Samsung HW-N950 Review

Pros

  • Fantastic sound quality
  • Highly immersive performance
  • Genuine Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
  • Easy to set up
  • Well made and attractively designed

Cons

  • Basic audio calibration
  • Not cheap

Key Features

  • Review Price: £1499
  • 7.1.4ch system with wireless sub and rears
  • Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
  • Harman Kardon tuning
  • Dimensions: 122.6cm x 8.3cm x 13.6cm
  • 512W total power output
  • 3 x HDMI, 1 x optical, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

What is the Samsung HW-N950?

The Samsung HW-N950 is the company’s latest flagship soundbar, and forms part of its ‘Cinematic’ range. The new model offers both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support in a 7.1.4-channel configuration, and is the first Samsung product to be developed in conjunction with the recently acquired Harman Kardon.

Unlike most other soundbars, the HW-N950 uses a proper 7.1.4 speaker layout, with a wireless subwoofer, actual wireless rears with upward-firing drivers. As a result, it’s able to deliver a genuine immersive audio experience, without resorting to acoustic beams or applying psychoacoustic processing.

This new soundbar replaces the earlier Samsung HW-K950, and addresses certain limitations in that previous model. The N950 supports both immersive audio formats, adds additional width drivers, and improves the stability of the wireless rear speakers. It also supports Wide Colour Gamut and High Dynamic Range, including both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

The N950 isn’t cheap, but you’re getting a full 7.1.4 system – and you’d be hard-pushed to replicate the same experience using a 9-channel AV receiver and 5.1.4 speaker package for the same price. If you’re looking for an immersive audio system that’s easy to install, unobtrusive and effective, the N950 could be just the ticket.

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Samsung HW-N950 – Design

The Samsung HW-N950 doesn’t deviate from Samsung’s standard soundbar appearance, and you’d find it difficult to tell one of its higher-end models from another just by looking at them. It’s a fairly simple design, but it isn’t unattractive. More importantly, it’s pleasingly unobtrusive.

The main soundbar is well made, with a solid construction that uses metal grilles on the top, front and sides. It combines this with a brush-metal finish to the edges and rear. There’s only one choice of colour, which Samsung refers to as ‘Midnight Titan’ – the rest of us would call it ‘black’.

Samsung HW-N950

The N950 is designed for use with screen sizes of 55-inches and bigger, so the soundbar is fairly wide at 122.6cm. However, it’s only 8.3cm high, so it should fit in front of most TVs without blocking the screen. If that’s an issue, however, there’s a dedicated bracket for wall mounting.

The included wireless subwoofer is a bass-reflex design, with built-in amplification and a side-firing 8-inch driver. It uses an MDF construction and is designed to complement the main soundbar and rear speakers. It’s also very well made, and measures 20.4 x 40 x 41.6cm (WHD) and weighs in at 9.6kg.

Samsung HW-N950

The sub should pair automatically with the main unit. If it doesn’t, then there’s a button similar to the one on the wireless speakers that allows manual pairing, along with indicator LEDs. Although it’s wireless, you’ll need a power source, but placement is fairly flexible. In general, I’d recommend putting it towards the front of the room and slightly away from the wall.

The wireless rear speakers match the design aesthetic and build quality of the main soundbar, with metal grilles on the front and top, and a black brushed-metal finish. The built-in amplification powers forward-firing drivers for surround-left and -right, and upward-firing drivers for top-rear left and right. The speakers themselves measure 12 x 21 x 14.4cm (WHD) and weigh 2kg.

Samsung HW-N950

It’s worth noting that although the rear speakers are wireless, and thus don’t need to be physically connected to the soundbar at the front of the room, you’ll need to plug them in to power the built-in amplification. For this purpose there’s a two-pin power cable that connects into a groove on the underside of the speakers, thus keeping things tidy.

Since you don’t need long cable runs, just a power socket, positioning the speakers at the rear of the room is relatively easy. They can be placed on a shelf or stand, and there are screw fixings for wall mounting. At the rear you’ll find indicator LEDs that show when the speakers are in standby or paired with the soundbar, along with a button for manual pairing if necessary.

Samsung HW-N950

Like most of Samsung’s other soundbars, there’s a simple front-facing LED display over on the front far-right of the main unit. The display lights up when you use the remote, providing feedback on the volume, inputs and various settings.

The only actual controls on the soundbar itself are at the top-centre, where you’ll find a few basic touch-sensitive buttons for power, input selection and volume.

Samsung HW-N950

The included remote control is well made, ergonomically designed, and follows the same minimalist aesthetic as the soundbar. It has a central navigation and play/pause control, along with a button for setting treble, bass, audio sync, and the levels of the various speakers. There’s also a source select button, a Bluetooth pairing button, the sound mode, volume up and down, mute and a control for setting the subwoofer level.

