If you live in an apartment, especially one with a small living room, then a full surround sound system with multiple speakers is a no-go. You need to go for something a little more self-contained: a soundbar. Essentially, these units pack all the sound equipment you could possibly need into one convenient, slim box. This box will supercharge your sound, putting it lightyears beyond what your TV speakers can do. Here, we've covered this year's best soundbars, from budget to high-end.
You can, if you’re so inclined, pay thousands of dollars for high-end soundbars. We could easily populate our list with huge, wallet-busting, audiophile options. We’ve chosen not to. Our reasoning: the people looking to buy models that cost over about $1,300 will almost certainly be better-served by a home theater system, and won’t be truly satisfied with the audio soundbars put out, which is better suited to smaller rooms. That means no Martin Logan, no Paradigm, no Goldenear. As good as those bars are, they are also far too expensive for most people. If you do want an ultra-high-end bar, those are the companies you should be looking at.
After that, we made our picks based not only on price, but on overall quality and unique features, too. Sound quality and the ability to fill a room was a must, balanced against range of features. Disagree? Think we got it wrong? Fight us in the comments, or on Facebook and Twitter! And please note that at the time of writing, all prices were correct - we try to update regularly, but sometimes prices fluctuate faster than we can write!
What We Like: Eleven speakers? Good heavens.
What We Don't: Very long.
This is the most wonderful definition of overkill ever: a soundbar that packs a huge number of speakers into its frame, without noticeably jacking the price. Other options may have sound that is a touch more refined, like the SONOS PLAYBAR or the B&W Panorama, but none give you so much for such a small price. The flagship Samsung is an absolute gem.
It’s a lot longer than most bars, adding an extra five inches to the normal 40” length. But if you have the space, you’ll be rewarded with some superb sound. While you don’t get a subwoofer, you do get multiple channels of audio, some serious power, and excellent functionality thanks to a good remote. Plus, you get full Bluetooth and Wi-Fi compatibility, meaning you can stream to your heart’s content. You might want to add an additional subwoofer in here, but you shouldn’t feel you need to: this is an excellent package that is easily the best soundbar for most people.
See the Samsung HW-MS750
What We Like: Ease of use, killer sound, great setup.
What We Don't: Requires that you’re locked into the SONOS ecosystem.
You know, it’s not often that we describe soundbars as sexy, but the Sonos Playbar is dead sexy. With its curved edges, end grills and metallic highlights, this is a model you’ll want to show off. And there’s a lot to recommend inside the casing, too. There are nine speakers in here – six midrange and three tweeters – as well as nine amplifiers. Although you really do need to add a sub to get the full cinema experience, this model will charm you straightaway, not only with its silky sound and exterior but it’s dead easy setup, which relies on two cables. For our money, we prefer this over more expensive models from Bluesound - it offers superlative value, if slightly less than the HW-MS750, above.
The entire SONOS ecosystem works fantastically well, especially as you can pair speakers, making this system ideal to hook up with something like the SONOS PLAY:5. Be warned that there are no HDMI connections round the back - this is a system that relies solely on optical - and you’ll need to be OK with being locked into the SONOS ecosystem of speakers. No playing nice with any existing ones you own!
See the SONOS Playbar
What We Like: Amazing sound for the price.
What We Don't: Detail isn’t where it should be.
Got a small space? Want to noticeably up your TVs sound quality? Don’t want to spend huge amounts to do it? Then this is absolutely the model you should look at. The YAS207 replaces an early Yamaha on this list, the pricier and older YSP-4300; that model delivered plenty of power, but lacked basic elements like Bluetooth, and simply didn’t measure up to the B&W up top. We think this soundbar is more of a total package.
For your money, you get an additional subwoofer, 300 watts of power, DTS:X virtual surround sound (nothing on the real thing, but damn good nonetheless), an excellent control app, smooth design, and very decent sound. While the audio detail could do with a little bit of extra work, there’s still very little to get bummed about for the amount you pay. In terms of real value, this smokes most of the competition. Yamaha regularly iterate their sound bars too, often faster than we can update these pieces, so definitely check if there are newer versions before you buy.
