If you fancy getting into Dolby Atmos but don’t want to cut holes in your ceiling or cocoon yourself in cables then Samsung’s HW-K950 could be the answer.
Like Yamaha’s rival YSP-5600, this Dolby Atmos-equipped soundbar features upward-firing speakers that bounce object-based effects off the ceiling. But whereas Yamaha’s effort generates surround channels using sound beam projection, Samsung is the first to include a pair of physical surround speakers with up-firing Atmos drivers. A wireless subwoofer completes the full 5.1.4 package.
Basically, you’re getting a full Atmos system in a single box, but that’s only part of the story. The HW-K950 also represents Samsung’s desire to build its credibility as an audio brand, having built all the drivers from scratch and spent countless hours voicing the product at its Audio Lab facility in California. Those efforts have really paid off.
Let’s not beat about the bush – the HW-K950 isn't the prettiest soundbar Samsung has ever conceived. It’s tastefully styled and robustly built, but it's unlikely to inspire "oohs" and "aahs" from your mates.
The 1,210mm-wide rectangular bar is covered in black aluminium grilles that conceal the front and top drivers. The only embellishments are two brush-effect end caps linked by an angled trim along the front edge. Build quality is suitably solid and substantial, but it’s missing an air of luxury.
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Jaw-dropping looks aren’t essential when it comes to soundbars – the more they blend in the better – but the HW-K950’s size is a more pressing issue. Measuring 81mm high by 131mm deep, it’s relatively bulky by soundbar standards, which could be a deal-breaker if space is tight (although it’s nowhere near as intrusive as Yamaha’s YSP-5600).
As a result, the soundbar blocked my TV’s remote sensor when placed in front of it. Thankfully, it’s a Samsung TV, so when connected via HDMI CEC I was able to control both components using the TV’s remote. You can also control the soundbar’s volume using your TV remote when connected via the optical and AUX inputs.
The soundbar can be mounted on the wall – Samsung helpfully supplies brackets, screws and a mounting template in the box. You can also wall-mount the surround speakers, but you have to source your own brackets.
On the front of the soundbar is a small OLED display panel that disappears when idle. It’s informative and easy to read, although those with OCD tendencies might be miffed by its off-centre placement. There’s a good reason for this – the soundbar is equipped with a dedicated centre speaker.
A row of buttons on the side allows for up-close control of volume, input and power. Underneath the bar are two recesses housing a healthy array of sockets. You get two HDMI inputs and one output, all able to pass through 4K/60p HDR video signals from Ultra HD Blu-ray players such as Samsung’s UBD-K8500. The output is ARC-enabled, offering a convenient single-cable connection to compatible TVs.
Elsewhere, you’ll find optical and 3.5mm mini-jack inputs. Given the price, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect a third HDMI port to accommodate a Sky box, Blu-ray deck and games console, but you can always connect them to your TV and pass audio to the soundbar via optical.
The wireless surround speakers are styled to match the soundbar with the same black grilles, brush-effect side panels and angled edge trims. At 210mm high, they’re nice and compact too, which means you can easily place them on sideboards or speaker stands. Their robust, weighty build quality can only mean good things for performance.
The subwoofer is a departure from the wide "Multi-Air Gap" model Samsung has been supplying with its soundbars of late. This one sports low-key black styling and a shape that’s easier to slide down the side of a sofa – although it's on the large side.
Never one to skimp on spec, Samsung has packed the HW-K950 with features. Naturally, Dolby Atmos is star of the show, delivered by 15 drivers within the soundbar and surround speakers.
Along the front of the soundbar are front-left, centre and front-right channels; each channel is served by two 2.5-inch drivers and a 30mm wide-range inverted dome tweeter. On top are two upward-firing 2.5-inch Atmos drivers. Each driver is powered by a dedicated 20W amplifier (total power output is rated at 500W).
The up-firing drivers are placed closer to the surface of the cabinet than other Atmos speakers and feature a special waveguide to maximise the overhead sound effects.
Samsung says its tweeters offer a wider and more uniform dispersion than traditional soundbars. To achieve this, Samsung has expanded the crossover range between the mid-range driver and tweeter in order to reduce the interference between them.
The surround speakers are equipped with two 2.5-inch drivers, one front-firing and one up-firing, which receive 35W each from the built-in amplifiers. The subwoofer boasts an 8-inch driver and a 160W amplifier.
