Updated: May 8
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way – all soundbars are convenience products. They are a stopgap measure between your TV’s built-in speakers and dedicated bookshelf or tower speakers.
Even the best soundbar out there can’t touch the performance of a well-designed and properly installed dedicated multi-speaker system. At the same time, soundbars are unobtrusive to your space; some are good enough to truly immerse you in sound.
This article shares five tips to ensure you choose the right soundbar for your needs.
Big rooms require big speakers; there's no way around it. When choosing a soundbar, consider your room size – is it larger than the average living room? If so, get a big, powerful soundbar.
Despite promising considerable bass output, most soundbars are usually too small to back their claims. Keep an eye on subwoofer outputs – always better to have one and not use it than be left without. A sub will considerably enhance your movie experience, especially if the room is larger than average.
Don’t get too caught up in comparing watts when looking at power. For background sounds, you only need a fraction of a watt. The enclosure size and component quality limit louder sound. Anything above 100W of peak power is good enough. If you decide to add a subwoofer, you’ll make life easier for any soundbar. Bass is where the most watts are needed.
It’s also worth considering the size of your listening spot. Is it a single seat or a large sofa? Wider sound bars generally have a better stereo image and throw more spacious sound for a larger audience.
Go for wider soundbars if your space allows for it. They create the most immersive soundscapes.
Sound Quality Costs Money
Despite all our advances in material technology and acoustics research, good audio costs good money.
While there is plenty of snake oil in the audio industry, quality devices prioritizing performance have reason to be costly. Consistently manufacturing great-sounding transducers has never been cheap, which is why high-end soundbars cost a pretty penny.
Usually, the price-performance sweet spot is around $400 with soundbars. Spending more only yields marginal gains. Larger and louder soundbars will cost more. However, you’re usually paying extra for the brand.
Other times, aesthetics cost more. Things like veneering are more laborious in large volumes than vinyl wrapping or injection molding plastic.
Electronic speaker calibration is one method to beat the price vs. performance game. It takes more production time but allows for drastically better sound quality, even from consumer-grade speakers. It’s about throwing tech at the problem instead of money. This method is primarily used in studio audio since better sound equates to more money in the industry.
Set Your Priorities
TV, movies, or music? Having it all is good, but a more targeted purchase will serve you better. While all media benefit from good sound, systems tuned towards movie watching generally have a higher max volume at the expense of sound quality.
When buying a soundbar for movies, you either want one that comes with a subwoofer or one with a subwoofer or LFE output. Movies, more than music, have low-frequency content, so a sub will make an appreciable difference.
The center channel is the second factor for a movie-centric soundbar. For home cinema, dialog intelligibility is critical and mostly passes through the center channel. A well-made stereo soundbar will create a sense of a center channel through the magic of imaging. However, the center will do much of the heavy lifting in a multi-channel soundbar.
If you’re looking for great-sounding music, then sound quality is paramount. Music relies mainly on faithful mid-frequency playback. Any song will sound lacking without it.
Getting a soundbar from a company with a great track record in traditional speakers is wise. They’ve probably mastered the fundamentals and can translate their expertise into soundbars.
Remember that established brands will happily let you overpay for their rich pedigree. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth it.
Two Channels Are Enough
Historically, home cinema tends to swell up channel quantity. Older folks might remember quadraphonic sound, which doubles up stereo to fully envelop the listener in soundstage. Then came the extra center channel to make dialog playback clearer.
Some soundbars brag about supporting numerous channels, but let’s discover how true that can be.
Construction-wise, a sound bar is two speakers joined together with an enclosure. Therefore, two-channel playback is excellent. Some lower-end offerings house a single-channel speaker setup and will only play mono. They’re usable for casual TV watching but not much more. A soundbar can also house a third center speaker between the side L and R channels.
But what about Dolby ATMOS and multichannel setups? Some soundbars have ceiling-firing speakers to mimic elevation channels. This technique is no substitute for ceiling-mounted speakers.
Surround channels in the back? Digital trickery is used to emulate those. A series of echo and delay processing can trick your ears into thinking that sound isn’t coming from the front. But does it really work? The most open-minded answer would be, “it depends.” It’s a neat trick, but in the end, it’s a stereo setup lying to your ears.
Double-Check Your Connections
So, you have the best soundbar there is – but how do you get it to play something? That’s right – you need to connect it to your TV or receiver. While wires seem so 20th-century, they’re still the go-to way of sending audio from one device to another. Let’s look at the most popular connections.
With modern hi-rez home cinema came the abundant HDMI connection, commonly used to send digital audio and video to your TV screen. With HDMI ARC, you can send audio from your smart TV to an audio device, like a soundbar. ARC stands for “audio return channel,” and it carries the most common types of audio data.
SPDIF or optical cable are other great options for sending audio to a soundbar. The cables are affordable, don’t carry electrical noise, and don’t cause ground loops that plague many systems. Just be sure to switch the correct format in your TV, so the soundbar can sing along to its tune. Analog audio cables are also a sure-shot way of getting sound from your TV. However, most soundbars are digital devices, and an extra analog-to-digital conversion stage might not yield the best audio quality.
Try it out yourself and use what works best for you. Just make sure the soundbar you choose has options for multiple connections.