By The Beast
Soundbars have come a long way in the past few years. Here are some things to look for, along with a few recommendations.
By The Beast
As TVs have gotten thinner and cheaper, their speakers have gotten noticeably worse. These days, most TVs just have bottom-firing or back-firing speakers that sound quiet and tinny, which isn’t going to do justice to that 65-inch behemoth of a TV you spent $1,000 on. If you don’t have the money—or living room space—for a full-fledged speaker system, consider a soundbar, which provides a huge boost in quality, without the hassle.
Let’s get this out of the way first: a soundbar is a huge upgrade over your TV’s built-in sound, and can even provide some surround sound features—but it isn’t going to be as good as a true, full-size set of quality speakers. The laws of physics are still at play here, and soundbars are a compromise, offering a balance between sound quality, aesthetics, and space efficiency.
That said, soundbars have come a long way in the past few years, and you might be surprised at how immersive they can be. Here are some things to look for as you shop, along with a few recommendations from different manufacturers.
Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it can’t sound good. Let’s start by talking about the most basic soundbar setup: one bar, in front of you, with two drivers inside of it (maybe three, and potentially a separate subwoofer). These basic soundbars come in all different price ranges, and will provide a huge boost in sound quality with the least amount of fuss.
If you’re on a budget, Vizio is usually the brand to go with—they may be known for their affordable TVs, but they also make surprisingly good soundbars for the money. Their 29-inch soundbar is only around $80, and while it doesn’t come with a subwoofer, it’s going to be a big step up from your TV’s built-in sound. If you want a subwoofer, their slightly larger, louder, and sub-equipped 36” soundbar is a great buy at $180.
As you go up in price, you gain more features or better sound quality (or both). For example, the new $400 Sonos Beam adds music streaming through Alexa, Sonos, and AirPlay, with the $700 Sonos Playbar offering better sound quality with a few caveats (like no Alexa). If you already have Sonos speakers in your house, these are a no-brainer, and you can even use your other Sonos speakers as surround sound or add a wireless Sonos Sub to the mix.
If you aren’t interested in the Sonos ecosystem, Polk’s Command Bar offers similar streaming features and a subwoofer for only $200, and Klipsch offers high-quality audio without streaming features at varying price ranges.
If you’re a stickler for sound quality, but still want the aesthetics a soundbar offers, look toward higher-end soundbars from boutique audio manufacturers. Not all of them will necessarily have Bluetooth or other streaming features as a result, but the Definitive Technology W series—that is, the $1,300 W Studio and the $900 W Studio Micro—offer a great balance between fidelity and features, allowing you to stream music from their app over Wi-Fi. Both come with subwoofers, too, and support DTS Play-Fi, with the W Studio letting you add surround speakers from other Play-Fi supported manufacturers.
Here’s where things get a little more interesting. These days, a lot of soundbars claim to emulate surround sound using a number of different psychoacoustic technologies, adding small delays in the audio or utilizing side-firing speakers that bounce noises off the walls to create the illusion of surround sound. You’ll pay more for this than you would for a basic 2.1 soundbar with comparable audio quality, but you get a bit more immersiveness in return.
Samsung, LG, and Sony all make soundbars in this arena at varying price points, and the ones I’ve heard do sound good. If you have a brand you like, or you want it to integrate seamlessly with your Samsung/LG/Sony TV, go for it.
There is a downside to this technology, though: it’s very room-dependent. Since it relies on sound bouncing off your walls in a certain way, you need a room that conforms to the soundbar’s design—which you probably don’t have control over. If your walls are too far apart, or you have an open concept living room with no wall on one side, you may not be able to get the surround effect they claim. Instead, those extra channels are likely to be very “forward.” You’ll hear sounds whizzing left and right past your TV, which is very cool—it just won’t necessarily envelop you the same way surround sound does. Unless your room is shaped just so.
That’s why, if you decide to go with a virtual surround bar, I recommend going with one that offers some sort of “room setup,” like Yamaha’s $300 YAS-207, their $1200 YSP-2700, or their $1600 YSP-5600. Using an app on your smartphone, you can adjust the virtual surround’s performance based on your space, which gives you a bit more control over how well it works. It still won’t be the same as having speakers all around you, but it’ll be a step up from traditional stereo sound, without the hassle of wiring extra speakers.
So you want the convenience and space efficiency of a soundbar, but don’t want to give up real surround sound. I get you—and thankfully, there are plenty of soundbars that offer wireless separate satellite speakers you can install beside you for that extra immersion. This, in my opinion, is the best soundbar technology has to offer, giving you a great balance of features. You’ll get true surround sound, with a smaller footprint and without the need to run wires all the way back to a receiver. (You will still have to plug those satellite speakers into the wall, though, since they need power).
On the budget end, Vizio is still king, with their 36” 5.1 soundbar offering good sound for a great price, not to mention Bluetooth and Chromecast support. In the midrange, you can get some of the aforementioned “virtual” soundbars from LG or Sony and add their respective satellite speakers to them (LG here, Sony here) for a few hundred bucks more. LG and Sony both have Dolby Atmos in a lot of their soundbars, too, which fires sound off your ceiling to give even more dimension on discs or streaming services that support it. Like the virtual surround technology, it has room requirements, but they’re a bit easier to come by: you just need a ceiling between 7.5 and 12 feet without angles or other large obstructions. It’ll still be a bit “forward,” but it definitely creates a cool effect.
If you’re willing to spend a bit more, though, both Vizio and Samsung offer soundbars with Atmos in both the bar and the satellite speakers, giving you the most immersive sound of any of the options here. Vizio’s 5.1.4 bar costs $1000, while Samsung’s 7.1.4 bar—which includes extra side-firing drivers in the bar—costs $1600. As a result, though, the Samsung is still best off in a room with walls on the sides. If you’re looking for the most immersive soundbar package you can buy, both of these soundbars are worth checking out.
You can, of course, spend even more for one of the boutique soundbars, like Definitive Technology’s W Studio, and add your own surround speakers as well, which will likely sound even better—but they won’t include integrated Atmos like the other bars mentioned. It’s up to you which you’d rather have.
Hopefully, that should be enough to get you started on your search for the ultimate living room soundbar. There’s one other thing you’ll want to keep an eye out for, though: the number and type of inputs on the bar.
Some bars, like the Vizio 5.1.4 system, only have one HDMI input. This isn’t a problem if you only have one device from which you play movies, but if you have multiple boxes, there are some setup quirks. you’ll need to plug them into your TV and use your TV’s HDMI ARC port to send audio to the soundbar, instead of passing video from the soundbar to the TV. Other soundbars can’t pass through HDR video, or have other quirks that require going from TV to soundbar instead of the other way around. Passing audio from the TV to the soundbar doesn’t always work as well, so buy from somewhere with a good return policy and test it with your setup to ensure everything is smooth. It’s a bit more work than using your TV’s built-in speakers, but trust me: it’s well worth it.
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