See the Yamaha YAS207
What We Like: Detail and soundstage.
What We Don't: Needs additional speakers to get the most out of.
Bose often have a slightly iffy record in the home theater space, with build quality and sound that had been criticized in the past. The Soundtouch 300 soundbar is, fortunately, a step in the right direction: a relatively new model that manages to take everything the company is good at and add in some additional flavor.
We still think the SONOS PLAYBAR is more fun to use, and provides better value, but it also locks you into using just SONOS gear. That means that those looking for a $600-700 soundbar may want an additional alternative, and this is it. Plus, the soundstage is huge, meaning that you can sit just about anywhere in the room and get the full picture – and what a picture, with detail out the wazoo. It’s worth noting that you’ll really need additional speakers to get the full picture, including an additional subwoofer (unlike many bars, this one is absent a low frequency driver) so you may need to spend more money on this than you think. However, if you can live without the additional speakers, you’ll still get a very, very good sound system here.
See the Bose Soundtouch 300
What We Like: Mindblowing audio quality matched with dead-easy setup.
What We Don't: Works best in big spaces.
It's super expensive for a soundbar - and so arguably more than most people need. But we'd be crazy not to put this in our top five. You'll need a big space to get the best from it, but if you can afford the extra-large pricetag, you'll get one of the best bars on the market - albeit one that is a little low in the value stakes. There's no Bluetooth for one thing - not a problem the cheaper Samsung HW-MS750 has.
What blew us away with the Panorama 2 was the effortless stereo imaging, no matter where we were in the room. It’s got an enormously wide spread, thanks to careful placement and tuning of its nine assorted drivers. It doesn’t come with an external subwoofer, but it does have an internal one – two, as a matter of fact – and it comes with a subwoofer pre-out if you feel the need to attach an external box. (B&W state in their documentation that it’s technically a 5.1 channel unit, despite the lack of external sub). Chances are, though, you’ll probably be quite happy with the thunderous noise that this thing puts out. And if you want to check out high-end soundbars, we suggest companies like MartinLogan, Sony, and Goldenear.
See the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2
What We Like: One of the best external-sub-combos out there.
What We Don't: Doesn’t beat the big boys.
Def Tech (as we all but inevitably call them in our offices) make some excellent soundbars - and we criminally left them off the list last time, so let’s fix that. We prefer the W Studio from their lineup, although they make some superb other models, including the Mythos range, which previously featured on this list. It's an excellent alternative to the Bose, if you want even more bass and raw power.
This is a fully Wi-Fi-capable soundbar with a superb external subwoofer that really deserves its place on this list. Sound is both effortless and elegant, and the latter adjective could easily describe the design of the sub and bar themselves, which look absolutely gorgeous. While we thought the detail in the audio was a little bit lacking at times, it certainly didn’t lack for bass, or midrange warmth, and did a decent impression of a full surround system. Control is done via Def Tech’s excellent smartphone app, making setup a breeze, and in general, this is a fantastic all-around soundbar. Although of course, its price puts it into an exclusive bracket.
See the Definitive Technology W Studio
What We Like: Atmos surround sound capabilities, fifteen speakers.
What We Don't: Takes up a lot of space, price, needs a Samsung TV to get the most out of it.
The Samsung HW-MS750, at the top of this list, has eleven speakers, Apparently, Samsung wasn’t satisfied with their sheer level of output. The HW-K950 features fifteen built-in speakers, including four up-firing drivers, two rear wireless speakers, and an exterior subwoofer. And if you love the movie theater experience, the HW-K950 will impress you with its immersive, 5.1 Dolby Atmos soundstage. We do prefer the MS750, which offers way better value for money, but we're still impressed with this one.
