Soundbars owe their existence to flat-panel TVs. Sure, those skinny screens produce a crystal-clear picture. But their tiny built-in speakers can’t even reproduce dialogue clearly, much less deliver convincing explosions, car crashes and all the other mayhem that keeps us riveted by our favorite movies and TV shows.
TV speakers are not only undersized and under-powered, they’re almost always aimed in the wrong direction, firing sound downward or toward the wall behind the TV. It’s no wonder everything comes out indistinct and out-of-focus.
So the goal of the soundbar is to provide a sonic experience that more closely matches the TV’s lifelike picture. Equipment makers use a variety of methods to achieve that goal, and pretty much any soundbar you choose is going to sound better than your TV’s speakers. A lot better.
Soundbars have exploded in popularity in recent years, and the number of models has likewise exploded. So we’ve put together this buying guide to help you quickly figure out what flavor of soundbar might work best for you.
What is a sound bar?
A soundbar is an all-in-one speaker system that delivers high-quality TV sound without requiring the space, complexity and expense of a home theater receiver and surround sound speaker setup. A soundbar’s long, slender cabinet contains two or more speakers, and may provide either stereo or surround sound. Some soundbars come with a separate subwoofer for producing deep bass, which adds impact to movie soundtracks and music.
Nearly all soundbars you’ll run across are a self-powered or “active” – that is, they have their own built-in amplifiers. But there is a vanishing breed of soundbars designed to be connected to and powered by a receiver. These non-powered or “passive” soundbars lack another major advantage of active models: easy setup and operation. This article covers only self-powered soundbars, since that’s what 99.9% of folks are looking for.
When shopping, you’ll run across soundbars from nearly every audio company, as well as most TV makers. A soundbar made by the same company that built your TV may be a perfect match cosmetically, or offer other compatibility benefits. But for pure sound quality, you’ll probably do better with a model from a company whose main focus is audio gear.
Where do you plan to put it?
Knowing where you’re going to place your sound bar will immediately simplify your decision and narrow down your choices. There are two basic options. If your TV is hanging on the wall you can mount the sound bar right below it for a neat, uncluttered look. If you’re going this route, you’ll want to consider how you’ll hide the power cord and connection cable.
On the other hand, if your TV sits on a stand or cabinet, you can set the soundbar in front of the TV. In that case you’ll want to measure your stand and your TV’s base to be sure the soundbar won’t stick out from the stand at all.
You should also measure the space between the top of your stand and the bottom of your TV screen, to make sure the soundbar doesn’t block any of the screen. Some soundbars can be positioned either with the speakers facing forward, or laying flat with the speakers facing up, for just this reason.
Soundbars come in a wide range of sizes, from barely a foot wide to nearly five feet long. The right size bar for you will depend on the size of your room, the size of your TV, and your personal preferences.
If you plan to do at least some of your shopping in actual brick-and-mortar stores, pull out your phone and snap a few pics of your TV before you head out the door. That way when you’re comparing models at the local big box, you can check those photos and have get a better idea of how different soundbars will look in your home.
What about a subwoofer?
If you think you might want a soundbar with an accompanying subwoofer, that might limit your placement options a bit, but probably less than you’d expect. That’s because nearly all of these subwoofers are wireless. That is, they receive the audio signal wirelessly from the soundbar, so you needn’t connect any cables between the soundbar and the subwoofer. But you will need to plug the sub into a wall outlet for power.
Also, the low frequencies that subs produce are difficult for our ears to locate, so you can usually position the sub almost anywhere in the room and still have it blend well sonically with the soundbar. Put it next to your sofa or tuck it in a corner behind a potted palm.
Soundbar or sound base?
So far, we’ve been talking about soundbars that really do have the long, thin shape of a bar. But there’s another type: the platform-style soundbar, also sometimes called a sound base. This wide, low-profile design sits under your TV and supports it. Sound bases have specially reinforced cabinets that are extra-sturdy. If you’re considering this type, check the specs to make sure it can support the weight of your TV. And make sure the sound base is wider than your TV’s base.
A sound base might be your best bet if there isn’t much vertical space between the bottom of your TV screen and the top of your stand. It’s also a smart choice if you want full-range sound without a separate subwoofer. Sound bases have two advantages that help them produce surprisingly full sound. They can use bigger speakers, plus the cabinets are much larger, giving the speakers “room to breathe” so they can produce more bass.
Stereo or surround sound?
It’s worth repeating that any soundbar is going to sound way better than your TV. Basic soundbars tend to be stereo designs that reproduce the same right and left channel audio information as your TV. But they sound much bigger thanks to larger speakers powered by amplifiers with real oomph.
