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The fault in our bars: Making the case for old-school home theater speakers

I’m about to say two words that will delight some, infuriate others, and echo a sentiment that has long been regarded as fact in the deeper reaches of the home theater community.

Soundbars suck.

Before one half of the aisle grabs their pitchforks – and the other raises a glass – let me add context to this divisive statement. Taken on their own, there is nothing inherently wrong with the soundbar. They are an instant improvement over the paltry sound quality of the standard television, and most have a streamlined simplicity to them that makes it possible for nearly anyone to operate.

But pair any soundbar with a comparatively priced, traditional home theater setup – in other words, a wired configuration of home theater speakers and a dedicated subwoofer with an A/V receiver driving them – and the obvious flaws of these bar-based systems reveal themselves, causing the entire mystique of the product to unravel.

In my time with Digital Trends, and throughout my years of personal experience with home theater equipment, I have yet to find a soundbar that could compel me to reconsider my system. Here’s why.

À la carte, not one size fits all

Peachtree Audio M24
Image used with permission by copyright holder

My initial foray into the world of home theater was via Craigslist, where I found a five-speaker set from Polk Audio’s RTI series for a bargain. An old-school Denon AVR 3805 receiver and a spool of speaker wire later, I was off to the races.

Then I added a retro subwoofer from M&K and another pair of Polk bookshelf speakers to push my surround setup to 7.1. But I wanted more, so I acquired a Klipsch SW115 to add more low end, then a vintage pair of Infinity Compositions Overture 3 speakers to replace my front left and right Polks, then a new Marantz receiver, then a new front soundstage courtesy of Polk Audio’s LSIM series, then…well, you get the point.

Building a traditional home theater system offers the ultimate opportunity for customization. You’re free to add to your setup as your budget allows, with the option of starting small with a stereo 2.0 setup or adding a center channel and a subwoofer for a 3.1. Over time, there’s nothing stopping you from expanding, upgrading, and tailoring your system to your exact taste.

Soundbars, by comparison, are more of a one-stop shop. There are exceptions, of course – with Sonos products, you can add wireless rear speakers or a subwoofer to your Sonos Beam or Sonos Arc, though you’re limited to keeping things within the Sonos family, which forces you to play by Sonos’ rules. But with the vast majority of soundbars, you get what you get. Down the road, if you decide you want more low end or a little more clarity in your sound, you get to buy a completely new system. Lucky you!

There are plenty of folks, maybe even most folks, that won’t have a problem with a one-and-done solution. And that’s fine. But for anyone who wants the choice to change parts in order to progress their system over time without a complete overhaul of the entire setup itself, you’ll want to steer clear of the modern soundbar.

Timeless vs. time bomb

AV Receiver
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When it came time to retire my Denon receiver, I did not do so because it was no longer functional. Far from it, in fact — it’s become the centerpiece of a system I built for my parents, and it’s doing a commendable job for a product that’s well over a decade old.

The motivation for switching receivers was to comply with modern times. I wanted a receiver that supported 4K video pass-through and Dolby Atmos audio, plus other creature comforts like Bluetooth and wireless streaming for music. So I found a receiver within my budget  (a Marantz SR5012), swapped out my Denon, and that was that.

I didn’t have to replace any other audio component.

Home theater speakers like mine are a dream for lovers of longevity. As long as I take care of them, I may never have to replace them again. The Infinity Overture 3 speakers mentioned earlier were some of the more musical speakers I’ve ever heard, and they’re essentially as old as I am.

As A/V technology sprints ahead at a quickening pace, like a marathon runner finding his second wind, all I need to stay current is to make sure one piece of the puzzle is up to date. This is not the case with soundbars. If you picked up a premium soundbar, say, three or so years ago, but the idea of Dolby Atmos has you intrigued, congratulations! You’ll be buying an entirely new system in order to enjoy the newest tech.

Firmware updates are a thing, sure. But in these modern times, when every single component in the chain of operation has to be working in unison to achieve the desired audio and video formats, chances are some new software just isn’t going to cut it.

An unmatched soundstage

best speakers Goldenear Triton 5
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

There are numerous reasons why the wiki for the r/hometheater subreddit literally begins by explaining why you shouldn’t buy a soundbar. Chief among those reasons might be the discrepancy in sound between a soundbar system and a similarly priced home theater setup.

I could sit and tell you that traditional home theaters will sound better until the cows come home. The fact is, sound is subjective, and it’s conceivable that someone could prefer the audio quality of a good bar-based setup. Instead, let’s break down the physicality of each type of setup.

