Soundbar Buying Guide

With TVs becoming ever slimmer and more compact, they have less room for onboard speakers. This has resulted in a situation where, as the quality of the screens has continued to improve, the quality of the sound in TVs has gradually diminished. This leaves many consumers looking for options that will allow them to improve the sound for their home viewing center.

One option that can provide a lot of benefits is to get a sound bar. A sound bar is a compact speaker enclosure that will include an array of speakers and sound processing effects to enhance the audio for watching TV and movies. They come in a variety of different designs and with a range of different features included.

A sound bar can be a great solution for improving the audio performance of your TV, but there is a vast selection of different models out there. To get the right sound bar, the consumer needs to know a little about how the different models work and understand which design features will best fit their needs. With the information in this buying guide, you will gain a better understanding of what to look for in a sound bar and that should help you to make a better purchase for your home audio needs.

The benefits and the disadvantages

For most people, a sound bar will offer them a nice middle ground between costly and complicated surround sound systems and having to settle for the less than satisfying sound of the onboard speakers from their HD TV. That being said, these sound systems are not perfect and they do have some limitations that you should take into account.

Benefits

The main benefit of a sound bar is that it is going to provide a major improvement over the speakers that are in your TV. In addition to that, they are compact units that do not add to the clutter in your home and they tend to be very easy to set up. With many sound bars, it is as simple as connecting the unit to the television and then plugging in the power source. In short, you get better sound out of a system that will not make your living room look like a mess and they usually come with an installation process that any person can handle on their own.

Disadvantages

If you are comparing a sound bar to a surround sound system, the main drawback is that the average sound bar is not going to provide an audio experience that can compete with true surround. Most sound bars will come with a virtual surround sound, but this will not have the same effect as a real surround. However, there are some sound bars that do offer true surround sound and those that have the capability to be converted into a surround. Some of the models on the higher end will come with wireless speakers for positioning behind the viewer and this will give the consumer the benefits of true surround from a sound bar.

 

Sound bar or sound base?

At first, consumers only had one option for the easy audio upgrade for their TV and that was the traditional sound bar. Now, users can choose between the sound bars that have the actual bar shape or they can select a model that is called a sound base or a pedestal sound bar. These models are not bar shaped like the standard sound bars, but instead, they have a sort of console design and they are made to support the weight of a television for placement under the set.

For the most part, these two categories of sound bar will perform in the same way and have many of the same features. The main different between the two is with the placement options that the consumer will have.

With some sound bars that have the traditional design, the main placement option may be right in front of the TV. This could cause an issue in regard to space and it might impact the ability of the remote to operate the television. Some of the models with the traditional design may get around this by offering wall mounting options, but not every model comes with the necessary hardware and some people just might not want another component mounted on their wall.

When you have a sound base, you can place the system on the TV stand and then place your HD TV on top of the sound base. This saves on the space and the user does not have to worry about the device interfering with the signal from their TV remote. That being said, you will have to make sure that you get a model that is rated for the size of your television. The manufacturer will list the maximum TV size that can be used with a sound base, but it is something that you need to be aware of.

Speakers

When it comes to buying a sound bar, you want to consider the types of speakers that it comes with. There are other factors, but the number of speakers, how many channels, the total output from the speakers and whether the system comes with a subwoofer will make a difference in the quality of the sound.

The main enclosure

The sound bar enclosure is the main component of the system for a sound bar. With a sound bar it is the bar shaped component that holds the speakers. Depending on the model, it could have a range of different speakers that can vary in their output. Each one is going to at least have two speakers to provide stereo sound, but it could come with more. Some may have woofers and tweeters to provide a broader range of sound, some might have more speakers to provide more channels and some may even have a small subwoofer that is integrated into the unit.

Subwoofers

A lot of sound bar systems come with subwoofers to provide a fuller bass and to add impact to the sound from your movies and TV shows. As mentioned above, some will have the subwoofer integrated into the sound bar itself, but many will come with external subwoofers. The external subs tend to be a little stronger and this will usually make for a fuller low-end sound. Some units come with subwoofers that need to be connected through a speaker wire that the user will run and others can connect to the sound bar through a wireless signal.

Wireless speakers

Consumers can also find some sound bars that come with wireless speakers. For the most part, these are the models that are on the higher end and they tend to cost more. The additional wireless speakers will usually be intended for placement behind the viewer and this provides the system with a genuine surround sound effect. Along with systems that come with the additional wireless speakers, there are some that come ready to connect with a set of compatible wireless speakers. The user can buy the sound bar and then if they want to expand the system later on, they can buy the optional wireless speakers.

