So you’ve got that big new flat screen TV all picked out. You’ve got your 4K UHD, your HDR, your LED (or better yet, OLED) — all the requisite acronyms to ensure the fam is on cloud nine when you fire up the holiday classics. But if you’re still rocking that cobwebbed old hi-fi (or maybe no sound system at all), we’re here to tell you there’s one more thing to do this holiday season before you lug that TV home: Let yourself get upsold on sound.
We know what you’re thinking: “The nerd in the blue polo is just gunning for commission. Why should I shell out more green for a sound system after I just paid a mint for a TV?” And 99 percent of the time you’d be right to be wary of the dreaded upsell. But, while not everyone is an audio freak like us, everybody benefits from great sound. Whether it’s the rolling thunder or rumbling explosions of action movies, the engulfing soundtrack of a gripping drama, or rich dialogue from holiday specials so clean and clear even grandma can hear the whispers, your ears crave good sound. And the sad, thin, weightless audio from the tiny speakers in most flat screens just doesn’t pass muster.
The good news is, great sound doesn’t require a ton of pocketbook bravery, or a load of real estate in your TV room either. For a relatively small investment in both cash and space, you can go from flat and tinny to big and bold. We’ll tell you how.
The cost of awesome
We don’t know what you’re budgeting for sound, but we’re guessing for most people, it’s not enough. Our estimate is you’ve set aside around zero to $200 for audio. Grit your teeth, double that to $400, and you’ll be rewarded with clearer, richer, and much more immersive sound than your TV alone. And the simplest way to get there is the trusty soundbar.
The soundbar solution
While we are asking you to fight every instinct and embrace the upsell, we don’t want you going in unarmed — that’s just a recipe for disaster. So here are some great picks that won’t steer you wrong, no matter what you’re looking for.
The Swiss Army Knife — Yamaha YAS-207 ($270-300)
This is the gold standard at its price point, offering a sleek and slim design, excellent sound for movies and music, and even virtual surround sound for a more immersive cinematic experience.
The Mighty Mouse — Polk Magnifi Mini ($300)
Looking for something even smaller and more discrete? We’d recommend Polk’s Magnifi Mini. It doesn’t offer as many features as the Yamaha, but the bar itself is small enough to easily hold in your hand, and it blends beautifully with its wireless subwoofer for rich, powerful sound effects and clear and present dialogue for virtually anything you watch.
The Boomstick — Samsung HW-MS650 Sound+ soundbar ($400)
Don’t want a subwoofer cluttering your living room? Samsung’s incredibly concise MS650 soundbar can pound out a ton of bass for a single bar, while offering head-slappingly simple control, clear and clean sound for music and TV content, and space-saving connection for those with select Samsung TV models.
The Audiophile — Pioneer SP-SB23W ($400)
Got some serious music fans in the house? You’ve got to check out Pioneer’s SB23W. While this older bar may sit a little high and lack some newer features, it’s got everything you need, including rich and clear treble, buoyant bass, and Bluetooth connection to play your favorite tunes. It’s sure to please even the most critical ears; our family even utilizes its RCA jacks for our annual Vinyl Christmas at the folks’ place.
Maybe you’ve already got an older receiver or amplifier in the house, and you just need a set of new speakers to get things rocking. If so, we’ve got a couple of choice selections that can really get your motor humming for that Christmas binge session, while still leaving plenty of space in the TV room. Space these babies around five to six feet apart, and take in the beauty of true stereo separation and luscious sonic recreation.
The Bargain — ELAC Uni-fi UB5 ($500)
This pair of three-way speakers (three different drivers within each speaker) have absolutely blown away listeners of all levels since their debut. At $500 per pair, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better value on awesome sound anywhere in audio land. Fire them up and these speakers spin forth crystal clear midrange for dialogue and vocals, a zippy upper register for effects, and even some heady bass for their size to bring the lower punch to life.
The Beauties — KEF Q150 ($550)
While the Q150 cost a bit more, these are a pair of smooth operators that provide a richer, more chocolatey touch, with similar detail and clarity across the board. Packing KEF’s patented tangerine waveguide, these speakers look cool and sound incredible, exposing details so effortlessly, even mundane moments like the thunk of a wine bottle being uncorked are engaging and engulfing.
If you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little further? Those looking for the latest in room crashing, ear-engulfing surround sound — without ditching the furniture — may want to check out Dolby Atmos soundbars, which offer full 3D surround sound in a succinct package.
The Masterpiece — Samsung HW-K950 with Dolby Atmos ($1,500)
Samsung’s first Atmos bar — which uses height channels that bounce sound off your ceiling for another dimension of immersion — may be pricey, but it offers a ton of features, including separate wireless speakers (though they must be plugged in) to elevate your sound for a thrilling experience. Our only caveat with this system is it doesn’t offer native decoding for DTS:X audio, the other big name in 3D surround sound. That said, this bar will take your movies up several notches, without requiring its own theater room.
The Marvel — Yamaha YSP-5600 ($1,300)
In some ways a more elegant solution than a multi-piece system, Yamaha’s YSP-5600 uses an insane array of over 40 drivers from its front row position to bounce sound off your walls and ceiling and besiege you with incredible sound. While the 5600 offers both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, it’s got its own caveats, namely that it depends on your room configuration (and seating position) for optimal performance, and it doesn’t come with a subwoofer. That means there’s one more piece to buy (Yamaha recommends the NS-SW300PN) which adds to the bottom line.
There are, of course, a cornucopia of other ways to indulge in great sound, from killer floorstanding towers to smart multiroom speaker systems, and everything in between. You can find it all in our audio review section.
We also suggest you check out our list of the best soundbars, which offers tons of choices across the price spectrum. If you’re still deciding on that flat screen, be sure to check out our list of the Best TVs for 2017, as well. Now get out there, and happy hunting!
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