What do all the numbers mean? Here’s how to buy a soundbar

Your TV's sound sucks. Upgrade it easily with our soundbar shopping guide

These days, even the cheapest televisions are rocking pristine, high-definition displays. You can sort through Amazon’s bargain bin, pinching pennies like Scrooge McDuck, and still come away with a TV screen detailed enough to make out the individual hairs on a spider’s leg. But in the age of 4K Ultra HD and HDR color, there’s still one aspect where modern TVs don’t cut it: Sound. It’s no surprise that wallpaper-thin screens don’t have room for top-tier speakers, but what’s the best solution? The most popular option is a soundbar.

Soundbars are slim, unobtrusive, and easy to set up, and the best soundbars can effectively emulate a full-featured surround sound system (for less dough and less effort). But figuring out how to select a soundbar can be difficult, given the diversity of options and the confusing numerical suffixes attached.

Digital Trends is here to help, and our soundbar buying guide will tell you what you need to know when shopping for one. So, read on and prepare yourself for a viewing experience filled with sweet, sweet sound. As Shia Labeouf would say, don’t let your dreams be dreams!

Subwoofers

Regardless of which soundbar you choose, it’ll be a major improvement over the internal speakers of just about any TV. Still, there are decisions to be made, and the first one is extra important: Should you get a soundbar with a subwoofer, or without one?

Onkyo SBT-A500 Atmos soundbar review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Subwoofers are speaker drivers dedicated to the reproduction of low-frequency audio — think rumbling bass, exploding bombs, the whump-whump of a helicopter’s blades. A soundbar with a subwoofer will add punch and rumble to TV shows and movies, creating a fuller sound and more effectively projecting audio throughout the room. If you plan on watching lots of action movies or movies with epic music, you’ll likely want a subwoofer.

Some soundbars come with dedicated subwoofers (most connect wirelessly, though some require a direct wired connection), but in some cases, you’re better off purchasing them separately. Make sure to do some research — our Best Subwoofers guide is one resource

Connections

For the most part, you’ll need just one cable to connect a soundbar with your TV. Some soundbars rely on optical cables, which work fine, but HDMI is preferable: The HDMI interface supports more audio formats than does optical, which effectively means you’ll get higher quality sound that’s more immersive with HDMI.

Optical

HDMI

Stereo Stereo
 Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital

DTS DTS
DTS:X
Dolby Digital Plus
Dolby Atmos

Additionally, HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) is a protocol that appears on most newer soundbars with HDMI connection. This allows the television and soundbar to more easily exchange information, including the ability to route video to the TV, and route sound from the TV, all over a single connection. It also often allows you to control the volume and power with a single remote. Some soundbars can even act as entertainment hubs for your home, where you can plug in all your components for simple, easy control.

Channels and Dolby Atmos

When shopping for soundbars, you’ll probably come across some confusing numbers. Labels like “2.0,” “3.1,” or “5.1” are there to let you know A) how many channels a soundbar has, and B) whether or not it has a subwoofer. The first number (before the period) refers to the number of drivers, and the number after the period tells you whether there’s a subwoofer (1) or not (0). Two channels means two drivers, left and right, while three means left, right, and center; five adds channels for rear or surround sound speakers.

Often, a soundbar will come with a wireless subwoofer and, in some cases, even wireless satellite speakers. These don’t need to connect physically with the soundbar itself, but they’ll need a power source, so you’ll have to position them near wall outlets (or get creative).

If there’s a third number — i.e. 5.1.4 — that means the soundbar supports Dolby Atmos surround sound. The final number refers to the number of dedicated drivers that fire upwards at the ceiling, bouncing sound down to create an enveloping effect. Some surround speakers are actually built to be mounted in the ceiling, though not in a soundbar setup. Atmos is currently the most popular surround sound technology, capable of processing 128 distinct objects in a given scene.

IR sensors and placement

Assuming you want to be able to control your TV (you do), you’ll need to be careful with where you place a soundbar. Typically, soundbars sit directly below your TV — even mounted on the wall, if that’s where the TV is. But if you’re using an entertainment stand, you don’t want the soundbar sitting on it in front of your TV’s infrared (IR) sensor, which is where the remote control sends its signal.

qacoustics m3 soundbar hands on review qacousticsm3soundbar 592
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Some soundbars come with IR repeaters; these pass the signal through the soundbar itself to the TV’s sensor. If yours has one, awesome — just make sure the soundbar isn’t obscuring the screen. Generally speaking, you want a soundbar that’s approximately the same width as your TV; soundbar proportions are mostly an aesthetic factor, though, and shouldn’t be a deal breaker.

Soundbases

If a soundbar isn’t for you, it may be worth looking into soundbases instead. A soundbase is similar to a soundbar, except noticeably thicker, with more room for big drivers and built-in amplification. If you want bass without the hassle of a stand-alone subwoofer, a high-quality soundbase might be a good fit.

If you do decide on a soundbase, consider its measurements to make sure the TV will either fit on the surface of the soundbase, or that the soundbase will slide under the TV and fit comfortably between its legs.

The video guide attached to this post features the AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel Bluetooth Sound Bar with Built-In Subwoofer.

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