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Home Tech News Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus is a sonic marvel with compromises

Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus is a sonic marvel with compromises

It’s a luxury purchase through and through, but Sennheiser’s new soundbar carries forward many of the original Ambeo’s strengths. Unfortunately, it also suffers from short-sighted missteps.

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Fundamentally, a $1,500 soundbar is always targeted at a niche audience. You only spend that much on a single piece of home theater kit if you want very good sound but can’t be bothered (or don’t have the space) to build out a full-on surround system with dedicated front, rear, and center speakers. The funny thing is, while Sennheiser’s $1,499.95 Ambeo Soundbar Plus would strike many as an extravagant purchase, this is actually the cheaper option of the company’s two soundbars. The Ambeo Soundbar Max, originally released in 2019, is still the flagship — and still has an eye-popping price of $2,499.95.

In terms of pumping out captivating, immersive Dolby Atmos audio, the Max (which was renamed upon the introduction of the Plus bar) still ranks as perhaps the best standalone soundbar on the market today. Its 13-driver array outclasses much of the competition from Sonos, Samsung, Sony, and others — and does so without the help of a separate subwoofer. Vergecast lead producer Liam James says the Ambeo is among the best living room purchases he’s ever made, though he admits it’s “throwing money at a problem” to come up with the best-performing sound solution for a New York City apartment. 

With the Plus, Sennheiser set out to make a smaller, sleeker, less expensive soundbar that still showcases the company’s knack for creating spacious sound through advanced 3D audio processing. It supports Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, plus a range of wireless audio add-ons, including AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Spotify Connect, and standard Bluetooth playback. So it’s stuffed to the gills with software compatibility, which is exactly what I’d hope for, considering the price. The Plus still costs a ton of money, but at least there’s other competition in the same ballpark; you can’t say that about the Max.

Pulling back on the price required Sennheiser to exercise some restraint with the number of drivers it could cram into this soundbar. The Ambeo Soundbar Plus includes seven full-range speakers that work in conjunction with dual 4-inch subwoofers. That’s obviously not as excessive as the Max, but combined with virtualized phantom speakers, the company says this configuration is able to deliver a 7.1.4 surround experience from a single unit. It also resulted in a product that’s more practical and less colossal. For reference, the Max weighs over 40 pounds (!) and is so large that it basically requires your TV to be wall-mounted. 

But the Plus sat in front of my Hisense U8H without obstructing my view of anything at the bottom of the screen. It actually measures shorter in length than the Sonos Arc. And at 13.86 pounds, it was less of a chore to unbox and position on my media stand. The Plus isn’t nearly as imposing as the Max. It’s got a stylish design that blends a hard plastic top (with capacitive controls) and fabric wrapping around the front and sides. The whole thing exudes quality and feels beyond sturdy. On the front of the soundbar are two small LEDs: one lights up with “Ambeo” whenever the 3D audio mode is engaged. The other displays Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, or MPEG-H if any of those codecs are in use.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

Reminder: On desktop, you can once again click on our photos to enlarge them.

Sennheiser includes a remote control that lets you toggle on the proprietary Ambeo 3D audio processing, switch between presets (movie, music, adaptive, etc.), activate night mode (which cuts down on deep bass) or enhanced dialog mode, and so on. It’s easy enough to use, though bizarrely, the remote lacks a traditional mute button. I don’t know how you forget that on a soundbar remote. Instead, there’s a confusing multi-function “o” button that juggles both mute and Amazon Alexa (if you’ve enabled voice commands).

Sennheiser also curbed the Ambeo Soundbar Plus’ long-term potential with one unfortunate hardware decision: while the device supports HDMI passthrough and has two inputs for this purpose, those passthrough ports are only HDMI 2.0a — so the Plus can’t handle 4K 120Hz gaming, VRR, and other features that are considered musts for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 owners. It can send through HDR formats perfectly fine, but I still consider this a brutal compromise for such a premium product. It’s enough of a negative that I hope Sennheiser refreshes the Soundbar Plus within the next year or two with full HDMI 2.1 passthrough. Right now, you’ll need to keep your gaming consoles plugged directly into the TV. But many TVs only have two HDMI ports capable of 4K 120Hz, and one of them often doubles as eARC, which you’d be occupying with the soundbar. We’re too far into the HDMI 2.1 era to excuse Sennheiser for missing the boat — especially when competitors are getting this right. 

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

If you can live with the Ambeo Soundbar Plus being hamstrung in the passthrough department, it’s a standout performer in nearly every other way. The audio it produces is wonderfully clear and rich. You’d expect top-notch sound for the money, but you’d be surprised how many upper-tier soundbars can still have a whiff of artificialness in their tone. 

But I’ll say right off the bat that I wish Sennheiser would offer dedicated rear speakers for its soundbars. As it stands now, all you can add to the Ambeo is the company’s $700 wireless subwoofer. (You can also wire third-party subs to the soundbar directly via an RCA socket, providing more flexibility than you’d get from a Sonos system.) 

