Over the past few years, the sound bar market has exploded, making them nearly as ubiquitous as TVs. Its a good thing, too, because as TVs get thinner and thinner, less and less room is left for built-in speakers. Consumers don’t want to see big, bulky speakers ruining their TV’s otherwise waif-like figure, so manufacturers have taken to placing the speakers on the back or bottom of the TV. As you can guess, small speakers pointed at the floor or wall typically don’t sound too impressive.
This is where a sound bar steps in. A sound bar allows you to upgrade your audio experience without having to sprinkle speakers around the room, confront the challenge of running wires to those speakers, or drain your wallet purchasing a stack of equipment. In the sound bar’s early days, choices were as thin as the TVs of the time, but now there are many different styles, features, brands, and price points to consider.
That’s where we come in. In this guide, we aim to help you navigate the sound bar market and zero in on the one that best suits your needs. But before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let’s discuss what a sound bar is and what it will and won’t do.
Can I get surround sound from a sound bar?
There are plenty of self-proclaimed audiophiles who turn their noses up at sound bars and dismiss them as poor quality, mass produced boom boxes. Let us assure you that those assertions are wrong. You can now get incredibly big, rich, and immersive sound out of a sound bar. The key is finding the sound bar that best fits your needs. Are you looking for bass so powerful it rattles the china set in another room? You can get that. Or maybe you are just looking for something simple to give you slightly better sound than what your TV offers on its own – that’s available too. There are solutions for people on both ends of the spectrum and almost everywhere in between. Some units even work in conjunction with an AV receiver and utilize true surround speakers as part of a hybrid system.
What you will not get from a sound bar – unless you opt for one of those hybrid systems – is convincing surround sound effects. If hearing a sound object dart behind you or pan across the entire room is your chief priority, you will need to invest in a proper surround sound system.
With that said, we have heard some sound bars that trump similarly priced surround sound systems in terms of overall sound quality, exhibiting excellent bass and clarity. There are also some options on the market- particularly from Yamaha – that can simulate surround effects fairly convincingly, even if the effect is no substitute for the real thing. Here’s the short of it: You can get a great sounding sound bar if you are willing to pay for it, but it will never replace a true surround system when it comes to enveloping sound.
Connectivity should be one of your primary considerations when considering a sound bar. What do you want to hook up and how do you want to hook it up? The majority of sound bars offer at least one digital optical input and one analog input. The easiest way to hook up a sound bar is to plug all of your equipment directly into your TV, then run a single optical or analog audio cable out of your TV and into your sound bar. If, however, you don’t wish to use your TV to switch between your inputs, you’ll need a sound bar equipped with enough inputs to handle all of your equipment, and you’ll probably want some kind of display on the sound bar to indicate which input you are tuning into. You’d be amazed how many sound bars omit this feature.
For even better sound potential (and some might say convenience), some sound bars support HDMI inputs. A sound bar might benefit from an HDMI connection to a Blu-ray player. This is because Blu-ray discs have high-resolution soundtracks that can only be sent through an HDMI cable. Of course, that only matters if the sound bar is able to take advantage of those high-resolution soundtracks. Otherwise, we don’t see HDMI connections on sound bars as being all that helpful, particularly since there are rarely enough of them to accommodate all of your equipment.
Additionally, consider a choosing a sound bar that has USB and/or Bluetooth connectivity. Bluetooth makes it easy to listen to music wirelessly from Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and tablets (almost all current smartphones and tablets have Bluetooth). A USB input can also provide an easy means for connecting an iPod or USB flash drive loaded with music.
Finally, take into consideration where the connections on the sound bar are located. Not all manufacturers place the inputs and outputs on the sound bar itself. Some will use a separate box to house all of the inputs and outputs, much like a small A/V receiver. Others put all of the ins and outs on a subwoofer. Keep in mind that each configuration changes the need for different lengths of cables and may limit where the sound bar and/or subwoofer can be placed. For example, Samsung makes a sound bar that has a “wireless” subwoofer, but since all of the inputs are on the subwoofer, so it has to be located near your TV.
For those not familiar: A subwoofer is a speaker dedicated to producing low frequencies (bass). Subwoofers are often recognized for providing the the rumble of an explosion, the powerful pounding of a bass drum, or the low pluck of a bass guitar. But in the case of sound bars, the subwoofer’s responsibility is often much more critical. When sound bars are often designed to be as slim as possible, most of the low frequency spectrum is sacrificed. In these case, the subwoofer does more than go boom, it adds the much needed midbass that makes sound rich and “room filling.” In short, some sound bars aren’t worth using without their included subwoofers.
