Samsung HT-WS1 soundbar review

Without a doubt, soundbars are a popular market. As we said in our ZVOX review, they certainly have an appeal -- better sound quality than the terrible speakers and amplifiers typically built into TVs, no-hassle installation, small footprint, and modest pricing. For smaller rooms, especially secondary setups, soundbars can be a really good fit. So when Samsung offered up its HT-WS1 model to us for review, we just had to check it out. Our time with the HT-WS1 was a kind of an up and down ride with, so follow us past the break as we relive the details, won't you?

Initial impressions
We hinted at the improved impression of quality that the HT-WS1 gave us compared to Samsung's AS730 HTIB, but it bears repeating. By cutting down the number of parts, even at the sacrifice of features and expandability, Samsung is able to deliver a much better first impression -- even at the lower price of $350. It's expected for soundbars to score style points, even if it's just because they don't clutter the room with wires and boxes, but the HT-WS1 really does make a great first impression. The HT-WS1 gets treated to Samsung's Touch of Color styling, touch sensitive control surfaces, tasteful indicator lights, and a wireless connection between the subwoofer module and the soundbar. The soundbar itself feels well-constructed, with no rattles or shakes. We wish the clear plastic table stand engaged with the soundbar with a more positive "click," but it never came loose during our time with it. Speaking of the stand, the white light on the bottom of the HT-WS1 is pretty bright, and unfortunately it comes on when the unit is powered off, coinciding with sleepy time in bedroom setups. Please, Samsung, make the light switchable or at least dimmable. The vinyl-wrapped subwoofer module is fairly lightweight, but the top surface is finished in a nice glossy black to class the package up. The rear panel of the sub is covered in grillecloth, and also hosts a circular port, which played a pivotal role in our review of this unit.

Wireless pairing of the soundbar with the sub is straightforward, and it's one of the few uses you may ever have for the included remote. Even though the HT-WS1 only handles audio, the included remote has TV control functions -- but it's a "dumb" remote that only works with Samsung TVs. This is probably a marketing nod to the fact that Samsung TV buyers are prone to pick up the like-branded soundbar, but honestly we'd rather have a remote with audio-only functions controls that are only usable with one brand of TV. If you have another brand of TV, then the remote is reduced to controlling on/off, volume, mute, sound mode and selection between the soundbar's 3.5-mm stereo and TOSLINK inputs -- no autosensing here. One small thing that bit us was that the manual specifies a TOSLINK cable is packed in, but our review unit came with a 3.5-mm to RCA cable. That's a very minor knock, and Samsung ensured us that retail units come with the TOSLINK cable.

Out of the box sound
A few commenters in our hands-on post complained about the fan noise on the subwoofer module. There's a small (approximately 1.75-inch) fan at the back of the cabinet, and everyone knows small cooling fans mean higher RPMs, and higher RPMs mean more noise. To be sure, the fan is audible from about 10-feet away, but once there's any audio playing, it covers up the noise. Honestly, given the fact that the amp only cranks out 100-Watts, we'd much rather see Samsung address cooling with some heatsinks -- the entire grillecloth backside of the unit should provide good ventilation, after all.

Let's get one thing out of the way right up front -- we don't expect incredible sound quality from soundbars, especially $350 ones. For its part, the HT-WS1 soundbar delivered generally good midrange and treble performance. No, you won't be able to fill large rooms with lots of sound, but in smaller rooms the intelligibility of dialog and treble clarity was pretty good. And credit is due to the HT-WS1 for not changing tonal character even when pumped to its maximum volume -- things didn't sound distorted or clipped, so kudos to the designers for keeping the volume knob from going to "eleven."

