Sound bars are an easy audio solution for your home theater
Sound bars are one way to bridge the gap between built-in TV audio and what's produced by a surround-sound system with five to seven (or more) speakers plus a subwoofer. Sound bars are one-piece home-theater speaker systems that are sleekly styled and can be hung on a wall underneath a flat-panel TV, or placed on an entertainment center for TVs that are stand-mounted. They typically contain the center channel and left and right surround speakers, and use sonic trickery -- with varying degrees of success -- to produce a surround-sound field.
The price range for sound bars ranges from as little as $100 to as much as $2,000, depending on the features and audio quality you need or want. Some sound bars include a Blu-ray Disc player to create a complete home-theater-in-a-box solution. Many of the best sound bars also include a separately powered subwoofer to provide better bass. Some even add wireless rear-channel speakers to create a true surround-sound system. For most situations, the best sound bars will have all the necessary electronics built in. Passive sound bars that include only the speakers are also available, but those need to be used with a separate home-theater receiver or amplifier, just like a more traditional speaker system, and are not covered in this report.
Experts agree that sound bars deliver better sound than what is available from even the best TVs, but they also agree that even the best sound bars are a compromise. Sound bars are easier to hook up than a traditional surround-sound system, and, in the right setting, many can sound excellent and even produce a reasonably expansive soundstage. Most of the time, however, sound bars can't deliver the full surround-sound experience of more traditional solutions. Sound effects might be inaccurately placed, or the thumps, bangs and explosions in blockbuster movies could lack the oomph produced by a more robust surround-sound system.
Audio performance is one big concern when shopping for the best sound bar, but there are other considerations as well. Does the sound bar have a subwoofer or rear speakers? Is it wireless? What types of audio inputs does the sound bar have? Perhaps most important, is the price-to-performance ratio satisfactory? We kept all of those questions in mind as we sifted through numerous professional and user sound bar reviews to identify the best choices.
Best Sound Bars
The best sound bars sound big, but come in small packages
The best sound bars combine good performance, design, features and value into one package. According to reviews, the Sony HT-CT260 (Est. $250) hits all those points, earning raves from experts and owners. It earns 4 stars out of 5, as well as an Editors' Choice award, from PCMag.com. There, reviewer Will Greenwald says sound quality is "solid, without excelling in any category," and the subwoofer "puts deep bass through easily, with enough output to shake a small-midsized room." Movies and music sound good overall, and the HT-CT260 delivers a fairly wide soundstage. CNET's Matthew Moskovciak gives the HT-CT260 4 stars out of 5 and says it has "no major missteps."
The Sony HT-CT260 sports a hexagonal profile that may seem peculiar compared to other sound bars, but it looks stylish enough for most living rooms. The low end is handled by a wireless subwoofer; you'll need to plug in the included wireless transceivers into the sound bar and subwoofer, but reviews say that they pair easily. An IR repeater relays a remote's signal out the back, so you don't have to worry about the sound bar blocking a TV's sensor. Built-in Bluetooth lets you stream music wirelessly from mobile devices such as a smartphone. Other connectivity includes coaxial and optical digital audio inputs as well as a mini-jack analog audio input, but not HDMI. The HT-CT260 includes built-in decoders for Dolby Digital and DTS.
In the same price class, the Yamaha YAS-101 (Est. $250) is perhaps the best alternative to the Sony HT-CT260. Critics and users alike shower the Yamaha sound bar with praise for its solid, clear audio, with a respectable amount of punch and a decent envelope of virtual surround sound. A key difference between the Yamaha YAS-101 and the Sony HT-CT260 is that the former uses an integrated subwoofer rather than a wireless, discrete one. That limits low-end performance, though provision is made for owners to add their own wired subwoofer if they desire more bass punch.
Performance is otherwise solid for a budget sound bar. "Few sound bars in the YAS-101's price class sound this rich, so we've never missed not having a separate sub," writes CNET's Matthew Moskovciak. Movies and music sound good overall. Moskovciak says string orchestrations "sounded natural" during Blu-ray playback, and while there's no true surround sound, the soundstage sounded "big and broad."
The simple setup takes next to no time and is utterly painless. Experts also love that the sound bar includes an infrared repeater; if it blocks the IR signal for your TV, the sound bar will pass it along through an IR emitter on the back of the bar. Connectivity includes a coaxial digital audio connection and a pair of optical digital ports, but no HDMI connection and no analog inputs at all. The YAS-101 earns 4 stars out of 5 at DigitalTrends.com, as well as 3.5 stars out of 5 at CNET.
If you have a little more to spend, the Boston Acoustics TVee Model 30 (Est. $400) might be worth considering. Reviewers say the dialog clarity and all-around punch of the TVee Model 30 is great for a sound bar. One concern is that user reviews are very mixed, with numerous complaints regarding sound bars that developed issues right out of the box or after several months of use, though other owners are perfectly happy.
The Harman Kardon SB 16 (Est. $500) sounds absolutely excellent, reviews say. On the downside, the huge subwoofer could be a non-starter for those who want their sound bar to be heard but not seen. In addition, features are sparse; there's not even a remote.
The Polk SurroundBar 6000 IHT (Est. $500) is a worthy candidate as the best sound bar for a bedroom. The sound bar delivers an excellent, distortion-free experience in smaller areas with lots of reflective surfaces, but critics report that it loses its oomph and virtual surround-sound chops in larger expanses and when played at higher volumes.
Most sound bars resemble a long, narrow tube. Pedestal sound bars, on the other hand, are broad, rectangular platforms; they're designed to fit underneath your HDTV. The Zvox Z-Base 580 (Est. $500) is an excellent pedestal sound bar that wins accolades from several top experts. Reviewers loved the sound of previous Zvox sound bases, and the Z-Base 580 is no different. Reports say that dialog clarity is second to none, bass is surprisingly potent for a single-box solution, and audio is distortion-free and decently expansive (for a sound bar, that is).
The Z-Base 580 includes digital signal processing, input switching and a front display. It accepts digital (optical and coaxial) and analog audio signals, but lacks an HDMI input. After a brief initial setup, the Z-Base 580 integrates seamlessly with your TV, powering up and down with the display. The bottom line is that if your budget allows and you stand-mount your TV, the Z-Base 580 is an excellent choice. However, its form factor largely removes it from consideration for those who wall-mount their sets.
If money is more of an object, the LG NB3530A (Est. $200) is a good choice among cheaper sound bars. Its only professional review is by Britain's TrustedReviews.com, where it earns an 8-out-of-10 rating. Danny Phillips slightly prefers a different sound bar, the Philips HTL5120 (Est. $225) , but adds "that doesn't change the fact that the NB3530A is an impressive soundbar, with a solid feature set, excellent build quality and a chic design." Those features include a wireless subwoofer and Bluetooth connectivity, though not the dual HDMI inputs found on the Phillips sound bar. What do owners say? We found relatively little feedback on the HTL5120, but tons on LG's NB3530A, most of it very complimentary. At BestBuy.com, for example, where nearly 175 owners have posted reviews, 94 percent would recommend the LG NB3530A to a friend. Feedback at Amazon.com isn't as extensive, but is equally positive.