If you can manage to integrate a subwoofer into your room without ruffling anyone’s feathers, we would unequivocally recommend getting a system that includes one. Luckily, wireless subwoofers are now commonly available as part of a sound bar purhcase, which means tucking it out of sight is just that much easier.
If you absolutely cannot fit a subwoofer in your room, there are options. A few manufacturers specifically design their sound bars to produce powerful bass without the help of a sub, but these sound bars tend to be a little larger and more expensive than their competition. Three such examples are the Motion Vision by MartinLogan, Panorama2 by Bowers & Wilkins, and the PowerBar 235 by Atlantic Technology. If you choose to purchase a sound bar without a subwoofer, at least ensure the unit has the ability to add a subwoofer later, as the three aforementioned options do.
Sound control is key
If you’re picky about sound quality, you’ll want to choose a sound bar that offers some kind of tone controls. Even basic treble and bass controls will allow you to tailor the sound bar’s output enough that you can achieve a reasonably balanced end product. Some sound bars even come with special “modes” that enhance voice clarity which can be especially handy with programming in which voices are difficult to hear clearly.
Getting TRUE surround sound from a sound bar
Many manufacturers are now marketing their sound bars as “surround bars” in an effort to convince consumers that a sound bar can replace a proper surround sound system. Don’t be fooled. These surround bars do involve technology to make sound seem “bigger”, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. You’ll rarely, if ever, experience the effect of sound moving all around you.Still, there are some solutions for consumers who want the best of both worlds: the sleek look of a sound bar and the sound of a true surround system.
Some sound bars, like Definitive Technology’s XTR-SSA3, combine the three front speakers normally found in a 5.1 system into a single, passive sound bar. In order to power a passive sound bar, you simply connect three sets of speaker wire from the receiver to the bar. Using this method, you can power a set of surround speakers using your receiver’s surround outputs. If you aren’t able to run wire to surround speakersconsider a universal wireless speaker kit, or something like Polk Audio’s F/X wireless speaker.
How many remotes will I need to control everything?
We would love to be able to assure you that your cable/satellite remote will control your sound bar (in most cases, it will), or that as long as you buy the same brand sound bar and TV you can use one remote. Unfortunately, if we told you that we would be lying. The only way to guarantee you can control your sound bar with one of your current remotes is to purchase a sound bar with “remote learning” capabilities. This allows the sound bar to learn commands from a remote you already own. If you purchase a unit without this capability, chances are you will either have to use the remote that comes with the sound bar or purchase a learning universal remote. Also, beware that many sound bars don’t even come with a remote.
How much should I expect to pay?
The age-old adage that get what you pay for certainly applies to sound bars. You might be able to dig up a sound bar for $100 or less, but expect dismal performance. In our opinion, most sound bars under $150 are not worth your money. Will they give you better sound quality than the TV speakers? Possibly, but probably not by much. Rather, we think you are better off spending a little more. In the $150-$250 range you can get a decent sound bar, but it likely won’t have a subwoofer. Expect these units to go louder and sound better than your TV speakers, but to lack bass and connectivity options. Between $250-$400 is the real heart of the market. You can get all of the connectivity options available, a wireless subwoofer, and pretty good sound. For most folks, this price range will be a nice fit. Individuals looking for a competitive option to a conventional surround sound system should plan on spend $400+ or more. These sound bars tend to be designed by companies which specialize in speakers, which means you can expect better engineering and higher quality parts. At this level you can also step into some sound bars with the capability to produce great bass without a subwoofer, such as the MartinLogan and Atlantic Technology options mentioned earlier. You can also start to look at passive options that utilize a separate AV receiver for power, provided you don’t mind adding more equipment to your system.
We hope to have taken some of the guesswork out of selecting a sound bar for your home entertainment system. Now that you have a feel for the various levels of sound bar options that are available, take a look at some of our favorites from each of the four common price/performance tiers. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, be sure to go out and take a listen to the candidates on your short list before making a final decision. At the end of the day, what sounds best to you is what matters most.
$150-$250 (entry level)
$250-$400 (mid-range, most common)
$400-$800 (above average)
- Harman Kardon SB 16 ($599)
- Definitive Technology XTR-SSA3 ($799, Passive)
- Klipsch HD Theater SB 3 ($799)
$800+ (high-end, comparable to component audio systems)