Unfortunately, the soundbar's listening sweet spot can be overpowered by bass, which makes it tough to enjoy your favorite tunes, if using the bar for streaming music. And while this soundbar is remarkable, we would only recommend investing your hard-earned dollars if you’re already using newer Samsung devices. Many of the extras included with the HW-K950 are solely Samsung-friendly - like the Multi-Room Link app (which allows you to connect multiple wireless Samsung speakers throughout your home at the same time), remote functions, and some streaming services. These, frankly, are a waste of money for those who don’t own Samsung gear already. It’s a problem you’ll also see in the SONOS PLAYBAR, which locks you into an audio ecosystem, and although this is less restrictive, it’s worth being aware of.
See the Samsung HW-K950
What We Like: Excellent surround sound, recently undergone a major price drop.
What We Don't: Design isn't amazing.
An under-the radar-pick that, despite being massively overpriced when it first came out, has dropped to a far more budget friendly sub-$1000. We’d still pick the Definitive Technology soundbar over this one, but if you find you don’t need a full 7.1 surround imitator, then give it a shot.
The Focal Dimension delivers an excellent imitation of 5.1, and even manages to get the bass right with its built-in subwoofers (although you can add in one of their external models). The aluminum chassis and set of five speakers do a stellar job with the audio, particularly excelling in delivering a very passable impression of surround sound. It must be said that we’re not hugely enamored with the design, which looks a little too blocky and angular, but that’s a minor point, and we can’t see it mattering all that much. If you have money to burn, don’t care about the design, and you don’t want to upgrade to a full surround system just yet, take a look at the Focal Dimension.
See the Focal Dimension
What We Like: Integrates with the Bluesound ecosystem flawlessly, excellent sound, aptX Bluetooth.
What We Don't: No HDMI, in common with several others on this list.
While this soundbar does suffer from the same malady as the ZVOX SB500 below, in that it doesn’t contain any HDMI ports, it still offers absolutely terrific value combined with some genuinely brilliant sound. As such, it’s a very good pick if you have around $1,000 to spend, and you want to experience why there’s so much buzz around this company.
Bluesound are well known for creating an excellent, refined wireless audio ecosystem, and this soundbar slots right in. Although it doesn’t come with a subwoofer, you can buy the company’s wireless model, and spend almost no time at all connecting the two of them, increasing the already fantastic audio quality. Plus, you get access to the well-designed BluOS app, and Bluetooth streaming with aptX, meaning richer sound and fewer dropouts. Ultimately, this is an unorthodox choice when compared to the other models on this list, but it’s a very good one.
See the Bluesound Pulse
What We Like: Big improvement on earlier models.
What We Don't: No subwoofer included, although there’s an output for one.
Monitor Audio have always been a hugely impressive brand, and with this update to their soundbar line, they’ve done it again. We included the ASB-2 on this list last year, and the 10 further improves the sound and functionality. The 100 watts of power this thing puts out is driven by four impressive amplifiers, all of which have been expertly paired with the existing driver setup. We don’t think it offers quite as good value as the Klipsch above, but still: decent bar.
While the bass isn’t underpowered, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is no subwoofer included in this model, although there is the option available to add one. Outside of that, there’s very little to dislike here. You even get some highly efficient Bluetooth, running on the excellent aptX codec. Monitor have a little way to go if they want to break into the upper echelons of this list, but for now, we can easily recommend the ASB-10, and we can’t wait to see what the company does next.
See the Monitor Audio ASB-10
What We Like: Excellent surround impression.
What We Don't: Way too expensive right now.
Phillips, we love you, we really do. But trying to retail this soundbar-speaker combo for north of $1,000 is insanity. In fairness to you, we’ve seen the price fluctuate recently, dropping as low as $699, but you are never going to convince us that this is a better combination than the Samsung models on this list. No way.
However: simply because the price is a bit weird doesn’t mean that this bar doesn’t deserve to be here. The company makes good stuff, and this bar is no exception, with weighty, dense sound helped along by a very capable subwoofer, as well as tiny satellite speakers that kick out some very good detail. We love the design, as well, which is elegant and tasteful, and manages to incorporate the functions of the sound bar in a seamless way. This is far from the best model available, but if you want surround sound and have a little bit more cash to spend, then it could be a very viable option.
