Soundbars are the easiest and most affordable way to improve the sound of your TV. They’re a single-box solution that can produce some truly stunning audio quality, and for less than half the price of a basic home theater system. Whatever your budget is, we've got a soundbar for you, with our collection of the best soundbars of this year. For more background information on soundbars, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Connections: HDMI ARC, Optical, Aux, Subwoofer
What We Like: Excellent sound quality, great range of features, can pair with two Bluetooth devices at once.
What We Don’t: You may need a subwoofer to appreciate the low-end.
If you’re looking for instant improvement for your TV sound, the Yamaha YAS-108 soundbar offers almost everything you need. It boasts excellent audio quality and movie dialogue, in particular, really shines. You get a full range of connections, including both optical and HDMI ARC, the latter of which means you can control the volume using your existing TV remote. There’s also Bluetooth wireless audio, which makes music streaming from Spotify and other services simple. Additionally, the Yamaha YAS-108 can pair with two devices at once, which is a feature that similarly-priced models on this list, like the Samsung HW-R450, don’t have. Last but not least, if you don’t feel like putting your soundbar on your TV cabinet, it’s fully wall-mountable. All in all, a soundbar should fit your needs, not the other way around, and the YAS-108 nails it.
It’s worth noting that the Yamaha YAS-108 doesn’t come with a subwoofer, which is something that less-expensive models, like the VIZIO SB2821-D6, include. We think the sound quality of the YAS-108 is good enough that you can get by without one, but you may want to invest in a separate sub if you’re looking for those deep bass notes - the YAS-108 actually includes a subwoofer output just for this purpose. Keep in mind that Yamaha has newer models in this soundbar line, including the YAS-109 and YAS-207, both of which are more powerful in terms of sound and cost upwards of $230. But honestly, we prefer sticking with more affordable, older models - especially when there’s so much to offer.
See the Yamaha YAS-108
Best Budget Soundbar
Connections: Optical, Aux, Subwoofer, USB
What We Like: Good sound and volume level, attractive price.
What We Don’t: No HDMI, slightly finicky controls.
The VIZIO SB2920-C6 is a budget soundbar that hits all of our sweet spots. VIZIO do make newer and more fully-featured soundbars, but none that offer as much value. With this model, you get a good sound with a volume level that can really rattle the windows, even without a subwoofer. You can wall-mount the soundbar if you prefer, and there’s Bluetooth for music streaming - you won’t be able to pair more than one device, like the Yamaha YAS-108 can, but that’s no surprise at this price. In our opinion, this model smokes similarly-priced bars from Taotronics and MEGACRA. In the sub-$100 price bracket, there’s simply nothing better.
There are some things missing from this package, which is hardly surprising at this price. One of these features is HDMI – you have to connect your TV via the optical cable included with the soundbar. This doesn’t have a huge effect on the sound quality, but it does mean you won’t be able to use your TV remote to control the sound. You have to use the one VIZIO supplies, and while the remote is fine, controlling the SB2920-C6 can sometimes feel a little finicky and frustrating. These issues aside, the SB2920-C6 really is one of the best soundbars VIZIO have ever made, which is a true compliment. It’s the ideal budget option for those who want to boost their TV sound without wrecking their wallets. If you do want to spend more, the newer 32” version costs $90, but with minimal differences in sound quality, you can quite happily stick with this one.
See the VIZIO SB2920-C6
Best High-End Soundbar
Connections: HDMI ARC, Optical, Apple AirPlay 2
What We Like: Amazing sound quality, super-easy setup, Wi-Fi connectivity.
What We Don't: This would be even better with a separate subwoofer.
The Sonos Beam is an incredible soundbar. If you’re looking to spend a little more money, this should be your first and only pick. The sound quality you get is just out of this world, and with elements like movie dialogue, the Beam performs better than most soundbars we’ve heard. It may not have additional surround speakers, like some of the VIZIO models on this list offer, but it performs exceptionally well. And when it comes to the setup, the process is not only easy, but actually quite fun. Sonos's app makes setup a breeze, and you can use that app to stream music through the Beam via Wi-Fi. There's even Apple Airplay 2 connectivity for iPhone users. The inclusion of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant means you can issue voice commands to your Beam, making it the best smart soundbar around. Matched up with other pricey soundbars, like the Polk Command Bar and the far more expensive Bose Soundbar 500, the Sonos Beam is the clear winner in both sound quality and features. It doesn’t have the value of the top-ranked Yamaha YAS-108 - not at this price - but it’s still superb.
However, the Sonos Beam may not be the best option if you're a basshead. While the low-end is good, it doesn't have the punch and drive enjoyed by other models on this list, like the similarly-priced Polk Command Bar, below. The Polk bar actually comes with an additional subwoofer, and for a far friendlier price. Regardless, while the Polk may deliver decent bass, the Sonos Beam is just better. The slightly-reduced low-end is one of the only negatives here - it really is the best high-end bar available. It’s worth noting that it is possible to buy the Beam with additional speakers and a subwoofer as part of a surround sound kit, which is ideal if you’re looking for home theater sound, but you will spend significantly more… Read our in-depth review
See the Sonos Beam
Best of the Rest
Connections: Optical, Coax, RCA, Aux, USB
What We Like: Easy setup, decent subwoofer.
What We Don't: Sound quality can be a little thin, no HDMI.