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Samsung HW-N950 – Features and connectivity

The headline feature of the Samsung HW-N950 is obviously support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. While it isn’t the only soundbar to decode both immersive audio formats, it’s the only one to do so using a genuine 7.1.4 speaker configuration. The N950 uses actual speakers rather than sound beams, psychoacoustics or virtual processing to deliver the experience.

The ambition of the N950 is evident in its speaker layout, with a 7.1.4 system that utilises no fewer than 12 speakers built around a total of 17 drivers. The front three channels are composed of three drivers each, using two woofers and a wide-range tweeter. All the other channels each use a single driver.

Samsung HW-N950

There’s individual amplification for each driver, with 512W in total, and although Samsung doesn’t actually specify how this amplification is allocated, I suspect a lot of it is used in the subwoofer. The system as a whole has a claimed frequency response that goes from 34Hz to 17kHz, with the subwoofer doing the hard work when it comes to the lower frequencies.

The N950 is the first soundbar to be co-developed between Samsung Audio Labs and Harman Kardon. The latter’s main priority was to ensure that it met the expectations of audio-savvy listeners by delivering a sound that’s immersive, open and dynamic, but keeps dialogue clear and focused.

Samsung Audio Labs was responsible for the audio codecs, thus ensuring the N950 didn’t have the same limitation as the K950. That earlier model was originally limited to two-channel DTS, although that was extended to 5.1-channel later. However, the K950 never supported DTS:X, which was seen as a major weakness in a soundbar designed to deliver immersive audio.

Samsung HW-N950

In terms of other new features, the N950 adds side-firing drivers to widen the front soundstage and create a 7.1.4 speaker configuration. It also includes the second generation of Samsung’s wide-range tweeter, which now delivers an improved lower frequency response. Samsung has also enhanced the wireless coverage of the N950, improving the rear speaker connection.

The HW-N950 offers a choice of sound modes that use digital signal processing (DSP) to enhance the listening experience. The Standard mode simply decodes the audio format as it is, while the Surround-Sound Expansion mode upmixes the audio to use all the available speakers. Finally, the Smart mode analyses the incoming signal, and selects the best available processing.

In terms of file support, the N950 can handle a number of lossy and lossless audio formats including AAC, WAV, OGG, ALAC, AIFF and FLAC, with high-resolution support up to 32-bit. Samsung has included UHQ 32-bit upscaling for the highest quality audio playback, although whether you can take advantage of it will depend on your smart device.

Samsung HW-N950

One other new feature is the inclusion of Amazon Alexa voice control, which you can set up via skills in the Alexa app. All you need to do is enable Samsung Wireless Audio and then, under Smart Home, select devices and discover the N950. This will enable the 3PDA skills and allow you interact with your soundbar using Alexa voice control.

In terms of wireless connections, the N950 includes built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, allowing you to stream music from your home network or via third-party services. The Bluetooth connection can be paired by just pressing the pairing button on the remote control, while the Wi-Fi connection is simply set up using Samsung’s SmartThings app.

Samsung HW-N950

All the physical connections are located in a single recessed area under the soundbar, where you’ll find two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output. The latter supports ARC (Audio Return Channel), while all the HDMI ports support 4K Ultra HD/60p, 4:4:4, Rec.2020, High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision), 3D and HDCP 2.2. Considering its price, it would be have been nice to see a couple more HDMI inputs included, because you can easily have more than two lossless audio sources these days.

Although the primary physical connection will probably be HDMI, the N950 also includes an optical digital input as an alternative. The only other connections are a USB port for service updates, and a connector for the two-pin power cable. There’s also a button for Wi-Fi setup, and one for pairing the wireless surround speakers and subwoofer if necessary.

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Samsung HW-N950 – Setup and operation

When it comes to setting up the Samsung HW-N950, the simplicity of the system becomes immediately apparent. An immersive audio system built using an AV receiver and a speaker package might sound better, but the N950 is certainly easier to set up and less intrusive.

All you need to do is place the soundbar under the TV, locate the subwoofer towards the front of the room – ideally, not in a corner – and put the rear speakers behind the main listening position. That’s it really, although it’s probably worth pointing out that for best results with upward-firing drivers your ceiling needs to be flat, low and reflective.

Samsung HW-N950

After that it’s just a question of setting the levels for all the speakers, which you can do using an SPL (sound pressure level) meter. If you don’t have one then there are plenty of free SPL apps that use the built-in microphone on your smart device. Just make sure that the rear speakers are equidistant from the sweet spot, because the level control adjusts both simultaneously.

If I had one complaint about the N950, it would be that the setup is probably a bit too simple. It would be great if Samsung provided some kind of automated room equalisation system. Other soundbar manufacturers often include a dedicated microphone or a set-up app for just such a purpose.

