Price comparison from over 24,000 stores worldwide
Remember when you had to pay upwards of $1,000 for a Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbar? Those days are long gone, as evidenced by Vizio’s budget-priced M215a-J6. This compact 2.1-channel soundbar supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X (with a little help from DTS’s virtualizing technology), and it does so for less than $200.
Being a budget soundbar, the M215a-J6 is saddled with some compromises, including the lack of a center channel, no Wi-Fi, and occasionally shrill and/or boomy audio. But while we have heard soundbars in the M215a-J6’s price range with better overall sound, none of them packed Atmos or DTS:X audio. We also love the eARC support, a feature we generally see only in soundbars costing hundreds more, and we dig the low-profile design and the dedicated 3.5mm jack for voice assistants.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best soundbars. Click that link to read reviews of competing products, along with a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.
The M215a-J6 was first announced last summer with a $300 price tag, but I’m told that the MSRP is now a mere $178 through retailers such as Best Buy and Walmart.
The Vizio M215a-J6 is a 2.1-channel soundbar, with left and right channels (the “2” in the soundbar’s “2.1-channel” designation) powered by two drivers each: an oval-shaped 1.66 x 3.28-inch full-range driver, and a 0.79-inch tweeter. Besides supplying audio for the left and right channels, the drivers in the main soundbar unit combine to create a “phantom” center channel for dialogue. The wireless subwoofer, meanwhile, has a 5-inch woofer for low-frequency effects (the “.1” in the “2.1”).
No surround speakers are included, and you can’t upgrade the soundbar with additional speakers, so what you see (and hear) is what you get. If you do want a soundbar with surround speakers (not to mention up-firing drivers for height effects), you’ll have to pony up for something like our mid-range pick, the 5.1.2-channel Vizio M512a-H6, which retails for $499.
The M215a-J6 supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, two popular audio technologies that deliver height as well as surround audio cues. As with other budget soundbars that offer Atmos and DTS:X audio, the M215a-J6 achieves its height effects via virtualization rather than upfiring drivers (such as those in the aforementioned M512a-H6) that bounce audio off the ceiling. In the M215a-J6’s case, the soundbar employs DTS Virtual:X to trick your ears into thinking they’re hearing height cues for both Atmos and DTS:X content.
While soundbars with virtualized 3D modes won’t give you the same precision as upfiring drivers that bounce height cues off the ceiling—or better yet, height speakers built into your ceiling—they do have their advantages. Besides simply being more affordable, soundbars with virtualized 3D audio aren’t beholden to the height and design of your ceiling. According to Dolby, upfiring drivers require a flat ceiling between 7.5- and 14-feet high; ceilings that are too high, too short, or vaulted won’t do, nor will ceilings made of sound-absorbing material. If your ceiling doesn’t pass muster but you still want object-based Atmos and DTS:X audio, a soundbar with virtual 3D effects might be just the ticket.
Measuring 36 x 2.24 x 3.54 inches (W x H x D), the Vizio M215a-J6 is average-sized in terms of length (it’s almost as long as my 55-inch LG C9 OLED TV), but its low-profile design should keep it from blocking the bottom of your TV screen should you place it in front of your set. Of course, another option would be to install the soundbar under your TV, and Vizio supplies a mounting kit complete with a wall mount template for that purpose.
Similar to the main soundbar unit, the 8.3 x 9.9 x 8.3-inch subwoofer is small and light (just 7.6 pounds), allowing for unobtrusive placement next to your sofa (just not too close to the sofa) or TV cabinet.
Inputs and outputs
The Vizio M215a-J6 boasts a variety of audio and input connectors that will support both recent and legacy TVs, starting with an HDMI-ARC interface that supports eARC, plus an additional HDMI input.
The HDMI-ARC port lets an ARC-enabled smart TV send audio from any connected video devices or its own streaming apps to the soundbar over a single HDMI cable, and because the M215a-J6 supports eARC, that includes lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks from Blu-ray discs (provided your TV also supports eARC, that is).
