Upgrade Your TV Audio
New TVs are generally thin, which is great for how they look on your wall or in your entertainment center. However, that’s not so good for how they sound. Speakers typically need a lot of space to produce good audio (with a few unique technical exceptions, like expensive and rare electrostatic panel speakers), and there simply isn’t much real estate in really flat televisions. This means that, as nice as the picture looks, your TV’s built-in speakers probably don’t sound too good. You need a separate sound system if you want loud, high-quality audio for your home theater that isn’t thin or tinny. That’s what soundbars are for.
Soundbars are long, usually relatively thin (but still thicker than your HDTV) speakers that incorporate stereo, left/right/center, or even surround sound audio in an easy-to-set-up device you plug into your TV’s HDMI or optical port. They’re add-on sound systems that don’t take up much more space than your TV itself, but add much-needed power, range, and clarity to your audio experience.
Bars or Slabs?
Most soundbars are one- or two-piece devices. The soundbar itself is the aforementioned long, thin speaker, and it can work fine on its own. However, for strong bass performance you need the additional power of a subwoofer. Fortunately, many soundbars come with a wireless subwoofer you can hide next to the couch or in the corner of the room, and it will automatically sync with the speaker you place in front of your TV.
Besides the standard bar shape, several one-piece sound systems have adopted the sound slab format, like the Sonos Playbase pictured below. These are large, flat speaker systems that incorporate everything into a single monolithic base you can place directly under your TV. The greater area and volume often means that these can produce better midrange and bass than soundbars, and some can even produce solid sub-bass.
Both sound system designs let you augment your TV’s audio significantly with a minimum of wires and fuss. Soundbars and sound slabs both keep a minimum profile, and generally require just one cable connecting to your TV and another cable to a power outlet.
If your sound system is going to have more than one piece, the most important addition is a subwoofer. Many soundbars include subwoofers that wirelessly connect to the rest of the system, and since low frequency sounds don’t rely as much on acoustics as higher frequencies, you can tuck the subwoofer behind, next to, or under your couch and still take advantage of the rumble. If included, wireless subwoofers need to be plugged into a power outlet, but that should be all you need to get running.
You don’t technically need to stick to a soundbar or sound slab for a simple audio system for your TV. Any speaker with an optical, RCA, or (if your TV has a headphone jack) 3.5mm input can greatly improve your audio experience, though its power and ability to produce a sound field might work better with smaller screens than big ones, and it likely isn’t designed to fit neatly in front of or under your TV. See The Best Computer Speakers for some ideas.
What About Surround Sound?
Most soundbars and sound slabs claim to offer some form of simulated surround sound, but this can be a bit misleading. Audio processing and driver placement can create a sense of being surrounded by sound even when the only speakers are directly in front of you, but the large sound field can’t reproduce the accurate imaging of a surround system with dedicated satellites for each channel. If you really want to feel surrounded by your movies and for every sound effect to come from just the right direction, you need a full surround sound speaker system, or at least a soundbar with separate satellites for the rear audio channels.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a true surround system is the best choice, though. While surround sound is authentic with these multi-speaker sets, there are many drawbacks that make them less appealing than a single soundbar or sound slab. Conventional surround systems mean much more clutter for your room. Each satellite requires wires running either to the wall or to a centralized device like an A/V receiver, and that means a lot of cables to potentially trip over. You can hide them with rugs or in-wall conduits, but it’s still going to be more expensive and less convenient than a soundbar or a sound slab.
Even soundbars with dedicated rear satellites require some wire-juggling, usually connecting the two rear speakers to a wireless subwoofer (but you probably won’t need to physically run anything directly to your soundbar). And, of course, you need stands, shelves or otherwise appropriately located flat surfaces to place all the speakers in your system besides the subwoofer, which can just sit on the floor. If you have the budget to build or remodel your living room around a surround sound system, it’s a great choice for your home theater, but for most users it isn’t particularly feasible.
All of the speakers on this list can wirelessly stream music from your smartphone or tablet. Most of them use Bluetooth, and some use Wi-Fi-based wireless audio systems like Sonos or Yamaha MusicCast. Wi-Fi isn’t quite as simple to connect as Bluetooth, but it lets you set up multi-room sound systems so you can seamlessly play music all over your house. Either way, thanks to wireless audio, you probably won’t need to get a separate wireless music speaker for your living room if you have a soundbar. For more, see The Best Wireless Speakers.
Can It Beat a Full Home Theater System?
Home theater audio has traditionally been a big, complex field reserved for audiophiles, or at least for people comfortable in setting up their own sound systems out of individual components. The last decade has popularized soundbars as an easy alternative that’s less expensive, simpler to set up, and takes up less physical space.
In terms of sheer potential power and system flexibility, no single soundbar or all-in-one sound system can match what you can build if you set up your own home theater from components. With your own A/V receiver, amp, and big speakers, you can get much more power and control over your home theater sound. You just have to put in much, much more legwork, and likely spend much more money. A good receiver can easily cost as much as a good soundbar, and that’s before you even start adding speakers. You also need to run the wires yourself, integrate an amp if it’s necessary, and basically work on it much more than simply taking a soundbar out of a box and plugging it into your TV.
An elaborate home theater speaker system can be incredibly rewarding, but you’ll need relatively deep pockets and a good feel for the technology, or even deeper pockets and a willingness to hire a custom installer, to make it all happen.
This list comprises the best soundbars we’ve tested, ranging across all prices, sizes, and feature sets. For more soundbars and other audio solutions, check out our Speakers Product Guide, as well as The Best Bluetooth Speakers.