Sennheiser Ambeo 3D Soundbar Hands-on: The most impressive prototype you might see all year

Key Features

  • Genuinely immersive 3D audio
  • Dolby Atmos and MPEG H compatible
  • Pronounced bass response

Sennheiser Ambeo 3D Soundbar hands-on

Sennheiser’s Ambeo 3D soundbar could be the most immersive one-box TV audio system we’ve ever seen. The company demonstrated an acoustic prototype at CES 2018, and we were blown away by its ability to create a fully immersive soundstage, without the need for a subwoofer or separate rear speakers.

We’ve heard immersive soundbars before, of course. Samsung, LG and Sony all have models compatible with Dolby Atmos – but what we have here is a rather different beast.

Sennheiser has been refining its Ambeo audio technology for a number of years, but until recently it’s been restricted to commercial projects rather than consumer devices. Visitors to the Pink Floyd exhibition, ‘Their Mortal Remains’, would have heard a 360-degree remix of ‘Comfortably Numb’ at the show. That live track was painstakingly mixed into Ambeo 3D at Abbey Road for 25 gig-worthy loudspeakers.

Sennheiser’s native Ambeo 3D technology is rather different from Dolby Atmos. It can support three levels of height, and in a mixing environment allows unprecedented image placement.

What this soundbar does is take other codecs and audio formats, and delivers them in an Ambeo 3D wrapper.

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Sennheiser Ambeo 3D soundbar

Sennheiser Ambeo 3D – Design

This debut Ambeo soundbar uses 13 drivers: six 101mm woofers, five tweeters and two up-firing height cones. Since this was a prototype, there was no grille or fancy finish. The soundbar has seemingly been ripped direct from Sennheiser’s R&D lab. Clearly, the engineers behind the project wanted to have as many people hear it as soon as possible, without waiting for any cosmetic dressings.

Given that the cabinetry doesn’t exist yet, there’s no final news on connectivity. However, there will be HDMI 2.0 onboard and most likely other soundbar regulars such as optical digital audio, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi/Ethernet networking. Whether it will support Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa is yet unknown.

The soundbar was demonstrated by Sennheiser in a small, square listening room; the choice of content carefully chosen. The room itself was key, since the Ambeo soundbar uses sonic reflections to construct its soundstage. In this way, it’s similar to Yamaha’s YSP technology.

The distance of walls and ceiling are critical to the performance of Ambeo 3D. Consequently, the system will ship with a room-calibration microphone and onboard software. The mic needs to be placed at the listening position, much as you’d do when setting up an AV receiver. Then, using measured room characteristics, the soundbar optimises its output for the listening position and space.

Sennheiser Ambeo 3D soundbar

Sennheiser Ambeo 3D – Performance

The first Ambeo 3D audio playback system was launched three years ago; it required 10 speakers and a bank loan. This soundbar is a good deal more user-friendly. Sennheiser believes it’s close to replicating that original performance with this one-box solution  – and the company may well be right.

The soundstage has genuine heft, with a pronounced but not overly processed bass response. There was no wireless subwoofer attached, and I was told there was no need for one. Indeed, Sennheiser says this is the first soundbar able to reach down to 30Hz. When the bar finally comes to mark there will be a provision to add a sub, if that’s what you really want. (At least, that’s the plan.)

The sense of overhead audio imaging is pronounced. I was sitting square on and could clearly isolate audio effects, both across the front soundstage and (seemingly) high to my rear and above my head. Sennheiser says it creates a virtual 5.1.4 soundstage, the first time a solitary soundbar has made such a claim.

Sennheiser Ambeo 3D soundbar

In addition to Dolby Atmos, the soundbar is compatible with emerging immersive audio codec MPEG H. No, we’ve not heard of it either, but one day you might want it. More familiar 5.1 and stereo formats can be height-scaled by the Ambeo 3D processor. Essentially, whatever your source, you’ll get an Ambeo 3D listening experience.

For my CES demo, Sennheiser played music from a live performance by Imogen Heap, and ran familiar Dolby Atmos trailer material. This was handy, since it provided a good sense of reference. Having auditioned a number of Dolby Atmos-centric soundbars that don’t really create an immersive soundstage, it was quite a revelation to be so enveloped. I really felt as if rear speakers were at work here.

If you’re on the look out for a one-box audio solution that can recreate the magic of immersive audio, then Sennheiser might well have the soundbar you’ve been waiting for. Of course, this is a preview based on the first acoustic prototype, but there’s still enough here to get genuinely excited about. I don’t know about price, but take a look at the high-end of Dolby Atmos soundbars and… it probably won’t be cheap. Availability has yet to be announced, although a 2018 launch is on the cards.

Related: Best soundbars and soundbases

First impressions

Ambeo 3D could be one of the most exciting soundbar technologies to hit the market. It genuinely creates a sense of immersion, a classic attribute of Dolby Atmos, from a single box.

We can’t say if the soundbar is inherently musical, or has the requisite visceral slam that makes for a great movie-viewing experience; it’s just too early to make those kind of pronouncements. But Sennheiser has a solid reputation when it comes to audio quality, so there’s every reason to remain optimistic. Stay tuned for further developments.

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