See the Phillips Fidelio B5
What We Like: Sleek design, room-filling sound.
What We Don't: Expensive for what you get, muddy mid-range, underwhelming sound quality.
The Sony HTNT5 might not be the best soundbar on our list, sound-quality wise, but it is user-friendly, stylish, and perfectly adequate for family movie nights. It’s also arguably one of the best-designed bars on this roundup. Consisting of two three-way speaker systems, the HTNT5 fills the room from both sides of the sound bar. It also comes with an exterior wireless subwoofer for an added bass boost, as well as a surround sound function. Although the sound quality is solid, many listeners have complained that, even with the added sub, the bass is too subtle, and busy movie scenes sound muddy in the mids.
On the plus side, Sony designed this soundbar with everyday use in mind. Unlike most other setups - ZVOX, we’re looking at you - the HTNT5 is sleek and refuses to block your television display. It also offers streaming capabilities, such as Google Chromecast and Spotify, and is Bluetooth and wireless-friendly. The perfect addition to your living room setup.
See the Sony HTNT5
Subwoofer: Internal x 2
What We Like: Disappearing display, sturdy build.
What We Don't: Very large, can’t connect external subs, not great for music.
At first glance, the ZVOX SB500 might look like a gigantic version of Skullcandy’s Barricade - sorry, ZVOX - but we can assure you it sounds at least slightly better. Maybe not $300 better, but better. The SB500 consists of three 2” main drivers, and dual built-in subwoofers - not only is there no external subwoofer, but you can’t plug one in even if you wanted to. This is, perhaps, the SB500’s greatest downfall - despite having ample internal bass, it doesn’t give you a ton of options.
The soundbar’s optimal setup is wall-mounted, though it doesn’t actually come with the wall mount - just hanger slots built into the back panel. Efficient, but slightly daunting if you live in an earthquake zone. There’s also no HDMI, which eliminates your ability to include other devices in your setup. But on the plus side, the SB500 features a disappearing digital display, which is a refreshing improvement from the constant, flashing blue lights of devices like your wireless router - a luxury you didn’t know you needed until now. This soundbar also includes several sound options, like AccuVoice, which use hearing-aid technology to enhance dialogue. The sound has been described as three dimensional, using ZVOX’s unique PhaseCue Virtual Surround Sound. Realistically, this is a 3.1 setup that aims to achieve the full surround sound meal deal: not exactly the home theater experience you’d expect from something like the Samsung HW-K950, but definitely add it to your wishlist if you’re looking for a user-friendly, all-in-one soundbar.
See the ZVOX SB500
What We Like: Good feature set for the price.
What We Don't: Nothing mindblowing.
In the past, a few readers accused us of having left Klipsch off this list. We decided to rectify that – although we weren’t enamoured with the cries to consider the old R-20B (which we thought was vastly overrated), we do agree that the company deserves a place on this list. They make several models, and it took us a while to go through them, but we’ve gone with the RSB-8 – although you can easily make a case for the RSB-6 or RSB-11.
This is a surprisingly full featured soundbar, which not only incorporates things like Bluetooth, but also DTS PlayFi (assuming you can deal with their clunky app). There’s a chunky external subwoofer that really does the business on the low end, and the overall sound quality is confident and assured. The looks are nothing to write home about, but then that’s not something that Klipsch are typically known for. When it comes down to is that this is an excellent and slightly cheaper alternative to the SONOS Playbar, and as an added benefit, you are not locked into a particular product ecosystem. Good stuff.
See the Klipsch RSB-8
What We Like: Huge improvement on its smaller cousin, Smartcast functionality.
What We Don't: For this price? Almost nothing.
