The speakers built into your TV may not be enough to wrap you in sound. To make the full high-definition experience complete, add room-filling audio. TVs are getting thinner all the time, leaving less room for powerful speakers; that’s where a soundbar comes in.
The best soundbar heightens your movie watching and music listening moments. Sound quality can make or break your experience. If you don’t have the space for home theater surround sound, a soundbar is a slender, low profile bar filled with speakers that gives you another sound option. It makes dialogue crisper, music more powerful, and movies more exciting.
This guide breaks down the key shopping considerations for choosing the best soundbar for your home and extra features to look out for to upgrade your entertainment center. Out of numerous options available, the following products are among the top-performing models available.
- BEST OVERALL: Sonos Beam – Smart TV Sound Bar with Amazon Alexa
- BEST BUDGET: VIZIO SB2920-C6 29-Inch 2.0 Channel Sound Bar
- BEST FOR SURROUND SOUND: Sony Sound Bar with Rear Speakers
- BEST BUDGET SURROUND SOUND: JBL Bar 5.1 – Channel 4K Ultra HD Soundbar
- HONORABLE MENTION: Samsung – HW-S40T 2.0 ch All-in-One Soundbar
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Soundbar
Every soundbar is different. Soundbars vary by product and come in various sizes, have different installation options, connect to your TV in distinct ways, and possess specific features.
Audiophiles have a different standard than those looking to purchase their first soundbar, and knowing what your needs are can avoid paying for features you won’t use. Here are some of the top features to look at when choosing a soundbar.
Take a look at your entertainment space. If you’re in a small bedroom or tiny apartment, a smaller soundbar may fit better in your home. A smaller size doesn’t necessarily mean less sound; quality speakers and channels can fit in soundbars that are about 17 inches long. Don’t dismiss a product because of its size, always read the specs for more information.
A general rule of thumb is that a soundbar shouldn’t be wider than your TV. If you have a big-screen TV, consider investing in a wider model soundbar. This offers wider stereo imaging, giving the viewer the impression that the sound isn’t coming from a speaker box, but from whoever is making the sound on the TV.
Channels simulate the surround sound effect without having to purchase surround sound. They give depth by increasing the number of places where sound can be delivered. In soundbars, you’ll likely find two- or three-channel soundbars.
- Two-channel soundbars have a left and right channel to augment the sound of your TV.
- Three-channel soundbars can better imitate surround sound with channels on the right, left, and center of the bar.
- Five-channel soundbars are only necessary if you plan on implementing surround sound with additional speakers in the front and back.
Channels are written with a decimal, such as 3.1. The number before the decimal refers to the number of channels within the soundbar (in this example, that would be three). The number after tells you whether or not there’s a subwoofer, which delivers more bass. The number 1 means it has a subwoofer, but 0 means it doesn’t. A soundbar can claim .1 status if it has a low-frequency driver. Read the specs of the soundbar to confirm whether or not it has a subwoofer.
Active vs. Passive
Both active and passive soundbars have multi-speaker channels and can create high-resolution sound. Though similar overall, there are a few differences between active and passive soundbars.
Active soundbars come with built-in amplifiers. These soundbars are easy to install and use. They’re suited for those who want to save space, don’t plan on upgrading their sound system, and only want one component for audio, instead of complex connections between several components. One downside: if your soundbar breaks, you’ll need to replace the entire model instead of only the broken parts.
Passive soundbars need an amplifier for their channels to work. They have a more complicated installation process but produce better quality audio. You may need to do your homework when purchasing a passive soundbar. There are more purchase decisions to make, including the choice between a device to enhance the sound quality or extra speakers to create more complex sounds and high-definition audio.
Many modern soundbars come with Wi-Fi and are Bluetooth-enabled, allowing you to play your music or watch movies within minutes. With wireless devices, you can easily stream content, including subscription services like Spotify from your computer, phone, tablet, or smart home system.
If you opt for a wired device, you typically only need one cable to connect the soundbar to your TV. It will be an optical cable, RCA cable, or HDMI. For HDMI connections, your TV needs to support HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) to function properly. HDMI supports more audio formats and only needs a single connection from the soundbar to the TV, making it a good option for connectivity.
For movie buffs who want the home theater audio experience without investing in a surround sound system, you may want to choose a soundbar with a subwoofer. Subwoofers are speaker drivers dedicated to the reproduction of low-frequency audio, which augments the sounds occurring at this level.
Subwoofers give the sounds you hear in the background, such as a squadron of planes approaching, more depth, adding to your movie experience. This punch and rumble gives a fuller sound and keeps you on the edge of your seat, especially with action movies or movies with an epic soundtrack.
The range of audible sound vibrations produced by a soundbar is measured in hertz (Hz) and kilohertz (KHz). This is the frequency of sound we hear from low bass rumbles at 20Hz that are barely perceptible to high-pitched jarring sounds that are 20KHz, the highest pitch. The fluctuating frequencies throughout a movie make the difference between average and incredible.
Most soundbars come with a compatible remote control to customize your audio settings. In many instances, the remote enables you to change the volume, treble, bass, mode, and more on the soundbar to optimize the audio.
If you find a soundbar that integrates with your TV or universal remote, it simplifies adding sound to your shows and movies by eliminating the need to juggle two remotes. Read the specs of the soundbar before you make a purchase, as some of them do not enable other remote devices.
Newer wireless soundbar models let you use Bluetooth from your handheld devices. This allows you to stream music from your phone to your soundbar over the internet without requiring the remote. However, some devices may still require the remote to adjust sound settings, so be sure to read the manufacturer’s specs if this is a feature you’d like to have.
