definition in audio. For that, you start to look at 3D sound, a type of audio that goes beyond merely having sound surround you from the front to the back, but have it encompass you, too.
Three dimensional sound is more like a bubble of audio, providing audio up and over you, as well as front, left, right, and behind. It’s audio around you, and you can generally find the compatible soundtracks on Ultra HD Blu-ray titles and on 4K streams, whether they’re from a streaming service or iTunes on the Apple TV 4K.
To make these 3D sound streams work, you of course need the hardware, and there’s choice here, too, with amps, speakers, and even soundbars.
Sennheiser’s Ambeo falls into the last category, delivering a big soundbar designed to deliver a big sound in 3D audio, and it’s one you might just be surprised by, starting with its size.
Design and features
Quite possibly the largest soundbar you’ll ever see — definitely the biggest one we’ve seen — the Sennheiser Ambeo is something else. Even back when we previewed it at CES last year, it was something else.
As wide as a 55 inch TV, and actually a little wider, not to mention a height of 13cm tall, the Sennheiser Ambeo is a positively huge soundbar, with width and height to spare that will make a dent on what you can see for your TV if you lie it down in front.
That’s what many of us will opt for, because sound bars are traditionally set in front of a TV, sitting on the home entertainment unit and sending sound out.
The Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar can as well, but if your TV is close to the unit, the soundbar will encroach on the viewing space in a pretty obvious way. Despite this, the design comes across as somewhere between schmick and professional, and geared at folks who love audio.
Sennheiser has left fabric at the front and made the rest in metal, with obvious speaker imprints found along the front, while the top is a different grill.
There’s a good 13 speakers here, most aimed at the front, while two are aimed up, and they’re designed to work with a rather unique setup to help you get the most out of this soundbar. Making up the 13, you’ll find six 4 inch long-throw woofers and five 1-inch tweeters, with the two aiming up being 3.5-inch full-range drivers, the whole deal delivering a 5.1.4 3D surround effort, the 5.1 being surround and the extra .4 delivering that 3D push.
The whole thing weighs just shy of 20 kilograms, tipping the scales as one of the heaviest soundbars we’ve ever lifted at a weight of 18.5 kilograms. Yikes.
Once you get the Sennheiser Ambeo out of the box — a fun lift, to be sure — you’ll need to set it up. You can plug in HDMI cables or even go optical, but that’s not the complex side of its setup.
Instead, you need to take out the microphone and set that up, because that’s a thing.
As part of the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar installation, you need to unwind what appears to be a microphone cable, set it up roughly where you plan to sit, and let the Ambeo fire off test sounds to set up your sound accordingly.
That’s part of the process needed to create a profile for the Ambeo soundbar, which in a way not dissimilar from Sonos’ TruePlay concept allows the soundbar to adapt to your surroundings, measuring the room as it bounces soundwaves off your floor, walls, and ceiling, and working out how best to make your room sound three dimensional.
It doesn’t take long to do, but a few minutes of interesting sounds that might disturb a sleeping baby ever so slightly, you’ll find a sound mode called Ambeo that not only bounces sound around your room to create the 3D sound experience, but a way of upscaling the audio to make it happen.
Crazily, that microphone only really needs to be used once, coming with the Ambeo specifically for that setup process. It’s kind of a remarkable inclusion, because it doesn’t do anything else, and short of redecorating your home, changing the layout of your living room, or moving somewhere else, it will just sit in the box waiting to be used. Good thing microphones don’t have souls, because this one would be wondering about its existence.
However its existence is to make the Sennheiser Ambeo experience just that much bigger, informing the hardware what to do, when and where to bounce audio, measuring the sound and creating an impact.
So does it work?
If you’re after a big sound, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
Thanks to the power of 13 speakers working together firing sound up and out, the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar delivers a whollop of sound, impacting the room like no other.
There are actually two major modes worth pointing out here, with the Ambeo mode and everything else.
With Ambeo switched off, the soundbar is working in what you might consider a two dimensional sound mode. That is to say, the soundbar is providing stereo surround sound as best possible through 11 speakers, but isn’t creating the 3D effect.
This is the sound you’ll probably rely on for most things, because you don’t always need a sense of dimensionality. It’s a sound for TV shows with a wide scape of sound, for the news, and even for music when it doesn’t need to encompass you.
When you watch movies, you’re probably going for the full breadth that audio can deliver, and that’s where you’ll find two more speakers up top.
Switch on Ambeo mode, and aside for a glowing light proudly stating “Ambeo” that you can just as easily turn off, you’ll see those 11 speakers become 13, as two full-range drivers become useful at the top of the soundbar, firing up and around and delivering Dolby Atmos sound when you have support for it in the media, while also supporting other formats, including DTS-HD and DTS:X, as well as Dolby Digital and Dolby True HD, pretty much supporting everything else outside of Atmos you could want.
