If you want to learn how to choose a soundbar, then you're in the right place.
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 living 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.
There are plenty of ways to skin a cat (so I've been told).
But, before you get to buying a soundbar, there are a surprising number of things that you need to decide.
What type of soundbars are there? Can you get stereo or surround sound? What about Dolby Atmos soundbars or wireless subwoofers?
Then, there are all the connections. Which are the connection types, and how will you wire it to your TV?
This soundbar buying guide will cover all you need to know before purchasing a soundbar.
|Image||Model||Channels||Audio & Video Inputs||Audio & Video Outputs|
|Sonos Beam||3.0||1x HDMI (ARC)||None||Check Price|
|Samsung HW-Q950T||9.1.4||2x HDMI, 1x Optical||1x HDMI (eARC)||Check Price|
|TaoTronics TT-SK023||2.0||1x Optical, 1x 3.5mm Mini-Jack||None||Check Price|
|Polk Signa S2||2.1||1x HDMI (ARC), 1x Optical, 1x 3.5mm Mini-Jack||None||Check Price|
|Yamaha MusicCast BAR 400||2.1||1x HDMI, 1x Optical, 1x 3.5mm Mini-Jack||1x HDMI (ARC)||Check Price|
|Sonos Arc||5.0.2||1x HDMI (eARC) (optical available via an adapter)||None||Check Price|
|Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra||9.2.4||3x HDMI, 1x Optical, 1x Coaxial, 1x 3.5mm Mini-Jack, 1x USB||1x HDMI (ARC)||Check Price|
|Sennheiser Ambeo||5.1.4||3x HDMI, 1x Optical, 1x 3.5mm Mini-Jack, 1x Mic Input (for calibration)||1x HDMI (eARC), 1x Subwoofer Pre-Out||Check Price|
A soundbar is a single unit with two or more small speakers built into it. The main idea is that it is a quick and easy way to improve your TV speakers' sound.
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 previously made budget home-theater-in-a-box sound systems have switched to making soundbars for home theater sound.
They are so popular that even 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 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.
Thus, 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). A soundbar and soundbase will do a similar job – you just need to decide which one will work best in your living 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 soundbases top – with the feet on 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 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 Wi-Fi subwoofer. That will really help to fill out the sound.
Then, you can get soundbars with built-in surround speakers. Or Dolby Atmos up-firing 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 to have something like this at home, you know:
I've always regarded getting 'theater sound' in your home as simply 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 significant 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 improve the sound 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 an outstanding 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 that 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 theater sound 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.
Soundbars 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 you get with conventional bookshelf or floor-standing speakers.
So, a soundbar needs 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 positioned 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 larger speakers anyway.
Therefore, any well-designed narrow soundbar should create a sound field that is plenty wide enough if you are sitting 6 or 12 feet away.
Of course, I wouldn't take it to extremes. I wouldn't buy a small 30-inch soundbar for an 85-inch TV.
Or pair a 50-inch soundbar with a 20-inch LED television.
But, if you use some common sense, I wouldn't worry too much.
There is one caveat I would consider. A larger, wider soundbar will generally have more speakers - possibly bigger driver cones - and offer a higher output level.
So a bigger soundbar would probably suit a large room better. Or if you are sitting further away from the screen. Although, in that case, you will likely have a large screen too.
For point two, that's subjective.
If you think it looks nicer, make sure you buy a soundbar that matches your TV's width.
If not, then don't worry about it.
Most soundbars are active models.
This means that they have built-in amplification, and 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 requiring an amplifier to make them work. These are less common.
All the soundbars I mention on this page are active models.
One of the biggest problems with buying a new soundbar is deciding which brand to buy.
While there are some popular brands you will see wherever you look, some terrific names from the world of home audio make excellent soundbars.
It's a very competitive market.
At the time of writing (December 2020), the top 10 best-selling soundbars at Amazon.com include:
TaoTronics is a popular brand for budget soundbars.
The rest are established names from the world of home electronics, which offer a range of soundbars from budget to high-end.
If you want to go with what everyone else is buying, then these are names to look out for.
In addition to this, I would also suggest you consider:
Another good way to find out popular brands is to see what other people are searching for online.
