Soundbars are all the rage these days, but who are they really for? Do they improve the sound quality of your TV? Can they replace a full-sized system with separate speakers? Read on to find out that and more!
What is a soundbar and why should you care?
Although a soundbar looks like a wooden block, it usually houses the three things present in any sound system: speakers, amplifiers and a signal source. To make sound, you first need an electrical audio signal. In modern systems, these are produced by digital-to-analog converters or DACs. Unless the soundbar is very old, it probably contains one or more of these. A DAC converts data streams into analog electrical fluctuations that need only be amplified to drive the speaker membranes melodically. The amplifier does just that. It takes the incoming line-level signal from the DAC unit and copies it by modulating a direct current with a higher voltage from its power supply. The loudspeaker is a device that, depending on the electrical signal delivered, creates precise air movements to play beautiful music. All of this should be in a sturdy and nice-looking box so that it is pleasing to the eye as well as to the ear.
The point is that even your big fancy TV screen has these components so it can claim to have speakers. As we both probably know, the reality is that TVs today have pretty lousy speakers that are good at best for checking if the sound is on. That's because all the above components are cheap and small; if you have a decent TV, the manufacturer trusts you to make the right choice and buy something better to complement the visual spectacle. Enter the soundbar - while not a full-fledged home theater system, it can be leagues better than your TV's built-in speakers. It's actually two small speakers joined together in the middle, so it's visually unobtrusive yet still stands a good chance of impressing you and your friends with its sound quality.
Like any manufactured good in this world, every type of soundbar is made for a certain budget. Cheaper models will probably (hopefully) sound better than the speakers in your TV, but the sound quality may leave something to be desired. Plus, chances are they won't be loud enough to fill your listening room with sound. The rule of thumb is to spend as much money on a soundbar as you would on a pair of speakers and a receiver. A soundbar is an all-in-one audio system, so the components are similar, you just don't pay for the extra enclosures like you would when building a system with separate components. Of course, extra care (and budget) must be taken to make everything fit into the small enclosure without sacrificing quality, so there is no free lunch.
When to get a soundbar?
If space is an issue, always go for the best soundbar you can afford. It will sound better than the speakers in your TV and if it is really well made and designed - many entry-level speaker systems. Besides - most stand-alone speakers rely on the user knowing how to set them up and place them for optimal performance. With a soundbar, it's usually like this: put it under the screen and you get the best out of it. Since most soundbars have a fixed distance between speakers, the designer can optimize them immediately for best performance. There's just less room for error, so a soundbar can even be a great gift for someone who isn't as into audio as you are.
It is mainly the size that limits the performance of soundbars. Around 300-400 euros is the price/performance ratio where cheaper products do not perform as well and more expensive bars only get louder. Paying more may be justified if the soundbar comes with a bundled subwoofer, but often one sub output is sufficient because a sub from a company that specializes in it can provide better performance and the subwoofer can be reused if you upgrade to dedicated speakers. More expensive soundbars often brag about the ability to play multichannel audio, but usually this only indicates compatibility and not good performance. You can put down as many speakers as you want, and if they are close together, multichannel sound can only be mimicked by tricks of sound processing. Our LAYLA soundbar uses the same processing power to enhance its performance where it counts - stereo sound. There is no trickery - only a proven method of surgically removing any sound coloration, leaving you with only music or movie sound.
If you are lucky enough to have the space for a dedicated speaker system, it is worth purchasing one. Just make sure you know what you are getting into! Performance can be higher if you know how to get it. A good soundbar is a good stepping stone before you dive into the deep end. And after you switch to speakers, it can work nicely as a secondary bedroom or kitchen system, so you don't have to be tied to the living room when you want to jam out to some good music. Just pair your smartphone via bluetooth and start some great tunes or a podcast to keep your ears busy while you cook. You'll be surprised what good audio does for speech legibility!
Have a decent screen but little room for audio? Buy the best soundbar you can afford, otherwise your ears will be left starving while your eyes feast.
Do you have a big screen and some room for a speaker system? A soundbar is a good start, but over time a speaker system will serve you better, if you know how to operate it properly.