We want Dolby Atmos for 3D sound in this test, as it’s possibly the most widely used 3D sound format in movies, particularly the ones you can buy and download. If you own an Apple TV 4K, you’ll find Atmos supported across a variety of movies, and when it’s not, Sennheiser can simulate the range by virtualising the whole thing.
For our tests, it meant that Spiderman: Homecoming created a bubble of sound in our living room, and the sharp sounds of Spidey slinging his streams of web didn’t just come from behind, but from all around. In Rocketman, the stadium sung out all around us, and we realised quickly that perhaps we should have watched this in broad daylight when the little one wasn’t asleep and shouldn’t be shaken from slumbers upstairs.
You don’t even need an external subwoofer, the sound is that impressive. Handling the entire spectrum, the Sennheiser Ambeo packs in just that much of a punch that you may look at the box sitting on your floor and ponder its existence, alongside that single-use microphone. We haven’t been this impressed with a soundbar since the Sonos Playbar turned up, and we’re still using that.
Overall, we were able to create a sense of sound that was unlike anything we’ve seen from a soundbar prior, with a massive soundstage more like that of a cinema able to be found at home.
Regardless of the mode you choose — be it Ambeo’s 3D sound or not — you’ll find other modes available to you to define that profile further.
There are options for movies, music, sports, and neutral, and while the latter is pretty easy to understand, the music profile actually manages to feel like it’s bigger overall, though your mileage may vary. Ultimately, each profile will offer a slightly different approach, and depending on what you’re listening to, you can easily find the profile that best suits your needs easily enough.
Controlling this is a handy remote that is fairly well built, though there’s also an app you can download for your phone. That’ll make it easy to jump in the modes if you need to.
Even though Dolby Atmos can be found in quite a few soundbars, there aren’t many soundbars that have the build or design of Sennheiser’s massive Atmos soundbar. It’s just something else.
But it’s also a something else that comes with a price tag that is equally something else.
Specifically, it’s a $4,000 price tag, or one dollar shy of the fact. That’s to say to buy into the Ambeo’s crazy awesome design, you also need to spend more than any other soundbar costs, and possibly more than your latest TV cost you.
It’s not cheap, though given what’s inside and who made it, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Sennheiser isn’t necessarily known for being “cheap”, and the hardware supplied in the Ambeo isn’t something you really can expect for a low price point, either. Rather, it’s about as premium as it comes, though we’d definitely make sure you have the room for it.
What needs work?
There’s little doubt that the Sennheiser Ambeo is definitely something else and the priciest soundbar out there, it does have a few qualities that might give you pause, and it’s not just that eye-watering price.
One of them is that size, because it is a monster in your living room, affecting the home theatre viewing experience unless you decide to mount it or your TV to the wall. Do that and the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar makes so much more sense. Don’t, and the Ambeo will impede on your viewing experience significantly, its notable height stretching into the TV’s viewing area.
It might not necessarily be Sennheiser’s fault, mind you, though it’s one the company would be aware of. Almost every TV released these days uses a stand that keeps the screen closer to the ground, or even close to the home entertainment unit. Very little holds it up, though you can find stands to make it happen.
With a stand, the Sennheiser Ambeo won’t likely encroach on the space of the TV, and with a wall mount, that’s definitely the case. However if you don’t wall mount or don’t use a stand, you’ll find the bottom eighth to tenth of your TV blocked by the soundbar, something we found in our Sennheiser Ambeo review.
There are also a few bugs, with things that will likely be patched up with firmware down the track, such as infrequent disconnects. Tested with an Apple TV, we found every so often the Sennheiser Ambeo would disconnect and reconnect with the programs, silencing the sound before kicking it back in again.
Finally, there’s no AirPlay 2 support here, which is a bit of a shame given how impressive the soundbar is otherwise. You do get Chromecast support, so phones and tablets are thought of there, but no direct interface with AirPlay, and no microphones to talk to your soundbar using an assistant service directly. That last one isn’t so much of a concern, but AirPlay 2 support would have made sense on a soundbar this big a deal.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Now that 4K TVs are finally realising their potential with the easy availability of 4K content, it’s high time our home theatre sound was upgraded to match. It’s not that there was anything wrong with regular surround sound, but the dimensional nature of 3D sound makes it just so much more interesting, and more like the movies. Seriously, it’s more like going to the movies, something we might not be doing as much of lately.
Getting to that point at home isn’t always easy, and the road to building a 3D surround sound system at home can be expensive. If you take the high-end route, there are amps and speakers, while soundbars typically cater to a sort of “entry-level” approach to 3D sound.
Not the Sennheiser Ambeo, though. This thing delivers the biggest sound of any soundbar we’ve ever experienced, and an experience that essentially brings the cinema home. It’s crazy.
It’s also big and very expensive, so make sure you factor that in as to whether or not the single best solution for bringing 3D sound to your home is worth it, because it may end up seeing you wall mount both your TV and soundbar if only to avoid any viewing issues.
Overall, though, it’s a fantastic effort. The Sennheiser Ambeo is a really impressive soundbar that pushes the category in a big way. Highly recommended.