The humble soundbar has come a long way from the days when it was merely an upgrade to a TV’s built-in speakers. While that remains the primary purpose of a soundbar, these days you’ll find numerous models with capabilities—and even sound quality—that make them a compelling option for rooms where an AVR-based system is not an option.
– Soundbars come in all shapes and sizes, from ultra-small to giant custom-made models.
-You don’t need to match the width of your soundbar to your TV unless you wish to do so for aesthetic reasons.
– Wider soundbars offer better channel separation.
– If you plan to use a soundbar on a TV stand, check its height to make sure it will not block the bottom of the TV screen.
2. All-in-One, Soundbar+Subwoofer, or Multi-Speaker System?
– Some soundbars are totally self-contained, others come with a subwoofer that’s usually wireless.
– All-in-one soundbars typically offer virtual surround sound.
– Virtual surround can vary in terms of its effectiveness. Yamaha’s Digital Sound Projector technology works very well; it can reproduce 7.1.2 immersive audio.
– Some soundbars support an optional subwoofer, others come with a sub as part of a package.
– Some soundbar systems include discrete surround speakers that can be wired or wireless.
– Separate surround speakers can significantly expand the perceived size of the soundstage that a soundbar can reproduce.
– Inexpensive all-in-one soundbars usually don’t offer the option to add a subwoofer. Higher-end models often include a subwoofer output.
– The subwoofers that are included with pre-packaged soundbar systems are typically not of the same caliber as even entry-level standalone subs.
3. Number of Channels
– You’ll find soundbars with as few as two channels and as many as 15.2—for 11.2.4 immersive audio—and everything in between.
– A 2.0 soundbar may be all you need if the goal is to simply improve upon poor-quality built-in TV speakers.
– There is practically no situation in which a subwoofer won’t improve upon the performance of a soundbar.
– 3.0 and 3.1 soundbars add a center channel to the mix, which can help reproduce dialog clearly.
– A 5.1 soundbar system can make the most of the many 5.1 surround mixes that are available. Most surround content is mixed in 5.1.
4. Wired Connections
– If the soundbar is intended simply to improve the sound quality compared with a TV’s internal speakers, the TV’s optical digital-audio output is usually connected to the corresponding input on the soundbar.
– Some TVs only output 2.0 PCM audio over S/PDIF, while others support 5.1.
– Some soundbars offer an HDMI input, which is connected to the HDMI output of an AVR or source device, such as a Blu-ray player or media streamer.
– Some soundbars provide an HDMI output, which passes video from the source device connected to the soundbar to the TV’s HDMI input.
– If the soundbar’s HDMI output and the TV’s HDMI input support ARC (Audio Return Channel), audio from the TV’s built-in streaming apps or over-the-air tuner can be sent to the soundbar over the same HDMI cable that carries the video from the soundbar to the TV.
– Soundbars that provide multiple HDMI inputs can be used for source switching, which is very handy if you don’t use an AVR. If you have a 4K UHD TV, and especially one that supports HDR, make sure the soundbar’s HDMI ports support HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2.
– An HDMI connection is necessary for Atmos-enabled soundbars.
– Dolby Digital decoding is an important feature for decoding bitstream audio from streaming services.
– Some soundbars provide a USB port to play media files from USB storage devices.
5. Sound Quality
– Soundbars vary greatly in terms of fidelity. Typically, you get what you pay for.
– While you might find soundbar demos at big-box stores, it’s hard to judge sound quality in that sort of environment.
– Use specifications and online reviews to make the best purchase decision you can, but if you don’t like what you hear when you set up your new soundbar at home, don’t be afraid to try something else.
– Higher-end soundbars can sound as good as a decent speaker system; it’s surprising how far they’ve come. Entry-level models may improve upon a TV’s built-in sound, but they can’t match the fidelity of even a cheap pair of bookshelf speakers.
– Consider a premium soundbar that supports an external subwoofer if you want the best audio quality from this type of system.
– Typically, soundbars that feature 2-way speakers for each channel outperform those that use single full-range drivers.