We’ve got quite a lot of experience with VIZIO soundbars. While we had mixed feelings about the 38” version of this, the 40” SB4051 removes almost all of them. For one thing, it offers a vastly improved subwoofer, that not only fixes all the issues we had with the bass, but also allows you to place it in a multitude of different configurations, including under your couch.
While it’s not going to trouble true home theaters, the multiple drivers and twin satellite speakers offer very good sound quality indeed. There’s a wealth of accessories, including what feels like a hundred different cables, meaning you’ll never be caught short. You also get full Smartcast functionality, meaning you can send just about any audio you like to the soundbar with ease. If you’re on a budget, this is quite simply the best soundbar available, as it gives you huge amounts of versatility and features. Read our full, in-depth review.
See the VIZIO SB4051
What We Like: Compact build, wide soundstage.
What We Don't: Muddy upper-mid range, sounds more like 3.1 than the advertised 5.1.
The compact design makes Polk Audio’s MagniFi Mini look more like a portable Bluetooth speaker than a surround sound system. However, with 5.1 capabilities and an external 6.5” down-firing subwoofer, the Mini is a fully loaded, robust soundbar, both compact and user friendly. It also has a full range of features: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Google Chromecast, and Spotify all stream directly through the unit. For a model not much longer than a Subway sandwich, we’re impressed.
Considering its size, the Mini has a wide soundstage and decent bass playback, though not nearly as profound as others on our list, like the JBL Cinema SB 450. The only complaint we have for the Mini is the muddy upper-mid range. This becomes an obvious problem while watching movies with a great deal of dialogue. However, this isn’t a soundbar without merit: for one thing, it can also be employed as a hub to support multiple systems. This means you can plug everything into your TV, and use the Mini as your main output. The Mini also offers options like Night Effect Mode and Voice Adjust, which use compression to subdue any boosts in sound while enhancing the dialogue. This makes it easier to enjoy your favorite action films, even late at night. We would recommend these settings for any midnight movie watchers.
See the Polk MagniFi Mini
What We Like: 200 watt wireless subwoofer, expansion options.
What We Don't: Lack of subtlety, dubious remote, not good for music.
Like most JBL speakers, the SB 450 is powerful and loud - perhaps even obnoxiously so. The overall, room-filling sound is enticing, but not recommended for musical playback, and probably shouldn’t be used at volume after hours. We blame the massive, 8” wireless subwoofer, which is overkill for everyday use. It handles explosions like a champ, though, and if you’re an action movie fan and don’t care what your neighbors think, this is the soundbar for you.
The SB 450 features three HDMI inputs, unlike the more expensive ZVOX SB500, which means you can connect multiple devices at once. This turns the SB 450 into a major audio hub in your home. By downloading the JBL Connect app, you can also use it in unison with other wireless JBL speakers - the easiest way to make a true 5.1 setup. One further thought: the SB 450 does come with its own remote, but it’s not great. Our suggestion is that you just don’t use it - leave it in the box, and connect the remote you already have. Worth noting: JBL also offers multiple versions of the SB 450, including 2.1, 3.1, and 5.1.
See the JBL Cinema SB 450
What We Like: Great remote, easy setup.
What We Don't: No subwoofer or HDMI.
Although it’s far from the best soundbar on the list, the Q Acoustics Media 4 makes a good account of itself, and it definitely belongs on here. Its sound quality isn’t a patch on something like the Klipsch RSB-8, which has far better definition and bass (this bar doesn’t come with any sort of subwoofer, and in addition, lacks HDMI outputs).
That being said, it definitely has its pluses. It’s super easy to set up and run, with an excellent and very simple remote. And while the sound isn’t audiophile quality, it definitely delivers, creating a reasonable impression of home theater sound, despite the lack of extra channels. Ultimately, you go for this one if you wanted a very simple improvement on your TV sound, or you’re trying to fill a very small room. Otherwise, you may want to go for something with an included subwoofer.