If you have an HDMI-enabled TV that doesn’t support ARC, or you’d simply rather connect a video source directly to the soundbar, you can do so using the single HDMI input, and then send both audio and video up to your TV via the HDMI-ARC connector (4K HDR passthrough is supported).
Have an older TV without HDMI inputs or outputs? You can still connect it to the M215a-J6 using its optical (Toslink) input. There’s also a 3.5mm input jack for even older TVs that only have 3.5mm or RCA-style audio outputs.
Besides the standard audio and video connectors, Vizio also offers another option that’s unique among the competition: a dedicated 3.5mm jack for voice assistants, such as the Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Dot. You can also connect a smart speaker (such as the Google Nest Mini, which lacks a wired audio output) via Bluetooth. Once that’s done, the M215a-J6 will pipe sound from the smart speaker (including streaming music) through its own drivers, and it’ll even lower the volume of whatever’s currently playing so you can hear your voice assistant when you summon it.
Finally, a USB-A port allows for music file playback from an external drive, but unfortunately, only MP3 and WAV files are supported.
Vizio includes both HDMI and optical cables in the box, along with a pair of cable ties, but you’ll have to supply your own 3.5mm cables.
As I previously mentioned, you can either place the M215a-J6 in front of your TV or mount it beneath your TV. For my tests, I opted to put the soundbar in front of my low-slung LG C9 OLED TV, and the soundbar housing cleared the screen with a smidgen of room to spare.
I chose to place the subwoofer on the same side of my listening room as my sofa, about a few feet away. You could also put the subwoofer in a more traditional spot nearer the TV. Moving the subwoofer this way and that is a good idea in terms of gauging the best bass performance, a task made much easier given the subwoofer’s compact size and reasonable weight. If the bass is too boomy, move the subwoofer a few inches here or there (a.k.a. the “subwoofer crawl”) until you’re happy with the sound. Just be sure to keep the rear port unblocked.
Once you have the main soundbar unit and subwoofer placed where you want, you just connect their power cords (each is roughly 5 feet long). The subwoofer comes pre-paired with the soundbar and should connect automatically (it did for me); if there’s any trouble, a voiced alert will tell you that the subwoofer can’t be found. There’s a manual pairing process if the automatic pairing doesn’t work.
Unsurprisingly for a soundbar in this price range, the M215a-J6 lacks Wi-Fi connectivity, which means there’s no AirPlay 2 or Chromecast, nor any native music streaming or app control. On the other hand, you also won’t have to deal with connecting the speaker to your Wi-Fi network, a process that I’ve found to be a hassle on other Vizio soundbars.
Indicator lights, buttons, and remote
Sitting on top of the M215a-J6 is the usual array of Vizio soundbar controls, including buttons for power, input select, Bluetooth pairing, and volume.
Shipping with the M215a-J6 is the same remote that comes with Vizio’s other recent soundbars. Its most notable feature is a backlit display, a rare find, although the buttons themselves aren’t backlit. The display lets you navigate a variety of convoluted menus, allowing you to adjust bass, treble, dialog, and subwoofer levels, as well as enable various sound modes and toggle DTS Virtual:X on and off. While you may have trouble pinpointing the “EQ,” ”Level,” “Setup,” and “Effect” buttons in the dark, the all-important volume and mute buttons are easy to find by touch.
The M215a-J6’s LED indicators are—again—similar to those of other Vizio models, consisting of a 10-dot column on the left side of the front panel. The LEDs rise and fall according to the volume level, as well as when you adjust the various sound controls (bass, treble, and so on). A secondary LED at the bass of the column glows in different colors according to the detected sound format or selected input; green, for example, denotes Dolby Atmos, while amber means DTS, and blue stands for Bluetooth.