6. Active or Passive?
– Most soundbars are self-powered, aka “active.”
– Active soundbars are self-contained; hook one up to a TV, plug it in, and go.
– Passive soundbars require external amplification, typically an AVR.
– You can combine a passive soundbar with a standalone sub and surround speakers to create a complete surround system.
– Typically, passive soundbars are high-end devices that can cost as much as a good speaker system.
7. Dolby Atmos & DTS:X Compatibility
– Soundbars with immersive-audio capability are a relatively new development.
– The Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier soundbar offers Atmos compatibility, 1000 watts of total system power, and support for up to four wireless subs.
– Yamaha’s YSP-5600 Digital Sound Projector can render both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X with 7.1.2 channels. It is the only soundbar that can handle DTS:X.
– Philips announced a 5.1.2 Atmos soundbar at CES 2016, the Fidelio B8. The company said it would be available in the US this year but that has yet to happen.
8. Bluetooth & Wi-Fi Streaming
– Soundbars often double as stereo systems for music listening. Some soundbars offer wireless streaming and Bluetooth connectivity to facilitate this.
– Look for aptX support if you plan to stream music using Bluetooth; it provides higher fidelity by reducing compression-related loss.
– Many of the latest soundbars support Wi-Fi streaming. The specific protocol they use to achieve this varies from brand to brand.
– Sonos offers a great-sounding model, the PlayBar, but it is only compatible with the company’s popular yet proprietary wireless ecosystem.
– DTS Play-Fi is a comparatively open standard; you can purchase products that support it from numerous manufacturers, including Polk, Definitive Technology, MartinLogan, Integra, Klipsch, and Pioneer.
– A number of soundbars, including numerous models made by Vizio, support Google Cast, which is another comparatively open and popular networked-audio ecosystem.
– Yamaha offers soundbars that feature compatibility with its MusicCast networked-audio system.
– Denon’s HEOS networked-audio system provides similar capabilities for that company’s products.
– Samsung soundbars use the company’s Multiroom app to support Wi-Fi streaming. Similarly, LG’s soundbars offer Wi-Fi streaming using the company’s Music Flow app.
9. Budget and Recommendations
– With options ranging in price from under $100 to over $1000, there are plenty of soundbars to choose from at various price points. Here are a few to consider.
– There are tons of options that cost less than $200 yet still provide a boost in fidelity when the main goal is simply to improve upon a TV’s built-in sound.
– Vizio’s SB3820-C6 38-Inch 2.0-channel soundbar ($99 on Amazon) gets the job done for under 100 bucks and looks good doing it. You get Bluetooth and optical-digital inputs with this model.
– Samsung’s HW-K450 ($178 on Amazon) is a 35-inch 2.1-channel model with a wireless sub that offers Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, optical digital S/PDIF, and HDMI connectivity.
– LG offers the 37-inch LAS465 2.1 ($177 on Amazon); connectivity is limited to an optical-digital input or Bluetooth. It does come with a wireless subwoofer.
– Sony’s HTCT390 ($198 on Amazon) is a 36-inch, ultra slim design (only 2″ high) that offers HDMI connectivity (with ARC), a wireless sub, USB music playback, and Bluetooth.
– Yamaha’s YAS-106 ($199 on Amazon) does not come with a subwoofer, but it promises to deliver good bass response. It offers HDMI connectivity (with 4K support), Bluetooth, and an optical-digital input. This model also includes a wired subwoofer output.
– From $200 to $500, you’ll find soundbars that offer more channels, more features, and higher fidelity—all without breaking the bank.
– Vizio steps up to the plate with the 45″ SB4551-D5 5.1-channel slim soundbar ($349 on Amazon). You get the works with this outfit, including a low-profile wireless subwoofer that’s designed to fit underneath your couch and satellite speakers to add real surround sound. A sleek low-profile design, support for SmartCast and Google Cast for streaming audio, bass down to 30 Hz, HDMI input, USB music playback, optical digital S/PDIF, and Bluetooth are part of this high-value package.