You’ll also run across systems with two speakers, or even three speakers in a left/right/center configuration, that can go beyond the limitations of stereo. These soundbars may use Dolby Digital processing to anchor the dialogue to the TV screen and place sounds so that you get a broader front soundstage with more precise placement of sound effects.
Then there are the multichannel soundbars that mimic the realistic, wraparound sound of a full-on, multi-speaker surround sound system. They typically are labeled 5.1 or 7.1 systems, with discrete sounds assigned to each channel to create a three-dimensional soundfield. A few soundbars use special “beam-type” speakers to bounce sound off your walls, tricking your ears into thinking there are speakers all around you.
If you’re a “cord-cutter” who relies on your TV’s built-in tuner to pick up over-the-air TV signals, and/or smart TV apps to watch streaming services like Netflix, you’ll want a soundbar with Dolby Digital decoding. Most recent TVs will pass a Dolby Digital signal to your soundbar when you’re watching an internal source – those that aren’t external components. We’ll talk more about this in the connections section.
Just getting sound that’s louder and fuller than your TV’s speakers is pretty exciting, but most soundbars have a few other audio tricks up their sleeves. Actors’ voices will naturally sound much clearer thanks to bigger and better speakers, but many soundbars add dialogue enhancement features that make voices louder still and bring them forward in the mix.
And here’s something we’ve probably all experienced: Watching TV at a comfortable volume level, then suddenly being blasted off the couch when a commercial comes on. Most soundbars now include technology to ensure that commercials aren’t louder than show soundtracks. Another common feature is a “late night” mode that reduces volume peaks in the program, making it less likely that you’ll disturb someone sleeping in a nearby room.
Soundbars can make great music players, too
With the popularity of wireless music playback it’s not surprising that many soundbars now offer that capability. Built-in Bluetooth® lets you stream music easily from your smartphone, tablet, or Bluetooth-capable computer. It works with the music stored on your phone as well as your favorite streaming music apps (like Spotify®). And Bluetooth is the wireless music standard these days – nearly all iOS®, Android®, and Windows® phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth.
Some soundbars even have Wi-Fi® capability for quick access to online streaming services as well as your personal digital music library. Wi-Fi isn’t as goof-proof to connect as Bluetooth, but some soundbars include Wi-Fi-based wireless audio systems like Play-Fi, which let you set up a multi-room sound system so you can seamlessly play music all over the house. A soundbar might also have a USB input, so you can load up a thumb drive with your favorite tunes, leave it plugged in, and listen to them anytime.
Making the right connections
When choosing a soundbar, be sure you pick one with the right connections for your TV and other components. There are two basic ways to hook up a soundbar to your system. The most common way is to use your TV as a switching hub: you connect your Blu-ray player, cable or satellite box, and game console to your TV, then send the audio out from your TV to the soundbar.
This is a simple approach that lets you simultaneously switch the audio and video signals when you switch inputs on your TV. Typically, you’ll make a digital audio connection between your TV and soundbar – either optical or HDMI – in order to be able to enjoy surround sound from sources that offer it. This is a particularly good way to go if you bought your TV in 2015. That’s when TV makers decided to build true Dolby Digital pass-through into their TVs, allowing connected components like Blu-ray players to send surround sound audio through the TV and on to a receiver or soundbar.
Prior to 2015, if you used your TV as a switcher, the TV would convert any incoming audio to a two-channel PCM signal. That’s still playable by soundbars, and it sounds good, but it’s stereo, not surround. By the way, this is often the answer if you’re getting a picture but no sound from a connected source. Just go into the TV’s menu and you should find an audio setting for either PCM or Dolby Digital.
Every HDTV and 4K TV has an optical digital output, and so does nearly every soundbar. This connection is second only to HDMI as a way of getting high-quality sound from your TV to a soundbar. And speaking of HDMI, a growing number of soundbars include HDMI connections, which means you could connect your Blu-ray player or high-def cable box directly to the soundbar.
Staying in control
Once your soundbar is hooked up and set up, you can usually use your TV remote to control its volume. Most TV and cable or satellite remotes can be programmed to control a soundbar, or the soundbar can learn your TV’s commands. Most soundbars include at least a basic remote control, and often there are free remote apps that let you use your smartphone or tablet as a remote.
Initially developed as a reaction to wimpy TV sound, soundbars have taken on a life of their own, providing a user-friendly combination of performance, convenience, and value. With so many models to choose from, everyone should be able to find a model that suits their preferences and pocketbook.