The ideal theater ensemble features a front soundstage that includes separate speakers to represent left, center, and right channels. The left and right speakers should be equidistant from the center speaker and aimed slightly toward the center of the listening space. Depending on how many pairs of surround speakers you’re working with, they should ideally be placed at ear level at the side or to the rear of the seating area. The subwoofer should be placed in the best space possible in the room to re-create low frequencies, which can be determined thanks to a simple trick called the sub crawl.

Properly done, this setup can create a truly immersive environment that will bring everything, from Marvel movies to episodes of Family Guy, to life in incredible detail. The goal of the soundbar, by comparison, is to create the same effect with miniature-sized components. Maybe that wasn’t originally the goal (and maybe for some, it still isn’t), but with brands offering top-dollar soundbar systems, it doesn’t matter. At that premium price level, it is an expectation that these bars produce the same kind of sound for a price usually reserved for higher-end home theater speakers. The marketing for these top-tier soundbars echoes this, which exacerbates the issue.

Physically, there’s a legitimate problem when it comes to meeting that expectation. The bar itself houses the left, center, and right channels, offering little room for creating true separation between channels. Beyond that, each driver tucked into these soundbar chambers is typically smaller than drivers found in a home theater speaker, putting the bars at a disadvantage when it comes to producing full, resonating audio. The result too often is unfulfilling sound coming from one space under your TV, as opposed to the expansive soundstage that a true home theater embodies.

It makes sense then, that as great as premium bars like the LG SN11RG or the Samsung HW-Q90R sound (and they do sound great), they still have a serious physical disadvantage when it comes to reproducing home theater sound. I’m willing to wager that an appropriately assembled system — say, the SVS prime 5.1 system paired with a capable A/V receiver like the Denon AVR-S950H — would sound noticeably better and comes in at a lower price than either of those soundbars. Heck, depending on which of those two soundbars you pick, there would be a few bucks left to add some ceiling speakers or height channels to the setup that would allow Dolby Atmos reproduction. This would almost certainly have a better effect than the upfiring drivers in soundbars that have to rely on bouncing frequencies off ceilings and back down to the listener.

A few concessions

Sony HT-G700
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

By now, I’ve undoubtedly angered some perfectly happy soundbar owners. That’s understandable. I haven’t exactly been kind to the bars, but they’re not all bad. In all fairness, there are areas where the modern soundbar excels and other times where they are flat-out a better option.

For starters, soundbars are, without a doubt, easy. They are easier to set up, use, and adjust. There’s no speaker wire to try and meticulously hide around the corners of your room, and no extensive list of settings to run through during the initial setup like there is with most A/V receivers. Plus, with most soundbars these days, it’s not hard to turn up the bass, dampen the treble, or toggle between preset sound settings to find the right sound for you. I think most A/V owners can agree with me that, while offering far more options in the way of sound customization, it tends to be a far more intricate process to fine-tune things than it is with a soundbar.

Aesthetically, soundbars can be an attractive option as well. Aside from speaker wires running all across the room, home theater setups can involve bulky subwoofer enclosures and tall, looming floorstanding speakers. Soundbars are unquestionably more low-key, with the best of the bunch able to blend into the environment they’re in. For the minimalists of the world, that’s an important factor.

Finally, there are some rooms where traditional theater audio setups like I have described just don’t make sense. I wouldn’t set up a full speaker system in a bedroom, nor would I want to deal with attempting to conceal wires in an oddly shaped living room. Home theaters will always win out to me, but I can understand how some people simply don’t want to endure the headache of hiding wires, but still want an improvement in sound.

The challenge

Digital Trends

Hopefully, I haven’t given the notion that all soundbars sound bad, because that simply isn’t true. The LG and Samsung flagship bars provide immersive fun, and Vizio offers a great cross-section of value and sound with its lineup of bars. I haven’t personally heard Sennheiser’s Ambeo soundbar, but I’ve heard from others that it’s awesome. And judging by Sennheiser’s track record, I bet it is.

It doesn’t change the fact that I’m still waiting to hear a bar that crosses the threshold, and makes me rethink every word I’ve just written. I think products like The Fives from Klipsch are on the right track by offering a unique blend of home theater components and soundbar simplicity, and competitors following in those footsteps might have the answer I am looking for.

Ultimately, that’s my challenge to the many great audio companies out there: Come up with a product that blends the best of both worlds, and wins the heart of staunch traditionalists in the home theater space while still remaining approachable to those who lean toward the ease of soundbars. Make something that hits that sweet spot. Make something that gives me a compelling reason to sell my beloved A/V gear and enthusiastically join the ranks of the soundbar faithful.

I dare you.

Nick Woodard
Former Digital Trends Contributor
  As an A/V Staff Writer at Digital Trends, Nick Woodard covers topics that include 4K HDR TVs, headphones…
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