Let's face it, the sound that you get from your TV speakers is pretty bad. You can't watch a movie using your TV speakers. Well, you can, but… why?
You know it can be much better than that.
But, where do you start? How do you improve the sound in your room for movies, sports and music television?
Obviously, as someone who has a site about home theater, I would suggest you fill your room with huge amplifiers and loads of expensive surround sound speakers.
I've got loads of articles on all those fun things.
But, guess what? I believe some people don't want all that fuss. They want an easier way to improve the sound of their TV.
It's OK. I won't hold it against you.
That's fine. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat (so I've been told).
First, I will discuss what a soundbar is and how to choose the best soundbar for your TV.
Then I will list a few of my favorites – all wrapped up in neat little categories. How's that for service?
|Image||Model||Channels||Audio & Video Inputs||Audio & Video Outputs|
|Sonos Beam||3.0||1 x HDMI ARC||None||Check Price|
|VIZIO SB3220n-F6||2.0||Optical, Coaxial, 3.5mm Mini-Jack, Stereo Analog RCA, USB||RCA (Sub)||Check Price|
|Polk Signa S2||2.1||1 x HDMI ARC, 1 x Optical, 1 x 3.5mm Mini-Jack||None||Check Price|
|Samsung HW-R550||2.1||1 x HDMI, 1 x Optical, 1 x 3.5mm Mini-Jack, 1 x USB||1 x HDMI ARC||Check Price|
|Yamaha YAS-209||2.1||1 x HDMI, 1 x Optical||1 x HDMI ARC||Check Price|
|Yamaha MusicCast BAR 400||2.1||1 x HDMI, 1 x Optical, 1 x 3.5mm Mini-Jack||1 x HDMI ARC||Check Price|
|Sonos Playbar||3.0||1 x Optical||None||Check Price|
|Nakamichi Shockwafe Elite 7.2 SSE||7.2.4||3 x HDMI, 1 x Optical, 1 x Coaxial, 1 x 3.5mm Mini-Jack, 1 x USB||1 x HDMI ARC||Check Price|
|Sonos 5.1 Home Theater Surround Set||5.1||1 x HDMI ARC||None||Check Price|
A soundbar is a single unit with several small speakers built into it. The main idea is that it is a quick and easy way to improve the sound of your TV speakers.
Put the soundbar in place. Connect a cable from your TV. Bingo – instant audio nirvana.
No amplifiers to install. No bulky speaker systems to wire up and create a mess in your room.
Many brands that used to make budget home theater systems have switched to making soundbars for home theater sound.
In fact, they are so popular, that some high-end audio brands have released their own versions.
As time has moved on, soundbar systems have become more powerful, higher quality and more sophisticated.
They are now not just simple stereo speakers. They might have a dedicated center speaker. Or surround sound speakers. Or upfiring Dolby Atmos speakers. All within the same box.
For better bass, they will often come with a wireless subwoofer.
Some models even come with separate rear speakers for 'proper' surround sound.
These systems really blur the lines between a simple soundbar and a full surround sound experience that you get from an AV receiver and speaker package.
A soundbase is a type of soundbar. It contains the speakers you need to replace the sound from your TV speakers. However, it is a flat base and you stand your TV on top of it.
Because of this, it is usually not as wide as a soundbar, but it is much deeper.
Since it isn't as wide, it might be hard to get the same wide stereo image that you can from the bigger soundbars – although that will depend on the design of a particular model.
However, a soundbase can often add more punch with extra bass than with a standalone soundbar.
Apart from that, a soundbar and soundbase are a similar concept.
There are many more soundbars available than soundbases. The most well-known examples are the Sonos brand.
They have their Playbar soundbar and Playbase soundbase (pictured above). They do a similar job – you just need to decide which one will work best in your room.
One important thing to be aware of is the stand of your TV. If it is relatively narrow, you should be able to stand it directly on top of the base.
If the stand is quite wide, it may fit over the top of the base – with the feet either side.
Of course, depending on the design of the stand, it may not fit at all. So give it some thought – and grab your tape measure.
Ah, the million-dollar question.
First, do they improve the sound of the speakers on your TV? Yes, they really do.
Pretty much any soundbar will take your listening experience to another level.
Even the cheap, budget soundbars.
However, as I said earlier, the great thing about soundbars is that there is a much wider choice these days.
If you want to keep the budget down, you can buy a simple stereo soundbar.
From there, you can go up a level and get a soundbar with a wireless subwoofer. That will really help to fill out the sound.
Then, you can get soundbars with built-in surround speakers. Or, Dolby Atmos upfiring speakers.