Speaker channels

Most sound bars are either 2-channel or 2.1-channel systems, but there models that offer 5.1-channels or more. The number of channels refers to the number of independent signals that the system can send to different speakers. With a 2-channel system, that is regular stereo sound with a right and a left channel. When you get up to something like a 5.1-channel surround, that will have five independent signals including the front right, front left, front center, rear left and rear right. When a sound system has a decimal point in the channel number, that means that it also has a low frequency channel for controlling a subwoofer.

Audio Features

While the speakers are an important part in the quality of the sound that you will get from a sound bar, you also need to consider different audio features that the system may employ. These processing effects can be just as important as the hardware when it comes to producing clear, quality audio.

Virtual Surround

Most sound bar systems are not going to provide the user with a true surround sound experience, but some manufacturers try to compensate for this by using a virtual surround sound effect. The quality of the virtual surround can vary from one system to the next, but they all work on a similar principle. For virtual surround, the system will use different techniques to modify the sound coming out the speakers and it will try to use the acoustics of the room to reflect the sound off the walls. Some systems achieve this better than others and in a wide-open room, the effect is much less likely to work.

Dialogue enhancement

A common problem with movies and TV shows is that the voices will be hard to hear over the sound of the music and the sound effects that are in the program or that to hear the voices, you have to turn the volume up to level that makes the music and the sound effects too loud. Many of the newer systems come with built-in software that can pick out the dialogue to make it clearer and more distinguishable for voices that don’t get lost in the mix of all of the other sounds.

3D sound

3D sound is similar to virtual surround sound and it does work on some of the same principles. With virtual surround, it is supposed to give the impression that sound is coming from the front, the back and the sides of the viewer. With 3D sound, it is supposed to give the impression that sound is not only coming from all of these directions, but that it is coming from above and below the viewer in addition to this. That is why some genuine surround sound system will have 3D sound as a feature; because they have all of the speakers for a true surround experience and they also try to project the sound in a way that gives a three-dimensional audio experience.

Bluetooth

Having a sound bar that comes with Bluetooth might not be an absolute necessity, but it does add some nice capabilities to the system. Not to mention, most sound bars will come Bluetooth ready, so it is worth considering the different features that may come with Bluetooth connectivity.

Streaming music

With a sound bar that has Bluetooth, the user can stream music from their mobile devices to the sound bar. It makes the system more versatile and it means that you will not need a separate speaker system to listen to the music on your Smartphone or tablet. Most sound bars will allow you to stream the music that is saved on the device and you should also be able to play music from different internet music apps.

Sound bar apps

Many of the companies that make sound bars will also have mobile apps that can be used to improve the experience of the sound bar. Some are dedicated music apps that can make it easier to access different content sources for play on the sound bar and some are designed to turn the mobile device into a remote control for the sound system. Before you buy a sound bar, it might be worth the time to see if it is compatible with an app from the manufacturer and to check out what types of features the app may have.

Expandability

Some manufacturers make sound bar systems that are designed with expansion capabilities. The system will be compatible with different wireless speakers from the manufacturer for applications like turning the sound bar into a surround sound or for using the sound bar as a multi-room music system. If you think that you may want to expand upon your sound bar in the future, then this is a feature that is definitely worth considering.

When it comes to expandability, there are a few factors that you will want to think about. For multi-room capabilities, you want to think about the type of hardware that you may need to buy to set up the multi-room function. For some systems, all you need is the additional wireless speakers, but with others, you might need to buy a special multi-room hub to connect to the system. If turning your system in to a surround sound is the expansion that you are interested in, then you want to make sure that the sound bar can decode at least 5.1-channel audio for a true surround experience.

Connectivity

The different options for connectivity will be an important consideration for many consumers. If the sound bar does not connect well with the TV or with all of the components that you need it to, it will not make for a good experience. As a consumer, you want to make sure that the system comes with the connecting options that you need.

Plugs & ports

Before you buy a sound bar, you want to find out the types of plugs and ports that it has and how many of each that there are. Look for things like HDMI ports, optical plugs, analog audio connections and find out whether it has a spot for coaxial audio.

If you have a few components like a cable box, a game system and a Blu-ray player, then the best option to look for may be the HDMI connections. If the system has a few HDMI inputs and an HDMI output, that will be the best way to maintain the integrity of the sound from the source and it will make controlling the system more convenient. In many cases, with the HDMI connections, the TV will detect the sound bar and it will enable the TV remote for control of the sound bar.

