Sound bars are an
easy audio solution for your home theater
While some models do a better job than others, many flat-screen TVs,
experts say, have terrible audio performance: weak, tinny, and muddy on vocals
or dialogue. For those with sets with poor audio, and that don't want to go to
the trouble and expense of hooking up their television to a full-scale
surround-sound system -- with an
amplifier and five (or more) speakers plus a subwoofer -- a sound bar offers a
Sound bars are one-piece home-theater audio 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 an
amplifier (though some "passive" soundbars that lack an amp are also
available) along with 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 most sound bars deliver better sound than what is
available from typical 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 components, speakers and wires.
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.
Sonos makes a
fantastic sound bar
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 (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 one. The 35.4-inch-wide
sound bar also does a 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 (Est. $700) to fill
in the low end. If you 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. You have the option of streaming through a wired Ethernet connection, over
Wi-Fi, or from another Sonos component in your home audio system.
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 the hitch is that many TVs can't pass through 5.1 signals via
their optical connection, but 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.
Sound bar options
for smaller budgets
While all reviewers agree that the Sonos Playbar sounds great, there's
no denying that $700 is an awful lot to pay for a sound bar – especially
one that doesn't even come with a separate subwoofer, and adding one, plus rear
speakers if so desired, can send the system cost skywards. Fortunately, there
are plenty of other options that deliver good audio on a more moderate budget.
The (Est. $250) 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. If placed on a console in front
of a stand mounted TV, you don't need to worry about this 3.6-inch-tall bar
blocking the remote's infrared (IR) signal, either, thanks to a built-in rear
IR repeater. The YAS-203 has three inputs --digital optical, digital coaxial, and
analog (RCA) -- as well as Bluetooth connectivity. There's no HDMI input,
If the lack of HDMI is a deal breaker, for you, consider the (Est. $380). It's considerably pricier than the Yamaha, but still
a lot less than the Sonos Playbar, and reviews say it sounds great for its
price range. It's on the large side at 41.7 inches wide, and it comes with a
wireless subwoofer as well, so you'll have to make room for that in your setup.
Connectivity is its strong suit, with an optical connection, HDMI input and
output, Ethernet, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. It also offers a wide assortment of
streaming services built in, including Spotify, Pandora, and Google Cast.
However, we saw a few complaints from users that they had trouble getting some
or all of these various connections to work.
Like the Yamaha, this LG sound bar gets mixed reviews for music
playback. While CNET says it provides "strong bass, dynamic punch, clear articulation
with voices, and smooth treble detail," TechRadar.com complains about "the speakers
missing top-end resolution and offering sometimes muddy bass." However, all
reviewers say it does a great job with movies, delivering plenty of bass punch
and beautifully clear dialogue. The pros say its faux surround sound isn't
outstanding, but most owners are happy with it, and you can add rear speakers
if you want to turn this into a true surround system.
If you're interested in a sound bar mainly for listening to music, the (Est. $400) might be a better choice. John
Archer of TechRadar.com praises this 39.4-inch sound bar's "beautiful
musicality": precise, yet full-bodied, with great dynamics. However, the Media
4 probably isn't the best choice for movie viewing. For starters, it doesn't
come with a separate subwoofer, so it's too light on the bass to capture what
Archer calls "extreme movie mix dynamics." Also, while Archer also says
dialogue comes through very clearly, CNET says it sounds less natural than on
some other sound bars. Finally, the Media 4 doesn't offer surround sound
– not even the faux surround found with most sound bars.
Both professionals and owners say the Q Acoustics Media 4 is very easy
to set up and use, barring a few quirks. Its remote control is dinky, and
there's a risk the 3.6-inch-tall sound bar could block your TV's remote control
sensor; unlike the Yamaha, it doesn't have an IR repeater. Also, several users
at Amazon.com complain that the volume control on the remote isn't sensitive
enough. However, they generally say the Media 4 is a good value nonetheless,
with clear, well-balanced sound at a reasonable price.
If you're on
a really tight budget, the Vizio SB3821-D6 SmartCast (Est. $220) looks to be another solid value option, especially if you can find it at a good price. This is an updated version of the
(Est. $170) last year's budget pick, which is still available
– but Dennis Burger of TheWirecutter.com, who has reviewed both models,
thinks that "most people will be happier with the SB3821-D6." He says
its two channels and wireless subwoofer deliver "great bass, solid midrange, and
sparklingly detailed high frequencies," though it may need a bit of adjustment
out of the box to achieve this ideal balance. Owners also say the Vizio sounds
good for its price, with plenty of volume and excellent clarity on spoken dialogue.
Most owners describe the Vizio SB3821-D6 as 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 and Google Cast, a feature that's lacking on the old
SB3821-C6. 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.
Expert & User Review Sources
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 directly, they all conduct
hands-on tests and provide detailed feedback on sound performance,
connectivity, and overall ease of use. (TheWirecutter.com breaks up its reviews
into two reports, for higher-end and another for budget sound bars.) 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, Crutchfield.com and elsewhere. Based on all this information, we selected the models with the
most consistently positive reviews across the entire price spectrum.