Let’s say you’re ready to move out of the budget soundbar range into something more fully-featured, but still don’t want to spend too much money. In that case, the VIZIO SB2821-D6 may be what you’re looking for. It is more fully-featured than the $79 VIZIO SB2920-C6, while costing significantly less than our top-ranked Yamaha YAS-108. And it pulls this off while still offering a superb range of features, including Bluetooth for music streaming. VIZIO also include a subwoofer – while it’s far from the best on the market, it will more than satisfy bassheads with its powerful, punchy low-end. One of the downsides of this soundbar is that the midrange, where you’ll find elements like dialogue, can sound thin sometimes.
The SB2821-D6 is a relatively old model – there are several newer and more expensive models available from VIZIO - but we think that this is still a top option. That’s especially true if you don’t want to break the bank, while still getting things like a wireless subwoofer. We recommend going for the Yamaha YAS-108 if you can afford it, but if you can’t, you’ll still have a lot of fun with this one. It’s an excellent soundbar.
See the VIZIO SB2821-D6
Connections: Optical, Coax, RCA, Aux
What We Like: Great remote, decent sound quality.
What We Don't: Distortion at high volumes.
The primary goal of any soundbar is to dramatically improve the sound of your TV, and the Taotronics 34” Soundbar is one of the most cost-effective ways to do just that. It’s a relatively basic soundbar, in terms of features, and does tend to distort at higher volume levels, but we’re impressed with the sound quality it produces for the price. We are also rather taken with the design, which we think is better than some of the models above it. It certainly looks a little more slick than the Yamaha YAS-108, that’s for sure, as well as the remote control. The lack of HDMI support may mean that you won’t be able to control the volume with your TV remote, but the included one is excellent.
In all honesty, we still suggest buying the VIZIO SB2920-C6, which gives you more features and better sound for just a bit more money. But for whatever reason, if you aren’t keen on that particular model, then the Taotronics is a great second option, and definitely one of the most affordable around.
See the Taotronics 34” Soundbar
Connections: Optical, RCA, USB
What We Like: One of the better soundbars for bass.
What We Don't: Slightly flat treble, no HDMI.
If you’re into heavy bass, or like your explosions and gunshots to have real punch, then we strongly recommend the Samsung HW-R450. It’s a 2.1 soundbar, meaning it comes with a wireless subwoofer, which is a feature we’d like other soundbars to take note of. This subwoofer is one of the better models we’ve heard, easily beating out the subwoofer that comes with the Polk Command Bar, despite costing $100 less. And despite some slightly flat highs, the overall sound quality of this model is excellent.
Despite what we love about this soundbar, we do have one major gripe that keeps the Samsung HW-R450 from being our first choice – especially when something like the $180 Yamaha YAS-108 is on the table. It has no HDMI connection, which might not affect the sound quality, but is far less convenient. This means you have to use the supplied remote, rather than your own. At $200, HDMI should come as standard. However, these flaws don’t torpedo the HW-R450, as it remains an excellent soundbar. It may be worthwhile to note that there’s a larger version of this bar, the HW-N450, which is more powerful but also more expensive. We don’t think it’s worth spending the money there; the R450 is almost as good and for significantly less cost.
See the Samsung HW-R450
Connections: Optical, Coax, USB, Aux
What We Like: Easy install, decent volume level, slick design.
What We Don't: Doesn’t do anything particularly special - especially at this price.
Like most audio equipment, soundbars can often look very dull. Just take the Yamaha YAS-108, our number one pick, for example. It sounds terrific, but looks like it was designed by an accountant. Fortunately, that’s not a problem the BOMAKER 2.1 Channel Soundbar has. BOMAKER aren’t a household name, but their 2.1 soundbar has an attractive, accordion-like design, which immediately stands out from the pack. It’s also the ideal soundbar for those who want a hassle-free installation – you’ll be up and running within minutes. While the sound quality doesn’t even come close to models from Yamaha and Bose, we liked the lack of distortion at higher volumes.
The main issue the BOMAKER 2.1 Channel Soundbar has is its competition. At $130, it isn’t super expensive, but it’s beaten out by much better soundbars at the same price. For example, the excellent VIZIO SB2821-D6 sounds significantly better. If the BOMAKER 2.1 dropped in price, it might challenge VIZIO for the best budget crown. Right now, however, its main selling points are its unique appearance and easy setup.
See the BOMAKER 2.1 Channel Soundbar
Connections: Optical, USB, Aux
What We Like: Great for movies, sounds much bigger than it is.
What We Don't: Not great for music, despite the included Bluetooth.
The JBL Bar Studio 2.0 does one thing that the other soundbars on this list don’t, and it does it really well. JBL have a technology called JBL Surround Sound, which is designed to replicate a full 5.1 home theater system. This means that, despite the lack of additional speakers and subwoofer, the Bar Studio 2.0 delivers an absolutely huge soundstage. This is particularly impressive, given that it’s one of the smallest bars on this list, at only 24.2”. If you spend most of your time watching movies and tv series, then this soundbar will be an instant and visceral upgrade to your TV sound, and for an affordable price.