See the Q Acoustics Media 4
|Bose Soundtouch 300||$610||Unknown||1/1||No||Unknown||Yes||38.5"|
|B&W Panorama 2||$1,300||5.1||3/1||Internal||100||No||44"|
|Def. Tech. W Studio||$899||5.1||1/2||Yes||120||No||43"|
|Monitor Audio ASB-10||$750||2||0/0||No||100||Yes||35"|
|Phillips Fidelio B5||$1,125||5.1||0/0||No||Unknown||Yes||40"|
|Polk MagniFi Mini||$230||5.1||1/0||Yes||150||Yes||13.4"|
|JBL Cinema SB 450||$300||2.1||3/1||Yes||240||Yes||43.3"|
|Q Acoustics Media 4||$400||2||0/0||No||100||Yes||39.3"|
- What Is A Soundbar?
- Soundbars vs. Home Theater: Dolby Atmos and DTS Explained
- Soundbars vs. Soundbases
- Soundbar Subwoofers Explained
- Integrating A Soundbar Into An Existing System
- Surround Sound Explained
- HDMI vs. Optical
- Wireless Streaming Explained
- Wattage Explained
- What Size Soundbar Should I Buy? Length Explained
Before we actually start giving general buying advice, it might be useful to break down exactly what constitutes a soundbar.
It used to be that if you wanted to improve the sound in your living room, your only option was a separate amplifier or receiver, and discreet speakers and a subwoofer. You had to connect these up to your TV, fighting with speaker wires all the way. That’s changed. Now, you can get all of this included in a simple solution that can be positioned right in front of your TV, or on the wall above it.
That is a soundbar. It’s a long, thin set of speakers, designed to encompass the full sound spectrum in one handy package. Usually, but not always, it will come with separate subwoofer – this is because soundbars don’t have the power to generate really good bass, which means this particular task has to be outsourced to another box. We’ll talk about this a little more below. This isn’t always the case, however, and even if you don’t have a subwoofer, you’ll still be able to get excellent sound. It also helps that sound bars are generally a lot cheaper than separate home theater systems, making them much more appealing proposition for those who live in apartments, for example.
One of the most common things we encounter here at The Master Switch is the idea but soundbars just aren’t worth anyone’s time, and that it’s best to just skip them an upgrade straight to a home theater system.
We have a real problem with this, and we strongly disagree. It’s true that soundbars are not going to compete with a full 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system, but then again, they aren’t designed to. You go for a soundbar if you want convenience – which is something that even the most diehard home theater fan would admit a regular surround setup doesn’t have – or if you have a smaller space that doesn’t require or can’t fit multiple different speakers.
We have a much more fully-featured, in-depth explanation of what Dolby Atmos and DTS are here, but here's a quick primer. They are both surround sound software programs that translate audio coming from a source and tell different bits of it where to go, in order to create the illusion that the sound is all around you. Dolby Atmos is a specific way of positioning sound that uses multiple speakers to create very precise imaging, while DTS (which comes in various flavors, like DTS:X) is less precise, but doesn't require things like height speakers. So how do manufacturers pack these software programs into sound bars, which, of course, are all single boxes? The answer is, they don't – not really. What they do is include software that uses their speakers to create a very good impression of these surround sound programs, meaning that you can play a source that was mixed for Dolby Atmos out of your sound bar, and still have it sound damn good.
It's not going to be as good as a full home theater, of course, but it's crazy convenient. Really, that’s the main reason to go for a soundbar. It pulls its weight in a major way here, and offers sound that is almost as good as a full speaker system. It’s often said that this isn’t the case, but we defy anybody to sit down in front of something like the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2 and not be absolutely awed.
Bottom line: if you feel like multiple speakers would be too much hassle, or you don’t have the space or inclination to get them, then a soundbar could be ideal for you.
Another common question we get: should one 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 different types of speakers, including a subwoofer, into a convenient package that doubles as a TV stand. In contrast, a soundbar often separates the speaker systems, putting midrange and treble drivers into a slim bar, and usually, but not always, having a separate subwoofer.