Further up still, you can get soundbar systems with dedicated surround speakers.
And there are even high-end soundbars made by some of the top audiophile brands.
You name it, you can do it with a soundbar.
I'll let you into a secret. As far as I'm concerned, a 'home theater' can be anything you want it to be.
Not everybody has the time, or money, to buy all the latest technology.
You don't need something like this at home you know:
I've always regarded 'home theater' simply as improving the sound and picture in your room. So that you can get as much enjoyment as you can from a movie or TV show.
That might be a projector – or just a bigger TV screen. An amplifier and speakers for the sound - or a soundbar. Anything that makes a show look or sound better is fine by me.
Does a soundbar improve the sound of your TV? It does. Even a basic stereo-only model will be a big improvement on the speakers that come with your TV.
If you can stretch to a subwoofer or surround sound, then great. You'll love it. But, if a simple soundbar is as far as you want to go. Go for it.
If you don't have space or the budget for anything too fancy, you can still make an improvement in the sound that you hear for a modest investment.
And, soundbars have come a long way in the last few years. There are many different shapes and sizes to choose from. The higher-end models are starting to compete with mid-range AV receivers and speakers.
Go with what works best for you.
In my opinion, no. But the higher-end models do sound pretty good. And, it depends on what you are comparing.
Compared to standard stereo-only models, soundbars that come with built-in surround sound and Dolby Atmos speakers can do a very good job of opening the sound field.
But they are not as effective as actually having speakers placed around the room.
If you just have a soundbar at the front of the room, there's no escaping the fact that the sound will always be very front-focused. Whatever magic tricks are used to make the sound appear to be coming from elsewhere.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on what you want.
Of course, you can also buy soundbar systems with dedicated surround speakers. This is a better mid-way solution between a simple soundbar and a full surround sound speaker system. And, easier to install too.
Final thought. A high-end soundbar system with dedicated surround speakers will probably sound better than a budget all-in-one home theater system. Therefore, it also depends on what you are comparing them with.
So, to summarize, do soundbars sound as good as surround sound?
No. Sometimes. And, yes, they do.
I hope that's clear. ;-)
There are a couple of different schools of thought on this one.
Some say that a soundbar needs to match the width of your TV. Others say it doesn't matter.
I'm in the second group, and I don't think it matters that much.
Why might it be good to have your soundbar and TV the same width? I would say there are two main reasons:
For point one, I don't think it makes that much difference.
For soundbars, they are designed to create a wide stereo field from a relatively narrow width.
If you think about it, even if you have a soundbar that is the same width as your TV, that is still narrower than the width that you get with conventional bookshelf or floorstanding speakers. So, a soundbar needs to be able to create a wide stereo image from a relatively narrow position.
If you have a pair of standard speakers with an amplifier, they will always be placed much wider than any soundbar. Otherwise, they would be blocking the TV screen!
So, any soundbar is actually much narrower than the width provided by bigger speakers anyway. As long as you have the bookshelf speakers in a good position, and not too wide, then you will get a good stereo image which works great with the picture.
So, even a well-designed narrow soundbar should create a sound field that is plenty wide enough if you are sat 6 or 12 feet away.
For point two. Well, that's subjective. If you think it looks nicer, then make sure that you buy a soundbar that matches the width of your TV. If not, then don't worry about it.
Most soundbars are active models. This means that they have built-in amplification. You don't need to buy a separate amplifier. Just connect them to a power source and run a cable from your TV to hear the sound.
However, be aware that you can get passive soundbars that will need an amplifier to make them work. These are less common.
All the soundbars I mention on this page are active models.
The different types of soundbar can be confusing. There are so many models to choose from these days that it can be difficult to know where to start.
The main differences are to do with the number of speakers in the bar itself. These are the general areas that you should consider when choosing a soundbar:
The most basic soundbars will just have stereo left and right sound.
You place it under your TV like in the picture below. If it won't fit underneath, you can put it above. But, in this case, try to angle it down slightly to point at your listening position.
So, it's just like the stereo sound you get from your TV speakers... but better!
If you want clearer dialogue from your TV, then you can buy a 3.0 soundbar.
This will have a dedicated center speaker as well as stereo left and right speakers. However, all the speakers will still come in a single case.
The center speaker will be used for most of the dialogue. The separation from the left and right channels should give the voices more definition.
As they are quite small, the speakers in a soundbar can still lack bass. Although, they will still be much better than your TV speakers.
So, if you want more bottom-end, then you should consider a model with a wireless subwoofer.
Pretty much all the subwoofers that come with soundbars are wireless these days. Though, some models have an output so you can connect a subwoofer with a cable.