Here are the top 10 global searches for '<brand name> soundbar' in December 2020:
All these brands offer excellent soundbars in a wide range of price brackets and with several different feature sets.
If you want to narrow your choice further, check out my guide to the best soundbars for your TV and home theater.
The different types of soundbar can be confusing.
There are so many models to choose from these days it can be challenging 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 doesn'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.
A 3.0 soundbar 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.
A good example of this type is the Sonos Beam. I have a guide comparing the Sonos Beam vs Arc.
If you are playing a 5.1 soundtrack, most of the dialogue will come from the central speaker. The separation from the left and right channels should give the voices more definition.
Also, remember that some soundbars don't support all surround sound audio formats. So you may be stuck with a stereo audio.
For example, here is a guide on how to play DTS soundtracks on a Sonos soundbar.
Many soundbars with a center speaker will also have a sound mode that will create a virtual surround mix from a stereo soundtrack.
This will play most of the dialogue through the center speaker, even though the soundtrack only has two left and right channels.
As they are relatively small, the speakers in a soundbar can still lack bass. However, they will nearly always be much better than your TV speakers.
So, if you want more bottom-end, then you should consider a soundbar with a wireless subwoofer.
Pretty much all the subwoofers that come with soundbars are Wi-Fi these days. Though, some models have an output so that 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.
Apart from this, a wireless sub is more flexible than a wired model when it comes to positioning.
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.
In my experience, a dedicated speaker will always give a better surround effect. Either in the soundbar itself or installed around your living room.
A newer feature these days is soundbars with built-in Dolby Atmos speakers.
The role of an up-firing 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-Q70T 3.1.2-Channel soundbar (pictured below) is a popular soundbar with built-in Dolby Atmos up-firing speakers and a wireless subwoofer.
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-Q70T, have a dedicated central speaker too.
That is quite a few speakers in a single soundbar!
The last general category is for those soundbars with dedicated rear surround speakers.
If you want a soundbar's convenience but would like the extra realism of proper dedicated surrounds, then a few soundbar systems fit the bill.
The surround speakers will often be Wi-Fi, and in many cases, are available as an add-on to a more straightforward 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 in a full package.
There are some large soundbar systems like the Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra 9.2.4-Ch Dolby Atmos Soundbar System that come with four rear speakers and two subwoofers.
Who says you can't build a full home theater system with a soundbar?
The most crucial connection on a soundbar is the audio input.
The point of a soundbar is to improve your TV's sound. So you need a way of getting the audio from your TV into the bar.
This can be done in a few ways, and the most common methods 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 wire. 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 essential 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 receive 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 calls it Anynet+.
One word of warning. Some devices might refuse to talk to each other correctly. 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.
You can learn more at what is HDMI-CEC, Anynet+ & SimpLink?
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 used for playing other audio sources through the soundbar.
A mini-jack is a standard 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.
If you want more detail on all this, I have an in-depth article on how to connect a soundbar to your TV.
Not really. A soundbar has an amplifier and speaker arrangement which is designed to work well in a 'normal-size' living room. Let's say, a viewing distance of 6-12 feet.
The power ratings for most soundbar systems I've seen don't specify what it was measured against. So, it doesn't mean much.
With AV receivers, we measure the power rating with a certain number of speakers 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 they achieve their numbers, so there's no way to know what they mean in practice.
Like Sonos and Bose, some brands don't even bother giving power ratings. This is probably the best way.
Certainly better than giving a rating that doesn't mean much in real-world conditions.
We've covered quite a bit of detail so far. Here's the tl;dr version with a few extra tips thrown in.
Think about these issues before buying a soundbar:
Before buying a soundbar, the quickest way to narrow your choice is to set yourself a budget limit.
Soundbars are available in numerous price brackets.
Budget models will usually be smaller and less powerful - probably stereo only – and have fewer connections and features.
However, to simply improve on the sound of your TV speakers, that may be all that you need.
If you want to spend more, that's great.
But you should consider what you expect to gain from spending more money.
Otherwise, you may just end up wasting money on buying a soundbar that has more than you need.
Good reasons to spend a little more are:
So, there are many reasons to spend more money.
But if you limit your budget, you are less likely to spend more than you need to – and you will have fewer soundbars to choose from!