Each of them has several advantages and disadvantages. As a rule, soundbases cost a little bit more than soundbars, but in contrast, there aren’t nearly as many options out there – it’s much harder to get them then it is to get a good soundbar. While they do tend to sound better, this isn’t always the case, and they are also almost always heavier, as well as taking up significant space.
Soundbars have the advantage of being attached cheaper (sometimes), as well as lighter and more versatile. To be honest, however, you could go for either, purely based on how much space you have under and around your TV. Here at The Master Switch, we’ve tried both, and we like both! If you want more information, we've got a whole guide devoted to picking between the two (with a handy explainer video!)
It’s not uncommon to see soundbars being packaged with an included subwoofer. This is because a soundbar’s enclosure isn’t always ideal for handling the low notes, which subwoofers are built to do. So when you see one packaged with your soundbar, don’t freak out about paying for equipment you don’t need. Well, technically speaking, you don’t need a subwoofer, but it’s very handy to have one. Your bass-loving friends will thank you.
Of the soundbars in the above list, there is a roughly even split between those that come with an external subwoofer, and those that incorporated into the actual bar itself. In almost all cases, we greatly prefer having an external subwoofer, which tends to deliver better low end. Having said that, we fully acknowledge that our top pick, the Panorama 2, doesn’t include an external subwoofer, while our number six pick, the Definitive Technology W Studio, does!
Ultimately, this is probably a less important decision than deciding what kind of soundbar you want. We’d say definitely go for a sub woofer if you have the space, but don’t put too much thought into it. Any bar on this list is going to give you decent low-end.
While we can’t really recommend switching to a soundbar if you already have a full surround system, you can certainly use it with any existing speakers you might have.
We’d love to give you precise instructions as to how to do this, but there are so many different soundbar/speaker combinations available that it’s impossible. Any soundbar worth a place under your TV will come with instructions on how to do this. Generally speaking, a good setup to start with is a pair of small bookshelf or surround speakers, a subwoofer, and the soundbar itself in the center.
Be warned: soundbars are great - we wouldn't feature them here if they weren't - but they're not home theater systems. They produce killer sound, but if you're expecting to blow your walls to pieces, you might want to look elsewhere. Essentially, soundbars were invented for convenience, and if you have a situation where home theater isn't appropriate, then you should get one. Like, right now.
A further thought on buying soundbars. There's a school of thought that it makes sense to buy a soundbar from the same people who made your TV, the logic being that the two products will be matched in some way. You could, for example, pair a VIZIO SB4051 with a VIZIO TV. We'd say this is a little exaggerated, as the audio and visual departments in the same company can often be quite separate. That being said, it's certainly not a bad idea, and although we haven't seen any concrete evidence but it makes a noticeable difference, it still perfectly legitimate buying strategy.
You may notice that several of the bars on this list have a channel rating of 5.1 or even 7.1 – yet they are still distinct from pure surround sound home theater systems. What gives?
In this case, the number refers to the number of individual speaker channels in the bar (and included subwoofer) it is not necessarily meant to indicate surround sound, whatever the manufacturers might say. Truth be told, it’s actually a little difficult to get genuine surround sound when the sound source is a single bar below your TV. Don’t get us wrong, plenty of the soundbars do an excellent job with positioning and spreading the audio around, but it’s not going to be as good as having multiple speakers.
But! As always, there’s an exception to the rule. Some of the bars in the list come with separate satellite speakers, as well as a subwoofer. That allows you get at least 5.1 sound - three channels in front, two satellite ones on the side, and a subwoofer. All the same, you shouldn’t expect the quality here to be as good as a dedicated 5.1 system, which will generally have a receiver capable of doing more intricate positioning than the circuits in your soundbar.
In almost all cases, we’d say that if you want surround sound - the real thing - you should get a home theater. But if you don’t, then a soundbar is fine.
These two terms refer to the type of connections on the back of the soundbar, and we have…shall, we say, strong opinions about them.