Surround Sound Expansion Plus mode upmixes regular soundtracks to 5.1.4, which could breathe new life into your non-Atmos Blu-ray discs. Given the relatively small number of Atmos-encoded titles on the market this is a welcome feature, although it can be turned off if you’re not feeling it.
With built-in Wi-Fi, multiroom and Bluetooth, the HW-K950 boasts impeccable streaming credentials. Using Samsung’s smartphone app, you can stream music via Spotify, Deezer. 7digital, 8tracks, Murfie, Napster, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Juke and TuneIn radio.
Alternatively, you can stream music from PCs, NAS drives and phones via DLNA and send it to other Samsung multiroom speakers around the house. The system supports hi-res audio playback.
Built-in Bluetooth not only provides a quicker way of streaming music but also sends audio from a compatible Samsung TV to the soundbar.
There are six sound modes to play with: Standard, Music, Clear Voice, Sports, Movie and Night. I was quite happy to leave it in Standard for TV and movies, although Music is better for streaming. You can also adjust the bass, treble and lip-sync settings.
Despite the presence of Atmos, the HW-K950 isn’t difficult to set up. Once you’ve found the best place for the soundbar, you can adjust the volume of each channel to find your preferred balance using the remote and front-panel display.
The use of wireless connectivity for the surround-sound speakers and subwoofer makes them easy to place, although the need to plug each one into the mains limits your freedom. They pair with the soundbar automatically, but if the connection drops out you can reset them using the button on the back.
Achieving the optimum Atmos performance involves a bit of trial and error – you’ll need to move the surround speakers around so they hit the ceiling at the best angle for your listening position. The upward-firing drivers should be no lower than ear level and no higher than halfway up the wall.
The results are also affected by the height of your ceiling and the material it’s made from – ideally, it should be flat and made of drywall, plaster or hardwood. Samsung says the optimum ceiling height is between 2.7 and 3.6 metres (minimum 2.3m, maximum 4.3m).
The HW-K950’s swanky new remote boasts a simple, streamlined design. Its curved shape sinks snugly into the palm and the firm rubber keys are thoughtfully placed.
The best bit is a pair of silver switches that you flick up and down to control the main and subwoofer volumes. It’s a simple but effective touch.
If you want to include the HW-K950 in your multiroom system, setup is carried out through Samsung’s smartphone app. Once installed, simply select the Add Speaker option in the setup menu and follow the instructions.
Open it up and you’re greeted by a brightly coloured homepage. Everything you need can be accessed from here – tap the music source and a sidebar menu lists your music services and devices; tap the current track name to view the playback queue.
Among the playback controls and volume/track sliders at the bottom is an icon that lets you switch to a different speaker. A large jog-dial in the middle of the screen offers a cool, if superfluous, way of skipping tracks.
It’s mostly fun, slick and intuitive. The only problem I have is that it doesn’t like searching through the thousands of songs on my WD NAS drive.
As I scroll through my list of artists it buffers after every swipe, and takes forever to reach the bottom – that’s fine if you love ABBA or Adele, but ZZ Top fans can forget it. There is a search tool but it only works for songs stored locally on the phone, which isn’t helpful if you don’t keep music on it.
From a marketing perspective Dolby Atmos is undoubtedly this soundbar’s key feature, but in truth it only plays a small part in the HW-K950’s success. The real story here is its excellent sound quality across the board, be it stereo, 5.1 or 5.1.4 – the result of tireless tweaking by Samsung’s engineers.
It’s certainly paid off – this is easily the most sonically accomplished soundbar Samsung has produced. I’ve accused its previous models of sounding too brash and unrefined in the high frequencies (particularly at loud volumes), but Samsung has clearly addressed these issues. The HW-K950 delivers a smoother, more balanced sonic character, nudging it ever closer to the audiophile quality of brands such as B&W and Monitor Audio.
The HW-K950 fills the room with a big immersive soundstage that’s bursting with detail. Its warm, full-bodied sound remains cohesive and listenable even as the volume creeps higher. Effects have ample drive and detail, and there’s a surprising sense of composure when driven hard.
But of course, Atmos is the headline act and the HW-K950 does a fine job of bringing soundtracks to life, although Its effectiveness is somewhat dependent on ceiling height and proximity to the speakers. It works best on fairly low ceilings covered in flat, reflective material.
