Although my usual recommendation for people looking to buy a new soundbar is to pay less than $500, there are plenty of reasons to spend more. Whether you’re hoping to upgrade an entry-level model, or looking to match a new high-end 4K TV for performance, nicer soundbars from the likes of Vizio, Sonos and Bose have a lot to offer. The new Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar is a great option and includes some key improvements from the previous Smart Soundbar 900.
This Bose soundbar includes all of the features I am looking for, including Dolby Atmos playback, music streaming and voice control. With new additions such as AI Dialogue and Voice4Video, the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar is able to improve both functionality and performance. As a result, the Bose Smart Ultra is the best single soundbar I’ve tested for under $1,000. It sounds great whether you’re listening to music or watching a movie, and it’s not half-bad looking either.
That said, the Smart Ultra is not the last word on value. The Vizio Elevate is a much better deal right now — it’s discounted to just $600 — plus it offers dedicated surrounds and a subwoofer. Meanwhile, Bose’s closest rival — the Sonos Arc — is also available at a significant discount at the time of writing ($719). If you want the best sound from a single bar and don’t want to pay for the Sennheiser Ambeo Max, then this Bose is the one to get.
Design and Features
Firstly, a look at those improvements on the original Smart Soundbar 900. Seemingly everything is “AI” these days and the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar has also been painted with the robot brush. The Ultra includes a new AI Dialogue Mode, which uses “machine learning” to bring voices to the forefront. True to the “smart” name, the soundbar also features Amazon Alexa onboard — with the Bose Voice4Video feature, which turns a TV to the channel or input asked for. Sadly the soundbar no longer offers onboard Google Assistant, and this appears to be a Google directive as the Sonos Beam (Gen 2) doesn’t allow this either, although it still allows control with a separate Google speaker.
The Smart Ultra, thanks to that elegant glass top and choice of white or black, is better looking than any other soundbar you could name, regardless of price. The unit is quite wide at 41 inches across 2.3 inches high and 4 inches deep. There are only two controls on top — a microphone switch and an “activity” button which mainly turns on the assistant. Some people may find the lack of volume controls on the soundbar a little annoying.
The soundbar is compatible with the many flavors of Dolby including Dolby Atmos, although strangely not DTS or DTS:X. It uses Bose’s dipole transducers and spatial technologies to widen the soundstage, whether you’re listening to immersive material or stereo programming.
Connectivity includes HDMI eARC, Wi-Fi (Spotify Connect, AirPlay 2, Chromecast built-in) and Bluetooth. The system is designed to be used with the Bose Music app which offers a number of native streaming apps, including Amazon Music and Pandora, plus enables multi-room control. The app is also used to activate the ADAPTiQ calibration and the system includes a headband mic that you could also play Celebrity Heads with, I suppose.
If you don’t want to use the app or your TV remote, the company includes a whittled-down version of the Bose 900’s clicker.
How does it perform?
Bose has had a number of strong soundbars in recent years but the Ultra is without a doubt the best. It’s able to create whizzbang effects during movies but is also versatile enough to play music with aplomb. I tested the Bose Smart Ultra against one of the strongest contenders in this space, the Sonos Arc, and the Bose sounded better overall.
I started, as I usually do when testing Dolby Atmos soundbars, with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The opening scene, with its circling voices, is a great test of a system’s ability to translate spatial information to a living room environment. The Bose was the best at this test. It really enabled me to follow the voices, including the man who says “thermonuclear skirmish” as it zips overhead from right to left. The Sonos sounded very good as well, with plenty of intelligibility, but its panning capabilities weren’t as easy to trace.
The Arc started out the music test well, with Grian Chatten’s voice floating effortlessly above a sea of guitars in his song “The Score.” Yet when the vocals are joined by bass and drums, the instruments fight to occupy the same space. The Bose was able to differentiate between the bass guitar and the vocals with more panache.
Next, I tested the new AI mode and found it works well to bring up a movie’s dialogue. If you’ve ever watched a Christopher Nolan movie in particular, then you know you need this mode. The soundbar was able to pull out speech from the start of Batman Begins that was a little more obscured such as young Bruce’s friend who runs to get help when he falls in the well.
Lastly, I tested how well the Ultra and Arc soundbars worked with their respective, entry-level subwoofers — the Bose Acoustimass 500 and the Sonos Sub Mini Arc. As I’d noted in the Sub Mini review, the Arc meshes really well with the Mini and this was evident from the first bar of Shellac’s “Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are.” The track, which pulses metronically, bursts into each chorus and the Arc was able to make these sound like a rallying call.
The Bose speakers together sounded even more menacing, pacing like like a caged animal. The song had a palpable sense of power I didn’t get from the Bose, and I would happily flit away hours listening to rock tracks on this system.
Should you buy it?
While it costs almost double what I would normally recommend spending on a soundbar, the Bose offers enough of a sonic lift to make the expenditure worthwhile if you can afford it. This soundbar looks good, sounds great and offers most of the features you need. If you’re looking to get the maximum return on your money, I suggest considering the Vizio Elevate instead, although it’s nowhere near as slick either in operation or looks.