These days, even the cheapest televisions are rocking pristine, high-definition screens. You can sort through Amazon’s bargain bin, pinching pennies like Scrooge McDuck, and still come away with something detailed enough to make out the individual hairs on a spider’s leg. But in the age of 4K Ultra HD and HDR, 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 which soundbar to choose 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.
Regardless of which soundbar you choose, it’ll be a major improvement over the internal speakers of just about any television. 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?
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. If you decide to buy a third-party dedicated subwoofer, make sure your soundbar supports it — not all soundbars have a dedicated sub-woofer output.
In other cases, like the pricey but beautiful Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage, the subwoofers contained in the soundbar itself are powerful enough to deliver all but the most sofa-shaking low frequencies. Even the Sonos Arc and Bose Soundbar 700 are arguably capable of holding their own, sans-subwoofer.
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 preferred: 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.
|Dolby Digital Plus|
|Dolby True HD|
But HDMI connections aren’t all equal, especially when it comes to soundbars. To connect a soundbar to a TV over HDMI, your TV needs to support HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) or HDMI eARC — some older TVs don’t have this feature. If your TV doesn’t have it, you’ll need to stick with an optical connection.
Keep in mind, if you connect your soundbar via HDMI, you’ve now got one less HDMI port on your TV for devices like streaming media players, Blu-ray players, or cable boxes. To compensate, some soundbars offer an HDMI input, and some offer more than one, which effectively turns them into mini A/V receivers. But some soundbars, like the Sonos Arc, don’t have any HDMI inputs. If you’re already running low on HDMI ports, that’s something to keep in mind.
The only solution (other than buying a soundbar with multiple HDMI inputs) is to buy an HDMI switch, which can turn one HDMI port into two, three, four, or more — but this increases the complexity of your setup, something which a soundbar is meant to prevent.
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 channels, and the number after the period tells you whether there’s a subwoofer (1) or not (0). If a soundbar has only two channels, that means a left and a right channel. If it has three channels, the third is a center channel, which improves dialog clarity. 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).
But here’s where it can get a little tricky: A soundbar can claim to be 2.1, 3.1. or even 5.1 — even if it doesn’t come with a subwoofer. As long as the soundbar has dedicated low-frequency drivers (like the Beosound Stage), it can still claim “.1” status.
If there’s a third number — i.e. 5.1.4 — that means the soundbar supports discrete Dolby Atmos surround sound and/or DTS:X. The final number refers to the number of dedicated drivers that fire upwards at the ceiling, bouncing sound down to create an enveloping effect. Early Dolby Atmos models were reasonably effective at simulating dedicated height-channel speakers, but the newest Atmos soundbars are incredible. Atmos is currently the most popular surround sound technology, capable of processing 128 distinct objects in a given scene.
But wait, why do I see some soundbars claiming to offer Dolby Atmos sound, yet with as few as two channels? This is the curious thing about Dolby Atmos. It can be reproduced using dedicated drivers within a single speaker (e.g. Sonos Arc) or it can be reproduced using separate speakers (e.g. Vizio SB36514-G6), or it can be reproduced “virtually” using as few as two channels in a single speaker.
Naturally, there’s a wide range of quality in these situations. We’d argue that if you’re a Dolby Atmos fanatic, there’s simply no substitute for dedicated speakers placed correctly around your room. However, it’s remarkable just how good virtualized Atmos can be — Sennheiser’s Ambeo is a great example.
Whole-home audio and Bluetooth
Soundbars are increasingly being used for listening to music as much as for listening to your TV. This is especially true in smaller houses or condos. A majority of new soundbars support Bluetooth streaming from your smartphone, tablet, or computer, making for a quick and easy to hear your Spotify or other music on a bigger speaker. However, more sophisticated options exist.
Sonos, Denon HEOS, Bluesound, Bose, Yamaha, and many others offer soundbars that can be linked to whole-home wireless music systems over Wi-Fi. If you think you may want to expand into a larger wireless music system in the future (or if you already own other Wi-Fi audio components from these brands) it makes sense to consider one of these models before you buy.
Soundbars are no longer all about sound. The latest models from JBL and Roku now include smart software, such as Roku OS, and even voice assistants like Google Assistant and Alexa. These are a good option for those who want to give their aging TVs the latest in streaming services and home automation, without complicating their setup with additional set-top boxes and cables. These smart soundbars are very convenient but don’t forget, your main mission should be to get yourself better sound. It’s not worth buying a smart soundbar that doesn’t meet your expectations for sound quality.
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.
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.
If a soundbar isn’t for you, it may be worth looking into soundbases instead. Though they’re getting harder to find due to the rise of very large, wall-mounted TVs, a soundbase is similar to a soundbar, except noticeably thicker and deeper, with more room for big drivers and built-in amplification. Soundbases are built to accommodate a TV sitting on top of the speaker, though you’ll need to determine if the soundbase is able to handle the weight of your TV. 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 television and fit comfortably between its legs.
Specialized TV speakers
One of the most common issues people have with the built-in speakers on TVs is the lack of crisp, clear dialogue. The use of complex, multichannel surround sound is making human speech increasingly more difficult to hear. Unfortunately, some soundbars make this worse, not better.
There’s been an increasing trend lately towards small, soundbar-format speakers that focus on making speech more intelligible, like the Zvox AV157. Even speakers without the Zvox’s multiple speech-enhancement modes, like the Sonos Beam or the Roku Streambar, can help make dialogue clearer simply by directing more higher-frequency sounds directly toward your viewing spot.
If you need improved dialog clarity for everyone in the room, these TV speakers can do the trick. But if you’re looking for more personalization, you’ll want soundbars like the Bose soundbar 300, 500, and 700 speakers that allow connection to a set of Bluetooth headphones. Whether you use the headphones in tandem with the speaker or on their own, it’s incredibly effective.
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