Sennheiser is one of the best known companies in the audio world, and yet it’s never made a consumer speaker. This year, that’s supposed to change. At CES today, Sennheiser began showing a prototype soundbar that it intends to launch by the end of 2018.
The prototype’s body is unfinished, but the speakers are working. I got to hear them inside a small, square room, as a Sennheiser representative switched between nature sounds, musical performances, and movie action sequences, including the snowstorm and the beginning of Fury Road. But I didn’t need to hear half of that to realize Sennheiser’s first soundbar sounded way better than any soundbar ought to.
Sennheiser intends to market the soundbar under its Ambeo brand, because it’s designed to produce 360-degree audio. The soundbar has 13 drivers — six four-inch woofers, five tweeters, and two top-firing speakers — and Sennheiser describes the system as producing virtual 5.1.4 sound, with that final “4” representing speakers virtually mounted in each corner of the room. Unfortunately, the system also has to be pretty chunky in order to fit all that inside.
I couldn’t distinctly hear all 10 of those virtual speakers. But as Sennheiser flipped between its soundbar and audio from an actual surround sound setup, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference. There was more separation from the actual surround sound system, but the soundbar was still able to fill the room with distinct channels of noise. When the snowstorm was playing, I was surprised at how much it sounded like I was right in the middle of the storm. While listening to a performance by Imogen Heap, I could distinctly hear instruments playing behind me, even though there weren’t any speakers there.
Soundbars emulating surround sound is nothing new, but there’s a big difference in how well soundbars are able to do it. Sennheiser says its soundbar is able to detect where your walls and ceiling are by measuring how sound bounces back and then fine-tune playback so that sound reaches your ears just as it’s supposed to. It’s worth pointing out that I was listening in a pretty ideal environment — a small, square room without any openings or irregular walls, and seated on a chair in the middle. That’s not how most people watch TV, so real-world performance may be a little less impressive.
There’s no release date or pricing information on the soundbar just yet. And while it’s targeted at consumers, this thing is definitely going to be expensive. Still, it’s a new market for Sennheiser, which so far has only made loud speakers. Given how good Sennheiser’s headphones have always been, there’s every reason to expect that its consumer speakers will be worth listening to.
Photography by Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge