Vizio really wanted to make an impression with their updated sound bars at the 2013 CES show. With a custom demo room setup to show them the sound was very impressive and made a lot of people take notice. Their 5.1 channel sound bar, the S4251W-B4, has set a high bar for performance and value in a true surround sound system.
The S4221W-C4 is very similar to that model. It removes the two center-channel drivers and the surround speakers, but keeps the same speakers for the left and right channels and the subwoofer. In doing so Vizio has sacrificed none of the quality that made the 5.1 channel version a success. The Vizio S4221W-C4 offers the best performance for both audio and video that I have heard from a sound bar in this price range.
Thinking outside, and about, the box
|Inputs:||Stereo RCA, Stereo 3.5mm, Optical, Coaxial, USB|
|Review Date:||November 12, 2013|
The included remote for the Vizio S4221W-C4 is a good example of this as well. Vizio has done a good job with their remotes recently, including on the M401i LCD TV that I reviewed, with a good rubberized back and a nice feel in the hand. The remote for their sound bar goes beyond that with an integrated LCD screen for making adjustments. Some sound bars, like the Sony HT-CT260H, have a small screen on the bar you have to use to make adjustments. Others like the Pioneer SP-SB23W, have no LCD at all on the front or the remote.
The small LCD on the remote lets you easily adjustment all the settings. LEDs on the front of the sound bar light up to show your adjustment and are easy to make out from a distance. Another good touch is the box of included accessories. All the cables you need to connect the S4221W-C4, from RCA Stereo to Optical and Coaxial, are included. No one will need to pick up another cable to use the Vizio with their system as they are all in the box. The only thing you might need are screws to wall mount the bar.
The only input missing from the Vizio is an HDMI input. With sound bars I typically don’t care much about HDMI inputs and lossless audio as the performance difference on them will be slight. However some TVs are starting to drop optical audio outputs and so you might need an HDMI port with ARC support to get the best sound from your display. These still aren’t that common but they are starting to appear more often. Next year HDMI with ARC might be essential on a sound bar, but you probably won’t need it today.
Bigger Than Its Size
At 42” wide the Vizio S4221W-C4 isn’t the smallest sound bar and might be wider than your TV is. The sound stage that it projects is even wider than that. The implemented surround modes help it throw an image that is as wide as the room and even seems to extend back. In my 12’x25’ home theater room, I placed it against the front wall and it filled the space better than any other budget bar to date.
Most sound bars fail here by using sonic tricks to create a larger sound stage. They succeed in making it sound bigger, but lose all the details and ability to pinpoint sounds that you are after. The Vizio never had issues with that, keeping the details there and the movie vocals anchored while also making it sounds much larger than the bar itself.
Versus the Competition
In my previous Sony HT-CT260H review I found that to be the best budget sound bar I had heard to date. It did much better than similar priced bars and offered a suite of features that others lack. The Vizio doesn’t have all the features of the Sony, notably missing HDMI and the IR emitter, but could it stack up for sound quality? After listening to a large selection of music I can unequivocally say yes.
In general the Vizio soundstage is much larger than that of the Sony. The Sony bar is a bit smaller, but the soundstage is much smaller than the size difference suggests. While the Sony is constrained by its physical dimensions, the Vizio extends well beyond them. The Vizio, with it’s two driver approach, manages to offer up more detail than the Sony does. Sometimes this would skew too far to the point of being a bit lean or dry, but it has a bit of extra clarity the Sony lacks.
One song where the Vizio really fell short of the Sony was “Reckoner” by Radiohead. On the Vizio it is almost as if the midrange is absent entirely. On the Sony that midrange is much warmer and full. The Vizio is a bit too clean and sterile on this track. With “Carnival” by Natalie Merchant, the drums that open the song have far more kick and depth with the Vizio. There is more transparency and detail on the Vizio, but vocals remain a little bit richer on the Sony.
“Drive” by REM paints a very different picture. The vocals here come from inside the room with a big, wide soundstage behind them. The Sony has the vocals a bit recessed in the back, like they are down a hallway instead of in front of you. “Psycho Killer” from Talking Heads Stop Making Sense pushes this difference even further. David Byrne is alive and in the room on the Vizio and the layout of all the instruments on the stage is possible to make out. On the Sony the song feels small and absent.
The biggest difference was possibly on “So What” from Miles Davis. For most of the testing I have the sound bars close by the subwoofers to remove most room issues from the equation. As the lower bass notes on “So What” were played, I could look at the Vizio bar and hear the notes coming only from it. With the Sony bar I could hear the notes coming from the bar and the subwoofer.
The Vizio uses a much lower crossover, 90 Hz, for the subwoofer than the Sony. At this frequency bass is omni-directional so you can place the subwoofer anywhere and it won’t call attention to itself. The frequency that the Sony uses is still a bit directional in the bass notes. This makes sounds like those on “So What” appear to come from both the subwoofer and the sound bar. There are only a few notes that fall in this range, but when they do it can be a bit disconcerting.
The Sony remains a very good sound bar for the price. The Vizio just sounds better than the Sony does on movies and with most music. It is the new class leader for performance when it comes to $250 sound bars.
There is very little that Vizio can really improve upon while staying at this affordable price. I would like to see an HDMI input and output so people that need to use Audio Return Channel could take advantage of the Vizio. I also am unsure what causes the slightly recessed vocals on some songs but that could also be fixed. Finally quick access buttons to switch between Stereo mode and Surround mode on the remote would be nice. You can navigate the menu to do it easily enough, but having a one-touch button when you switch between movies and music would make it even easier.
Bench Tests and Measurements
I measured the Vizio S4221W-C4 sound bar using a UMIK-1 calibrated microphone and RoomEQ Wizard software. Six different positions are each measured 8 times to reduce any measurement anomalies. I average all 48 measurements to reduce room effects using the method described by Brent Butterworth.
What stands out is the dip between 100 Hz and 200 Hz. The subwoofer crosses over at 90 Hz which makes bass far less localized than with a higher crossover but the sound bar is straining to reach notes between 90 Hz and 200 Hz. Given the choice between a little dip here or having those bass notes be localized to the subwoofer I will take the dip. Beyond that the frequency response is very flat out to around 10 kHz and then we have a bit of a roll-off past there.
The Best Sound Bar Value
When it comes to an affordable solution to add higher quality audio to your TV, the new king is the Vizio S4221w-C4. With a full selection of inputs, an innovative remote, and great sound quality it currently is the best $250 you can spend to improve your TV audio. The step-up 5.1 model, the S4251w-B4, offers the same performance but a true 5.1 surround setup for only $50 more as well. Vizio has managed to set themselves apart in a crowded market with their high-performance, high-value S4221w-C4 sound bar.
|Pros:||Excellent sound stage, full selection of inputs, great detail and sound bar to subwoofer integration|
|Cons:||Occasional audio tracks can sound recessed|
|Summary:||The Vizio S4221W-C4 resets the standard for a $250 sound bar. Other bars might have extra features, but they can't match the sound quality of the Vizio or the overall package.|