What the best sound bar has

  • Solid audio performance. The nature of sound bars limits them from sounding as full as a true 5.1-channel home theater system, but the best sound bars still deliver clear audio with a decent bass punch, though many include a separate subwoofer in order to hit the really low notes.
  • Decent simulated surround sound. Again, sound bars can't compare to the full sonic landscape of a 5.1-channel surround-sound system, but a good sound bar should deliver a fairly convincing simulated surround sound if you're sitting directly in front of it, whether the bar uses virtual sonic trickery or highly focused internal drivers. Some cheaper models only offer stereo sound.
  • Features you need. If there's a chance that the sound bar could block your TV's remote sensor, look for a sound bar with a rear IR repeater. Bluetooth support lets you wirelessly stream audio from mobile devices. Automatic setup routines can help simplify the job of getting the most realistic surround-sound effects in your listening room.

Know before you go

  • Sound bars don't sound as good as a full 5.1-channel home theater system. That being said, they're a big step up from integrated HDTV speakers, and they're an excellent choice if you want a single sleek package instead of a room full of wires and speakers -- and don't mind giving up the fully believable surround sound of a 5.1-channel system to get that. Adding a subwoofer to a sound bar can create a better sonic low end, which is crucial for enjoying some types of entertainment -- including high-octane movies. Because of that, some sound bars are offered with separate wired or wireless subwoofers. Others give you the option of adding your own subwoofer.
  • About that surround sound. Lots of current sound bars proudly tout that they include Dolby and usually DTS surround-sound decoders. However, most are designed with minimal connectivity. Manufacturers instead expect you to connect other home theater components (such as a Blu-ray Disc player) to your HDTV and to use that to switch between sources. While that simplifies the hookup between your TV and a sound bar to just one digital audio cable, there's a fly in the ointment: While TVs can pass 5.1-channel surround sound from their internal tuners just fine, reviews report that most will not pass surround sound received via their HDMI inputs over their digital audio outputs, converting it instead to stereo and leaving the sound bar's decoders with nothing to decode. Most sound bars can re-create a surround sound field from the stereo mix, but while that simulated surround sound is often very good, it is almost always substantially different than what's heard in the original Dolby or DTS sound recordings. If that matters to you, the workaround is to connect your Blu-ray player or other components directly to the sound bar. Look for a sound bar with more than one digital audio input, and of the types -- coaxial or optical -- that mesh with the available outputs of your gear.
  • Is your room fairly square? Standard sound bars use sonic trickery to fool the mind into thinking that sound coming from small speakers in the front is emanating instead from spots all around the listener. The effectiveness of the techniques used to pull this off varies and can be greatly affected by things like seating positions and room geometry.
  • Active or passive sound bars? Most sound bars are active sound bars and contain the amplifier and signal processors necessary for stand-alone operation. However, there are also some passive sound bars that rely on a separate A/V receiver or amplifier to handle those tasks. If you don't have a receiver or amplifier, shy away from passive sound bars. All of the sound bars profiled in this report are of the active variety.
  • Does the design meet your needs? A functional design isn't all about connections, although you'll definitely want to ensure that your sound bar has the necessary ports to talk to your other electronics. You'll also have room considerations to think about. Will the sound bar fit in the space you have available? Consider the size and shape of the sound bar itself, as well as whether or not there is a discrete subwoofer -- and whether or not that subwoofer is wired or wireless. Sound bars come in varying lengths; longer sound bars provide better stereo imaging, but can look silly sitting under a smaller-screen set.
  • Check the manufacturer's policy regarding authorized dealers before buying online. Some manufacturers have strict policies regarding authorized dealers. For example, Sony will not honor its warranty if you buy its sound bars from an unauthorized dealer. Some dealers will offer a substitute warranty, but whether that's a suitable alternative is something you should consider before buying.

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