Best Sound Bar 2017

By: Amy Livingston on July 27, 2017

Editor's Note:
Sound bars deliver better-than-typical TV sound without the hassle of a surround sound system. The versatile and great-sounding Sonos Playbar is a top choice, reviews say. If its price tag is a bit hard to swallow, however, we name some terrific value and budget alternatives from Yamaha, Vizio and others.

Yamaha YAS-203 Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Dimensions (h, w, d) -- 3.63" x 34.88" x 4.75" Audio channels – 2 Subwoofer -- Yes, wireless

Best value sound bar

Reviewers say the Yamaha YAS-203 is the best sound bar in its price range. With two built-in speakers and a wireless subwoofer, it's competent for playing music and excellent at transmitting dialogue clearly. Setup is very easy, and if offers a range of options for connectivity, including Bluetooth. The rear IR repeater, which keeps the sound bar from blocking your remote control's signal in some typical set ups, is a nice plus.

Buy for $399.95
Sonos Playbar Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Dimensions (h, w, d) -- 3.35" x 35.43" x 5.51" Audio channels -- 3, expandable Subwoofer -- Optional, wireless

Best high-end sound bar

If you don't mind its high price tag, reviewers say the Sonos Playbar is the best sound bar you can buy. Although it doesn't include a subwoofer, bass is generally described as satisfying, and it's easy to add an optional Sonos subwoofer if you demand more powerful low-frequency performance. Likewise, it's easy work to add additional Sonos wireless speakers to create a true 5.1-channel surround system. Setup and operation are a snap.

Buy for $689.00

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 reasonable alternative.

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 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 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 Sonos Sub wireless subwoofer (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 Yamaha YAS-203 (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, however.

If the lack of HDMI is a deal breaker, for you, consider the LG SH7B (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 Q Acoustics Media 4 (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 Vizio SB3821-C6 (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.

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Sound Bars buying guide

What every best Sound Bars has:

  • Solid audio performance.
  • Decent simulated surround sound.
  • Simple controls.

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