A sound bar is a compact speaker system that connects to your TV to enhance its audio performance. Modern TVs might have fantastic picture quality, but their sound is often disappointing as new slimline TVs have limited space for built-in speakers. Sound bars offer a stylish and compact solution. They contain several speakers in one long rectangular enclosure, boosting the sound output from your TV, but with easier set-up and fewer components than a full home cinema system.
Different types of sound bars offered, what features are important, and why you may be better off buying a simple stereo system instead.
Traditional vs. pedestal design
Toshiba SBX4250: a typical “traditional” sound bar
There are two main types of sound bar designs. The most common design is quite literally a sound bar: it’s a long, thin speaker that’s typically paired with a wireless subwoofer. The sound bar can be wall-mounted or, more commonly, placed on your TV stand in front of the TV. It’s largely a hassle-free design, although with some notable drawbacks , including some models blocking your TV’s remote sensor.
Pedestal-style sound bars are even sleeker than the more traditional bar design. “Pedestal” refers to the fact that they are designed to sit under your TV; they actually end up looking more like part of your TV stand than a speaker, plus they never block the TV’s remote sensor. Zvox pioneered this design, but there are now several companies that use the pedestal designThe main drawback of the pedestal design is bass, or lack thereof. Pedestal sound bars lack a separate subwoofer and just can’t produce the same kind of deep bass that traditional sound bars with wireless subwoofers do. There are some exceptions, but if you’re looking for powerful bass, you should generally stick with the traditional sound bar design. Of course, the best of both worlds would be a pedestal sound bar paired with a wireless subwoofer, but Expert haven’t seen one yet.
Use your TV as a switcher and don’t worry about inputs
If you look at the back of many sound bars, you may be surprised to see just a few audio-only inputs, which doesn’t seem helpful in modern home theaters filled with HDMI-equipped gadgets.
The Sonos Playbar only has one audio input on the back: an optical input.
But the sparse back panel is by design. Nowadays, most manufacturers expect you to use your HDTV to switch among devices. The idea is you connect all your home theater devices directly to the TV, then connect your TV’s optical audio output to the sound bar. It’s a simpler overall design, since you only have to switch inputs on one device (your TV), instead of having to also switch inputs on your sound bar.
Most HDTVs these days have an optical audio output, but no analog audio output.
There are some drawbacks to this configuration. For one, you’re limited by how many inputs your TV has; if your TV only has three inputs, you can only connect three devices. You can get around this using an HDMI switcher, but then you start adding complexity you were probably hoping to avoid by getting a sound bar in the first place.
And if you really want to get geeky, there’s the issue that most TVs downgrade incoming audio to stereo, rather than a true surround-sound signal. It’s not a big issue on most sound bars, which wouldn’t sound any better with a true surround-sound signal in the first place. There are some annoying niche instances where TVs will output a true Dolby Digital signal, which can be a problem if your sound bar doesn’t have Dolby Digital Even with these drawbacks, for most people using your TV as a switcher is the way to go. So when you’re buying a sound bar, you don’t need to worry about how many inputs it has, as long as there’s an optical audio output on the back.
Built-in Bluetooth is worth it
Features and inputs are overrated on sound bars, with one big exception: built-in Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your smartphone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app (think Pandora), plus it’s platform-agnostic — nearly all iOS, Android, and Windows 8 phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth. If your music experience these days revolves around your phone, you really want built-in Bluetooth.
While it’s possible to add Bluetooth later with an adapter, it’s not an ideal solution.
If a sound bar lacks built-in Bluetooth, it’s possible to add it later with an adapter (like Belkin’s orLogitech’s ), but that’s not a great solution since inputs are typically limited on sound bars. The adapters are also more cumbersome if you use your TV as a switcher — you need to connect it to an analog input and have your TV on a blank screen when you want to stream music.
Most sound bars feature built-in Bluetooth, so there’s less of a reason than in the past to settle for a sound bar without Bluetooth.
Alternative: Consider a basic stereo system
If you care about audio even a little — and especially if you love music — you should consider a simple stereo system. A basic two-channel stereo system is only slightly more complicated than a sound bar and it sounds much better, especially with music, which sound bars don’t handle well.
For example, pair up Pioneer’s excellent SP-FS52 tower speakers ($250 per pair) with a compact integrated amplifier like the Onkyo A-5VL ($370). The Onkyo amp has an optical input, so you can take advantage of your TV’s capability as a switcher, just like sound bars do. The only hassle is running speaker wire from the amp to the speakers, but it’s not that arduous for two front speakers. And if Pioneer’s speakers aren’t to your taste, Polk Audio’s TSi300 ($420 per pair) offer a more stylish look.
And for most people, I’d say a simple 2.0 (left/right stereo speakers) or 2.1 (left/right plus subwoofer) setup is a better idea than going for a full 5.1 surround system (five speakers plus subwoofer). Surround sound is great, but there’s a lot more hassle and bulk involved. 5.1-channel speaker systems also ask you to spread out your home audio budget over five speakers, instead of investing in two great speakers up front, where most of the sound comes from anyway.
Sound bars are still going to be the go-to option for most buyers, but a basic stereo system is a seriously underrated, better-sounding alternative. The components cost a little more upfront, but they’ll likely last far longer than your sound bar.