Vizio V21 review: Best soundbar under $200

Despite its ridiculous name, I was incredibly excited about the Vizio SB3621n-E8 ($ 180 best buy) soundbar when it came out in 2017. It was a great sounding and affordable soundbar and has remained my favorite value for the past three years. The Vizio V21 reviewed here is its natural successor and enjoys a number of updates as well as a simpler name. The new bar adds HDMI, changes cosmetics, and includes an intriguing smart speaker connection.

Like it

  • Excellent home cinema audio on a tight budget
  • DTS Virtual: X improves immersion
  • Versatile connectivity, with HDMI ARC

I do not like

  • The subwoofer is small and not very articulate
  • Voice assistant connection not very useful
  • Input color codes are not available in the user manual, only on the back of the remote control

The sound quality is natural and unhurried as before, but the competition is much tougher these days. Polk and Yamaha have been on Vizio’s heels for several years and models like new Polk Signa S3 offer even better sound for a little more money.

If you want to upgrade your TV sound for less than $ 200, the Vizio V21 should be among your top picks and it will play music excellently too. It’s not as surprising or inspiring as the original SB3621, but that’s okay. The V21 stands out on its own as a reliable speaker at excellent value.

Vizio V21 doors, features and remote control

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The top panel.

Ty Pendlebury / CNET

The soundbars are mostly black spots, heard and unseen, and the V21 follows the industry model to the letter: basic black with a mesh cover and a slightly textured plastic top. The top also offers a number of controls including input selection, Bluetooth and volume control.

Although the length of the soundbar is no longer in the name, as with the SB3621 (S.ound B.ar, 36 inches, 2.1 channel … got it?) the Vizio V21 is also 36 inches long. That name still holds a lame Easter egg, however, because it’s a 2.1 channel soundbar.

The wireless subwoofer that comes with the system is an approximately 8-inch cube – now black instead of silver – and features a down-firing driver and rear port.

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The LED now changes color based on the input.

Ty Pendlebury / CNET

After years of complaining (at least on my part), Vizio has updated the soundbar’s LED display. Instead of an inscrutable series of white dots, the display can now change color according to the input and indicate the volume level as it rises vertically. It is perfectly usable, although a traditional alphanumeric display would be even clearer.

The most notable addition is the HDMI ARC door. This connector allows you to plug a cable directly into the ARC port on the back of your TV, and it’s best if you only use the streaming features built into the TV itself or the TV to switch between inputs. If you have a more complicated system, such as a external streamer, you can use the optical connection of the bar. Other options include Bluetooth, USB, a 3.5mm analog input, and another brand new 3.5mm connection for your “voice assistant speaker” (read: Amazon Echo Dot ($ 50 on Amazon)).

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Ty Pendlebury / CNET

The idea behind the “VA” (voice activation) input is quite noble. You plug your smart speaker into this port and the soundbar automatically switches to the input when it hears a command. But if partnered with a Amazon Echo Flex I found that the Echo’s audio output was either silent (when using optics) or stayed on the VA input (when using Bluetooth). In the latter case I had to use the remote to manually switch back to another source.

I’m sure Vizio is looking to please people who want to use their Dot as a music source or podcast and take advantage of the superior sound of the V21. But every time the Vizio walked past the smart speaker input, I had to turn the volume up to maximum, even with the Echo’s volume at maximum. in the long run, I’d rather use a separate smart speaker from my soundbar.

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Ty Pendlebury / CNET

That remote is functional and relatively easy to use, although you need to remember to use the up and down buttons to control the secondary volume instead of the more natural volume keys. Also, don’t miss it, as the speaker’s color-coded inputs are printed on the back and aren’t mentioned in the documentation.

How does the Vizio V21 sound?

Due to the need to test at home, I don’t have a Vizio SB3621 for direct comparisons, but the V21 is just as unbiased as I remember it was the previous model. Instead I compared the new $ 180 Vizio to a couple of other 2020 models, the $ 250 Polk Signa S3 and the $ 300 JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass, but of course the significant price differences are worth keeping in mind.

Compared to these two products, Vizio’s secret weapon is compatibility with DTS Virtual: X. The feature, first seen in Yamaha speakers, it allows simple soundbars like the V21 to emulate a surround system and works very well. Unfortunately JBL and Polk don’t have this add-on and therefore haven’t offered the same level of immersion.

While the JBL Deep bass’s larger sub offered the best bass articulation of the three, the JBL couldn’t beat the Vizio in Virtual: X mode for immersion, especially when it came to the lobby scene in The matrix. The bullets darted towards me and the ratatatat preceding “Freeze!” it was more pronounced on the Vizio than on the Polk or JBL.

However, the larger subtitles of the Polk and the JBL helped to better convey the impact of the gunfight. The Polk offered an exciting and kinetic performance, thanks in part to the larger, more articulate submarine. The Vizio was overwhelmed by some of the low notes in the synth-bass score by comparison.

The Vizio’s expressive midrange made the film’s dialogue clear and balanced. During the thanator they chase Avatar (at 26:53), streaming from Disney Plus, the Vizio sounded sonically fuller than the Polk, which was a bit hollow in comparison, with a weaker and lower midrange. Polk’s bass control and sound mode adjustment didn’t support balance significantly.

The more expensive JBL Deep Bass 2.1 was the funniest in this scene. The larger submarine was able to capture more low-frequency effects – from the cushion of the thanator’s footsteps to the gentle roar of the waterfall – and the jungle felt more alive with insects and running water.

With music, the Vizio didn’t sound as dynamic as the JBL or the Polk, but it still conveyed a real sense of stereo sound. The smooth transition to the subwoofer made the acoustic music and male vocals in particular sound natural, although the Polk was still slightly better. When Ben Harper played his creepy “Thing in Your Room” with his Widow of a Living Man melody, a couple of the lower guitar notes on the Vizio sounded in a way that sounded out of place. There was a greater distinction between guitar and vocals on the Vizio, but I couldn’t get the boom out even with the bass control turned down (there was a big jump between 0 and 1). The Polk was overall more enjoyable with the music, with better handling of dynamics and more powerful bass performance. It is the model to choose if you prefer music to movies.

Should you buy the Vizio V21?

There is no perfect soundbar – due to size and budget constraints, their engineers have to make a number of compromises. None of the three I’ve tried in this comparison can offer everything to everyone. The Vizio and the JBL tend towards home theater sound while the Polk’s main selling point is music. Overall, the Vizio offered better immersion than the others and the Polk is the best compromise between the three models.

If you’re $ 200 or less, the Vizio is a great choice, with powerful bass and an expressive mid-range. It’s a great follow-up to the SB3621 with HDMI built in especially a welcome feature. I can’t say yet how it will stack up with the best soundbars of the year, but there’s no denying that it’s already excellent value.

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