Starting with Atmos favourite Mad Max Fury Road, the whispering, echoing voices over the opening credits have a clear feeling of elevation. Similarly, when Immortan Joe addresses the crowd, the echoes of his voice hover above you and there’s a lofty hiss as water gushes from the pipes.
The effect is subtle most of the time – you get a vague sense that noises are circulating above the listening position – but when an object passes overhead, the inter-speaker movement is clear and precise. It isn't as well defined as in-ceiling speakers, but it’s an effective imitation.
Switch to the Atmos demo disc and the effect is more pronounced. Play the "Leaf" trailer and the swishing leaf appears to arch overhead amid a floating layer of chattering insects, while the hissing monsoon in the "Amaze" trailer will have you reaching for your brolly.
The up-firing drivers lack the fine detail and finesse I’ve heard from better-quality Atmos speaker separates, but overall their immersive qualities make you feel part of the action, rather than a mere bystander.
After trying out a few non-Atmos Blu-ray discs with Surround Sound Expansion Plus, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. It works best during scenes with obvious spatial or height cues, such as the part in The Hobbit where the dwarfs are trudging through the rain. The hissing downpour feels like it’s emanating from above the listening position, and spreads far and wide into the room. Meanwhile, Gandalf and Bilbo’s conversation remains audible and stays locked to the screen.
But as I said, Atmos effects are merely the icing on the cake of an otherwise top-drawer sonic performance. Mad Max’s brutal car chases are conveyed with sparkling clarity and precise placement, while the drum-heavy score slams hard without distortion. The presence of real surround speakers provides a genuine feeling of envelopment that virtual surround modes in regular soundbars simply can’t match.
If I have one criticism it’s bass performance. With such small drivers in the soundbar it’s down to the subwoofer to fill in the low-frequency gaps, but during action scenes it goes overboard with a boomy, overpowering performance.
It isn't a deal-breaker, but explosions are bloated and Tom Hardy’s voice is too thick and treacly. Tweaking the volume or moving it to different positions and floor surfaces showed slight improvements, but it never integrated as seamlessly as I’d like.
The Samsung does an fine job with music, but don’t expect neutrality. The subwoofer’s rich bass puts it on the warm side of the fence tonally, which won’t please fans of a leaner sound, but voices are full-bodied and there’s still plenty of detail in the mix. I recommend using the dedicated Music preset, which trims the bass and opens up the soundstage.
If you’re looking at the HW-K950’s price and thinking "that’s a lot for a soundbar" then you’d be right. Typical Samsung buyers will find it a bit of a stretch, while most audiophiles spending this sort of money would probably be tempted to seek out a separates system instead.
But before you put the credit card away, it’s worth remembering that this is no ordinary soundbar. With built-in Dolby Atmos, a wireless subwoofer and surround speakers, multiroom and Bluetooth on board, you really do get a lot for your money. It’s also cheaper and less intrusive than Yamaha’s rival YSP-5600.
In terms of performance, it’s the most accomplished soundbar Samsung has produced by a country mile. The care and expertise that Samsung’s engineers have poured into this system really shines through – the sound is polished, well-balanced, powerful and cohesive, giving high-end rivals a run for their money.
It does a great job with Atmos soundtracks too, creating a rich, immersive 3D soundstage with impressive orchestration of overhead effects – provided your ceiling height and room layout fit the bill.
But the real beauty of the HW-K950 is that it provides everything you need in one practical, convenient package. Setup is clean and clutter-free, with wireless speakers ensuring easy placement. You could try putting together a 5.1.4 separate system for the same money, but you’ll be lucky to get change from a grand for a nine-channel Atmos receiver and you’ll end up getting buried in boxes and cables.
So why doesn’t it get the full 10/10 treatment? Well, the subwoofer lets the side down a little, delivering bass that sounds too thick and overpowering. It stifles dialogue clarity and makes explosions sound bloated. Elsewhere, there are still a couple of niggles with the Multiroom App and it isn't the most visually exciting soundbar on the market either. But in all other respects, the HW-K950 is a killer proposition for anyone looking to immerse themselves in Atmos without the clutter or the hassle.
Samsung’s amazing Atmos soundbar system brings you immersive 3D sound while keeping clutter to a minimum, and delivers Samsung’s best-ever sound quality in the process. Only the overzealous subwoofer lets the side down – and budget buyers need not apply.