Vizio V21 review: Best soundbar under $200 – CNET

Despite its ridiculous name, I was incredibly jazzed about the Vizio SB3621n-E8 ($180 at Best Buy) soundbar when it came out in 2017. It was a great-sounding, affordable soundbar and has remained my favorite value over the last three years. The Vizio V21 reviewed here is its natural successor and enjoys a number of upgrades beyond a simpler name. The new bar adds HDMI, changes the cosmetics and includes an intriguing smart speaker connection.

How it stacks up

Like

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

Don’t Like

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

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

If you want to upgrade your TV’s sound for under $200, the Vizio V21 should be among your top choices, and it will play back music in fine fashion too. It’s not quite as surprising or energizing as the original SB3621, but that’s all right. The V21 stands on its own as a dependable speaker at an excellent value. 

Vizio V21 ports, features and remote

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The top panel.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Soundbars are black blobs for the most part, heard and not seen, and the V21 follows the industry template to the letter: basic black with a mesh cover and a slightly textured plastic top. The topside also offers a series of controls including input selection, Bluetooth and volume control. 

Though the length of the soundbar is no longer in the name, as with the SB3621 (Sound Bar, 36 inches, 2.1 channel… get it?) the Vizio V21 is also 36 inches long. That name still contains a lame Easter egg, however, because this is a 2.1-channel soundbar.

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

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The LED now changes color according to the input.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

After years of complaints (at least from me), 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 signify volume level by ascending vertically. It’s perfectly usable, although a traditional alphanumeric display would be even clearer.

The most notable addition is the HDMI ARC port. This connector enables you to hook up one cable directly to the ARC port on the back of your TV, and it’s best if you just use the streaming features built into the TV itself, or use the TV to switch between inputs. If you have a more complicated system, for example an external streamer, you can use the bar’s optical connection. Other options include Bluetooth, USB, a 3.5mm analog input and another, all-new 3.5mm connection for your “voice assistant speaker” (read: Amazon Echo Dot ($40 at Amazon)).

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

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

I’m sure Vizio is trying to cater to people who want to use their Dot as a music or podcast source and take advantage of the V21’s superior sound. But every time the Vizio switched to the smart speaker input I needed to turn the volume way up — even with the Echo’s volume at maximum. in the long run, I would rather use a smart speaker divorced from my soundbar.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

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

How does the Vizio V21 sound?

Due to the necessity of testing at home, I don’t have a Vizio SB3621 for direct comparisons, but the V21 is just as even-handed as I remember the previous model being. Instead I compared the new $180 Vizio against a couple of other 2020 models, the $250 Polk Signa S3 and the $300 JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass, but it’s obviously worth keeping in mind the significant price differences.

Compared to those two products, the Vizio’s secret weapon is its DTS Virtual:X compatibility. The feature, first seen in Yamaha speakers, enables humble soundbars like the V21 to emulate a surround system, and it performs very well. Alas the JBL and Polk lack this add-on and so didn’t offer the same level of immersion.

While the bigger sub of the JBL Deep bass 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. Bullets whizzed towards me and the ratatatat that precedes the soldier’s “Freeze!” was more pronounced on the Vizio than either the Polk or the JBL.

The larger subs of the Polk and JBL better helped convey the gunfight’s impact, however. The Polk served up an exciting and kinetic performance, due in part to the larger and more articulate sub. The Vizio was overwhelmed by some of the low notes in the synth-bass score by comparison.

The Vizio’s expressive midrange made movie dialog sound clear and balanced. During the thanator chase in Avatar (at 26:53), streaming from Disney Plus, the Vizio sounded sonically fuller than the Polk, which was a little hollow in comparison, with weaker, lower midrange. Adjusting the Polk’s bass control and sound mode didn’t shore up the balance in a meaningful way.

The most-expensive JBL Deep Bass 2.1 was the most fun in this scene. The larger sub was able to catch more of the low frequency effects — from the pad of the thanator’s footfalls to the gentle roar of the waterfall — and the jungle sounded more alive with insects and running water.

With music, the Vizio didn’t sound as dynamic as either the JBL or the Polk, but still conveyed a real sense of stereo sound. The smooth handover to the subwoofer meant that acoustic music and male voices in particular sounded natural, although the Polk was still slightly better. When Ben Harper did his spooky “in your room thing” with his tune Widow of a Living Man, a couple of the lowest guitar notes on the Vizio bonged in a way that sounded out of place. There was a greater distinction between the guitar and the voice on the Vizio, but I couldn’t get the boom out even with the bass control at its lowest (there was a big jump between 0 and 1). The Polk was more enjoyable overall with music, with a better handle on dynamics and more powerful bass performance. It’s the model to choose if you favor music over movies.

Should you buy the Vizio V21?

There is no such thing as a perfect soundbar — due to size and budget constraints, their engineers need to make a number of compromises. None of the three I tested in this comparison can offer everything to everyone. The Vizio and the JBL tend towards home theater sound while the Polk’s main strength is music. In general, the Vizio offered better immersion than the others and the Polk is the best compromise between the three models.

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

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