The .1 in the name refers to the subwoofer.
Because low frequencies aren't directional - by this I mean below about 100 Hz in most home theater rooms - you can place the subwoofer pretty much anywhere in the room. So you don't need to follow the picture below.
A wireless subwoofer will have a maximum range, so you do have some limits. But, apart from this, when it comes to positioning, a wireless sub is more flexible than a wired model.
Go to my article on how to position your subwoofer if you more detail on this.
The next option up is a soundbar with built-in surround speakers. These are fitted into the bar along with the stereo speakers.
Some bars have surround speakers and stereo speakers – others will also have a dedicated center speaker too.
As I said earlier, the surround sound that you get from these models won't be as effective as having dedicated speakers installed behind you in the room. But they will give a more open feel to the audio in a movie.
Also, be aware of soundbars that don't have dedicated surround speakers built into the unit itself – but still say that they have surround sound. These models will often just use some type of psychoacoustic technology that tries to recreate the effect.
These don't generally sound that great. A dedicated speaker, either in the soundbar, or installed around the room, will always give a better effect in my experience.
A newer feature these days is soundbars with built-in Dolby Atmos speakers. The role of an upfiring Dolby Atmos speaker is to bounce the 3D sound effects in a movie soundtrack off the ceiling – and down to your listening position.
This gives the effect of sound coming from above you.
The Samsung HW-Q80R 5.1.2-Channel soundbar (pictured below) is a popular soundbar that comes with built-in Dolby Atmos upfiring speakers.
So, if you have decided that a soundbar is the way you want to go - and still want to experience Dolby Atmos - then a soundbar of this type gives you the best solution.
Some soundbars, like the Samsung HW-Q80R, have a dedicated center speaker too. That is quite a number of speakers in a single soundbar!
The last general category is for those soundbars with dedicated rear surround speakers.
If you want the convenience of a soundbar but would like the extra realism of proper dedicated surrounds, then there are a few soundbar systems that fit the bill.
The surround speakers will often be wireless, and in many cases are available as an add-on to a simpler 2.1 or 3.1 soundbar.
The advantage of this is you could upgrade later if you don't want to spend too much in one go.
Other systems come with all the speakers as a full package.
In fact, there are some big soundbar systems like the Nakamichi Ultra 9.2.4-Ch Soundbar System which comes with four rear speakers and two subwoofers.
Who says you can't build a home theater system with a soundbar!
The most important connection on a soundbar is the audio input. Obviously, the point of a soundbar is to improve the sound of your TV, so you need a way of getting the audio from your TV into the bar.
There are a few ways that this can be done, and the most common ways are via optical audio and HDMI ARC.
Many modern flat screen TVs will have an optical audio output. This is for sending the audio from your TV to another device to playback the sound.
In this case, that will be your soundbar.
So, assuming you have an optical output on your TV and an optical input on your soundbar, you can use an optical audio cable to send audio between them.
Don't forget to turn the volume of the TV speakers down to zero. You don't want the sound coming from two different places.
Aside from an optical connection, an HDMI ARC connection is a popular method of sending audio from your TV to your soundbar.
ARC stands for Audio Return Channel and it allows devices to send data in both directions in an HDMI connection.
For example, a common use is with an AV receiver - which will usually send video from the receiver to the TV via HDMI.
With an HDMI ARC connection, you can also send audio from your TV back to the AV receiver – all using the same connection. The aim is to make cabling simpler.
This is why HDMI ARC is useful for soundbars.
If your TV and soundbar both have an HDMI ARC connection, you can send the audio from your TV into the soundbar. No more need for an optical cable.
It is important to check that both your devices support ARC. So, the TV and the soundbar should have HDMI connections that say they are ARC-enabled. Many TVs will have several HDMI connections, but only one of them will be the ARC version.
ARC supports stereo and 5.1 surround sound. The newer version, eARC, also supports higher bitrate audio like Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Atmos.
eARC is starting to appear on new devices, but the standard ARC is the most likely version you will have.
Another benefit of an ARC connection is that you can connect more devices to your soundbar.
If your soundbar has limited (or no) input connections for Blu-ray players or game consoles, you can connect your devices directly to the HDMI inputs on your TV instead. Then, use the HDMI ARC connection to send the audio to your soundbar.
There is one potential problem with this. Some TVs will only pass 5.1 surround sound via ARC from audio generated within the TV – like a Netflix app, for example.
If they are receiving audio from an external Blu-ray player, they may only pass stereo audio to your soundbar.
You will need to check the manual of your TV to see if that might be an issue.