However, while it excels at movie and TV audio, the Bar Studio 2.0 really suffers when it comes to music. It feels flat and lifeless when playing music via Spotify, which is a big black mark. The Yamaha and VIZIO models, above, don’t differ hugely in price from this model, and are much better overall. If you don’t plan on listening to music, then the Bar Studio 2.0 is worth considering, but it’s not a first choice for most people. We do know that JBL is planning to update this bar soon, so it may climb the list before long.
See the JBL Bar Studio 2.0
Connections: HDMI, HDMI ARC, Optical, Subwoofer
What We Like: Multiple HDMI ports, full Wi-Fi connectivity.
What We Don't: No included subwoofer, virtual surround sound doesn’t impress.
If you want something more fully-featured than most budget soundbars, but aren’t quite willing to spring for the $399 Sonos Beam, then we’d strongly recommend the Yamaha YAS-109. You get an absolutely staggering range of features, the best of which is the inclusion of two HDMI ports. One offers HDMI ARC, and the other regular HDMI, which means you can do things like connect a gaming console or Blu-ray player directly to the soundbar. Overall, we think the older Yamaha YAS-108 offers better value, which is why it’s in our top spot, but if you need extra features, the newer YAS-109 is the way to go.
At this price, we do feel like Yamaha should have included a subwoofer – you’ll need to supply your own if you want deep bass. We also aren’t wild about the included virtual surround sound modes, which are easily beaten out by the less expensive JBL Bar Studio 2.0, above. However, if you have a setup with more components, like a PlayStation or Xbox, or you want to stream music over Wi-Fi as opposed to just Bluetooth, then the YAS-109 is an excellent choice.
See the Yamaha YAS-109
Connections: HDMI, HDMI ARC, Optical
What We Like: Great connectivity options, frequent price drops.
What We Don't: Middling audio quality, relies on a less-than-brilliant voice assistant.
The Polk Command Bar was launched to great fanfare a couple of years ago as one of the most futuristic soundbars ever, thanks to its Amazon Alexa integration. Even with its age, there are still many things it does well, which is why it earns a spot on this list. The dual HDMI connections and simple setup make it a real winner. Thanks to its frequent price drops – it is often less than the stated $300 – it’s an affordable competitor to the high-end Sonos Beam and Bose Soundbar 500. If you want to upgrade your TV sound and require a little more flexibility with your connectivity, then the Command Bar is an excellent option.
We are not, however, wild about the audio quality. It’s easily beaten out by less expensive models, like the Yamaha YAS-108. And unfortunately, by pinning their colors to the Alexa mast, Polk have found themselves stuck with a virtual assistant that isn’t nearly as good as Google Assistant, which is included with the Sonos Beam. Ultimately, you’ll go for the Polk Command Bar if you already use Alexa, or have a need for advanced connectivity options. Be warned: it’s one of the longer soundbars here, at 43”, so is only suitable for larger TVs.
See Polk Command Bar
Connections: HDMI ARC, HDMI eARC, Optical, USB, Apple AirPlay 2
What We Like: Amazing sound (especially dialogue), excellent app control.
What We Don't: Very expensive, getting the best audio quality means investing some time in the settings.
Were it not for the giant price tag on the Bose Soundbar 500, it would be much higher on our list. It’s an excellent soundbar, with arguably better sound quality than our top high-end pick, the Sonos Beam, but $549 is a lot of money to spend on a soundbar. We honestly think the price puts it out of reach for most people. That’s especially true if you consider the fact that you can get slightly older soundbars that are just as good for significantly less – including the Yamaha YAS-108 and VIZIO models in this list.
That’s not to say that the Bose Soundbar 500 isn’t good. If you’re prepared to spend the money, you’ll find yourself owning a soundbar that’s hugely rewarding. We adore the sound, especially movie dialogue, which comes through crisp and sharp. While you will need to spend a little time fine tuning the audio settings to get the best out of the Soundbar 500, it’s time well spent and the included app makes it a breeze. If the price drops on this model, you can expect it to climb a lot higher on this list. By the way, if you want to spend even more, Bose make a Soundbar 700, which is larger and offers a more powerful sound.
See the Bose Soundbar 500
Connections: Aux, Optical
What We Like: Easily the best soundbar for PC gaming.
What We Don't: Sound can sometimes lack detail.
Soundbars aren’t just for improving your TV sound. They can also be used for PC gaming, as a convenient and affordable way of boosting the sound of your gaming rig. We think that the Razer Leviathan is one of the best ways of doing this. It offers impactful and muscular sound quality, particularly through its brilliant wireless subwoofer. While this subwoofer isn’t as good as the one found on the less-expensive VIZIO SB2821-D6, it’s ideal for close range listening. And if you want to feel every explosion and gunshot, the Razer Leviathan satisfies. At 20” long, it’s one of the shortest bars here, which makes it easy to manoeuvre into any setup.
It must be said that, against the other samples on this list, like the aforementioned VIZIO and the similarly priced Samsung HW-R450, the Razer Leviathan doesn’t have quite as much audio detail. This is particularly noticeable with elements like dialogue. It’s terrific for close range listening and when you’re sitting in front of your gaming rig, but if you’re looking for a soundbar to fill a moderately sized room with TV sound, it may be worth looking elsewhere. There are certainly cheaper and more effective options available. The fact that the Leviathan only has optical and auxiliary connections (no HDMI here) adds to that impression as well.
See the Razer Leviathan
Connections: Optical, RCA, Aux, USB
What We Like: Powerful sound, great for larger rooms, excellent price.
