Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

If you don’t own a soundbar, you’ve probably thought about getting one. Maybe your speaker-head friend told you to check out the new Sonos Beam (sort of expensive!), or that sick-looking Sony surround sound system (even more expensive—wow!). Vizio, on the other hand, wants to sell you a new, super small and super cheap soundbar for $70. I’ve spent a couple of weeks with the thing, and it is a hell of a good deal.

Now, there’s a difference between a good deal and a great soundbar. The Vizio 20-inch 2.0 soundbar is only one of those things. It does an admirable job handling TV audio for something so tiny and so affordable. The new Vizio bar even has Bluetooth and DTS Virtual:X, a technology for creating the illusion of three-dimensional sound that you find in more expensive sound bars. But discerning listeners will immediately notice some limitations to what this $70 soundbar can do.

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But before we really get into the drawbacks, let’s talk more about what makes Vizio’s cheap new Vizio special. The design, for starters, is pleasantly clever. It looks like Vizio took its also cheap 29-inch 2.0 soundbar and squished it on both ends. What’s left is a surprisingly tiny speaker system that will fit beneath a 29- or 32-inch TV. There are some basic and understated controls on top of the soundbar, and the whole thing is wrapped in black fabric. On the back of the device, there’s a slot for an external subwoofer, an optical audio input, 3.5-millimeter auxiliary jack with an included RCA adapter, and a USB port. Quite notably, the compact Vizio soundbar lacks an HDMI ARC input (more on why that matters later).

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Despite being so small, the 20-inch Vizio soundbar handily filled my apartment with sound. Out of the box, the audio quality was light years better than the dinky speakers on my TCL 6-Series TV, and it got even better once I fine-tuned it using the bass and treble buttons on the user-friendly remote. Loud scenes in movies like Mission Impossible and Hackers sounded exciting, although, I noticed some distortion on the very upper ends of the volume range. Quieter dialogue, like the wine-drinking scenes in Bottle Shock were also perfectly clear.

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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And that’s it. For $70, the new Vizio soundbar will make almost any TV sound louder and better. It will not, however, blow your mind. I stacked the new Vizio on top of a Sonos Beam—which is about twice the size of the Vizio—and toggled between the two in several scenes. The Vizio can’t compete with Sonos in terms of soundstage. Even though its DTS Virtual:X software is supposed to make it sound more 3D, the sound that this little new Vizio puts out does feel constrained. It really projects outwards from the front of the short soundbar, but you’ll notice a drop off if you’re sitting to either side of the hardware. The Sonos Beam—which, at $400, is nearly six times the price of the new Vizio—seems to have a soundstage as wide as the room thanks, in part, to its wider design. Vizio’s own $500 Dolby Atmos soundbar system can do that and fill a room from floor to ceiling thanks to upward firing drivers that create that Atmos height effect.

You would expect Vizio’s cheap and tiny soundbar to suffer from limitations like these. You would also expect a small soundbar to struggle with bass, and the Vizio does that, too. It sounds like the speakers have been tuned to eliminate a lot of the low range and to boost the mid-range to help you better hear dialogue. The approach works for the most part, though I found myself missing the rumble I’d hear even on cheap TV audio solutions like the Roku Speakers. I did not try plugging a subwoofer into the new 20-inch Vizio soundbar, because I didn’t have one lying around. Adding this component would help with the bass problem.

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Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

One huge bummer is that you probably need to use the included remote to control the soundbar. After spending years using soundbars equipped with HDMI ARC, the technology that lets you use your TV remote to control the soundbar, I have to admit that it sucks going back to a two-remote situation. Reaching for a separate remote to adjust the volume sucks even more if you lose that second remote. Vizio told me that you can control the soundbar volume with the remote if it’s plugged into a Vizio TV and you’re using a Vizio remote. That doesn’t help if you don’t own a Vizio TV, though.

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Update: Vizio reached out to explain that there is a way for the soundbar to learn the IR commands from your TV remote. It involves putting the soundbar into a special mode using the included remote and then hitting it with your TV remote. Details on exactly how to do that are outline in the manual.

You can avoid the volume control issue if you have a robust universal remote like the Logitech Harmony. Then again, if you own a pricey universal remote or you’re downgrading from a soundbar that does have HMDI ARC, the new Vizio soundbar probably isn’t for you.

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Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

If you don’t own a soundbar at all—and especially if you’ve been considering buying a soundbar—check this one out. It’s an affordable gateway to a better TV experience, and although you can technically buy a soundbar for even less than $70, this new Vizio deal feels like a much more expensive piece of home audio equipment. Thanks to the low price point, this is also a great soundbar for that extra TV in your garage or bathroom or wherever.

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And if you don’t own a soundbar, by the way, you really should. Simple physics explain why. Starting around 2005, TV speakers turned to garbage, because as they got thinner, there was less room for speakers and thus less room to move air for a full range of audio. And so came the rise of the soundbar with bigger drivers, although this upgrade has historically meant spending hundreds of dollars on top of the price of your TV just for decent sound. Even cheaper soundbars, like the Samsung TV Mate, cost $200, so you can see why cheapness is an appealing quality in new competitors.

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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So Vizio is making the buying decision easier for the soundbar skeptic (or the frugal movie fan) by offering an adequate soundbar that fits under almost any TV for just $70. That’s the price of dinner for two at TGIFriday’s, if you catch happy hour. So if you’ve been coming up with reasons why you don’t need a soundbar, you’re out of excuses.

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  • Definitely better than your TV speakers
  • Not as good as soundbars that cost six times as much money
  • As good as soundbars that cost three times as much
  • No HDMI input, but come on, you can’t have everything

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