February 28, 2021
Vizio Elevate soundbar review: This Dolby Atmos speaker could start a revolution

Vizio Elevate soundbar review: This Dolby Atmos speaker could start a revolution



Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Soundbars capable of reproducing the atmospheric effects of Dolby Atmos soundtracks have been around since 2016, but until now they haven’t been very innovative. To work well, Atmos devices need extra speakers to reproduce those height effects, and usually they’re small, static drivers aimed at the ceiling. The Vizio Elevate costs a bundle but it tries something radically new: motorized speakers that rise up and revolve according to whether you’re listening to music or a compatible movie. The craziest part is, it actually works!

Like

  • Motorized speakers work well.
  • Excellent sound for movies and music.
  • Plenty of connections
  • Includes rears and wireless sub.

Don’t Like

  • Not as easy to use as Sonos Arc
  • No Apple AirPlay support
  • Somewhat short surround cables

The Vizio Elevate is expensive for a soundbar, but Atmos bars in general have always tended toward the high end. The Samsung HW-Q950T comes close in terms of specification but that system is also $1,700. The Sonos Arc ($799 at Sonos, Inc.) offers the simplicity of a single bar and includes a voice assistant, but it doesn’t sound as good as the Vizio. With its moving speakers, the Vizio Elevate really is its own animal.

Newbies beware however: The Vizio Elevate’s manual setup can be complicated and isn’t helped by the confusing remote. Some users may also find the wired surround speakers a pain depending on where they choose to place the subwoofer — the cables are probably too short for large rooms.

The rotating speakers reek of gimmickry, but in practice they work well, adding oomph to music and spaciousness to true Atmos soundtracks. If you don’t mind plunking down the money for a fully featured, great-sounding soundbar, the Vizio Elevate is a very serious contender. If the Elevate is too rich for your blood, however, the Vizio SB36512 is our Editors’ Choice winner and an excellent alternative at less than half the price.

Build quality: A step above

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Vizio Elevate is a 5.1.4 soundbar which offers compatibility with both immersive standards: Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. In addition to the main speaker itself, the Elevate’s setup includes rears, a large subwoofer and a remote. If you wanted to deck out the Arc with a similar array of speakers, namely the Sonos Sub and two Symfonisk for the rear channels, it would cost about $1,700.

The Vizio Elevate may be a plastic soundbar at heart but its design is… ahem… elevated. The main bar feels sturdy and comes in a two-tone finish — part thick vinyl wrap and part gun-metal aluminum. This is a big speaker at 48 inches wide and a table-swallowing 6.5 inches deep. The ends are covered in a matte-black material, which makes it hard to see the matte-black controls, but the raised buttons are actually easier to use by touch. The front of the soundbar includes a colored LED that makes it relatively simple to tell which input you are on, as well as a white LED level meter.

The main speaker features a whopping 13 drivers, including a dedicated center channel and 5 tweeters in total. The swiveling speakers are situated at each end and rotate when the system detects a Dolby Atmos/DTS:X signal, revealing the Atmos logo on one side and DTS:X on the other. 

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The subwoofer is one of the largest I’ve seen on any system, measuring 11 inches wide by 14 inches deep and 16 inches high. The rear speakers feature both forward-facing and upward-firing drivers and are tethered to the sub by a 30-foot cable (the connection between the soundbar and the sub is wireless). The cable was long enough to drape behind my couch and along the side of the living space to the sub at the front, but the length could be an issue for some installations. 

Vizio claims the system is capable of 107 decibels, and I did find it was quite loud, so no worries about filling even the largest living spaces. The Elevate includes a wall-mount bracket in the box (BYO screws, however), and Vizio designed the bar to mate seamlessly with the Vizio OLED TV.