What We Don't: Bluetooth audio is poor, not ideal for music streaming.
The MEGACRA TV soundbar is a genuine surprise. Even in its smaller 28” version here - there’s a 40” model available for $100 - it manages to impress with some truly powerful sound. Despite not having an output for a subwoofer, the MEGACRA excels with big bass and a decent soundstage, which is far more than we’d expect for the budget price. If you have a slightly larger room that you need to fill, but don’t want to spend the earth on a soundbar, then the MEGACRA TV soundbar could be a great option.
That being said, it has some serious downsides. Our main issue is with the Bluetooth audio, which makes music streaming via Spotify sound dull and lifeless. The audio from a wired connection is fine, but if you’re aiming for wireless streaming functionality, we’d suggest looking elsewhere - including the very capable VIZIO SB2920-C6, which is only slightly more expensive. Still, the MEGACRA TV soundbar shows that you can get good quality soundbar audio on a budget. For bigger rooms, this could easily be viewed as a first choice.
See the MEGACRA TV Soundbar
Connections: RCA, Aux
What We Like: Surprisingly good sound for the price, decent remote.
What We Don't: Lacks volume.
The Sanwo Bluetooth Soundbar is arguably the most basic bar on this list. It has minimal connections (RCA and auxiliary, with no HDMI or optical), and a tiny set of speaker drivers. However, basic does not mean bad. For under $50, we don’t think you’ll get a better soundbar, and we mean that in the most positive way. The Sanwo Bluetooth Soundbar may not have a huge range of features, but it performs exceptionally well for what it is. The sound quality is decent – much better than we’d expect for this price – and the remote is a pleasure to use.
The one thing to be aware of is that the Sanwo Bluetooth Soundbar does not get very loud. Despite having two speaker drivers and two subwoofers, its volume level is quite low, even when turned up to max. This makes it a better solution for smaller rooms or for placing under a computer screen. However, if all you want to do is boost your TV sound without spending a huge amount, then the Sanwo Bluetooth Soundbar is well worth considering.
See the Sanwo Bluetooth Soundbar
Connections: Aux, USB
What We Like: Compact, lightweight, affordable.
What We Don't: Unimpressive sound quality, limited connections.
Creative make some of the best computer speakers and gaming gear on earth. It’s hardly surprising that their Stage Air soundbar is worth talking about. You get a surprising amount for $40, including Bluetooth functionality. And although it isn’t the shortest soundbar on this list – that would be the equally affordable Sanwo Bluetooth Soundbar – it is the lightest. If you game on a laptop, and want to boost your sound either at home or on-the-go, then the Creative Stage Air is a perfect solution.
However, you shouldn’t go into this expecting great sound quality. While the audio that comes out the Creative Stage Air is okay, it’s about as basic as it gets, with thin bass and slightly lifeless treble. You also get very limited connectivity options – there’s auxiliary, USB, and Bluetooth. That’s it. If you can deal with these limitations, however, you’ll find that the Creative Stage Air deserves your time – especially if you game while travelling. By the way, you can spend a little bit more ($87 total) to buy the soundbar with a competent wireless subwoofer, which is an excellent deal.
See the Creative Stage Air
And For When You Win The Lottery
Connections: HDMI ARC, Optical, USB, Auxiliary, RCA
What We Like: Stunning surround sound, powerful subwoofer, great connectivity options.
What We Don't: Staggering price tag, can be tricky to set up.
The VIZIO SB46514-F6 is arguably the closest any soundbar has come to a full surround sound home theater experience. It not only gives you five surround speaker channels and a subwoofer, but also throws in four upward firing speakers for Dolby Atmos sources. Predictably, the audio quality is superb. We have one in our testing room at the time of writing, and the subwoofer in particular has impressed us. It has huge power, and compliments the crisp and dynamic sound quality.