The midbass on down, however, was another story. Right out of the box, there was a severe amount of "one-note" bass coming out of the subwoofer unit that really spoiled the overall sound of the system. It was so severe that we broke down and did some frequency sweeps to confirm we weren't just spoiled by our time with Paradigm's $4,000 SUB 25 subwoofer. Sure enough, our tests showed a huge, +8dB hump from about 55-140Hz (there's not much usable bass below about 50Hz) that confirmed our subjective impressions. Even though we didn't expect the discrete speaker kind of sound quality from the HT-WS1, this was too much to overlook -- this kind of bass tuning sounds just plain bad. We understand that when sitting in the big box store this kind of peak in midbass/bass response is impressive as it makes the shelves rattle and even gives the impression of real bass, but we really wish this was reserved for a special in-store-only setting like "torch mode" on displays. Once you get this kind of bass at home, it really makes your music sound off-kilter, and not in a fun, festive, dancing with a lampshade hat kind of way. Checking out the various sound modes revealed, that the HT-WS1 was really voiced this way: "Cinema" mode kept the same bass peak but decreased response up above 140Hz, making the bass more prominent; "Music" mode decreased the bass response by about 4dB; and "News" mode brought things the closest to a flat response by knocking down the bass a whopping 12dB. Although "News" mode was analytically the closest to flat, to our ears it was a little too lean. A little back and forth with Samsung confirmed that our unit was not faulty, but all was not lost for the HT-WS1 -- luckily, we tried stuffing the subwoofer port with a foam ball we had on hand.

Put a sock in it
Immediately, things got way better. Like night and day better. The foam knocked the bass hump down by about 5dB, meaning that while the "Passthrough" and "Cinema" modes were still held back by bloated bass, and "News" mode was thin sounding, the "Music" mode was actually pretty good. It was still a little bass-rich, but not too bad, and we preferred the extra oomph compared to the lack of bass in the unstuffed "News" mode. It's also worth noting that further tuning of the bass can be done by changing the sub location -- although we assume most soundbar owners are going for some "put it out of the way, in the corner" simplicity, this location will produce the most bass boost, while moving it out away from the walls will decrease the bass response. With the basic sound of the HT-WS1 straightened out, we proceeded to audition the setup in a secondary room.

Stuffed, we actually found using the HT-WS1 very enjoyable. The freedom from having to worry about receiver surround modes and codecs is the kind of simplicity that's a perfect fit for bedroom or casual systems. As long as we stuck to the "Music" and "News" modes with the subwoofer port plugged, the sound was much better than any TV built-in speakers we've heard, and we never experienced any problems with the wireless link between the soundbar and the sub. The fan in subwoofer also shut itself down after a short while with no audio, so that also was not an issue.

When we first heard about the four (Bypass, Cinema, Music, and News) "soundfields" on the HT-WS1, we were expecting to get treated to some virtual surround sound. As we alluded to earlier, however, these four modes really are more about equalization than surround processing. There's simply not enough drivers in the HT-WS1 soundbar to pull off the kind of "soundbeam" wizardry that Yamaha uses in its Digital Sound Projectors.

That caveat aside, using the HT-WS1 for movies was much more enjoyable than for music. Keeping in mind you just can't expect subterranean bass for $350, when used within its limits the HT-WS1 sounded much better than the sound that comes from built-in speakers. It's hard to overstate how much more enjoyable watching movies is with decent sound, even in our bedroom setup. Note that we still avoided use of the HT-WS1's "Cinema" modes, as it really made bass-heavy special effects sound like they were totally separate from the rest of the audio track.

Breaking into audio has got to be tough, even for a huge company like Samsung. We can't help but think that it's a product segment where there's no substitute for experience. After stuffing the subwoofer port, the HT-WS1 turned in pretty good sound that would be a step up a TVs' built-in speakers, and that's especially true for those who have a media diet that favors movies and TV over music-only. But we really wish we didn't have to stuff that port to begin with; even after our modification, the sound quality fell short of the (admittedly $150 more expensive) ZVOX 550 soundbar we reviewed. If good looks and/or the convenience of a wireless sub are must-haves for the audio half of your media, however, then the HT-WS1 deserves a look -- just stick to the "Music" and "News" sound modes, and if you find the bass is overripe, try moving the sub around the room, especially away from the walls. If there's still too much bass, consider stuffing the subwoofer port -- it's a free mod that we found to dramatically improve the performance.