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. Many sound bars come with a separate subwoofer – wired or wireless – in order to hit the really low notes. Others give you the option of adding your own subwoofer.
- Decent simulated surround sound. A few sound bars only offer stereo sound, but most simulate surround sound with virtual sonic trickery or highly focused internal drivers. These systems 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. A few models include (or can be expanded to include) wireless rear speakers for a true surround-sound experience.
- Simple controls. The biggest advantage a sound bar has over a more complex home theater setup is that it's easy to set up – just plug it directly into the TV. Using it, ideally, should be just as easy. If the sound bar has a remote, it should give you access to all the features you need without being too big and clunky. If the sound bar uses your phone or tablet as the remote, the app should be easy to install and use.
- Streaming support. Many sound bars now offer Bluetooth support, letting you wirelessly stream audio from mobile devices. Wi-Fi connections, which let you stream directly from an online music or video service, are also increasingly common. Some sound bars offer access to streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, as well as Internet radio stations like Pandora and Slacker. This eliminates the need for a separate media player.
Know before you go
Active or passive? Most sound bars are "active," which means they contain all the amplifier and signal processors necessary for stand-alone operation. However, there are 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, you definitely need an active sound bar.
How are you hooking it up? One of the most important factors in choosing a sound bar is what you want to hook up to it and how. The easiest way to connect a sound bar is to plug all your other equipment into your TV and have a single cable – optical or analog – connecting the TV to the sound bar. However, that requires you to use the TV to switch between different inputs -- with the catch being that some TVs can pass only stereo, rather than full 5.1 surround, via their optical output. (See this article at Big Picture Big Sound for more information.) If you don't want to do that, you need a sound bar with enough inputs to connect to all your other gadgets - analog inputs for older equipment, and HDMI or digital audio inputs for newer gear. Other inputs that can be useful are USB, for hooking up a mobile device or a Flash drive, and Bluetooth connectivity for streaming from your phone or tablet. Pay attention not just to the number and types of connections but also to where they're located. Some sound bars put the inputs and outputs not on the sound bar itself, but on the subwoofer, which limits where you can position it. Others put them on a separate box, so neither the subwoofer nor the sound bar has to be tethered to your TV.
Where will you put it? In addition to working with your other electronics, a sound bar needs to fit in the space you have available. If you're putting the sound bar on the TV stand, make sure you have room for it in front of the TV set and that it isn't so tall it will block the beam of your remote control or obscure the lower edge of your screen. If you're wall-mounting your sound bar, choose one that's about the same width as the TV screen; it looks better, and the position of the sound will match the image on the screen better. If you're buying a sound bar with a separate subwoofer, figure out where you're going to put that. A subwoofer that connects wirelessly to the sound bar will be easier to tuck into an unobtrusive spot.
What will you play on it? If you're using the sound bar only for TV watching, even a basic sound bar with 2.1 channels – two speakers in the sound bar, plus a subwoofer – will be a big improvement on your TV's built-in speakers. However, if you're planning to listen to music as well, it's worth investing in a higher-end model with better sound quality. If you enjoy music or movies with a lot of bass, such as high-octane action films, a separate subwoofer is a must. And if you want a true surround-sound experience, you should look for a sound bar with both a subwoofer and separate rear speakers rather than relying on the digital hocus-pocus most sound bars provide.