Jun 02, 2023

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max Review: a Full Home Theater Experience

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When Sennheiser first unveiled the Ambeo Soundbar in 2019, it was nothing short of revelatory, offering unmatched virtual surround sound and immersive 3D audio from a single bar. In 2022, Sennheiser refreshed the device with a few quality-of-life improvements and rebranded it as the "Ambeo Soundbar Max."

The bar itself delivers the same overall experience it did nearly four years ago, but the latest release comes with some new features, including better software, more ways to play, and a much more stable app experience.

Though there are cheaper options with similar performance from Sony, Sonos, and even Sennheiser (with its smaller Ambeo Plus), the Ambeo Max is still the best soundbar in its class for delivering a mind-blowing cinematic experience without the hassle of extra speakers, a bunch of wires, or a subwoofer. But with a kingly cost that doubles even its priciest competitors, this is not an option for budget-minded buyers.

The Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max is a high-end audio device that's perfect for buyers who want a premium home theater experience but don't have the room for a multi-speaker system. It delivers incredible virtual surround sound performance with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support.

What works

What needs work

One of the biggest issues with the Ambeo Soundbar when it first launched in 2019, was its unstable software, especially the app, which would often fail to connect or properly communicate with the bar. With the new Ambeo OS and Sennheiser's updated Smart Control app for iOS and Android, the Ambeo Soundbar Max alleviates those issues with a simple setup experience.

The most difficult part of getting the Ambeo Max going now is the physical labor it entails; removing the 40-pound bar from its gargantuan box is no easy task. Standing 50 inches across and over five inches tall, you won't want to even consider this bar unless you've got your TV mounted. As big and brash as it is, the bar does look good on the mantle, with a brushed aluminum topside, a stylish digital display, and sparkling Sennheiser logos.

However, accessing the HDMI eARC/ARC port for connection to your TV is a delicate chore, as is connecting outboard components to its trio of spare HDMI inputs. It's also a shame that these ports don't support 4K/120Hz for gaming at high frame rates on the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. The ports do allow for 4K HDR passthrough, including Dolby Vision and HDR10+, which should suffice for all other needs.

Also available is an RCA analog input (something you'll rarely find these days), a digital optical port, and even a traditional subwoofer out, letting you connect any old subwoofer to the bar — again, a real rarity in today's market.

Once you're all connected, Sennheiser's industrial-sized microphone helps calibrate the sound like clockwork, flooding the room with ambient audio that feels almost magical from the get-go. Connecting over Wi-Fi via the Smart Control app is intuitive and speedy, as is updating the bar's software. During a week of testing, the app worked perfectly without a single flub.

When it was originally released, the Ambeo soundbar offered only basic audio streaming over Chromecast and Bluetooth, but the Ambeo Soundbar Max provides modern additions including AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect.

These additions complement the soundbar's smorgasbord of compatible audio formats, from Dolby Atmos and DTS:X to support for DSD, FLAC, ALAC, and even Sony's 360 Reality Audio. The latter inclusion means you can stream 3D music from Sony over Tidal and Amazon Music. This feature is still something of a rarity in 2023, but it's likely to become more prevalent as 3D music becomes increasingly available.

While the bar comes with a solid remote for quick settings, Sennheiser's app makes it easy to adjust sound modes like Movie, Sports, and Neutral, and you can customize each with a multi-band EQ. You can also easily turn on or off the virtual surround feature, which toggles a dimmable Ambeo LED on the bar's right corner. This feature is on by default and sounds great with most content, but it's nice to have the option to turn it off for stereo audio.

The app also makes it easy to see exactly what you're hearing thanks to a Codec dropdown. The bar's digital display gives you a flash when it receives an Atmos or DTS signal, but the Codec window lets you verify whether you're actually getting the proper signal.

Unfortunately, you can't manually control the Ambeo Soundbar Max's individual channels. This isn't a huge deal, but it'd be nice to have the ability to raise the center channel to emphasize dialogue. The bar does quite well with its auto-calibration, but we always appreciate more options.

You simply will not find a better virtual surround sound experience from a single bar than with the Ambeo Max, full stop. The only way to get more from your sound experience would be to to have actual surround speakers, and even when compared to soundbars that do so, the Ambeo Max holds its own.

Alongside five individually powered tweeters, the bar sports six four-inch drivers at the front and sides, and a pair of 3.5-inch upfiring drivers. That gives it a physical advantage over the smaller drivers used in virtually every other soundbar. Sure it's a beast on the shelf, but the extra size pays off.

Whether it be a surround sound film or a decked-out Dolby Atmos movie, the Ambeo Soundbar Max's 13 drivers fully submerge you in the action, bouncing sound off your walls and ceiling with thrilling accuracy to create up to a 5.1.4-channel experience. Bullets strafe by your head, subtle noises whisper at your ears, and every effect from spaceships to explosions is reproduced in a sphere of startling realism.

