Let’s first get the obvious out of the way - all soundbars are convenience products. They are a stopgap measure which sits 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 correctly set up dedicated separate speaker system. At the same time soundbars look unobtrusive in your room and some are good enough to really put you in the movie. In this article we’ve come up with 5 tips to make sure you choose the right soundbar for your needs.
Big rooms require big speakers; there's no way around it. When choosing a soundbar, think about the size of your room - is it bigger than the average living room? If so, get a big and powerful soundbar. Despite claiming to do so, most soundbars usually are too small to have considerable bass output, so keep an eye on subwoofer outputs - always better to have one and not use it than being left without. A sub will considerably enhance your movie experience, especially if the room is larger than usual.
When talking about power, don’t get too caught up in comparing watts. For background sounds, only a fraction of a watt is needed and louder stuff will be limited by the quality of speaker components and enclosure size. Anything above 100W of peak power is good enough. And if you add a subwoofer, you can make life easier for any soundbar as bass is where most watts are needed.
It’s also worth thinking about 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 a more spacious sound for a larger audience. If your TV size allows it, go for wider soundbars, as they create more immersive soundscapes.
Despite all of our advances in material technology and acoustics research, good sounding audio still costs good money. While there is plenty of snake oil in audio, quality devices where objective performance is paramount like studio monitors still are 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. Going higher will likely yield marginal gains. Larger and louder soundbars will cost more, however most of the time you’ll be paying extra for the brand name. Other times aesthetics will cost more as things like veneering cost more as it’s more laborious than vinyl wrapping or injection molding plastic in large volumes.
One method to beat the price vs. performance game is speaker calibration by electronics. It takes a bit more time, however allows for drastically better sound quality even from consumer grade loudspeakers. It’s about throwing tech vs. throwing money at a problem. The method largely comes from studio audio as the best sound quality there means making money from finished projects.
TV, movies or music? It’s good to have it all, but a more targeted purchase will serve you better. While all kinds of material benefit from good sound, generally systems tuned towards movie watching will have higher maximum volume at the expense of sound quality.
When buying a soundbar for movies you either want a soundbar that comes with a subwoofer or one with subwoofer or LFE output. Movies more than music have low frequency content, so a sub will make an appreciable difference. The second thing to factor in for a movie-centric soundbar is the center channel. For home cinema dialog intelligibility is very important and most of it is passed through the center channel. A well-made stereo soundbar will create a sense that there’s a center channel through magic of imaging, however in a multi-channel soundbar the center will do much of the heavy lifting.
If great sounding music is what you want, then sound quality is paramount. Music relies mostly on faithful mid frequency playback, so without getting that right you might as well give up. Getting a soundbar from a company that has a great track record in traditional speakers is a good idea. They probably have the basics down and can translate their expertise into soundbars. Just keep in mind that established brands will happily let you overpay for their rich pedigree. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth it.
Historically home cinema has had the tendency 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 more clear. Some soundbars brag about supporting numerous channels, but let’s find out how true that can be.
Construction-wise a sound bar is two speakers joined together with an enclosure. Therefore two channel playback is perfectly fine. Some lower end offerings can 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 as it sits between the side L and R channels. But what about Dolby ATMOS and multichannel setups?
Some soundbars will have ceiling firing speakers to mimic elevation channels, however those are no substitute for ceiling mounted speakers. Surround channels in the back? To emulate them digital trickery is used. 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 politically correct answer would be “it depends”. It’s a neat trick, but in the end it’s a stereo setup lying to your ears.
So you have the best soundbar there is - but how do you get it to play something? That’s right - you need to connect your TV or receiver to it. Whilst 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. It’s 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 the aforementioned soundbar. ARC stands for “audio return channel” and it carries the most common types of audio data. It’s a great way of connecting a TV to a soundbar.
SPDIF or optical cable is another great option of sending audio to a soundbar. The cables are pretty affordable, don’t carry electrical noise and don’t cause ground loops which plague many systems. Just be sure to switch the right format in your TV, so the soundbar can sing along its tune. Analog audio cables are also a sure-shot way of getting sound from a TV, however most soundbars are digital devices and an extra stage of analog-to-digital conversion 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.