Sound bars have started to look all alike: there’s this bar with a set of speakers inside that connects to an audio output from a TV or Blu-ray player or cable box. And in some cases a wireless subwoofer unit is part of the mix. So right from the start VIZIO’s S4251w-B4 42″ 5.1 Home Theater Sound Bar stands out. And yeah, it sounds good too, in case you wondered.
The box holds more than just a sound bar — there’s also a fairly large front-firing subwoofer and two satellite speakers plus a whole mess of wiring. What are those little speakers for? Why to provide real 5.1 audio — none of that psycho-acoustic attempts at creating surround by trying to fool your ears.
I put the sound bar on the cabinet in front of the TV and moved it back/forth till it was almost even with the Sony 50-inch HDTV. The bar’s a bit thicker and heavier than most since there’s not only left, right and center channel speakers inside (2-3″ mid-range drivers, 1-3/4″ tweeter for left/right and 2-2/5 full range drivers for the center), but also the power supply. But the euro-styled shape and having a cloth front slims it down somewhat. I connected the power plug and went to find where to put the wireless subwoofer. I settled on the wall next to the couch facing the TV and plugged it in also. But before I turned it on, I plugged in the blue-coded RCA cable to its back and ran the wire to the left side of the couch where I had put the (blue labeled) satellite speaker. I plugged the free end of the RCA cable into the speaker’s back. I then did the same thing using the white-coded RCA cable and the other satellite speaker, which was placed to the right of the subwoofer. If the length provided isn’t enough, simply buy longer RCA cables. This simple approach made it easy for me to set up the sub/sats, especially since I was in temporary housing and so didn’t have access to speaker stands, nor could do anything that might cause some damage to the walls.
The subwoofer pairs with a press of a button, followed by doing the same to the control behind the left side of the sound bar until white LEDs on the front blinked a total of three times. The bar and sub were now connected, but more importantly, I would now be able to get surround sound since the satellites are “fed” by the sub. Of course this wouldn’t work if the VIZIO S4251w-B4 42″ 5.1 Home Theater Sound Bar couldn’t decode a Dolby Digital or DTS Digital Surround 5.1 digital audio signal (it can). But since most TV outputs aren’t multichannel, the Sony being one, I had to connect the optical cable directly from the sound bar to the Blu-ray player. That’s no big deal, especially as there’s another digital input on the sound bar (coaxial) along with analog inputs, should you need to connect something else.
There’s a set of controls hidden behind the left side of the sound bar, but most will find using the credit card-sized remote easier to use. It has expected stuff like volume and mute, input and BT pairing buttons and when it’s aimed at the sound bar, indications of what’s happening comes from small LEDs at the front left corner. But I didn’t need to memorize what those were (or put on my far-viewing glasses) because there’s a LCD panel on the remote that echoes what operation has been selected. Yeah, a remote that’s worth using. The LCD panel is tiny but the text is readable. And if you want to control the TV with it, just follow the directions in the short manual VIZIO provides.
So now I’m going to see just how much more enjoyable it is to watch a movie with REAL surround sound. I put in the Blu-ray disc of Lord of the Rings and charged ahead through chapter after chapter, pausing where I knew surround would rear its head. The two adjustments I had to make were for slightly decreasing the subwoofer’s volume and raising that of the subs — all this being done through the remote. But now I could enjoy not just the visual effects, but the whole spectrum of audio effects, including true surround sound.
For listening to music I put in a recently remastered CD of Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra-Columbia Symphony Orchestra performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.I was impressed by the midrange quality of the sound bar, especially considering how “brittle” the violins could sound in the upper ranges if there isn’t sufficient sound dampening in the bar’s chassis. The horn sections sounded quite good also — even when I drove the volume up to about 75%, although I wouldn’t go beyond that. The stereo effect from the sound bar was also quite good, even if I wasn’t dead center. Chalk that up to its size. I also tried listening to music through Bluetooth — the pairing procedure being similar to what we are all used to — and the quality was fine with pop music, especially if I turned the bass level down a bit so the voices could be more easily understood as I faced the sound bar.
Bottom line: VIZIO’s S4251w-B4 42″ 5.1 Home Theater Sound Bar is a well designed component for your home theater that provides excellent value as well as sound. It also goes where few sound bars have gone before: providing true surround sound that doesn’t rely on trickery to fool the ear.
5.1 audio output, USB port for playing music from external storage, Dolby TruVolume and DTS Circle Surround enhancement
Remote is not backlit, no dedicated subwoofer control
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.