Over the last 5 years and especially most recently, the soundbar marketplace has been booming, making them nearly as present as TVs in our homes. Its a good thing, too, because as TVs get thinner and thinner, there is less room than ever before for built-in speakers. Consumers don’t need to see big, bulky speakers devastating their TV’s appearance, let alone their viewing rooms. Manufacturers have taken to placing the speakers on the rear or minimal front portion of the TV. As you can guess, small speakers and especially when located on the back typically don’t sound very good.
This is where a soundbar steps in. A soundbar allows you to elevate your audio experience without having to disperse speakers all around the room, or running wires to those speakers, or empty your wallet purchasing a large group of speakers that can be as many as 8 when you count the subwoofer. In the sound bar’s young days, choices were as thin as the TVs, but now there are many types, styles, features, brands, and price points to weigh.
This is the purpose of this article; to discuss what a soundbar is and what it will and won’t do, along with how to choose one with some recommendations.
Can I get surround sound from a soundbar?
There are many self-proclaimed audiophiles who turn up their noses at sound bars and disregard them as bad quality, booming boxes. We do not feel those assertions are just. You can now get incredibly big, robust, and immersive sound out of a sound bar. The key is finding the sound bar that fits you and your room’s needs. Are you looking for bass so effective it rattles the china set in another room? You can get that. Or maybe you are looking for something simple to give you slightly better sound than what your TV offers on its own – that’s obtainable too. There are solutions for people on both ends of the spectrum and almost everyplace in between. Several units even work along with an AV receiver and apply correct sound to all surround speakers as part of a hybrid system.
What you will not get from a soundbar – unless you opt for one of those hybrid systems – is persuasive surround sound. If sensing something shoot behind you or pan crossways throughout the entire room is your important priority, you will need to invest in a suitable surround sound system.
With that said, I’ve heard many soundbars that trump similarly priced surround sound systems in terms of overall sound quality, exhibiting excellent bass and amazingly clear vocals. There are also many options on the market that can simulate surround sound fairly convincingly.
What can I hook up?
Connectivity should be one of your essential considerations when considering a sound bar. What do you need to hook up and how do you need to hook it up? The majority of sound bars offer at least one digital optical input and one analog input. The easiest way to connect up a sound bar is to plug all of your equipment straight into your TV, then run an optical or analog audio cable out of your TV and into your soundbar. If, however, you don’t want to use your TV to switch between your inputs, you’ll need a sound bar with enough inputs to handle all of your equipment, and you’ll likely need some kind of display on the sound bar to inform which input you are tuning into. You’d be astonished how many soundbars omit this feature. You can alternatively connect the sound bar to your AV Receiver thereby utilizing its switching capability. Tip: Use an output usually not in use and keep your full speaker system available for when you may want to listen to the full system.
For even better sound potency (and several might say convenience), some soundbars support HDMI inputs such as outputted by Blu-ray players. This is because Blu-ray discs have high-resolution soundtracks that can only be conveyed through an HDMI cable.
Additionally, some soundbars are now available with USB and/or Bluetooth connectivity. Bluetooth makes it uncomplicated to listen to wirelessly from Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and tablets (virtually all newer smartphones and tablets have Bluetooth). Many iPods can output through USB (some with a cheap mini-USB to standard-USB cable).
Now we need to consider where the connections on the soundbar have been placed. Not all manufacturers place the inputs and outputs on the sound bar itself. Many will use a separate box to house all of the inputs and outputs, often like a tiny A/V receiver. Others put all of the ins and outs on a subwoofer.
For those not familiar: A subwoofer is a speaker devoted to producing low frequencies (bass). When sound bars are often designed to be as small as workable, most of the low sound spectrum is sacrificed. In this situation, the subwoofer does more than go “boom”, it adds the midbass that makes sound lush. In doing comparisons, many sound bars aren’t worth using without their included subwoofers.
If you can fit a subwoofer into your room without adversely affecting the room’s decor, we would unequivocally advise getting a system that includes one. Luckily, wireless subwoofers are now commonly included as part of a sound bar package and are fairly small and discreet, which means tucking it out of view is much easier than you’d expect.
If you truly cannot fit a subwoofer in your room, there are options. A few manufacturers specifically design their sound bars to produce fairly deep and sometimes muscular bass without the assist of a sub, but these soundbars tend to be a bit large and more costly than their competition. If you prefer to acquire a sound bar without a subwoofer, at least ensure it has the connections to add a subwoofer sometime afterwards.
If you’re picky about sound quality, you’ll most likely prefer a soundbar that offers sound adjustments. At the very least, treble and bass controls will tailor the sound bar’s tone sufficiency for your ears. Some soundbars even come with “modes” that intensify dialogue which can be especially handy with material in which voices are tricky to hear understandably.
How some should I expect to pay?
“You get what you pay for” certainly applies to soundbars. You might be able to dig up a sound bar for $100 or lower, but don’t expect sound that replicates a movie theater’s. Will they give you better sound quality than the TV speakers? Possibly. Rather, we think you are better off spending a little more. In the $150-$250 range you can get a “pretty good” sound bar, but it’s very possible it won’t have a subwoofer included. Expect these units to go louder and sound better than your TV speakers, but lack bass and extensive connectivity options. Between $250-$400 is the real heart of the marketplace. You can get all of the connectivity options, a wireless subwoofer, and a good sounding bar. For most people, this price range will be a good fit. Spending $400 or more gets you extremely high quality cabinets (sometimes real wood), superior acoustics, and include some options with great bass without the need for a separate subwoofer.
After all the information we’ve provided, the one piece of advice we have that we simply cannot do online, is listen to the soundbars in person with you. Remember, at the end of the day, what sounds best to you is what matters most.
Recommendations based on budget:
Note: We’ve grouped based on our experience and user reviews combined. Note, the best price currently may be at Amazon.com which includes FREE shipping.
Best Budget Priced Picks:
Philips CSS2123B/F7 (includes subwoofer)
Affordable Next Step Up:
VIZIO S4251w-B4 5.1 Soundbar with Wireless Subwoofer and Satellite Speakers
Top High-End Picks:
Klipsch HD Theater SB 3 Soundbar with Wireless Subwoofer
Atlantic Technology H-PAS PowerBar 235 Powered Home Theater Soundbar