Do you want an active or passive soundbar?
Active soundbars are the most common and don't require a separate amplifier. Just plug and play straight to your TV.
If you are unsure or still don't understand the difference, get an active soundbar.
Most soundbars that you will come across will be active models.
Generally, buy a soundbar that roughly matches the width of your TV. But it doesn't need to be exact, so don't overthink this.
Larger soundbars will usually have more and bigger speakers – and more power.
This should mean they will work better in a big room or if you sit further away from the TV.
Do you want a simple stereo soundbar to improve the sound of your TV – or do you want a higher-end solution with a built-in center speaker or Dolby Atmos up-firing speakers?
A 2.1 soundbar is better than a 3.1 soundbar for clarity of the dialogue.
Plus, do you want a subwoofer with your soundbar?
A subwoofer will give you better low-end performance. These days subwoofers are usually wireless and will provide you with a fuller sound for movies and music.
Another choice is to go for dedicated surround sound speakers.
Most soundbars create a surround effect from the front of the room with extra speakers built into the bar.
But some models offer separate surround sound speakers that you can install in the room behind you. This will give a more immersive experience.
Many of these will be wireless - but some might not be.
How do you get the sound from your TV into the soundbar?
Many soundbars use either optical or HDMI ARC connections. Make sure your TV has this connection type.
Do you want a soundbar with extra inputs for connecting other devices like your Blu-ray player, game console or cable TV box?
If a soundbar has limited inputs, you could connect devices directly to your TV and send the audio to your soundbar via HDMI ARC.
But your TV and soundbar need to support this.
Some soundbars allow for Bluetooth connections so you can stream audio from your mobile devices.
There are also soundbars which support voice controllers like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.
Are these important?
Some soundbar systems will come with apps to control the device and connect to streaming services.
Do you want support for services like Spotify, TuneIn, Deezer and Amazon Music?
If so, you'll need to make sure your soundbar supports this.
Soundbars will usually come with a remote control for operating the soundbar from your seat. Some remotes can control your TV too.
HDMI ARC connections can also allow you to control the soundbar from the TV remote.
Other soundbars may only allow for remote control via an app on your mobile device.
If this is important, check how you can control the soundbar.
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 shows 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 great 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.
A soundbar is used for improving the sound of your TV.
Most television speakers don't offer great sound. Installing a soundbar can be a quick and effective way of getting better sound for movies and TV shows.
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.
Most soundbars can be wall-mounted.
You can either buy a dedicated soundbar wall mount kit specifically for your soundbar – or purchase a universal soundbar wall mount bracket.
Another option is to fix a small shelf to the wall and stand the soundbar on this.
The best way to connect a soundbar is usually with an HDMI ARC or eARC connection. But this requires support from both your soundbar and TV.
If not, other popular methods are using optical audio or a stereo analog audio connection.
The right way will usually depend on the connection types supported by your TV and soundbar. See how to connect a soundbar to your TV for more details.
A 2.1 soundbar will have two stereo speakers - and a subwoofer. The soundbar will play stereo left and right audio - and the sub will reproduce the low bass frequencies.
A 3.1 soundbar will have an extra speaker in the center. So it has a left, center and right speaker layout in the bar – and a separate subwoofer.
The center speaker can make dialogue sound clearer. The voices will mostly come from the center speaker - while the music and effects come from the left and right speakers.
A 5.1 soundbar has 5-speakers inside – front left, center, front right, surround left, surround right – plus a separate subwoofer.
The surround speakers are usually placed at either end of the soundbar to direct the sound around the room.
These surround speakers reproduce the rear channels in a surround sound mix from inside the soundbar – from the front of the room. So, they are virtual surround speakers rather than being behind you.
However, some 5.1 soundbar systems do have separate wireless surround speakers that you can install behind you.
So, make sure you know which type you want and pick the correct model.
No, in general, it doesn't matter.
Soundbars are designed to work with every type of TV. The main thing to consider is if your TV has the correct connection types required by your soundbar.
However, there might be a few small benefits of buying a soundbar that is the same as your TV's brand:
However, you are free to choose a soundbar by its sound quality and features, rather than as a matching brand.
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.