Samsung HW-F850 Review

Samsung has been setting their sound bars apart from the competition by the inclusion of vacuum tubes. Praised by many audiophiles and derided by others, vacuum tubes introduce a distinct flavor to sound compared to transistors. That sound is often labeled as “warmer” as tubes by design introduce a bit of distortion. This distortion can also make audio sound more pleasing to the ears as it makes harsh, compressed audio tracks sound better.

Beyond this the HW-F850 has more features to set it apart including a n 8” subwoofer and automatic room correction. The unique design of the Samsung HW-F850 allows it to be placed flat on a table or wall mounted. The sound from the Samsung HW-F850 is loud and clear, but the surround modes are not very effective. It is a far better sounding solution than any TV and has unique features to help set it apart.

Distinct Features

Specs
Manufacturer: Samsung
Model: HW-F850
Outputs: HDMI with Audio Return Channel
Inputs: 1x HDMI, 1x 3.5mm Analog, 1x Optical, 1x USB
Subwoofer: Yes
Bluetooth: Yes
Airplay: No
Review Date: December 23, 2013
Price: Out of stock
Company Website

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The HW-F850 has a unique design that allows it to be wall mounted and only 2.2″ deep or placed horizontally on a table and only be 2.2″ high. There are two LED displays on the unit so you can read them when placed vertically or horizontally. The sound bar also adjusts the output depending on orientation to provide the best sound. When placed vertically you also get a view of the two vacuum tubes in the center of the bar.

Far more important in my eyes is the inclusion of automated room correction. Using the included microphone, the Samsung HW-F850 uses a series of tones to optimize its sound for the position of the bar and your room. Every room presents a set of audio issues that need to be accounted for and room correction really can help to fix those. Room correction helps to make subwoofers less boomy and vocals easier to understand. Using the Auto Sound Calibration (ASC) room correction on the Samsung HW-F850 is easy. Place the included microphone where you sit, plug-in the cable to the bar, and it handles the rest.

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Compared directly to the Standard sound mode, the ASC mode offers a more open soundstage with better bass. The subwoofer is tighter while vocals are clear and no longer slightly recessed. The Samsung offers a large selection of other sound modes, from News to Drama to Sports, but I am not a fan of them. They all either introduce a cavernous, empty sound or make the vocals far too prominent compared to everything else.

The one thing you don’t get from the ASC mode, or even the 3D Sound + modes, is a big sense of immersion. The Samsung HW-F850 sounds large with movies and music, but never sounds like it is coming from the side of you or from behind. Most sound bars have issues here though some are better than others. For music I certainly prefer the sound of the Samsung as it is much more natural and detailed, but for movies I sometimes like the sound to mimic surround speakers.

Great for Modern Recordings

With music the HW-F850 does very well. “Reckoner” is a beautiful Radiohead song and one that I typically can only listen to on vinyl. The CD version is harsh with very aggressive compression and sounds awful with good equipment. The addition of the two tubes here does a great job in making the song sound good. That abrasive sound is gone and I can pump the volume way up without my eardrums rebelling.

Songs with better audio quality from Miles Davis and Natalie Merchant sound good as well. Sometimes a drum or bass note falls a bit flat through the subwoofer as if it is straining too hard. Beyond hearing that a couple of times in these tracks the HW-F850 sounds great. Vocals are clear and locating instruments on the sound stage is easy to do.

Watching a few episodes of Breaking Bad with the HW-F850 and the clarity of the dialogue really stands out. Using the Drama preset pushes those forward even more but at the expense of the bass since the room correction is gone. I still find the ASC mode the best overall. From gunshots to quiet dialogue sections the HW-F850 sounds very good. There isn’t any real surround ambience but that was the only fault I have with it. Watching late at night I used the dynamic volume setting to compress the dynamic range so I can listen without waking up the kids.

Playing music back on the Samsung HW-F850 is easy with Bluetooth and USB inputs. The Bluetooth support also includes NFC, which lets you pair other NFC devices simply by touching them to the sound bar. Streaming audio from my smartphones, tablets and laptop works well and dropouts are uncommon. The USB input includes support for many file types, including FLAC. The thumb drive with my usual playlist stored as FLAC was instantly recognized and song information appears on the LEDs.

