The speakers in flat-panel TVs today are far better than they were in years past, but for all that’s been done to improve TV audio systems, they still pale in comparison to even the most basic soundbar you can buy. Soundbars are the sleekest, least-obtrusive way to get sound that’s as impactful as the premium picture on your TV.
The best soundbars today offer minimalist style, dynamic power, and audio streaming from your phone with no need to carve out room for a receiver or tower speakers. There are a variety of wireless connection options, especially for Wi-Fi bars, and multiple ways to play all your favorite music, moves, and TV shows. Below are a few of our current favorites that will ramp up your sound without cramping your style.
Why you should buy it: The Yamaha YAS-203 not only has excellent sound quality, but is equally efficient at making both movies and music sound great.
Who’s it for: Those looking for serious value in a no-fuss sound system
How much will it cost: $250-$400
Why we picked the Yamaha YAS-203:
The Yamaha YAS-203 is the perfect embodiment of a high-value soundbar. Highlights include excellent sound and a commendable feature set for the price, allowing you to experience balanced bass and fleecy treble with a pair of 2 ⅛-inch drivers and a single 6.5-inch driver housed in the bundled subwoofer. It excels beautifully when it comes to subtle nuances and dialog, rendering it as apt for music as it is movies, and features a built-in IR repeater to compensate for its taller build — one that has an unwanted tendency to block the IR sensor on the front of your TV.
Furthermore, the accompanying mobile app for iOS and Android allows you to make sound adjustments if you prefer your smartphone over the included, shortcut-clad remote. By all measures, the YAS-203 is going to outperform just about every other soundbar at its price level, and stands as the go-to unit for TV, movies, and music alike.
The best virtual surround soundbar
Why you should buy it: The Yamaha YSP-5600 is a big, powerful virtual soundbar that is well-equiped to give your home theater jaw-dropping 3D surround sound.
Who’s it for: Those who want top notch virtual surround sound for both DTS and Dolby Atmos, and don’t want to clutter the house with a bunch of speakers and wires
How much will it cost: $1,600
Why we picked the Yamaha YSP-5600:
A hulking presence that stands over 8 inches tall, the Yamaha Sound Projector 5600 (YSP-5600) isn’t your average soundbar — and it isn’t supposed to be. Loaded into this behemoth are 44 beam drivers, including a 12-pack of them pointed right at the ceiling to deliver the sense of height required by Dolby Atmos and DTS:X technologies. The system is flush with inputs including four HDMI ins and an ARC-enabled HDMI out, one Coax and two Optical digital inputs, infrared in/out, RCA analog input, and a subwoofer out. Yamaha has loaded some truly brilliant sound performance into its magic box.
If you’re looking for a singular home sound solution without the need for all those extra wires, speakers, and mess, the 5600 is an enticing way to go big for your home theater. If you can get it rigged up right, Yamaha’s YSP-5600 is the simplest way to plunge into the ear-opening new world of 3D surround sound.
The best low-profile soundbar
Definitive Technology W Studio Micro
Why you should buy it: This little bar delivers remarkable audio fidelity while being small enough to slide easily into theater setups.
Who’s it for: Those looking for serious power and multiroom versatility in a tiny package
How much will it cost: $700
Why we picked the Definitive Technology W Studio Micro:
If you are looking for a bar that sounds far bigger than its ultra-slim profile suggests, check out Definitive Technology’s W Studio Micro. Measuring just under 2-inches tall and 3-inches thick, the Micro far exceeds expectations of a bar its size, offering thunderous sound with a smooth and supple touch that delivers the finest details with ease.
And while this bar is definitely on the pricier side, Def Tech doesn’t stop there, tacking on Play-Fi wireless technology to make the Micro a perfect hub to build out a multi-room home audio solution, as well as allowing for true wireless surround sound with additional Play-Fi components. Add in a handsome design, and the Micro makes for an excellent addition to your compact TV room.
The best soundbar for music
Why you should buy it: The Pioneer SP-SB23W is a quick setup, and provides a warm, detailed sound signature.
Who’s it for: Those looking for gorgeous sound for music and movies, without breaking the bank
How much will it cost: $165 – $400
Why we picked the Pioneer SP-SB23W:
One of the best products of Pioneer’s collaboration with its former Chief Design Engineer Andrew Jones is this potent and musical soundbar. The SP-SB23W is a fantastic sound — err, “speaker”— bar, founded on a six pack of individually amplified drivers and a very capable wireless subwoofer. The stubby, yet high-riding bar rests in a handsome MDF cabinet lined with wood grain ripples, complementing the cubed subwoofer with a smart design.
