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Soundbars VS Regular Speakers

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

Together with smart speakers, soundbars are the newest generation of audio devices. Most often made to please the eye as much (most often much more) as the ear, the soundbar is a strange beast. Why isn’t the built-in speakers in your fancy new 80” OLED, QLED or whatever-LED not enough and is the mighty soundbar a solution for all situations? Read on to find out!

When Two Become One

Remember back in the day when humongous cathode ray tube (CRT) TV’s still ruled? Not only was the motion fluidity on them superb, the built-in sound system wasn’t too shabby as well. And it’s not because the TV ran on tubes. When designing speakers, many things become much easier when you’re not bound by size constraints. Every speaker designer will tell you that. In speaker design it’s known by the term “Hoffman’s Iron Law” - there are three attributes of a speaker of which you can only get two, no matter how hard you try.

  • Enclosure size

  • Bass extension (the ability to play low frequency sounds)

  • Sensitivity (efficiency)

Want good bass without having to run kilowatts into the speaker to get any SPL? Build huge boxes - most PA speakers are made this way. Want small speakers which do super low bass? Bring a bunch of watts - that’s how most subwoofers work and that’s why they need amps with an excess of 500W. The Iron Law is the reason why your pop’s huge CRT had good sound - there simply was enough space to stuff a good speaker in. The trend nowadays is skinny TV’s which is the main reason they have incredibly shoddy built-in sound. We sometimes wonder why they bother building in those dinky speaker systems at all, but that’s a tale for another time.

You’ve bought the best TV out there that’s paper thin, but it sounds like angry hornets in a rusty grain silo. Your only way out is to connect an external sound system. What to get? Some time ago it was a pair of large speakers and they would sound absolutely stellar. Or not, speaker size doesn’t imply good sound quality. A few years ago many would buy all-in-one home theater systems which would be made out of plastic with a sound to match. Louder, bassier than what the TV could muster up on its own, but as for better - no way. Most plastics used for consumer speakers are low density and the wall thickness isn’t high enough to prevent unwanted resonance. Therefore all music or movie sounds get imbued with a plastic aftertaste that’s hard to ignore. Many of us, even if we could afford them, just don’t have the space for separate speakers. The solution? Smaller speakers? They’ll probably won’t be that better than the TV’s built-in noise makers. But what if there was a bit of free space we could use to make the speaker larger? You know - the space between the speakers! Enter the soundbar.

So - two speakers merged into one. The main advantage of this approach is more enclosure volume, so potentially a better sound can be had from a smaller visual footprint. Nowadays the electronics have shrunk enough to sit happily in the same box as the speaker drivers. The best case scenario is a sleek looking box that’s a treat for the eyes and ears. Worst case? The same plastic sound just from a box that’s laying down sideways. After all - soundbars, just like any other speaker, must obey the laws of the market - you get what you pay for.

When to bar up

Are soundbars better than separate speakers? The true answer is the one that doesn’t tell you much - it depends. A well thought out soundbar will sound better than most speakers. A superbly designed and smartly set up pair of speakers will probably sound better than most speakers and soundbars as well. However, it’ll cost a pretty penny and one needs to have the space and know-how to get the best out of it. Soundbars are a bit easier to set up as the distance between the left and right speakers is constant and they’re smaller, so just place them under the TV screen and they'll be more than fine.

Some soundbars will also boast about various multichannel audio options. Now, multichannel is where you really need multiple speakers. Soundbars first tried signal processing trickery to emulate 5.1 home theater audio and now the same with newer stuff like Dolby ATMOS. Some of the faux-multi channel soundbars do put up a good show, however a soundbar is essentially two or three speakers crammed in one long enclosure. Getting multichannel out of it is at best an amusing party trick and at worst - self deception.

The best soundbars out there will either have two or three channels. The former are best for music whilst having a center channel does good for cinema. Just keep in mind that for the same price a three channel device might deliver a tad worse sound than a stereo ‘bar. After all, some cash is going into the center speaker. It is also wise to keep bells and whistles like streaming outside of the soundbar. Generally it will age much faster than something that just plays nice music or movie sounds. There’s a good chance that your TV can do most of the streaming duty or just hook up your smartphone via bluetooth.

In conclusion

Want a good sound in a package that’s easy on the eyes and delights ears? Get a soundbar. It’s true that they’re a convenience audio device, however the tech we have right now allows them to challenge even very good bookshelf speakers. Whatever you do, just don’t think that built-in speakers in your TV will cut it, they’re just there so you know that you’re getting sound.

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