Using the integrated Bluetooth the HW-F850 can also connect directly to recent Samsung TVs and take over speaker duties. I don’t have a recent Samsung TV to test this with, so I can’t comment on how it works. If you really want to avoid wires in your setup, other than the required power cable, this feature might be useful but will also be more prone to interference than using HDMI with ARC or the optical input.

Comparing the vertical and horizontal orientations for the HW-F850 show that the vertical option sounds better. With the speaker drivers facing you, instead of reflecting off the ceiling, the detailed soundstage for music becomes muddled and indistinct. It sounds better than I expect for facing the ceiling, but it should certainly be your second choice.

Measurements

I measured the Samsung HW-F850 sound bar using a UMIK-1 calibrated microphone and RoomEQ Wizard software. Five different positions are averaged to minimize room effects using the method described by Brent Butterworth. I performed an ASC calibration before measurements and used the ASC sound mode for all results. Testing is done with the bar in its vertical orientation.

samsung hw-f850 averaged frequency response

Relative to the 1 kHz measurement, the HW-F850 measures +4.4 dB/-8.2 dB from 38 Hz to 17.2 kHz. If we only look out to 12 kHz it is a better +4.4 dB/-6.8 dB but still a noticeable drop off in the treble relative to the midrange. There is a small bass hump from 85 Hz to 160 Hz and then the natural roll-off of the 8” driver starts to kick in.

samsung hw-f850 averaged frequency response eq on vs eq off

Looking at the results with the EQ On (ASC Mode) versus the EQ Off (Standard Mode) we see very small differences. A bit of the upper bass is tamed and there is a missing bass hump at 58 Hz but otherwise they are very similar. My measurements are made in the middle of a large room to try to remove as many issues as possible. Wall mounting it will cause issues that aren’t seen here. ASC will likely offer more impact in those situations, as there will be larger issues to correct.

Small Flaws

The largest flaw I have with the HW-F850 is when changing TV channels or when my antenna loses a signal. This often causes the subwoofer to thump, as it seems to lose its connection. I never had this happen while watching movies or with other inputs, but it happened continually while watching TV. Perhaps if I had cable instead of an antenna it wouldn’t happen but it did a lot.

I also cannot get HDMI-CEC to work correctly with my Panasonic VT60. It will turn off automatically when I power down the VT60 but will not power on. The VT60 remove will seamlessly control it while connected using HDMI Auto Return Channel but having to manually power it on is annoying.

Good Bar, Iffy Value

Overall I find the HW-F850 is a very good sound bar that doesn’t immediately draw attention to it. It does not provide the immersive ambience that the Sony HT-ST7 creates with movies and TV, but it does provide a better music experience. It lacks the streaming features of the Sonos PLAYBAR, but sells for a lot less overall once you factor in the subwoofer. It also has HDMI ARC that many people need to get audio from their new TVs.

I thought the tubes would be nothing more than a gimmick. With my favorite recent recordings, from Radiohead to Daft Punk, they do a good job of making them enjoyable at high volume levels. High quality sound systems face an uphill market when they mostly show off how poorly recorded modern music often is, but the HW-F850 manages to avoid this issue.

The sound of the HW-F850 is best described as sounding like a nice pair of bookshelf speakers. It won’t provide that fake surround that some bars do, but it does a very nice job with movies and music, and is flexible in placement. The Room Correction really helps to set it apart from other systems and is something I wish more high-end sound bars would include.

At almost $1,000 I’m not as certain about the value aspect of the HW-F850. I’d be unlikely to pick it over the Sonos PLAYBAR for $300 less, even without the subwoofer. The Sonos lacks Bluetooth or HDMI, which are often deal breakers, but has a distinct center channel and the Sonos software for streaming and local media. It can also do true surround for $400 more with a pair of PLAY:1 speakers.

Priced closer to $750 the HW-F850 would be easier to recommend. It sounds good and there is nothing wrong with it, but the price just feels a bit high for what you get.

Review Summary
Product: Samsung HW-F850
Reviewer:
Pros: Room Correction built-in, HDMI with Audio Return Channel, Tubes help tame modern recordings
Cons: Expensive for what you get, does not power on automatically with HDMI-CEC
Summary: The Samsung HW-F850 is a very good sounding sound bar, but the price makes the value of it dubious compared to models from Sonos and others.
Value: 2.5/5
Performance: 4/5
Overall: 3.5/5

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