If you ask me what audio gear you should consider for a quality home theater setup, I'll invariably direct you toward a decent AV receiver (AVR) and separate speakers. However, not everyone is ready or willing to deal with the added complexity of AVR ownership, and this is where a kit like the Vizio 40" 5.1 Sound Bar System (SB4051-C0) is a near-perfect fit.
In the box
The Vizio SB4051 delivers true 6-channel listening with a setup experience that simply doesn't get any easier. In the box, the SB4051 features an accessory pack that conveniently includes every cable you may need to get the system connected to a TV or other audio source device. The pack also includes wall-mounting brackets for the sound bar and surround speakers.
Speaker setup starts with centering the sound bar above or below a TV screen; low-profile feet give the sound bar an overall height of only 3-inches. The wireless subwoofer can be placed anywhere there's a nearby power outlet, and the rear-channel speakers connect to the powered sub via ample 25-foot color-coded wires. This configuration eliminates a wire run between the front and rear speakers for a clean look. Vizio claims a 60-foot range with the wireless sub, and its connection proved completely stable at the much shorter distances I tested it at.
Matte-finished metal protectively caps the ends of the sound bar and tops the speakers and sub. The added heft of the metal accents and finely-perforated black metal grills that wrap each speaker literally feel like quality touches. The latter also admirably masked fingerprints and dust.
The SB4051's remote control is simple yet effective with its handful of buttons and a 1-line display at the top that enables easy navigation of more than a dozen controls.
A row of indicator lights along the bar's left side provide a visual confirmation of level and other system adjustments, and the lights automatically fade to a single subtle point after use.
A 5-button row of controls centered on the sound bar blend in well with the overall design while providing basic control options.
Hook it up
Unlike most sound bars that provide a basic array of coaxial/optical/analog audio inputs, the Vizio SB4051 adds an HDMI passthrough that supports Audio Return Channel (ARC) with compatible TVs. Another benefit of the SB4051's HDMI input is its compatibility with affordable HDMI auto-switchers for connecting multiple digital source devices.
The Vizio SB4051 is Bluetooth-enabled making it easy to link a smartphone or other mobile device for simple and convenient audio streaming. Regular Bluetooth audio streaming adds additional compression that can degrade audio quality, and this sound bar alleviates this shortcoming with aptX technology that enabled CD-like sound quality from compatible mobile devices.
Digital audio format support for the SB4051 includes Dolby Digtal, DTS, and several flavors of Linear PCM at up to 96kHz.
The sound bar incorporates three 2.75-inch drivers while each surround speaker features a single 2.5-inch driver. A 6-inch driver in the ported sub adds an appreciable amount of low-end kick to the speakers' small but capable drivers. A built-in quick test announces each speaker to verify the connection and proper location, but properly balancing the speaker levels would require a sound pressure meter and appropriate test material. I'd like to see Vizio incorporate an automated microphone setup for levels and timing in future models.
After breaking in the sound bar system for a few days, I sampled a variety of audio sources including FLAC-encoded music tracks streamed via aptX-enabled Bluetooth from my phone. Vizio claims the SB4051 can produce a sound pressure level of 102dB with <1% THD, and cranking it up proved to be a neighbor-awakening experience with ample volume and plenty of distortion-free bass. Podcasts and TV shows exhibited exceptional dialog clarity from the main sound bar channels, and DTS TruVolume is available if audio normalization is needed.
Switching to high-bitrate Blu-ray content, the award-winning sound track from the movie Master and Commander highlighted the system's surround sound capabilities and impactful bass response. The movie's quieter sequences are filled with detailed ambient sounds that were well-rendered by the system's five speaker drivers. The movie's depiction of classic naval warfare gave the subwoofer a chance to shine as it added very tangible sonic accents without ever overwhelming the performance.
The album Sea Change by Beck features audio tracks that approach the bitrate and sample rate limits of the Blu-ray format, and the SB4051 delivered superb clarity and detail with vocals and numerous stringed instruments. Given the SB4051's relatively small speaker drivers, the wireless sub again proved its worth with its ability to transparently reproduce lower frequencies.
I have a fondness for products that perform without a lot of fuss, and the Vizio 40" 5.1 Sound Bar System (SB4051-C0) delivered a listening experience that approached the quality of my home setup of separate surround sound speakers and a capable AVR. The Vizio SB4051 lacks the automated speaker setup tool included with many AVRs that optimizes levels and timing, but the entire kit is hundreds of dollars less than my own admittedly value-orientated home theater audio components. Modern AVRs often integrate useful features like HDMI switching, network multimedia playback, and support of a wide range of codecs. However, the Vizio SB4051's beauty is in its simplicity and flexibility while reducing the number of wires required to enjoy a true 5.1-channel listening experience.