Wherever you stand on the great curved TV debate, one thing’s for sure – their sound quality is just as ropey as flat TVs'. So if you’ve invested in a curved screen, chances are you’ll need a new sound system to go with it. A soundbar is the obvious candidate, but a straight one might look odd in front of your curved set.
That’s where the HW-J8500 comes in. Samsung’s flagship soundbar is designed to complement the company’s large-screen curved LED TVs with an arched shape that fits snugly within the contours of the screen, whether it’s placed on a TV stand or hanging below the screen on the wall. It tops a four-strong range that also includes the HW-J7500, HW-J6500 and HW-J6000.
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The HW-J8500 looks elegant in both its silver and black incarnations. Our sample’s brushed-black aluminium top panel juxtaposes nicely with the slim grey speaker mesh sandwiched in the middle. The silver version is the more eye-catching of the two in our opinion, but the choice will no doubt be driven by the colour of your TV.
Although it lacks the luxurious materials used by the likes of Paradigm or B&W, the cabinet build is reassuringly robust and rigid, while the aluminium finish elevates it above your average budget soundbar. Rubber pads on the bottom help quell detrimental vibrations.
The buttons on top are so low-key you barely notice them – they include volume, input selection and power. An LED display shines through the front mesh giving clear information about the selected input and sound levels – much easier to decipher than the blinking lights used by many other soundbars. It disappears after a few seconds, which keeps the front panel nice and clean.
If you're a bit OCD you might be disturbed by the off-centre LED display, but there’s a good reason for that – Samsung has added a centre speaker in the middle of the bar, which means the display has moved slightly to the left.
The HW-J8500 is designed to accompany Samsung's curved TVs up to 78in and is therefore bigger than your average soundbar. If you’re placing it on top of a TV stand you’ll need plenty of free space in front of your set, although obviously the soundbar’s curved shape nestles neatly within the curve of the TV.
Alternatively if your curved TV is mounted on the wall you can use the supplied L bracket to attach it to the bottom of the set, which looks very cool indeed.
The sockets are found in a recess on the back with a hole that allows the cables through when laid on a flat surface. The line-up isn’t as generous as we expected for a flagship soundbar – you only get one HDMI input for example (alongside an ARC-compatible output) which isn’t helpful if you have two or three external devices to connect. But given that several pricier high-end soundbars offer none at all, any HDMI inputs are welcome.
They’re joined by optical digital and 3.5mm minijack inputs, plus a USB port for music playback from flash drives and a LAN port that lets you integrate the soundbar into a multiroom setup – although most people will use the built-in Wi-Fi connection.
For Wi-Fi setup you’ll find a WPS button, while the Speaker Add button on the back comes into play for multiroom setup. Staying with the wireless theme, the bar also boasts Bluetooth and TV SoundConnect, which transmits sound from a compatible Samsung TV to the soundbar.
The wireless subwoofer has been revamped for 2015. The new Multi Air Gap (MAG) design is shallower than the previous incarnation, which makes it slightly easier to accommodate although it might not be to everyone’s taste. It’s still a well-made unit though, with a suitably robust enclosure. If you prefer, you can attach feet and lay the unit on its back.
The HW-J8500 is positively bursting with features. For starters it’s a 9.1-channel system with dedicated amps for each speaker and subwoofer that amount to 350W of power. This includes the addition of a centre speaker to deliver sound right across the bar, plus outward-facing drivers at both ends to increase the width of the soundstage.
What’s more, it uses active crossovers for each driver, which can direct frequencies to the correct speaker with greater accuracy and clarity than passive crossovers. Meanwhile Samsung says the new Multi-Air Gap subwoofer delivers deeper bass (2.5dB higher) than a conventional subwoofer.
The HW-J8500 also plays high-resolution audio up to 96kHz/24-bit, and when playing lower-quality compressed formats High Frequency Audio Restoration technology aims to replace the audio data lost in the compression process. There’s no HD audio decoding though, just Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 2.0.
Multiroom audio is another of the HW-J8500’s main attractions, as it allows you to beam music to other rooms in the house or use other Samsung wireless speakers (like the M3 and M5) to create a surround-sound system.
As expected there are lots of sound presets to choose from (six in total), alongside Surround Sound Expansion and Clear Voice, which minimises background noise to enhance dialogue clarity.
The HW-J8500 is very easy to use thanks largely to the front LED display, which shows you any changes you make quickly and clearly.
The remote is also a cut above most soundbar remotes. The handset is small but not overly so, sitting comfortably in the palm. Excellent labelling means you won’t have any trouble finding the right button – in fact, most of them are shaped into the icons of their respective functions.
A cluster of keys at the bottom makes it easy to tweak the sound to suit your taste. Hit ‘Sound Effect’ and it toggles through the six audio presets, and another button turns surround sound on and off.
‘Sound Control’ brings up the bass and treble settings, and you can use the track skip keys to select a level between -3 and +3. The Woofer key lets you set the subwoofer level and the Streaming Music button is your passport to multiroom audio.
The inclusion of a WPS button makes Wi-Fi setup quick and easy. We couldn’t test the multiroom performance, but from experience it’s a simple procedure. Subwoofer pairing happens automatically.
Samsung’s soundbars have had their ups and downs in terms of performance, but we’re happy to report that the HW-J8500 is one of the best sounding models the company has produced. Its sound is full bodied and exciting, with plenty of detail and rich bass.
Whether you’re watching movies, TV shows or listening to music, the HW-J8500 delivers the material with greater clarity and composure than Samsung’s previous soundbars. The use of active crossovers allows for more accurate distribution of different frequencies to the correct drivers and you can hear it in the clean and well-organised sound.
The addition of the extra centre speaker pays dividends in terms of dialogue clarity and imaging, offering an balanced and focused output right across the bar. It fills in the ‘hole’ you sometimes get when the drivers are far apart. The addition of a centre speaker also does an effective job of making voices seem like they’re coming from the screen.
We’re also impressed by the wide spread of sound from the side-firing drivers. Their output is primarily treble-focused, which helps evoke a feeling of width and space, but it’s not unnatural or over-processed.
We wouldn’t say it replicates surround sound – despite the best efforts of Surround Sound Expansion there’s no evidence of effects enveloping you – and it’s hard to distinguish the discrete audio channels in a Dolby Digital soundtrack. What you do get, though, is a big, expansive soundstage across the front of the room with your TV screen at the centre. We toggled through the various presets but found the Standard mode provided the best EQ balance no matter what we listened to.
The tone is crisp and dynamic too, drawing out excitement in action-packed Blu-rays like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. When the Hobbits find themselves in the midst of a three-way Stone Giants battle, the boulders collide into each other with a sharp crack, the booming explosions sound menacing and rain lashes down purposefully. Impressively, the soundbar reproduces these scenes at reasonably loud volumes without making the effects sound harsh – cracks only begin to appear at the top end of the volume range when a bit of colouration creeps in.
The sense of scale and excitement is boosted by the subwoofer, which delivers deep and powerful bass into the room. We found it a little overpowering in the default ‘0’ setting but after reducing it by a couple of notches it settled down into an energetic, gutsy performance. As the trolls stomp around in the forest, their bassy footsteps lend an impressive sense of depth and solidity, with booming and overhang kept to a minimum.
Our only criticism is the lack of light and shade in its performance – whenever there’s any low-frequency information, particularly during busy action scenes, it gives off a vague rumble where there should be more agility and detail. It’s not a deal-breaker, but we have heard more expressive soundbar subwoofers.
Switch to TV material and the HW-J8500 is right at home. Dialogue sounds remarkably clear and full-bodied, while TV theme tunes sound richer and weightier than they ever do through TV speakers. We also streamed some music from Spotify via Bluetooth and the Samsung produces a well-balanced sound with sparkling high frequencies and punchy bass notes, while vocals are given a lift by the extra centre speaker. Soundbars rarely cut the mustard as serious music systems, but the HW-J8500’s smooth performance might just surprise a few people.
If you’ve bought a large curved TV and want to rectify its lacklustre sound quality then the HW-J8500 is a no-brainer. At first glance it seems expensive, but we think the features, design and sound quality are good enough to justify the price – and don’t forget that it’s designed to accompany huge curved TVs costing up to £6k, which puts it into some sort of context.
Design wise it suits Samsung’s sets down to the ground with its curved shape and elegant brushed aluminium bodywork, while features are plentiful and it’s easy to operate.
But the best part is its impressive performance, which improves on previous Samsung soundbars. Its nine-speaker arrangement, including an all-new centre driver, results in a spacious sound with excellent dialogue clarity and a dynamic tone, while the new subwoofer’s MAG system fills the room with bass – although it lacks the agility and nuance to trump the best subs.
The single HDMI input is disappointing for the money, but in all other respects the HW-J8500 ranks among the best soundbars Samsung has produced.
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Bass performance isn’t perfect and the single HDMI is disappointing, but Samsung’s new curved soundbar delivers some of the company’s best sound quality to date and backs it up with a tasty feature list, easy operation and an elegant design