As it stands, Sennheiser simply doesn’t offer rear surrounds, so while the Ambeo Soundbar Plus did a great job at blanketing my room with spatial audio, it felt more like a 180-degree presentation instead of putting me in a bubble of immersion. The height effects were noticeable with Atmos content that strongly utilized them, but I was never tricked into thinking anything was happening behind me. This is an area where competing, multi-speaker systems objectively win out.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

After plugging in the Ambeo Soundbar Plus, you’ll want to install Sennheiser’s Smart Control app on your iOS or Android device to complete setup, adjust settings, and run the sound optimization test. That process takes a couple minutes, and the test tones involved can get fairly loud. I don’t advise running it in the middle of the night. Once you’re done, the soundbar will have a better understanding of your room and can adjust its spatial output accordingly.

A screenshot of Sennheiser’s Smart Control app for iPhone.

A screenshot of Sennheiser’s Smart Control app for iPhone.

More frequently than not, I activated the “Ambeo” feature when watching both movies and TV. It works no matter what content you’re playing, and the purpose is to increase the surround effect for a wider sound field and grander scale — or create a spacious mix for stereo content. Sennheiser has put a lot of time and effort into its 3D processing, and it shows: Ambeo mostly avoids the unpleasant, reverb-y “arena” effect that’s so common when devices virtualize surround audio. You can certainly hear some of that if you crank Ambeo to the “boost” setting in Sennheiser’s app, but the normal level was the right balance in my room. Still, there were times when I preferred to leave it disengaged when watching native Atmos content: voices can cut through cleaner without the added processing. 

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus and related accessories.

Music is where Ambeo’s spatialization tricks can be hit-or-miss, and I largely kept it off unless I was playing Atmos mixes on Apple Music. (And even then, as we’ve often mentioned, Atmos mixes are often worse than stereo.) But music sounds full and like music, which isn’t always true of soundbars that prioritize visual entertainment. Vocal response and mids are excellent on the Sennheiser, and there’s no sterility or tinniness to the sound.

By using Sennheiser’s soundbar and the affiliated Smart Control app, you’re agreeing to:

  • Sennheiser Smart Control privacy policy
  • Sennheiser’s Smart Control license agreement

There’s an optional permission setting for sharing usage data/crash analytics. The final tally is two mandatory agreements and one you can ignore.

I tested the Ambeo Soundbar Plus both with and without Sennheiser’s wireless sub. By its lonesome, the soundbar is still plenty capable: it’s working with 400 watts of amplification power, after all. If you’ve got a small-sized apartment, that might be the appropriate stopping point. I watched Dune and Black Adam on HBO Max, and the Soundbar Plus presented both films with captivating, cinematic Atmos sound that genuinely felt like it was surrounding me — except from behind, as I noted earlier. Everything about The Last of Us has been crisp, from dialogue to the beautiful underlying music score. Perhaps the biggest highlight so far was streaming All Quiet On The Western Front from Netflix. War movies always make for good demo fodder, and this was no exception: the chaos on the battlefield whirred all around me and seemed to defy the soundbar’s physical size. 

You can customize any of the soundbar’s presets to your liking with a graphic EQ. If you want to boost the center channel to bring voices even more forward in the mix, you can. Adding the Sennheiser Sub into the equation introduces a whole new layer of low-end force. It links to the soundbar wirelessly, and Sennheiser calibrates the sound profile between both devices to divide frequencies for the best performance. The Sennheiser app gives you full control over the sub’s power, so if you’re anxious about neighbor complaints, at least that’s an option.

Night mode also does the job and slices away all reproduction of growling bass, but I’d only consider it for late-night viewing. It has a way of robbing the Ambeo Plus of too much punch. AirPlay 2, Google Chromecast (for audio), and Bluetooth all worked as expected. And though I rarely bother with voice controls from my gear, setting up Alexa and testing several commands went smoothly. Sennheiser’s Smart Control app is quite good, and I like that you’re always able to check how many channels the soundbar is receiving from whatever content is playing.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus on a TV stand.

A photo of Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus on a TV stand.

As you’ve probably concluded, I think Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar Plus is a terrific product in terms of pure sonic performance. But there’s no getting around what a substantial investment it is. If you opt for a Sonos Arc, you’ll save substantial money and get multi-room audio integration that the Ambeo simply just can’t match. Meanwhile, something like Samsung’s Q990B Atmos soundbar will give you a superior surround experience since it comes with rear satellite speakers. Sennheiser would really do well to bring its own rear surrounds to market. 

For now, the Ambeo Soundbar Plus offers many of the same positives as the original Max. You’re getting a level of clarity and tonality that many soundbars don’t begin to approach. I suspect that the Max, with its extra drivers and monstrous size, still outranks the Plus at producing spacious audio — especially in larger rooms. But for a single unit in the right environment, the Plus, at times, sounds like a marvel.

I badly wish Sennheiser had gone the distance and future-proofed this $1,500 soundbar with HDMI 2.1 passthrough. If you’re not concerned with that and have an entire garbage bag worth of disposable cash, the Plus fulfills its promise of being a one-stop shop for very good home theater sound. It’s a total luxury buy, but a good one.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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