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
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.
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
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
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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