However, while the Vizio SB46514-F6 will certainly be a great investment, you will have to be okay with spending that money. The package is significantly more expensive than any other soundbar on this list, even the pricey Bose Soundbar 500, and it isn’t exactly perfect. Despite the capable Vizio Smartcast mobile app, we found the setup a bit convoluted. Regardless, if you have the cash, this is one of the best soundbars you can buy. It definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s a stunning piece of gear...Read our full, in-depth review
See the Vizio SB46514-F6
|Yamaha YAS-108||$180||HDMI ARC, Optical, Aux, Subwoofer||BT||35"||None|
|VIZIO SB2920-C6||$79||Optical, Aux, Subwoofer, USB||BT||29"||None|
|Sonos Beam||$399||HDMI ARC, Optical, AirPlay 2||Wi-Fi||25.6"||Alexa, Google|
|VIZIO SB2821-D6||$130||Optical, Coax, RCA, Aux, USB||BT||28"||None|
|Taotronics 34”||$68||Optical, Coax, RCA, Aux||BT||34"||None|
|Samsung HW-R450||$200||Optical, RCA, USB||BT||35.7"||None|
|BOMAKER 2.1||$130||Optical, Coax, USB, Aux||BT||34"||None|
|JBL Bar Studio 2.0||$150||Optical, USB, Aux||BT||24.2"||None|
|Yamaha YAS-109||$240||HDMI, HDMI ARC, Optical, Subwoofer||Both||35"||Alexa|
|Polk Command Bar||$300||HDMI, HDMI ARC, Optical||Both||43"||Alexa|
|Bose Soundbar 500||$549||HDMI ARC/eARC, Opt., USB, AirPlay 2||Both||31.5"||Alexa, Google|
|Razer Leviathan||$196||Aux, Optical||BT||20"||None|
|MEGACRA TV Soundbar||$69||Optical, RCA, Aux, USB||BT||28"||None|
|Sanwo B'tooth Soundbar||$43||RCA, Aux||BT||15.75"||None|
|Creative Stage Air||$40||Aux, USB||BT||16.1"||None|
|VIZIO SB46514-F6||$817||HDMI ARC, Optical, USB, Auxiliary, RCA||Both||46"|
*BT = Bluetooth
- Soundbar Length
- Sound Quality
- Soundbar Connectivity
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- Voice Control: Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant
- TV and Movies vs. Music vs. Gaming
- Soundbar Kits
- Setup and Soundbar Positioning
- Controlling Volume: Included Remote vs. TV Remote
- Soundbar Channels
- Soundbars vs. Soundbases
- Soundbars and Smart Home Devices
- Stepping Up to a Home Theater System
You’ll often read advice online about how it’s a good idea to make sure that your TV and your soundbar are the same length. That’s good advice in theory, as they will look neat when placed together, but it falls apart when you actually start looking at soundbars and their lengths. Most soundbars are under 40” in length, even high-end ones like the Sonos Beam (full review here). That means matching up soundbar length to TV length can be quite difficult and expensive.
We’ll prove it to you. Let’s say you have a 50” TV in your living room. That 50” is measured diagonally, remember, which means the bottom of the TV from end to end will be more like 44”. A 44” soundbar will cost a lot more than the 25.6” Sonos Beam, which is already $399, and won’t necessarily sound better. Hell, even our top soundbar - the $108 Yamaha YAS-108 - measures only 35” long.
Here’s our take: don’t stress about matching the size of your soundbar to your TV or computer monitor. You’ll run yourself ragged trying to match up the measurements with the soundbars that are actually on the market – it’s just not worth your time. Generally speaking, a shorter soundbar under a larger TV will look just fine. As long as the bottom of your TV is longer than the length of your chosen soundbar (check the table above for lengths), you’re good. It’s only when you get a bar that is longer than the TV that things start looking weird. And if you’re worried about sound quality, there’s no need. A soundbar’s length has very little relation to its sound quality; short soundbars do not necessarily sound worse than long soundbars. Audio quality has more to do with the type of drivers and internal circuitry of a given bar, which is something we’ll talk about in the next section.
Here’s something we feel confident in saying: any soundbar, even an inexpensive one, will dramatically improve the sound of your TV. Television speakers are generally pretty terrible – some TVs (and most computer monitors) may not even have speakers at all. Investing in a soundbar will give you a much more pleasurable experience in whatever you watch or play. Dialogue will be clearer, gunshots and explosions will have a little more weight, and music will be much richer. The prime reason to invest in a soundbar is to improve your basic sound, and we are confident that every pick on our list will do just that.
It’s worth being realistic about what to expect, however. While you will certainly get an improvement in your audio quality no matter how much you spend, you will get much more of an improvement if you spend a little more cash. We consider the Yamaha YAS-108 the best overall soundbar right now, and it delivers excellent sound quality. But if you were to match it up with something like the Bose Soundbar 500 ($549, versus $180 for the Yamaha), then it would clearly come off second best. The Soundbar 500 sounds much deeper and cleaner; in general, more expensive soundbars will have better speaker drivers, providing a louder and crisper sound. But sound quality is only one aspect of a soundbar, and to get our picks, we also looked at aesthetics, usability, connections, value-for-money, and more. If you value sound quality above everything else, then something like the Bose Soundbar 500 is the way to go. But if you just want to boost your existing TV sound, then you can absolutely get away with spending less. We guarantee that all the soundbars on our list will be sonically pleasing, even those that cost less than $100.
By the way, you’ll often hear that Bluetooth audio, or audio over Wi-Fi, sounds worse than audio through a wired connection. Ten years ago? Maybe. Now? Please. The honest answer is that Bluetooth has gotten good enough that the sound it provides is more than sufficient. With advanced tech like aptX (more on what that is here), it’s highly possible to get great sound through wireless audio. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Soundbar manufacturers do love their jargon. This is especially true when they talk about the type of connections on their models. It can be difficult to figure out which ones you’ll actually end up using. So, in the spirit of making things clear – and because we despise jargon – let’s break down three of the most common wired connections you’ll find on the back of your soundbar: HDMI, HDMI ARC/eARC, and Optical.
Note that you'll also encounter connections like RCA and Auxiliary (commonly referred to as Aux). Although they are common, they are now largely outdated - unless you have no other option, HDMI and Optical connections will always provide better sound. For reference, an Aux connection is a basic 3.5mm socket (like you might see on a phone's headphone output), and an RCA connection relies on two separate male plugs to deliver an audio signal. For most soundbars, you won't need to use them. Now that we've gotten that out of the way: onwards!
HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is a slim, multi-pin connector with a distinctive shape. Chances are, you probably use it already to connect your Blu-ray player or gaming console to your TV. HDMI has become the standard way of getting audio and video data from a source to a screen. You’ll find it on both TV screens and PC monitors. It’s simple and effective, but it’s also a bit old and has limitations. It’s ideal for connecting a video source like a Blu-ray player to TV, but you’ll need to run an optical cable from the TV or player to the soundbar – otherwise, you simply won’t get any audio. Sounds clunky, right? Fortunately, HDMI has evolved over the past few years into something called HDMI ARC.
HDMI ARC is far more common nowadays, and it’s a little different from regular HDMI. ARC stands for Audio Return Channel, and it allows the TV to send audio to the soundbar, rather than an external source like a disc player. So, if you're streaming Netflix on your smart TV, an HDMI ARC connection will play sound through your soundbar. It also allows you to control the volume of your soundbar using a standard TV remote - more on this below. A soundbar that has both a straight HDMI port and an HDMI ARC port means that you can connect your console or Blu-ray player directly to your soundbar, and the soundbar directly to the TV, minimising cable clutter. Keep in mind that, while almost all HDMI-enabled soundbars use HDMI ARC, there are some soundbars that don't use HDMI at all, like the $200 Samsung HW-R450. That model uses optical connections.
Optical connections actually use light to transfer audio, and consist of thin, bendy little wires with a distinctive connector at the end, making it look like a little transparent blob. While it sounds futuristic, an optical connection is actually less powerful than an HDMI or HDMI ARC connection. This is because it lacks the ability to send advanced sound, like Dolby surround audio. In terms of base sound quality, the difference between optical and HDMI is very minimal, and both are incredibly simple to use. But if you have the choice, you should always go with HDMI. We’ve highlighted which soundbars on our list have which connection in the table above, and you should also check your TV to make sure that it’s compatible.
HDMI eARC is a little less common than the standard HDMI ARC connection. Only one of the bars on our list has it - the Bose Soundbar 500, which costs $549. eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel) is HDMI on steroids. It's a connection which allows the exchange of much more data. That means you can get true 5.1 and 7.1 surround audio, and increase the detail of the audio overall. It also has a feature called Lip Sync Correction, which virtually eliminates any audio lag, ensuring that your sound and picture are always in sync. eARC isn't widespread at the moment, and for most people, regular HDMI ARC will be just fine. For now, it's nice to have, but not an essential. Note that it uses the same type of physical connection - the thin, rectangular, multi-pinned one - that you’d find on a standard HDMI.
Virtually all the soundbars on our list above have some kind of wireless connection – either Bluetooth, or Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This is a very good thing. Beyond just boosting the sound of your TV, soundbars can be incredibly handy for playing music in your living room. It’s the work of moments to begin streaming music through services like Spotify with your soundbar, and they excel as a single box solution for both music and movies. There are even some that we think are better for music than they are for TV sound, like the $130 VIZIO SB2821-D6.
In almost all cases, the easiest way to get streaming music to play through your soundbar is simply to connect via Bluetooth. Just put your soundbar into pairing mode using the manufacturer’s instructions, find it on your smartphone or tablet, and connect. From there, you should easily be able to start playing music on Spotify (or whichever service you use). Some soundbars, like the $300 Polk Command Bar, also have a Wi-Fi connection. This means your music will sound even better, and the connection will be significantly more stable. It also means that you can connect directly from your music streaming app on your phone, as long as it’s on the same Wi-Fi network. Sometimes these bars will even have their own apps to help with connectivity and control.
One word of warning: soundbars with Wi-Fi connectivity are often significantly more expensive than those without. Given that the sound quality difference between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi isn’t that dramatic, you may want to think hard about whether you’re prepared to pay the extra money. Our take is that, for most people, Bluetooth music streaming will be just fine. The quality is good enough these days that we think you can get great sound, regardless of your connection.
You'll notice the one thing we've paid close attention to in our specs table, above, is whether or not a given soundbar has a virtual assistant included. Having Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple’s Siri can be a real selling point for some bars. Whether it's controlling volume, changing sound presets, or even navigating your smart TV, speaking commands at your bar from the couch is an intuitive, and easy way to control it. But it's worth bearing a couple of things in mind before you purchase a soundbar with a smart assistant.
Firstly, they have their limitations. Amazon, Apple, and Google like to trumpet how smart their virtual assistants are, but you only need to play around with one for a few minutes to understand that they’re not going to take over the world anytime soon. With simple queries, like setting a timer or asking what the weather is, they perform just fine, but anything more complex – including navigating music streaming services – they typically fall apart. In most cases, it’s much faster and easier to simply use the touchscreen on your smartphone. The good news is, we have a much wider choice of assistants than we used to. While Siri it is still pretty rare to find in a soundbar – none of the bars on our list have it – many soundbars will now include both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Secondly, just like included Wi-Fi, you’ll be paying a premium to get a virtual assistant in your soundbar. Anything under around $200 is unlikely to have this functionality. Fortunately, it’s easy to add a virtual assistant to your chosen soundbar for a very small outlay. You can buy a tiny smart speaker like the $50 Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) (full review here) and connect it directly to your soundbar.
There's a prevailing belief that soundbars are built purely for TV and movie audio. That just isn't true. While it's correct that the sound of any soundbar has been tuned and designed by the company that makes it, it's extremely rare to find a soundbar that can only be used for one thing. Most transition quite happily from playing Netflix or Xbox to playing Spotify. There are some soundbars we think feel more natural for music - the $150 JBL Bar Studio 2.0 impressed us with its musicality - but all the soundbars on our list can pull double duty.
