One frequent criticism leveled against sound bars is that they simply can't produce the same sound experience as a true 5.1 home theater system. The Vizio S4251w-B4 (Est. $330) attempts to counter those claims by offering more of a hybrid approach; it features a three-channel sound bar for front-center and surround-channel audio, but it ups the ante by including two small rear-channel speakers as well as a wireless subwoofer. By wiring the rear speakers to the subwoofer, Vizio's sound bar keeps the area in front of your TV neat and clean while supplying a true 5.1-channel listening environment. While most experts say the S4251w-B4's hybrid setup is a very good solution overall, they note that it's a bit lacking compared to better -- and more expensive -- home theater systems made up of a home theater receiver and home theater speakers you select yourself.
Many people choose to go with sound bars over true home-theater setups because they fear a complex installation. Experts say setting up the S4251w-B4 is simple and straightforward, however. The rear speakers, as previously mentioned, plug into the wireless subwoofer, which in turn only needs to be plugged into a power outlet. CNET's Matthew Moskovciak notes that there's no automatic level adjustment between speakers; you'll have to manually adjust levels, but that is easy enough to do by ear.
The extra speakers make the Vizio S4251w-B4 one of the few sound bars that can achieve true surround sound, rather than just using sonic trickery to simulate the experience. While the S4251w-B4 produces an acceptable sound overall, experts note some issues with sound quality, particularly during heavy-action scenes. Will Greenwald at PCMag.com says the rear-channel speakers seem underpowered and that the Sony HT-CT260 (Est. $250) offers better performance for less money, albeit with less convincing surround-sound effects.
The Vizio S4251w-B4 includes built-in Bluetooth, so you can stream music directly from mobile devices like smartphones or tablets. It also supports Dolby Digital and DTS natively, though like many sound bars it is designed to use the HDTV as a switcher, rather than plugging devices such as a Blu-ray player directly into it. That means that in most cases you will be hearing a simulated surround-sound field created by the Vizio S4251w-B4 rather than the Dolby or DTS surround-sound mixes. Reviews notice differences, but add that the simulated surround-sound effect is good enough that most will find it acceptable. See our Buyer's Guide for more information.