If you want to use the TV as the switching hub for all of your components, then the best option is to use the optical cable. This will provide good sound quality and it makes for a fairly simple set up process. However, if you have a sound bar that has more than 2.1-channel sound, most TVs will cost you on the additional speaker channels. Most TVs do not have the ability to pass 5.1-channel audio through to an optical output. That means that the TV will only send the sound bar a 2-channel signal and you will lose the benefits of the additional channels.

If neither of these is an option for you, then you are going to have to consider connecting through a coaxial cable or through analog audio. It will still provide better sound quality than the speakers on the TV, but these options will provide the lowest overall sound quality.

Wireless connections

Many of the sound bars that are currently available will have the ability to communicate to compatible TVs through a wireless connection. For this feature to work, it will have to be a sound bar that is the same brand as the HD TV and it will also have to be a model that is equipped with the wireless connectivity. This can be a nice feature because it simplifies the set up process, it reduces the mess of cables that are running to the TV and with many of these sound bars, it allows the user to control the sound system through the TV remote.

Finding the right sound bar

When it comes to buying a sound bar, you have many different factors that you will need to consider. Of course, things like the sound quality, connectivity and the features that it comes with will be important, but this section is more about finding a TV that will work well in the area where it is going to be used and one that will fit well with your television.

To start, you want to factor in the size of your HD TV. If you are going for the traditional sound bar design, then you want to look for a model that is no wider than the television that it is going to be used with. A wider sound bar will work, but it will look sort of unseemly with the ends of the enclosure sticking out beyond the television. Manufacturers will often list the recommended TV size for the sound bar, so this can be a handy way to find one that will look good with your TV.

With sound bars that come in the pedestal or sound base design, the size of the TV is especially important because you may want to place the TV on top of the sound system. If your intention is to stand the television on the sound base, then you will need to make sure that you get a model that is built to hold your TV. With sound bases, you will always find a listing from the manufacturer of the recommended TV size.

Beyond matching the size of the sound bar with the size of your television, you will also want to consider your placement options. If you intend to place the sound bar on the TV stand in front of the set, then you want to look for one that will fit in that space. If you are planning to wall mount the sound system, then you want to consider how a given system will look on the wall and whether it comes with the mounting hardware. Many sound bars will come with the wall-mounting kit, but if it does not, then you need to make sure to purchase it and factor the cost into your purchasing decision.

If you are looking to buy a system that has an external subwoofer, then you will also need to consider the placement of this component. If it is a subwoofer that is connected by a wire then you will have less placement options and you will need to have a piece of wire running from the sound bar and over to the subwoofer. With a wireless sub, you will have more placement options and it will look better without the wire running from point A to point B.

 

Additional Considerations

The Remote – You want to consider how easy the system is to control and for the most part, that is going to mean looking at the remote. Some systems do not come with a remote and instead are set up to work with the remote from the television and others come with remotes that can be very helpful.

Display – Whether the system has a display is not a huge factor, but it can be helpful when it comes to navigating the options and adjusting the levels for the volume or possibly the bass and treble. Not every system has a display screen and instead it may employ a system of indicator lights, but a true display is always better.

IR Blaster – Some sound bars will block the remote sensor on the TV. Many manufacturers have addressed this problem by adding an IR blaster to the kit. Essentially, what it does is it detects the infrared signal from the remote and it resends the signal to the TV.

HDMI Pass Through – If you are planning to use the sound bar as the switching hub for all of your HD components, then this is an important feature to consider. Most sound bars will be able to pass a Full HD signal from a device connected to the system on to an HD TV. However, if your TV is 4K, then you will want to make sure that it has 4K pass through.

NFC – If you plan to connect mobile devices to your sound bar through Bluetooth, then this is a feature that is worth considering. NFC stands for near field communication and it will make it easier to connect compatible devices. With an NFC reader, all you have to do is touch the phone or tablet to the terminal and it will make an instant connection between the device and the sound bar.

USB – Having a USB port on your sound bar is by no means a must have, but it is something that might be worth consideration. With some, the USB is for nothing more than software updates, but there are some that will allow you to play music files from a USB and there are even a few that will play video from the external drive.

Installation – How easy the sound bar is to install and get set up is an important consideration. With most, the process is very simple and straightforward, but there are a few that can be a little tricky. Part of the reason people buy these sound systems is because they are easy to get set up, so if that is a primary concern for you, then you may want to think about how easy the sound bar is to install.

Warranty – Nobody wants to think about the possibility of their new sound bar malfunctioning, but even the best manufacturers let a dud come off the line once in a while. Most of these systems will have a warranty, but some may be rather short. A year of manufacturer coverage is basically the minimum that you want to look for.