Think about it like this: any music system has at least two channels (left and right) for stereo sound. Well, every single soundbar on our list has at least two channels. That makes them just as suited to play music as a set of speakers and an amp - in some cases, even more so. With a soundbar, there's no fumbling around trying to position separate speakers to get the best sound. In many cases, soundbars are actually superior to traditional wireless speakers, as they offer a wider stereo spread. That makes them ideal for switching between streaming music from Spotify and watching a new series on Netflix.
Switching between the two isn't difficult, either - or at least, it shouldn't be. Let's say you have our top budget pick, the $79 VIZIO SB2920-C6, connected to your TV. Let's also say you're watching Netflix and you have some friends come over for a beer. Simply pause Netflix, connect via Bluetooth to the bar and, via the Spotify app, start streaming music. In this way, a soundbar can easily become a decent hi-fi system without any complicated speaker wire.
It’s also worth noting that you can use any soundbar for PC gaming. Soundbars can be connected to a computer tower, usually via HDMI - most PCs include at least one HDMI ARC port. This type of setup favors soundbars that are slightly smaller, as you will almost certainly be sitting closer to it, and won’t need to turn up the volume quite as high. We recommend something like the Razer Leviathan, which not only costs under $200, but also comes with a wireless subwoofer to really crank up your bass. There are several cheaper options, as well, and you certainly don’t need to spend a ton of money to get a good result. By the way, it’s very easy to stream music to a sound bar gaming setup, too, as long as you have Bluetooth connectivity between devices.
Soundbars can be used as so much more than soundbars. If you have the cash and the space, you can quite easily add additional speakers that will enhance your TV experience. There are a few things you need to know if you decide to go this route, and we’ll cover them below.
Very obviously, any sound coming out of a soundbar will come straight at you from the front. That means that, if you want true surround sound – as in, sound that originates from your sides, to the rear, or above you – you are going to have to invest in additional speakers. This sounds daunting, but the good news is that many soundbar manufacturers have anticipated this. For example, if you click on the Amazon link to the amazing Sonos Beam soundbar, you’ll find that you have several surround sound options. You can buy the basic bar for $399, or you can spend an additional $300 to buy the bar plus five smaller surround speakers. In this case, they’ll be Sonos Play:1 wireless speakers.
You can set those speakers up around your room and connect them directly to the soundbar, which is made very easy through the Sonos app. All at once, you’ll have full surround sound. In this case, it’s even wireless – although you will obviously have to connect each surround speaker to a power outlet. This approach, where you can add additional speakers into the mix, can be a very convenient and fun way to experience surround sound without having to worry about a full home theater setup. We’ll talk about expanding to full home theater in more detail below, if that’s something you want to explore.
Here’s something else you may wish to look into: the bass. Bluntly speaking, many soundbars – especially affordable ones – struggle with the low-end. This is because you need a decently sized speaker driver to pump it out. Bass relies on low-frequency sound waves, which take a lot more energy to push through the air. You need a driver of around 8” diameter to get it done, and that’s simply too big for most soundbars. In that case, it’s worth investigating a soundbar that comes with its own separate, wireless subwoofer.
This is much easier than you’d think. Many of the soundbars on our list already come with a wireless subwoofer as standard. The Razer Leviathan ($196), for example, includes a very capable subwoofer for the price. Investing in one means that you’ll get far more satisfying bass – of course, you can also combine this setup with additional wireless speakers, as discussed above. The easiest way to place your subwoofer is simply to test it out, moving it around while audio is playing. Since most wireless subwoofers are quite light, this is relatively easy to pull off. By the way, we should point out that it’s not absolutely essential to have a subwoofer. The bass from your soundbar won’t be massive, but it will still be more than enough to satisfy in most cases.
One quick point on jargon. You often see surround soundbar systems referred to with numbers, like 3.0 or 5.1. The number to the left of the period refers to the number of speakers in the system, and the number to the right of the period refers to the number of subwoofers. So a 3.0 system has three speakers, including the soundbar, and no subwoofer, and a 5.1 system has five separate wireless speakers and a single subwoofer.
Broadly speaking, there are two main ways of positioning your soundbar. The most common way, and the way most bars are designed to function, is simply to place them below and slightly in front of your TV, on top of your TV cabinet, or on a set of shelves. This will angle the sound in the right direction – towards your ears, in other words – and give you full access to any controls, which are usually on top of the bar.
But, you may very well be asking, what happens if your TV is mounted directly on the wall? What if you don’t have a handy cabinet to place your soundbar? The good news is that you can wall-mount your bar, either above or below the TV. We recommend below, in general, but there’s nothing to stop you mounting the bar above the TV either – you may just have to be quite careful with positioning. It’s actually quite rare for affordable soundbars to have mounting brackets attached, but you can achieve this positioning by buying a dedicated set of soundbar mounts. These are relatively inexpensive. We recommend the Mounting Dream Soundbar Mount, which costs $25.
And in case you’re wondering: we do not recommend mounting the soundbar vertically. While it may be tempting to buy two soundbars and have both mounted on either side of your TV, it can do awkward things to the sound quality. Keep your soundbar horizontal, as the manufacturer intended.