More importantly, the cabinet helps the system integrate beautifully with a host of content, producing a smooth and natural sound signature built on creamy mids, musical bass, and richly-drawn dialog. The system sets up in minutes, including analog, digital optical, and Bluetooth connection, and though the tall design might get in the way of your TV’s IR sensor, the overall performance and shoestring price justify a bit of furniture rearrangement.
The best 5.1 surround soundbar
Why you should buy it: You’re looking for affordable 5.1 surround sound in a sleek, slim, and feature-loaded package.
Who’s it for: Those looking for a low-profile 5.1 surround system that doesn’t rely on DSP tricks to get the job done.
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the Vizio SB4551-D5:
At just two inches high, the Vizio SB4551-D5 is one of the slimmest soundbars in its class. Better yet, the system’s included satellite surround speakers are also low profile both in size and design, and the subwoofer can be easily slid under your furniture or side mounted. This makes integrating the SB4551-D5 package into your home theater much easier than most other 5.1 surround sound setups. Rounding out the features are a variety of ways to stream music, including Bluetooth and Vizio’s Smart Cast, which allows you to stream audio over Wi-Fi from various streaming services.
Our only caveat with the SB44551-D5 is that its upper register is a bit brighter than we’d like. This is compounded by a somewhat flat midrange, but we still like the way the entire setup sounds, specifically the full, punchy bass present during bombastic action scenes. This bar’s 5.1 capabilities are impressive, especially when the sub-$500 price tag is factored in, making the SB4551-D5 one of the cheapest ways to get a 5.1 setup without moving the furniture.
The best Dolby Atmos bar
Why you should buy it: You’ll get impressively powerful Dolby Atmos surround sound in a simple package.
Who’s it for: Those who want the thrill of true Dolby Atmos without remodeling the living room
How much will it cost: $1,200
Why we picked the Samsung K950:
There are many reasons we like the HW-K950 so well. It offers nothing less than heart-pounding, pupil dilating aural thrills. It’s also extremely easy to setup, requiring simple HDMi connection. But the major reason we picked this bar is for how well it handles virtual Dolby Atmos sound. Experiencing the surround sound of the HW-K950 is nothing short of engrossing. While there are some minor misgivings about the mid range, the HK-K950 does both subtlety and bombast equally well. Whispers, wind, and softer effects come across clear, while massive, booming bass-driven sounds are downright chest-rattling.
If there’s one thing about the HW-K950 that we aren’t keen on, it’s the lack of DTS:X decoding. DTS:X just so happens to be the default Blu-Ray sound format. What this means is any DTS:X audio will be rendered as two channel, diminishing the experience. This isn’t surprising considering Samsung has gone with DTS’ competitor, Dolby, but it’s noteworthy. Regardless, Samsung’s HW-K950 sound bar offers a thrilling Atmos experience that really must be heard to appreciate. If you’ve got to have real Atmos surround sound in a small package — and you don’t mind dumping DTS:X — the HW-K950 is well worth checking out.
The best mini sound bar
Why you should buy it: You won’t find a better sounding bar at this size or price point
Who’s it for: Those who need something small, or newcomers to the soundbar market who want a reliable entry point
How much will it cost: $300
Why we picked the Polk Magnifi:
No, really, this little guy is a soundbar. Despite its tiny frame and minimalist design, the Polk Magnifi is a fully capable soundbar that won’t crowd your entertainment center or living room. Due to the size and angle of its six drivers, the Magnifi produces a much bigger soundstage than its appearance would imply. We’re big fans of the included sub on this unit, too. Despite its lightweight design, it handles low end-heavy moments with power and musicality.
All this isn’t to say that this bar is a viable alternative to a fully capable 5.1 surround system — in fact, despite Polk claiming the Magnifi can deliver 5.1 surround, the experience is closer to a 3.1 setup. In addition, the midrange isn’t quite as clear and present as we’d like in quieter moments. However, don’t let these caveats turn you off to the Magnifi Mini — it’s an impressive piece of tiny tech that barely hits your wallet.
How we test
After giving a soundbar a thorough break-in period lasting no less than 40 hours, we put it through a rigorous testing process that includes playing all relevant sources of content, including the latest Blu-rays with the highest resolution codecs from the likes of Dolby and DTS, as well as audio straight from a TV via HDMI and/or Optical Toslink output, including streaming services, broadcast TV, and audio apps. When relevant, we test wireless connections for stability and audio quality. We also place a high degree of importance on the musicality of any speaker, so plenty of music is played to gauge its finer performance aspects.
Finally, we compare each soundbar with others at, above, and below its price/features class, and with similarly priced alternative sound solutions.