You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Vizio M512a-H6 review: The best, cheapest Dolby Atmos soundbar you can buy

CNET logo CNET 9/28/2021 Ty Pendlebury
a wooden cutting board © Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Dolby Atmos surround audio may have been with us for some time, but it wasn't until streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus got on board that manufacturers finally took the format seriously. There are a lot of Atmos soundbars on the market now, many of which are quite affordable, but just because they support the standard doesn't mean they can play it to full advantage. Take the Sonos Beam Gen 2 for example -- it can now decode Dolby's format, but it can only emulate height effects using digital processing. 

If you want "true" Dolby Atmos sound in a soundbar, you need to look at systems with dedicated height speakers. One of the least-expensive is the Vizio M512a-H6. This $500 speaker system offers full 5.1.2 surround and looks good while doing it, borrowing some high-end bling from the superb Vizio Elevate

The M512a-H6 fills the big shoes of its predecessor, the SB36512, admirably: It sounds great for music and movies, lets you enjoy Atmos soundtracks the way they're meant to be heard, and doesn't cost a fortune. This Vizio is the new "must audition" if you're in the market for a capable, affordable Dolby Atmos system.

What it is

The Vizio M512a-H6 is a surround system consisting of a main soundbar, a 6-inch subwoofer and two wired rear speakers. Notable additions over the SB36512 include the ability to handle competitive DTS:X format, Atmos' chief competitor, as well as the latest HDMI eARC connectivity.

The soundbar itself is 40 inches wide and a relatively tall 2.68 inches high, while it extends back 4 inches on an AV stand. The main grille, which hides three sets of mid-drivers and tweeters, is made of fabric, while the one that hides the two upfiring drivers is made of perforated plastic. These two drivers are closer to the center than most Atmos speakers, but still work well to beam Atmos effects off your ceiling and down into the room. 

The system includes separate rear speakers for surround effects. Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET The system includes separate rear speakers for surround effects. Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Vizio features four different types of physical connectivity: HDMI in/out (with eARC), optical, USB (for WAV playback, naturally!) and two 3.5mm (headphone-size) analog input jacks. The second of those two 3.5mm connections is designed to connect a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo Dot, and the soundbar volume will mute if you issue it a command. 

Unfortunately the system's wireless connections are limited to Bluetooth. That's fine for many uses, but It's a shame that the M512 loses one of the better features of the Vizio SB36512-F6 -- its ability to stream music from a wide variety of phones over Wi-Fi using Google's Chromecast system, which also enabled control via the Google Assistant. As it stands, the $999 Elevate is now the only Vizio soundbar to offer Wi-Fi connectivity with Chromecast built in and Spotify Connect, while Apple AirPlay is found on Sonos speakers, among others.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The system offers a number of sound modes including Movie, Music, Game and Direct, but one thing it doesn't have is a dedicated voice mode for making TV dialogue more understandable.

One of my major criticisms of the SB36512-F6 and recent Vizio soundbars is that they use a series of LED dots instead of a sensible display. This has been dispensed on the M512. Not only does each input have its own color LED but the soundbar will verbally read out which input you're on when you change.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET Ty Pendlebury/CNET

There's a limited number of controls at the top of the bar including power, volume, input and Bluetooth, but most people will likely use the remote. The control is a proper wand rather than a plastic credit card, and it even includes its own one-line LCD display, which is very useful for initial setup and altering advanced settings.

21st century digital box

As I write this there are only two soundbars that offer "true" Dolby Atmos for under $500: the Vizio and the Monoprice SB-600. Both have dedicated heights and rears plus wireless subs. Monoprice has gathered itself a reputation as an excellent value brand, so naturally I wanted to compare the two against one other.

In testing, there were definite similarities between the two -- both were generally excellent with TV and movie material -- but I found that the Vizio did have the upper hand. Those voice prompts and greater tunability of each channel helped the Vizio in the usability department. Also, the Monoprice's sound would cut out intermittently and would also lose some sound settings if you turned it off, something which the Vizio simply doesn't do.

I started with music testing and Caroline Rose's jaunty Soul No. 5. Its surf guitar and distorted vocals can trip up any bar tuned for home cinema rather than music. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't the mids that were the problem with the Monoprice. It simply wasn't able to reduce the volume of its larger subwoofer enough that the bass didn't dominate the song. Even after dragging the sub to different places around the room, it was still too loud. 

The Vizio offered stronger than normal bass too, but it was better integrated into the whole. The sound was more fun and even more danceable than the Monoprice could make it. The same thing happened with a song better known for its bassline: Nick Cave's Red Right Hand. The bass simply boomed (like a bird of doom) on the Monoprice, but managed to complement Cave's snarled tenor on the Vizio system.

"What's the Vizio Atmos soundbar like with some actual Atmos content?" I swear I heard you ask. Well, a lot better than I ever expected for the money. The very beginning of Mad Max Fury Road, for instance, offers excellent Atmos effects as the ghostly voices of Max Rockatansky's past appear from all around and even above him. The Vizio captured this effect faithfully. At the 1:10 mark a little girl's voice says "Hello," and on a well-tuned Dolby Atmos system it should originate from directly above you. This was exactly where the Vizio put it, while its placement on the Monoprice was more indistinct, coming from some place in front of the screen.

The Vizio's sub was also more articulate, a difference that came through during the lobby scene from The Matrix. I was able to pick out all the notes of the bassline, and the surround speakers offered better immersion, such as bullet casings that fell with more, uh, tinkle. The poor Monoprice just couldn't keep up with the synth bass, which sounded muffled, and the movie was less exciting as a result.

There was one small win on Monoprice's behalf though: the Voice preset gave it an advantage when watching hard-to-decipher dialogue. The Monoprice was able to add clarity to the mumbled words at the beginning of Batman Begins, for example, pulling the prisoner's dialogue out from the strangled distant screams and water drips of the movie's dank prison setting. It would be nice if the Vizio offered such a mode, but it doesn't.

Should you buy it?

If you want the most cost-effective way to get true Dolby Atmos playback, nothing beats the Vizio M512a-H6. Due to microchip shortages it's no longer possible to buy even an entry-level Atmos AV receiver for less than the price of the Vizio, and afterward you'd still have to add speakers and a sub.

If you already own a streamer, and don't need onboard Chromecast audio, the Vizio offers excellent performance in movies and music alike. The M512a-H6 earns our hearty recommendation for both home cinema fans and people looking to listen to their favorite album (whether in Atmos or not).

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from CNET

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon