Today's flat-screen TVs, experts agree, have consistently terrible audio: weak, tinny, and muddy on vocals or dialogue. For those who don't want to go to the trouble and expense of hooking up the TV set to a full-scale surround-sound system, with five (or more) speakers plus a subwoofer, a sound bar offers the ideal solution. 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. Many sound bars, including some budget models, include a separately powered subwoofer to provide better bass. Some even add wireless rear-channel speakers to create a true surround-sound system.
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. Still, they're an excellent choice if you want a single sleek package instead of a room full of wires and speakers.
The price range for sound bars ranges from as little as $100 to over $1,500, depending on the features and audio quality you need or want. 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, noted below, to identify the best choices.
Products by Sonos -- a well-known manufacturer of wireless home audio solutions -- have an almost cult-like following, so it's little surprise that the Sonos Playbar (Est. $700) gets more recommendations than any other sound bar. Nearly every professional source that covers sound bars gives it a stellar review, and it receives consistently strong feedback from users as well. Reviewers consistently say its three-channel audio delivers rich, detailed sound and does a particularly good job of transmitting dialogue clearly. The Playbar doesn't come with a subwoofer, but many users at retail sites are generally impressed with how much bass this sound bar delivers without it. The 35.4-inch-wide sound bar also does a much better job than most of simulating surround sound without any additional speakers.
For those that don't find the bass satisfying enough, it's possible to hook up a Sonos Sub wireless subwoofer (Est. $700) to fill in the low end. For those that want true rather than simulated surround sound, you can also add a pair of Sonos wireless speakers (Est. $200 to $500 each) for the rear channels to create a true 5.1-channel surround system.
In addition to its sound quality, reviewers like the Sonos Playbar for its very easy setup and operation. It doesn't come with its own remote control, but it can be linked up to your existing TV remote or to any Apple or Android mobile device via a free app. The Playbar is also streaming enabled, and shines in that capacity. Sonos's signature digital music software can stream music from your own library or connect over the Internet to just about every streaming service out there. Of course, any sound bar with Bluetooth or Airplay connectivity can stream from a phone or tablet, but the Playbar makes it much simpler However, it requires a wired Ethernet connection to do this, unless you have another Sonos component in your home audio system that you can stream from.
The biggest downside that some mention is that the Playbar's only input, aside from wireless, is a single digital optical input. This setup pretty much forces you to hook any other components in your set up – such as a cable box or Blu-Ray player – to the TV, rather than hooking them up to the Playbar directly. That makes for a nice, neat connection between the Playbar and the TV, but since many TVs can't pass through 5.1 signals via their optical connection (only stereo), that can be a bummer for those who want to use the Playbar in a full surround sound set up (with rear surrounds). Big Picture Big Sound has more information on this, including some information on which TV brands are more likely to pass through full 5.1 audio from external components, and which are less likely.
If your budget is a little tighter, the Yamaha YAS-203 (Est. $350) gets enthusiastic recommendations from CNET and DigitalTrends.com, as well, as strong feedback from users. This 34.9-inch-wide sound bar has two built-in speakers, plus a wireless subwoofer. Reviewers generally say its sound quality is surprisingly good for the price, though definitely not up to the standards of a high-end sound bar like the Sonos Playbar. Although DigitalTrends.com praises its "deft hand at musical reproduction," other professional and user reviews say it makes music sound a bit muffled or constrained. However, all reviewers agree that it does a very good job with movies, particularly with making dialogue come through clearly. Reviewers are split over its surround-sound capabilities: while CNET calls its soundstage "huge, with excellent depth," DigitalTrends.com and The Wirecutter.com say it doesn't deliver any real surround-sound impact.
Reviewers say the YAS-203 is very easy to set up and use. There's no trick to using the included remote control – DigitalTrends.com calls it "self-explanatory" – but you can also program your existing TV remote to handle simple functions like power, mute and volume control. You don't need to worry about this 3.6-inch-tall bar blocking the remote's infrared (IR) signal, either, thanks to a rear IR repeater that reflects the signal back to the TV set. The YAS-203 has three inputs --digital optical, digital coaxial, and analog (RCA) -- as well as Bluetooth connectivity. There's no HDMI input, however.
For those on a tighter budget still, the Vizio SB3821-C6 (Est. $160) looks to be a terrific value. It is one of the top picks at TheWirecutter.com and gets plenty of positive feedback from owners. TheWirecutter.com reports that its two built-in speakers and wireless subwoofer deliver better sound than anything else priced below $250, with "great bass, solid midrange, and sparklingly detailed high frequencies." Users at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com also describe the sound as very clear, with plenty of volume and excellent clarity on spoken dialogue. A few complain that the audio is rather tinny and lacking in midrange, but others say that simply adjusting the easy-to-use settings fixes the problem. They also find the sound stage much broader than you'd expect for a 38-inch sound bar.
Users generally say the Vizio SB3821-C6 is easy to set up. Like the Yamaha, it has no HDMI input, but it does include two digital inputs (optical and coaxial), an RCA jack, and a 3.5 mm stereo mini jack. It also supports Bluetooth streaming. Some users find the input selector a bit tricky to use, since the only indicator it has is a strip of LEDs at one end of the sound bar and you have to remember which sequence of lights stands for which input. We did note some complaints about reliability, but the majority of owners think it's a very good value for the price.