It's incredibly engaging to experience the system firing on all cylinders in the biggest action scenes from films like "Ant-Man" and "Blade Runner 2049." But one of the best things about the Ambeo experience is just how well the bar handles nuanced moments. You can almost reach out and touch the ethereal cloud of effects blooming around you, from chirping crickets to a bubbling stream.

The effect can seem so realistic, you may find yourself actually confusing the cinematic moments with real sounds around the house, like the steaming of a tea kettle or the whirring of a printer in the next room. Is it real, or is it Ambeo?

But as immersive as the Ambeo Soundbar Max is, it can't quite reach around the back of the listening position with the same clarity as true surround sound speakers found on the best home theater systems. Similarly, overhead sounds aren't as effective here as you'll find in options with more dedicated upfiring drivers, like Samsung's HW-Q990 or JBL's 1300X.

Still, Sennheiser's Ambeo system is a marvel to behold, even as offerings like Sony's HT-A7000 get closer than ever to its virtual sorcery.

Things come back down to earth a bit when you pull away from 3D audio sources. When it comes to stereo music or even general TV fare, you can beat the Ambeo Soundbar Max's definition and instrumental spacing with a nice pair of bookshelf or powered speakers for less money.

Even so, the Max continues to impress in day-to-day listening thanks to excellent tuning and great balance between its multiple drivers. One of the most notable ways the soundbar's large drivers show their mettle is in their excellent mid-bass.

While the bar can't get down into the very lowest sub-bass registers as well as a dedicated subwoofer, it still gets down to 30Hz, and the ride from the treble down beats the pants off most competitors. The word that keeps coming to mind is "tight." This is rigid, firm, and impactful bass that holds the foundation for the rest of the sound with impressive control.

Up above you're getting crystal clear instrumental separation, smooth details, and excellent definition of timbres. Horns are satiny and sweet, synths buzz with sawtooth goodness, and vocals are expressive and dynamic. Surprisingly, music sounds great whether you're using regular stereo playback or the more expansive Ambeo virtualization.

Speaking of which, it can be fun to play around with streaming 3D music from services like Tidal and Amazon Music Unlimited. We still find a lot of these 3D mixes odd and echoey, especially remixes of classics like Earth, Wind, and Fire's "September." But there are some fun tracks to explore, including newer pop songs like Miley Cyrus' "Flowers" and classical fare like Charlie Lawson's "To Hold the Stars in the Palm of Your Hand."

One of the more appealing features of newer soundbars, like Sony's HT-A7000 and the Sonos Arc, is that you can buy actual surround speakers to add later for improved performance. Sennheiser, however, offers no way to add satellite speakers, but it does provide more options for a subwoofer, letting you purchase Sennheiser's Ambeo Sub or add your own.

If you know you want surround speakers from the jump, of course, you'll probably be better off with a soundbar that bundles them into the package like Samsung's HW-Q990 or the Vizio Elevate soundbar. Really, the whole point of the Ambeo Soundbar Max is that it's an all-in-one package.

But if you're one for bet-hedging, other flagship bars provide true surround sound speaker options that the Ambeo Max doesn't.

HDMI eARC, three HDMI inputs, RCA Analog, Subwoofer output, and Optical

Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, MPEG-H, DSD, MP3, AAC/HE-AAC, LPCM, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, Vorbis, Dolby Atmos Music, Sony 360 Reality Audio

If you've got the money and you want the best virtual surround sound possible from a single bar, the Ambeo Soundbar Max is the one to buy. Even with little more than a digital facelift four years on, there isn't a better soundbar in this space when it comes to providing clear, detailed, and explosive 3D audio from a single unit. This bar can be your entire sound system, and it's shown the ability to adapt to new formats and features to stay on top even as the market has flourished around it.

And though still pricey, you can often find the Ambeo Soundbar Max on sale for around $2,000. If that's still too expensive, however, you can get similar performance from Sony's HT-A7000. While not quite as impressive, it also offers immersive sound, great musicality, and powerful low-end punch from a single bar. It's also a lot easier to fit into most living room setups.

But from a pure performance standpoint, Sennheiser's Ambeo Soundbar Max is still the king of virtual surround sound, offering every major feature, and even the ability to stream 3D music, all in a premium package. If money is no object, this is a great object to get.

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What works What needs work The Ambeo Soundbar Max is a hulk, but the new software offers hassle-free setup The updated features and formats provide plenty of ways to connect and listen The bar delivers unparalleled virtual surround sound and mind-bending Dolby Atmos Music and basic TV also sound excellent There's no way to add on surround speakers later Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max: Specs Should you buy the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max?