– Polk’s 3.1-channel Magni-Fi soundbar ($249 on Amazon) offers crisp sound quality and a wireless sub with adjustable delay for time-aligned bass. “Voice Adjust” processing offers clear dialog, while a slim profile that’s only 2″ high keeps it out of the way of your TV. It connects via Bluetooth plus optical-digital inputs.
– Sony’s HT-CT790 2.1-channel soundbar ($298 on Amazon) has three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output (with ARC), all offering 4K and HDR support. This model decodes both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats for superior sound quality when watching movies on Blu-ray. You can also connect via Wi-Fi (with Google Cast), Bluetooth, Ethernet, and optical-digital input. It also ingests data from USB sticks. This slim model is 40″ wide and only 2″ high.
– Klipsch’s 2.1-channel R-10B soundbar ($295 on Amazon) comes with a wireless 8″ subwoofer and offers Bluetooth with aptX for high-quality streaming. It connects to TVs using an optical-digital cable has virtual 3D surround. It’s a 2-way design that features 3/4″ horn-loaded dome tweeters and 2.5″ mid/woofers.
– Between $500 and $1000, you’ll find soundbars that strive for higher fidelity and pack on the features. This is the price range where soundbars become viable alternatives to (very) modest AVR-based systems.
– The Sonos Playbar ($650 on Amazon) is a great soundbar despite seemingly limited connectivity—it connects to TVs using an optical-digital cable (no HDMI). However, because it’s part of the Sonos ecosystem, it can also handle streaming music. You can add a Sonos sub ($649 on Amazon), and Sonos Play:1 speakers ($139 each on Amazon) to create a wireless 5.1 system.
– KEF’s HTF8003 3.1-channel soundbar ($760 on Amazon) is a passive option—you need to power it with an AVR—but it promises high fidelity in a self-contained package. It’s a 3-way sound system that relies on KEF’s 2-way Uni-Q point-source driver arrays for the mids and highs of each channel, and it incorporates a 3″ woofer and 3″ passive radiator on each channel for enhanced bass response. Because an AVR runs the show, you can add satellite speakers and a subwoofer for a complete high-fidelity system.
– Harman Kardon’s SABRE SB35 ($800 on Amazon) is a 5.1-channel slim-design soundbar system that packs eight independent channels into one chassis. It sports three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output (with ARC) and offers surround-sound capability from a single unit. You can also connect via Bluetooth or an optical-digital cable.
– Denon’s HEOS HomeCinema ($600 on Amazon) is a great-sounding 2.1 soundbar system that features the company’s proprietary multiroom networked-audio technology. It comes with a wireless sub and offers one HDMI input and one output (with ARC). It also supports optical and coaxial digital input. Thanks to HEOS, it can be part of a larger whole-home streaming-music system.
– Once you exceed $1000, you’ll find soundbars that can compete with decent AVR-based systems in terms of fidelity. You’ll also find support for immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X in some models.
– Samsung’s 48″ wide HW-K950 ($1100 on Amazon) is the first wireless soundbar to offer support for 5.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos. It comes with a comparatively powerful sub and wireless surrounds that incorporate Atmos-enabled functionality. It has an upmixer function that can convert any audio to full 5.1.4 immersive sound. This soundbar features three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output (with ARC). It also supports Bluetooth, as well as optical-digital input and Wi-Fi. The Samsung Multiroom app allows it to stream audio and be a part of a larger whole-home audio ecosystem.
– MartinLogan’s Vision X ($1500 on Amazon) is a high-end 3.0 soundbar system that lets you add a subwoofer with a wireless adapter. It eschews HDMI for digital optical and coaxial inputs, but it does support DTS Play-Fi for wireless audio streaming over Wi-Fi. The Vision X offers virtual surround processing.
– Look to Yamaha’s YSP-5600 ($1600 on Amazon) for 7.1.2 audio from a single unit. The company’s patented technology allows it to render Dolby Atmos and DTS:X as well as 7.1 surround sound by bouncing beams of sound off of walls and the ceiling. Its HDMI inputs support 4K passthrough (including HDR). You can add a subwoofer for deeper bass, and you can connect to it wirelessly with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.