Mounted vs. Unmounted
The difference between mounting your soundbar on the wall or placing it on your TV stand largely comes down to personal preference. The best sound seems to come from just below the TV, with the best distance being 4 to 6 inches beneath the screen. Distance may impact sound quality, so if the soundbar is too far from the television, there may be a bit of user disconnect when watching movies or shows.
Many wall-mounted soundbars come with mounting hardware that withstands the weight of the device. This looks clean and stylish with a wall-mounted TV and it doesn’t block the screen if mounted a few inches below it. Follow instructions carefully to make sure you mount it properly so that the soundbar stays securely in place.
For unmounted soundbars, make sure there is enough room in front of the TV so the bar doesn’t obstruct the screen or block the remote sensors. If you choose to store your soundbar on a shelf within the TV stand or entertainment center, bring it forward as much as possible to ensure the sound isn’t blocked on the sides.
Our Top Picks
This list of recommendations for soundbars considers the above criteria, and the best soundbar for you depends on your unique circumstances and preferences. First-time buyers may be inclined to purchase something simple to use out of the box. Audiophiles and those with a keen interest in tech may lean toward systems with more specialized features.
Enhance your entertainment experience with the smart, compact Sonos Beam. This soundbar was specially tuned by Oscar-winning sound engineers to emphasize the sound of the human voice, offering rich and clear dialogue for movie watching. With built-in Amazon Alexa and Apple AirPlay 2, operate the soundbar using voice control to play music, watch movies, check news, set alarms, and more.
The Sonos Beam features side-firing speakers, creating a wide soundstage to immerse you in audio. Although the soundbar lacks a sub-bass, you can improve its performance by adding a wireless subwoofer, which is sold separately. This system allows you to build on it by connecting additional speakers using WiFi.
The Sonos Beam offers an incredibly easy setup: simply unbox, plug into power, and connect the system to your TV by following instructions from the Sonos app. For TVs that don’t have an HDMI-ARC port, you can use the included optical audio adapter to connect the Sonos Beam to the optical port on the TV. The 25.6-inch system can rest on a TV stand or be mounted to the wall.
Mounted to a wall or set up on your TV stand, this VIZIO 29-inch Channel Sound Bar is a solid pick for those on a budget. The minimalist, sophisticated design goes well with most room styles. Giving 95-dB of crisp and clear sound with less than 1 percent total harmonic distortion, it’s an affordable upgrade for entertainment centers.
To connect, simply plug the provided RCA cable into your TV’s audio-out jacks, and you’re ready for a great audio experience. This soundbar uses DTS Studio Sound, DTS Tru Volume, and DTS Tru Surround to give you an immersive sound experience with 2.0 channels.
A frequency of 70 Hertz to 19 KHertz gives you a vast range of sound. Though it lacks an HDMI hookup, users can stream music or podcasts from a Bluetooth-enabled phone, tablet, or laptop for convenient listening.
The Sony wireless surround sound system comes with slim, compact speakers you can install directly to either side of the rear right and rear left of your central listening position. The central soundbar has three speakers that simulate the front left, front center, and front right surround sound positions, and a subwoofer complete the 5.1 configuration.
The 510W system gives your audio plenty of power, and the WiFi system ensures crystal clear sound quality, compatible with 4K, Chromecast, and the Sony Music Center app. The wireless surround sound system can be optimized for the content you are listening to, with five sound modes for movies, music, gaming, news, and sports.
This wireless surround sound system has 510 watts of power to produce remarkable volume out of a single subwoofer and a five-speaker soundbar. For a 5.1 configuration surround sound setup, disconnect the speakers on either end of the soundbar and mount them at the sides or rear of the room. Featuring Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS, this surround sound system offers incredible sound for movies, music, and video games.
Connect your devices through Bluetooth and use the three HDMI inputs to link to your television or other high-definition 4K devices. The detachable speakers are completely wireless, allowing you to mount them wherever you want. They’re powered with rechargeable batteries that last up to 10 hours before needing to be recharged.
Constructed from premium fabric with a curved design, this reasonably priced pick from Samsung has a sleek and ultramodern appearance. Beyond aesthetics, the technology inside this device enables you to listen to music as the creators intended. It automatically recognizes and optimizes the sound based on what’s playing, which gives a rich depth to vocals and instruments, preserving the recorded sound.
This all-in-one system has two woofers and two tweeters inside the frame. Connect multiple devices to this soundbar with ease via Bluetooth, and start using the system right away. Using Dolby 2 ch/DTS Digital 2.0, you get a pure audio experience. With music and smart mode, the sound quality from this slender speaker is likely to heighten your listening experience with more realistic sound.
FAQs About Your New Soundbar
You may still have a few questions about the capabilities of a new soundbar. Here are some common questions and answers about these bars to help you get started.
Q. Can you add speakers to a soundbar?
Some soundbars, like the Sonos Beam, allow you to add additional speakers. If you purchase a surround sound system with a soundbar, the parts are nicely integrated for easy setup, as opposed to adding speakers that were purchased separately from the soundbar.
Q. Can you add a subwoofer to a soundbar?
Yes. However, it can be complicated to try and get the soundbar and a new subwoofer to work with each other, unless they’re designed to do so. Alternatively, look for a soundbar that has a subwoofer built-in.
Q. Do you need a receiver if you have a soundbar?
If you have a passive soundbar, you will need to get a receiver as well.
Q. Can a soundbar be used as a center speaker?
No. A soundbar is meant to have multiple channels for sound. A center speaker has one channel where all sounds blend together.