The benefits of an HDMI connection don't stop there. If you have an HDMI connection between your TV and soundbar, then you may be able to use CEC to operate the soundbar with your TV remote control.
CEC stands for Consumer Electronics Control and is a standard that allows devices to control each other via an HDMI connection.
If you haven't already, you will need to enable CEC control on your TV. It should be in the settings menu somewhere.
You may already be using this to control a DVD or Blu-ray player.
Just be aware that many companies use their own name for it. For example, Samsung call it Anynet+. How annoying.
One word of warning. Some devices might refuse to talk to each other properly. It can be a bit hit and miss sometimes. And, you may find devices switching on/off when you don't want them to.
However, don't let that put you off. When it works, it can be great.
A 3.5mm mini-jack input isn't used for getting the sound from your TV into the soundbar. It is there as an auxiliary input. That means it is meant to be used for playing other audio sources through the soundbar.
This is a common audio connection on many consumer audio products. You will likely be most familiar with it as the headphone socket on your phone or mobile device.
So, for example, you can connect a male-to-male 3.5mm mini-jack cable from your phone headphone output into the aux input on your soundbar.
That way you can rock the room/annoy your family (delete as applicable) and play your tunes from your phone on the soundbar system. Nice.
You can do this with any device that has an analog audio output. You may need to buy a converter cable if the connection type isn't the same.
Not really. A soundbar has an amplifier and speaker arrangement which is designed to work well in a 'normal-size' room. Let's say, a viewing distance of 6-12 feet.
Any soundbar system I've seen which gives a power rating doesn't specify what it was measured against. So, it doesn't mean much.
With AV receivers, the power rating is measured with a certain number of speakers being driven into an impedance – with a given frequency spectrum - and with a reasonable level of distortion (usually below 1% THD). They should also be average RMS figures rather than peak music output numbers.
I've yet to see a soundbar explain how their numbers are achieved, so there's no way to know what they mean in practice.
Some brands, like Sonos and Bose, don't even bother giving power ratings – which is probably the best way. Certainly better than giving a rating that doesn't mean much in real-world conditions.
Think about these issues before buying a soundbar:
Now that we have a better understanding of why a soundbar is great, and what to look out for, we need to find the perfect model.
I've created several categories and picked my favorite for each one. This should make it easier for you to quickly find the right one for you. Or, to simply understand better the choices that you have.
In the categories that are based on price, I have gone by the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). You should be aware that it is common for retailers to discount models below this price – especially during holiday sales and when there is a newer model available.
Therefore, don't be afraid to check out the best TV soundbars in a higher price bracket. You may find them available at a cheaper price than suggested.
Which is always good!
So, there you have it. Now you know that the best soundbars can be the perfect solution for any home theater system.
You don't have to buy an expensive amplifier and surround sound speakers to improve the enjoyment of TV and movies in your room.
Of course, you can still do that too if you want to!
There are so many different types of soundbar these days, that it's easy to find a solution that fits your room – and budget.
A simple stereo-only soundbar is a cheap option. But, it's also easy to add a wireless subwoofer, Dolby Atmos or surround sound speakers to get a much better experience.
A soundbar might just be the simple change to your home entertainment system that you were looking for.
Enjoy better sound.
I've covered quite a lot of subjects in this buying guide to soundbars. But there is always something else to know.
Let's take a look at some common questions that arise in this area.
No. The speakers are inside the soundbar.
Generally, no. Most soundbars are active designs. This means they already have amplification built into the unit to power the speakers.
You just need to connect it to a power source and send an audio signal into it.
However, passive soundbars do exist. These don't have built-in amplification and will need to be connected to a suitable amplifier.
A 2.1 soundbar will have a stereo speaker layout and a subwoofer. So, you will hear stereo left and right audio and the low bass will be routed to the sub.
A 3.1 soundbar will have a left, center and right speaker layout.
This can make dialogue sound clearer as it comes from the center speaker – while the music and effects come from the left and right.
A 2.1 soundbar has a stereo left and right speaker configuration – and a subwoofer.
A 5.1 soundbar has 5-speakers inside – front left, center, front right, surround left and surround right – and a subwoofer.
The surround speakers create the surround channels from the front of the room – from inside the soundbar. So, they are virtual surround speakers rather than actually being behind you.
However, some 5.1 soundbar systems do have dual wireless surround speakers that you can install behind you. So, make sure you know which type you want and pick the correct model.
A 3.1 soundbar has a left, center and right speaker inside (and it connects to a subwoofer).
A 5.1 soundbar adds two extra speakers inside the unit which provide the surround left and right effect. In some systems, the surround speakers may be proper dedicated rear speakers. These are usually wireless.
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.