A mountain of features

Connectivity is excellent with two separate HDMI inputs, as well as a third, labeled “HDMI Out,” which supports eARC. There’s also an optical digital input, a 3.5mm analog audio and a 3.5mm “voice assistant” input, USB and Bluetooth. The Elevate connects to your network via Wi-Fi and supports Spotify Connect and Chromecast built-in. Unlike the Arc, it lacks Apple AirPlay support but its physical connectivity is far better than the Arc’s.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Elevate also lacks a built-in voice assistant, found on the Arc and other soundbars, but I don’t see this as a major disadvantage. Using Alexa or Google Assistant on a soundbar can be annoying as the volume will mute if it hears the wake word, which means you could miss some of your show. If you want to use a voice assistant to listen to music through the Elevate it’s easy to set the soundbar up as the default speaker for an inexpensive Google or Echo speaker nearby.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The remote looks like the ones that come with cheaper Vizio soundbars but differs in two important aspects. There’s an LCD display at the top, and four buttons which help with setup at the bottom. Having both Effect and EQ options is a little confusing because they perform very similar tasks, and navigating menus via the different buttons takes a little getting used to.

Adjusting the volume of the subwoofer was easy enough with the Level button but not everything was intuitive, and you will need to know to download the Vizio SmartCast app to complete the setup of Wi-Fi, for example. I also had some issues updating the firmware from the website, but Vizio told me it was because one of the files was misnamed and assured me it was now fixed.

In comparison the Sonos Arc was a simple pleasure to use, install and update, although that speaker’s setup does heavily favor iPhone ($599 at Apple) users — Sonos’ TruPlay calibration app is not available on Android. I had some issues with the Arc initially and these were helped by using TruPlay (on an iPad ($385 at eBay)).

High and mighty sound

The Elevate is twice the price of the existing SB36512, but you can’t expect twice the performance. I was unable to test the two models side-by-side, but in my experience there are always diminishing returns when going from an excellent, affordable speaker to a much more expensive one. 

For these tests I compared the Elevate side-by-side against the Sonos Arc, because the two are roughly the same price. The Vizio acquitted itself very quickly with authoritative sound quality across all kinds of material. Unlike the Arc, which performs better at home theater than music, the Elevate was equally capable with both — a rare feat among soundbars.

I started my tests with music, Radiohead’s My Iron Lung to be precise, and I found that the Arc wasn’t quite as accomplished as the Vizio. The Arc played the song at a remove, slightly boxy and distant. By fiddling with the EQ I was able to improve definition to the percussion, but Thom York still gave the impression he was phoning it in. The Vizio was the opposite, lively and punchy thanks to that subwoofer. It wasn’t quite perfect, though, as I needed to back off the treble a little, but much more listenable overall.

I moved to something more ethereal with Yulunga (Spirit Dance) by Dead Can Dance, and the Arc improved somewhat, with a crispness and presence in the stereo shaker eggs for example, even if it wasn’t able to dig deep on the larger drums. The Vizio’s authority was evident from the first few bars of the song. Lisa Gerrard’s voice floated free of the speakers, and the string accompaniment was easier to hear. The sub was able to let the drums and gong sounds fully resonate in my testing room.

I moved to movies and TV next, starting with the infamous egg-stealing Chapter 10 of The Mandalorian. The episode features a chase scene through clouds and an inevitable canyon run (it wouldn’t be Star Wars if you couldn’t flip your ship vertically or had to contend with guard rails on gang planks). During this scene the Arc was able to convey a real sense of height as the Razor Crest descended into the frosty planet’s atmosphere, pursued by two X-wing fighters.

As lovely as the Arc sounded, it was the Vizio’s dedicated rears and sub which really helped anchor the action. The Elevate’s surround effects were much more pinpoint and the metallic thud of the ship as it skidded across the floor of the icy canyon sounded impactful and scary. It didn’t have the same vertiginous feeling of height as the Arc however.

The sub and rears again helped the Vizio convey a sense of space in my next test, the Thanator chase scene from Avatar. Insects buzzed around the listening position, dialogue was clear and explosions bombastic. In comparison with the Arc, it could occasionally send an insect-like click to my right that made me think the Elevate’s rears were somehow still working, but the sense of surround was much less palpable.

The revolution starts here

Are revolving, motorized speakers going to become a trend? Probably not. The up-firing speakers of the Vizio Elevate add some impact when in stereo mode it’s not really enough to justify a potential moving-part weak point down the road. 

The Elevate may not be as easy to use as the Arc, but it’s the better performer, and that’s really what matters. The Vizio soundbar is also a better value, due to its enhanced connectivity and dedicated subs and rears. The Vizio SB36512 still offers the best value of any Atmos soundbar I’ve tested, but if you want an upgrade, the nifty Elevate is a more refined and home-theater-ready speaker.



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