Samsung HW-N950

Once the N950 is set up, all you need to do is connect the various sources. If you have a Blu-ray player or games console that can deliver lossless audio, I’d recommend connecting them directly to the soundbar using HDMI. Other sources can be connected to your TV, and the audio sent to the N950 via ARC. If your TV supports Atmos using Dolby Digital Plus via Netflix and Amazon, you can also send that back to the Samsung using ARC.

In terms of operation there’s little to do, aside from choose the source, select an appropriate sound mode, set the volume, and possibly adjust the level of the wireless sub if necessary. There are a number of control options available to you, including the remote (which is included), your TV controller, the SmartThings app or even Amazon Alexa.

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Samsung HW-N950 – Performance

The Samsung HW-N950 got my attention from the moment I started using it. I’ve heard plenty of soundbars over the years, some of which have been genuinely impressive when it comes to 2-channel audio. I’ve also heard some great soundbars when it comes to surround sound and even immersive audio, but I’ve never heard one that can genuinely compete with a AV receiver and speaker package.

Let’s put it this way: if I were planning on adding Atmos and DTS:X to my lounge, I’d just get the N950. It does everything I need and is easy and discreet to install. It also sounds superb, whether you’re listening to music, catching up on your favourite TV show, or watching a movie.

Samsung HW-N950

The main appeal of the Samsung might be its support for object-based audio using a proper 7.1.4 setup, but the reality is that, most of the time, we’ll be listening to regular 2-channel and 5.1/7.1 mixes. So it’s important that the N950 can deliver in this area. Thankfully, it did, with impressive performance overall.

Watching TV programmes such as the news, documentaries or shows such as The Great British Menu, showed that the N950 was able to deliver clear and focused dialogue, while also delivering the music and other effects with a lovely sense of clarity and stereo separation. The soundbar retained details in the sound mix, placing effects across the front of the soundstage.

Samsung HW-N950

The influence of Harman Kardon was immediately apparent, with the N950 producing pleasing musicality when it came to TV and movie scores. This also means the N950 is a great performer at streaming music, and although most people will buy this soundbar with film soundtracks in mind, it’s comforting to know that it can hold its own with 2-channel audio as well.

As soon as I moved on to more complex 5.1 and 7.1 mixes, the Samsung had a chance to really shine. What’s particularly noticeable is how balanced the overall system is, retaining a lovely tonal cohesion that really aids the steering of effects. The use of identical drivers in most of the speakers certainly helps, and the N950 seamlessly reproduced Gravity’s highly directional soundtrack.

Samsung HW-N950

The soundbar can upmix non-object-based audio, in order to take advantage of all the additional speakers. While the upmixer does work, creating a wider-front soundstage and a more immersive experience, I found that I preferred to hear 2-channel, 5.1, and 7.1 soundtracks as they were conceived and mixed, saving the full 7.1.4 experience for genuine immersive audio tracks.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that where the N950 really impresses is with these immersive audio soundtracks. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road in Dolby Atmos, the Samsung grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and never let go. Sound emanated from all around me, the sub delivered deep rumbling bass, and dialogue remained clearly focused on the screen.

Samsung HW-N950

However, it isn’t all about explosions and crashing cars. A subtle soundtrack such as A Quiet Place revealed great precision in the placement of atmospheric effects, as well as excellent use of the overhead channels in certain scenes. The system has enough horse power under the hood to go loud when needed, thus rendering the huge dynamic range in A Quiet Place with frightening realism.

I do like a bit of car action, though, so when I tested the soundbar’s performance with DTS:X, it was back in the driver’s seat for Fast & Furious 8. Once again, the placement and steering of effects was truly impressive, totally immersing you in the action. The addition of side-firing drivers gave the front soundstage extra width, which really helped reveal an epic breadth to the sound mix that complimented the over-the-top visuals.

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Why buy the Samsung HW-N950?

The Samsung HW-N950 is the obvious choice for anyone who wants an immersive 7.1.4 system, combined with the convenience of a soundbar package. The inclusion of a wireless subwoofer and rear speakers, plus front and back upward-firing drivers, means you’re getting a genuine Dolby Atmos and DTS:X experience.

On top of that, you have a nicely designed and extremely well-made soundbar, along with an extensive selection of connections and features. A couple more HDMI inputs and a proper audio calibration system would have been welcome – but, otherwise, it’s hard to fault the N950. Samsung is on to a winner with a soundbar that currently exists in a class of its own.

You could build a similar system using separates – such as a 9-channel AV receiver and a 5.1.4 speaker package – and the results would probably sound better. However, such an approach would be more complicated, more intrusive, and more expensive, making the Samsung HW-N950 the cheaper and easier immersive audio solution.

Verdict

This superb 7.1.4 soundbar package delivers an excellent Dolby Atmos and DTS:X performance, combined with a comprehensive set of features. No other soundbar can approach this level of immersion. Despite being expensive, you’d struggle to build a separates system for less.

Score


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