Updated: May 8
Together with smart speakers, soundbars are the newest generation of audio devices. The soundbar is a strange beast, often made to please the eye as much as the ear. Why aren’t the built-in speakers in your fancy new 80” OLED, QLED, or whatever-LED not enough? 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) TVs still ruled? Not only was the motion fluidity on them superb, but the built-in sound system wasn’t too shabby. And it’s not because the TV ran on tubes.
When designing speakers, many things become easier when not bound by size constraints. Any speaker designer can tell you that.
In speaker design, it’s known as “Hoffman’s Iron Law” – there are three speaker attributes 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 (energy efficiency)
Want good bass without running kilowatts into the speaker to get any SPL? Build huge boxes – most PA speakers take this approach.
Want small speakers that do super low bass?
Bring a bunch of watts – that’s how most subwoofers work and why they need amps above 500W.
The Iron Law is why your pop’s huge CRT had good sound - there was ample space to stuff in a good speaker.
The trend nowadays is skinny TVs which is why their built-in sound is shoddy at best. We sometimes wonder why they bother building in those dinky speaker systems at all, but that’s a tale for another time.
You bought the best paper-thin TV available, but it sounds like angry hornets in a rusty grain silo. The only solution is connecting to an external sound system. What to get?
Some time ago, it was a pair of large speaker stacks that would sound absolutely stellar… sometimes. Speaker size doesn’t imply good sound quality.
A few years back, many would’ve bought all-in-one home theater systems made from cheap plastic with a sound to match. These could reach higher volume and lower bass than built-in speakers, but as for better quality– no way.
Most plastics used for consumer speakers are low-density. The wall thickness isn’t high enough to prevent unwanted resonance. Therefore, all music and movie sounds get imbued with a plastic aftertaste that’s hard to ignore.
Even for those who can afford them, many just don’t have the space for multiple separate speakers. So what’s the solution, smaller speakers? They probably won’t be much 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 speakers larger? You know – like the space between the speakers?
Enter the soundbar.
So – two speakers merged into one. The main advantage of this approach is that more enclosure volume means better sound is achieved from a space-efficient setup.
Nowadays, electronics have shrunk enough to sit happily in the same box as speaker drivers.
The best soundbars are sleek looking boxes – a treat for the eyes and ears. The worst ones? That awful plastic sound, just from a box lying sideways instead of upright.
After all – soundbars, just like any speaker, 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 installed pair of speakers will probably sound better than most sound systems. However, it’ll cost a pretty penny, and one needs the space and technological know-how to reach top performance.
Soundbars are easier to set up since the distance between the left and right speakers is constant. Their compact design allows you to place them conveniently under your TV screen.
Some soundbars boast 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. Newer stuff like Dolby Atmos does this too.
Some of the faux-multi-channel soundbars do put up a good show. However, a soundbar is essentially two or three speakers built into one long enclosure. Getting multichannel out of it is, at best, an amusing party trick and, at worst – deception.
The best soundbars out there will either have two or three channels. The former is best for music, while a center channel is better for cinema.
Just keep in mind that for the same price, a three-channel device might sound a tad worse than a stereo bar. After all, some cash is going into the center speaker.
It’s also wise to keep bells and whistles, like streaming, outside of the soundbar. Generally, it will age much faster than something that only plays excellent music or movie sounds. There’s a good chance your TV can handle the streaming, or you can simply connect your smartphone via Bluetooth.
Want good sound in a package that’s easy on the eyes and delights your ears? Get a soundbar. It’s true that they’re convenience audio devices, but the available tech allows them to challenge even bookshelf speakers.
Whatever you do, just don’t think those built-in speakers in your TV will cut it. Those are only included so you know you have sound.