Most users are looking for a sound bar that they can mount to a wall or place on a tabletop in front of the TV. However, a few prefer a pedestal style sound bar, also known as a sound base: a larger unit with a built-in subwoofer that sits under the TV set. The best-rated model of this type is the Zvox SoundBase 450 (Est. $220). TheWirecutter.com says this sound base doesn't have the well-balanced sound performance of the Vizio SB3821-C6, but it delivers robust bass without a separate subwoofer, and its surround-sound capabilities trounce those of every other sound bar in its price class. Dialogue comes through clearly, and sci-fi sound effects are truly impressive. The downside is that there's no way to turn off the surround-sound setting, which makes the SoundBase 450 less than ideal for music listening. Users at Amazon.com agree, saying that this sound base is great for dialogue and reasonably good overall, but makes music sound a bit processed.
Another problem with the Soundbase 450 is its dimensions: about 27.6 inches wide and 14.5 inches deep. Testers at TheWirecutter.com say this wasn't big enough to support their TV set, which has three widely spaced legs rather than a flat bottom. Because this design is common with newer TVs, they warn, users should check their TV size carefully before buying. However, the 55-plus owners who review the product at Amazon.com haven't run into this problem. They say the sound base is very easy to set up, and it's easy to set it up to work with your TV's remote. A few of them say the remote that comes with the sound base was faulty, but they all report that Zvox customer support was very accommodating and replaced it right away.
If you want the best possible home-theater experience a sound bar can provide and aren't concerned about the cost, consider springing for the Yamaha YSP-2500 (Est. $1,000). Reviewers say this slim and sleek 7.1-channel sound bar does a remarkably convincing job of simulating surround sound through its unique Sound Projector technology, which uses 16 directed "beam" speakers that bounce sound waves off the walls of your room. However, issues such as room geometry and even furniture placement can impact the surround sound effect. For example, Ryan Waniata of DigitalTrends.com says that the placement of his TV cabinet prevented the bar from bouncing sound off the back wall effectively, so he never truly got the effect of sound coming at him from behind.
Connectivity is robust, to say the least. The YSP-2500 has three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, plus two optical and one coaxial digital input, one analog audio input, and a headphone jack, and Bluetooth is supported as well. And the wealth of settings — available through the onscreen menu and included remote or through your phone with an iOS/Android app — let you adjust the numerous sound "beams" to your liking and remember up to three favorite settings.
Professional reviewers, as well as the handful of owners who have rated the Yamaha YSP-2500 on sites such as Amazon.com and Crutchfield.com, consistently say it's unsurpassed for movie and TV viewing. The soundstage is expansive, the hefty bass response produces impressive sound effects, and dialogue is very clear. However, some reviewers are less impressed with the YSP-2500 for music listening. Waniata says that even with the virtual surround sound turned off, music came out sharp in the treble range and "lacked nuance and presence in the midrange." And we saw some mixed feedback on reliability. Of the more than 15 owners who review the YSP-2500 (and only the YSP-2500 as its reviews are grouped together with those of other Yamaha sound bars) at Amazon.com, several say they had trouble on one type or another. At Crutchfield.com, on the other hand, more than 20 reviewers grant the sound bar an overall rating of 4.5 stars.
For those who care more about overall sound quality than about surround-sound performance, the Paradigm Soundscape (Est. $1,500) could be a better choice. Unlike the Yamaha, this sound bar doesn't include a separate subwoofer, but both professionals and users say that doesn't hurt its sound quality a bit. According to The Wirecutter.com, which declares this the best sound bar money can buy, the four built-in midrange/bass drivers produce a "more-accurate lower-mid range that bestows some extra richness and warmth on movies and music." The sound bar also has three tweeters – left, center, and right – allowing greater clarity on both music and dialogue. If you feel the need for more bass, you can connect the Soundscape to any wireless subwoofer; it doesn't have to be a Paradigm model.
Despite its name, however, the Soundscape's surround-sound capabilities aren't impressive. As TheWirecutter.com explains, "The models that do best with faux-surround effects manage it by dedicating channels to those effects, while the Paradigm reserves its drivers for the front three channels." Steve Guttenberg of CNET concurs, saying the Soundscape produces better clarity for music playing and a better-defined soundstage.
Setting up the Soundscape can be as simple as plugging it into the TV and the wall. However, if you want to add more devices, you have many inputs to choose from: two digital optical, one digital coaxial, and an RCA jack; Bluetooth with AptX is also supported. A simple remote lets you set your input and volume, but to adjust sound options (loudness, treble, and bass), you have to use a menu system that Guttenberg finds somewhat hard to navigate.
Technical websites like CNET, TheWirecutter.com, TechRadar.com, and DigitalTrends.com offer the most thorough reviews of sound bars. Though most of them don't compare different models correctly, they all conduct hands-on tests and provide detailed feedback on sound performance, connectivity, and overall ease of use. We also checked the latest reviews at ConsumerReports.org to see how recommended models compare directly in head-to-head testing. For information about real-world use, including reliability and customer support, we consulted user reviews from Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, and Crutchfield.com. Based on all this information, we selected the models with the most consistently positive reviews across the entire price spectrum.