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Sunday, April 21, 2024

How to Choose the Right Soundbar

You don't have to buy a new TV to improve the audio that comes out of your current set. In fact, most new TVs still have tinny and awful-sounding speakers. But it can be tough knowing where to start when it comes to upgrading your home theater's audio system. Never fear, intrepid buyer: the easiest and most affordable solution is to just get a soundbar. Modern soundbars come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. Here, we've made a checklist of sorts to consider before pressing the buy button on your next soundbar. 

Be sure to check out our Best Soundbars guide, our advice on How to Buy a TV, and How to Upgrade Your Home Audio. Our Best TVs guide will help you get started on the perfect screen too.

Table of ContentsWhy You Need a SoundbarFinding the Right SizeDo You Need a Subwoofer?Connecting Your SoundbarWhat About Surround Sound?How Much Should You Pay?Advanced FeaturesBrands We Like

Updated April 2023: We've added some more information about systems you can expand.

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Why You Need a Soundbar

Soundbars are a great first step into home theater audio because they are compact, easy to set up, and sound vastly better than most built-in TV speakers. Seriously: TV speakers are bad! The spectrum of quality you can get from a soundbar ranges from basic improvements to bass and overall soundstage to the type of room-filling sound you might expect from a more traditional home theater audio system (a system with wired speakers and a dedicated receiver). Regardless of what you're watching, a soundbar is a low-effort way of getting more out of your viewing experience.

Finding the Right Size

Soundbars are denoted based on the amount of built-in treble, bass, and height channels. You can think of channels as the place emitting audio on a soundbar. A “2.1” system, for example, has two speakers and a dedicated subwoofer. A 5.1 system has five speakers (a center, left, right, plus two surrounds) and a subwoofer. Typically, soundbars have at least three channels in front (left, center, and right) and come with a subwoofer. That's a 3.1 system. In my opinion, the most important channel is the center channel, because that's where TV and film mixers put dialog. Have trouble hearing dialog in movies and shows? Get a 3-channel bar at the very least.

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Sometimes, you'll see an additional number at the end, like a 5.1.2 system. That means there are two height channels. These are upward- or sideways-facing speakers that bounce sound off the walls, simulating side and ceiling speakers for content mixed in Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Basically, these soundbars try to re-create a surround-sound experience without requiring you to string up a bunch of speakers. Pricier soundbar setups will come with additional dedicated rear and height surround speakers for even more immersion.

The more channels, the bigger your soundbar will be. The most important step is to make sure whatever you buy will fit on your media console (ideally, it'll fit right between your TV's legs too).  

Do You Need a Subwoofer?

I highly recommend you get a soundbar with a dedicated subwoofer. If these are too expensive, several systems let you add a subwoofer later, including models from Roku, Sonos, and Polk. Some of these allow you to add surround speakers as well, letting you upgrade to a full surround-sound system.

You'll need to make some space for the subwoofer. (These are chunky boxes with big speakers inside to crank out powerful bass, after all.) Thankfully, since bass is omnidirectional, you can place a subwoofer anywhere in your living room, though exactly where will depend on the length of the cable that connects it to the soundbar or power outlet. If you get surround speakers (more on this later), you'll probably want speaker stands or mounts.

Connecting Your Soundbar

Most modern soundbars use what’s called the HDMI ARC (“Audio Return Channel”) standard, allowing you to easily connect them to a TV via a single HDMI cable. That's it! (You'll also need to plug it into a power outlet.) Soundbars often have optical audio out too, but it's important to make sure, especially if you plan on connecting one to older TVs or other kinds of players. We recommend sticking to a soundbar with ARC support, though. It gives your TV remote the ability to control the soundbar's volume (including mute functionality), so you won't have to use two remote controls or hunt for the soundbar's remote when it's stuck somewhere in the couch

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Some soundbars also have Bluetooth connectivity and HDMI inputs as well, meaning you can use them as a traditional home theater receiver. What you need depends entirely on your own use case, but for most people, a simple HDMI connection for ARC will suffice. These cables are usually included in the box. If not, here is a cable we like.

What About Surround Sound?

Surround sound is exactly what it means—you're surrounding yourself with sound via dedicated speakers placed around the room. It's not necessary, but it can feel more immersive, especially if you watch tons of movies, play video games on the TV, or closely watch a lot of sports. Soundbars will often boast digital surround sound, but don’t put a ton of trust on immersion unless they come with dedicated rear surround speakers (not the built-in side speakers that bounce audio off the walls). You'll want to look into using stands to place them behind your couch, and consider the wires you'll have to run from these surround speakers back to the soundbar. 

How Much Should You Pay?$100 or Less

You can find small soundbars in this price range, and they’re still better than the speakers in your TV. They're a great option if your budget is tight, but they're also great for TVs in bedrooms, kitchens, or other non-primary viewing locations.

$100 to $400

This is a good price range for most non-surround soundbars. Look for recognizable brand names like Samsung, Vizio, Sony, Polk, LG, Bose, and Sonos. I wouldn’t purchase a soundbar in this price range without a wireless subwoofer included, but some models sound decent without them (Sonos and Bose have soundbars that don't come with subwoofers but are still pretty great). You can also sometimes find soundbars with satellite speakers for surround sound below $400, but most of them aren’t the best for truly immersive sound.

$400 to $1,000

This is the price category where you’ll start to see high-quality surround soundbars, with real satellite speakers. I wouldn’t spend more than $400 on a soundbar that doesn't come with satellite speakers, unless it's a high-end system that can be expanded later, like those from Sonos.

More Than $1,000

At this price, you’ll see the biggest, boldest surround soundbar systems with the most possible speakers for height and surround audio. These are for anyone with the cash to build out a small home theater system but don’t have the room for larger systems that require discrete components like an A/V receiver. If you're going much higher, I'd consider a true, traditional home theater system with speakers, amps, and a receiver

Advanced Features

Many soundbars feature smart assistants, multi-room audio connectivity, and other bells and whistles. If you’ve already got a smart assistant you love (Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri), keep this in mind when shopping for a new soundbar. You might not need a smart speaker in your living room if you end up with a smart soundbar instead. Conversely, if you don’t want those features, you can save some money by avoiding soundbars with all the fancy stuff.

Brands We Like

Virtually all well-known electronics brands make decent soundbars. Our favorites come from the likes of Vizio, Samsung, Sonos, Bose, Polk, Yamaha, LG, Sony, Sennheiser, and a few others. Try to visit a store that has many soundbars set up to listen to. You'll be surprised how different they can sound. Be sure to check out our Best Soundbars guide for our favorites. 

Best Soundbars

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