The basics first. HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is a slim multi-pin connector with a distinctive shape. Chances are you probably use them already to, for example, connect your games console to your TV. Optical connections actually use lights to transfer audio, and are thin, bendy little wires with a distinctive connector at the end.
To complicate matters, several of the big soundbar manufacturers are actually ditching HDMI entirely. It's less of an issue than you might think, especially with the advent of optical connections - it doesn't stop models like the Bluesound Pulse placing high on the list. That being said, HDMI is better. We are absolutely convinced about that. Not only does it allow you to use high resolution codecs like Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio, which optical does not, but we think it offers (very) slightly better sound quality. In addition, the cables are cheaper, and often a lot more robust. If you have the choice, go for HDMI. You may run into cases where you send audio out from your TV into the soundbar, and it doesn’t pass along a surround signal, but these are few and far between.
One of the most popular uses of soundbars these days is as actual music systems, and almost all of them will have streaming capabilities in one form or another.
In most cases, this takes the form of – you will be absolutely stunned to hear – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. While neither are quite as good as regular wired connections, in terms of quality, and both definitely have their downsides, in terms of dropouts and crowding existing networks, they can be an amazingly convenient way of listening to music.
Surprisingly, not every soundbar will have Bluetooth included. We have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s nice to have for convenience, but on the other, we wouldn’t really advocate doing music listening at home via Bluetooth anyway, except in certain circumstances. There’s just no need. While we’ve indicated whether a soundbar has this feature in our comparison table, it definitely shouldn’t be the first port of call when you’re buying.
Far more important, and interesting, is a wireless connection. If you can get your soundbar connected to your home Wi-Fi, you open up a huge number of possibilities, including being able to control it with an app on your phone. Some bars, like the SONOS Playbar, actually rely on home wireless to function. Others, like the budget VIZIO bar at the bottom of our list, have nifty features like Google Smartcast. If this aspect is important to you, you’ll find plenty of options in our picks.
Wattage would soundbars is treated a little bit differently to wattage with other speaker systems. (Wattage, by the way, is a measure of power – roughly, how loud something will be at a given volume level. It’s not a perfect analogue, but it works for our purposes here.)
For starters, with those systems, you have to take into account matching the amount of power coming out of the amplifier to the amount of power the speakers can handle. A mismatch can result in sound that is a little bit less detailed or louder than one might like, or at the very worst, a blown set of speakers. That’s not the case with soundbars, because the amplifier and speakers are all contained in a single unit, and have been matched already. There is no need to do any matching yourself.
That’s why we give our wattage ratings here as total wattage, which is the output of all the speakers in a soundbar, firing simultaneously. One of the frustrating things, however, is that manufacturers often don’t indicate whether the rating they give is RMS/continuous wattage, or peak/dynamic wattage. The former refers to the power level over a long period of time, while the latter is how much power the speakers can put out if turned to the absolute maximum. Obviously, we disregard that one, and only look at RMS/continuous power. Except: in almost all cases, manufacturers of soundbars don’t say whether the wattage is one or the other. That means it’s a little harder to trust these wattage specifications than we’d like. Take them with a very big grain of salt.
It’s such a small thing, but it’s tripped up so many people who buy soundbars. You order yours of Amazon, have it delivered, unwrap it… Only to find that it’s far too long for your actual TV stand. The ends stick out comically, or worse, actually wedge themselves up against something. Also, a soundbar that is too long or too short for the actual TV just looks a bit weird.
Fortunately, we’ve included individual lengths in our comparison table above, which means you should be able to get an idea of just how long each soundbar is, and how much space it’s going to take up. To that end, we cannot stress enough that you need to actually measure just how much space you have before making a purchase. Again, you’d be surprised how easy is to forget this in the excitement of getting new audio gear.
That being said, most soundbars do fall within a general range, from around 34” to 48”. The shortest on our list is the Polk MagniFi Mini, at 13.4” long, while the longest is the Samsung HW-K950 at 47.6". There are plenty in between those, so you should be able to find a suitable length for your TV.