Most soundbars over $50 should come with a remote control. While that makes it easy to control the volume and activate features like Bluetooth pairing, it does mean that you’ll have an additional remote that you will inevitably lose, or step on, or knock off the table. Or does it?
Because here’s the great part. As long as your soundbar is connected to your TV via HDMI ARC (which we discussed here), you can easily control the volume with your existing TV remote. You may need to do a bit of simple programming – and you’ll be able to find the steps for this in the remote’s manufacturer instructions – but you can easily set it up so that one remote controls the volume. Other connections, like optical, won’t allow this. If you want to use your TV remote to control the sound, make sure you’re connecting via HDMI ARC.
In addition, many soundbars often use smartphone apps, which take the place of remotes. The Sonos Beam is a great example. Even so, we wouldn’t suggest tossing your soundbar’s remote, as it may come in handy one day. Just put it in whichever drawer in your house holds spare batteries, random cables, and assorted warranty documents - you know the drawer we’re talking about…
When it comes down to it, a soundbar is simply a set of speakers in one shell. And you can’t talk about speakers without talking about channels. If you want to buy a soundbar, and are interested in expanding the audio quality of whatever you’re listening to or watching, then it pays to understand how speaker channels work. It will help you buy the right soundbar for your room.
Think of the speaker channel as a single sound source. A stereo recording, like you’d get out of a hi-fi system, would have two channels: a left and right, which combine to form a stereo image. Every bar on our list has at least two channels, but some have even more. A bar with three channels will have a left, a right, and a center speaker - the center handles dialogue, while the left and right handle everything else. A five-channel bar, like the Vizio SB46514-F6, has a left, right, and center channel plus two upward-firing speakers used for Dolby Atmos (a sophisticated type of surround sound). The more channels in a soundbar, the more expensive it will be – although it will also sound significantly better. Channels are referred to using a numbered format: a 3.0 system has three channels and no subwoofer, and a 5.1 system has five channels and one subwoofer.
A common question we get asked is whether one should go for a soundbar or a soundbase. The latter, if you didn't know, is a rectangular box that sits directly underneath your TV. It packs in all the speaker channels, including a subwoofer, into one convenient package that doubles as a TV stand, and it’s much bigger than a regular soundbar. The latter often separates the speaker systems, putting midrange and treble drivers into a slim bar, and usually requires a separate subwoofer. If you do want a list with just soundbases on it, here's our take on the best available.
As a rule, soundbases cost a bit more than soundbars, but in contrast, there aren't nearly as many options available. In fact, it's much harder to get a solid soundbase than a good soundbar. While soundbases do tend to sound better - a result of their larger size, which equals more speaker drivers and more powerful circuitry - this isn't always the case, and they are also almost always heavier and larger. Soundbars have the advantage of being more affordable, as well as being lighter and more versatile. To be honest, however, you could go for either, purely based on how much space you have under or around your TV setup. We think the best soundbase currently available is the Sonos Playbase (full review here). It's expensive, at $699, but it's also an amazing piece of gear. Arguably, it sounds even better than the top-ranked Sonos Beam, but we don't think you lose anything by going for the bar over the base.
This is a bit of a grey area. In theory, any soundbar with an included virtual assistant – like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa – can be used to control your smart home. As long as you’ve connected everything up in your Alexa or Google Home smart phone app, you can tell your soundbar to dim the lights, turn on your oven, or control the thermostat. In practice, however, this can be tricky to set up. We’ve had mixed results with this, as it’s often quite difficult to get products from different manufacturers to recognise one another.
However, there’s no denying that more people are adopting smart devices in their homes, ranging from fridges and lights to Nest thermostats (including us – we have a Nest and we swear by it). At a recent audio show, we were told about an upcoming soundbar – we aren’t yet at liberty to say who makes it - that will have full integration with Samsung SmartThings, which is one of the most effective apps for controlling an Internet-connected home. This means that you’ll be able to easily connect your soundbar to your home with no more than a few taps on your phone, and without having to go through the complicated, multi-step route presented by most virtual assistant apps. The bottom line is that it’s entirely possible to connect your soundbar to your smart home, but you may want to wait a few months for an easier option! We will update this section as this tech becomes available.
Soundbars are terrific, convenient, great-sounding, and affordable. But if you want something a little more from your sound, then you may want to look into the world of home theater. By home theater, we mean full surround sound, with speakers that have the size and power to really push up your audio quality, matched with a dedicated A/V receiver to amplify them.
Clearly, this kind of setup will be significantly more expensive than a soundbar – often $500-$1,000 or more – and require more work to set up. However, it is the ideal next step for you to take if you want more from your system. One of the most underrated advantages of home theater is that it doesn’t have to be complex. A very simple setup with five speakers, a subwoofer, and inexpensive A/V receiver, will give you incredible sound. You’ll sacrifice the convenience of a single-box soundbar system, but you’ll also take your audio quality to a level that can be truly unbelievable. One word of warning: home theater is a bit of a rabbit hole, and it’s entirely possible to spend thousands of dollars building a system. We know because we’ve been there. Regardless, if you’re prepared to spend some time and money speccing out your living room, you’re going to have a lot of fun.
If you’re ready to take this step, start with our best home theater list. You’ll be able to get a good idea of the range of receivers and home theater speaker systems available by eyeballing those models. We also give you all the advice you need to both buy and set up your dream system!