Sound modes and performance
The M215a-J6 comes with a standard set of sound modes, including Movie, Music, Direct, and Game. There’s also a night mode that compresses the soundbar’s dynamic range for late-night viewing sessions. DTS Virtual:X can be turned on and off independently of the various sound modes, adding height effects and boosting the soundstage. For my listening tests, I kept to Movie mode with DTS Virtual:X on for movies and TV shows, then switched to Music mode for tunes.
When evaluating a soundbar in the Vizio M215a-J6’s price range—that is, south of $200—one of the most important questions I ask myself is, “Does this soundbar sound better than a TV’s built-in speakers?” The answer is an emphatic yes. The M215a-J6’s sonics are big, immersive, and deep, filling the room in ways that a TV’s speakers never could. For a smaller room or listeners on a budget, the M215a-J6 makes for a solid choice.
That said, the M215a-J6’s sound quality has some clear limits. Overall, I felt the soundbar’s audio was sharp verging on shrill, while its little subwoofer was a bit too boomy (careful placement of the sub combined with output adjustments can help temper the booms). Between the sometimes overbearing high and low frequencies, the mid-range felt somewhat lacking, robbing the M215a-J6’s sonics of warmth.
Now, it should be said that while I’ve heard better overall-sounding soundbars in the M215a-J6’s price range, none of them supported Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Take, for instance, the Battle of Hoth sequence from the UHD Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, in which such Atmos-enabled height cues as the hissing ice crystals falling from the crushed ceiling of the Rebel base were clearly audible, as was the sound of an Imperial Walker’s foot as it hovered perilously over Luke Skywalker’s head. The height effects weren’t as precise as I’ve heard from, say, the Vizio Elevate and its upfiring drivers, but they were certainly there.
On the other hand, the sound of the Millennium Falcon’s engines was way too boomy, prompting me to dial back the subwoofer output level. Also, John Williams’s brassy score occasionally sounded harsh, especially at higher volumes.
I heard more of the same during the UHD Blu-ray of Apollo 13, which has a DTS:X soundtrack. The thrilling launch sequence certainly sounded big and bold, while the rumbling Saturn V rocket shook the room and the fiery exhaust seemed to billow over my head. But overall, the M215a-J6’s sound was bordering on harsh and boomy—not awful, mind you, but not full-bodied, either.
Jumping to 1978’s Superman on iTunes and its Dolby Atmos soundtrack, the whooshing main titles sounded a bit hissy, while John Williams’s famous score sounded a tad hard-edged. Back on the plus side, I could detect clear height effects as the credits soared across the screen, and talk about bass—Richard Donner’s “directed by” credit got a big, satisfying “thunk.”
I also dipped into a West Wing episode to hear how the M215a-J6 handles long stretches of dialog. Soundbars without center channels can sometimes get tiring when it comes to the words, but dialog on the M215a-J6 sounded clear and crisp to my ears, with no obvious bleeding into the left or right channels.
For music, I switched to Music mode and began with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” streamed from Qobuz via Bluetooth. The Boss’s spare vocals and acoustic guitar strumming sounded relatively clean, and while there was a little less high-end detail than I’d like, the sonics were fairly solid for a budget-priced soundbar. Ditto with Billie Eilish’s “Oxytocin,” with the M215a-J6’s mini sub pumping out big beats for the track’s heavy bassline, while the DTS Virtual:X processing did a solid job with the nifty surround effects. DTS virtualization also paid off for Vlado Perlemuter’s rendition of Maurice Ravel’s solo piano works (this time streamed from my personal Plex collection, again via Bluetooth), with the soundbar nicely delivering the hall’s atmospherics.
As I’ve already noted, I’ve heard better overall sonics from other soundbars in the M215a-J6’s price range, including the $179 Roku Streambar Pro and the pricier (but still budget-ranged) Polk React. But neither the Polk nor Roku soundbars support Dolby Atmos.
Indeed, if Atmos is a must-have and your budget only allows for $200, the Vizio M215a-J6 is pretty much your only choice. And while it isn’t the best budget soundbar I’ve ever heard, it isn’t bad either, and it’s certainly a big step up from the speakers in your TV.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.