The humble soundbar has come a long way from the days when it was merely an upgrade to a TV’s built-in speakers. While that remains the primary purpose of a soundbar, these days you’ll find numerous models with capabilities—and even sound quality—that make them a compelling option for rooms where an AVR-based system is not an option.
– Soundbars come in all shapes and sizes, from ultra-small to giant custom-made models.
— You don’t need to match the width of your soundbar to your TV unless you wish to do so for aesthetic reasons.
– If you plan to use a soundbar on a TV stand, check its height to make sure it will not block the bottom of the TV screen.
2. All-in-One, Soundbar+Subwoofer, or Multi-Speaker System?
– Some soundbars are totally self-contained, others come with a subwoofer that’s usually wireless.
– All-in-one soundbars typically offer virtual surround sound.
– Virtual surround can vary in terms of its effectiveness. Yamaha’s Digital Sound Projector technology works very well; it can reproduce 7.1.2 immersive audio.
– Some soundbars support an optional subwoofer, others come with a sub as part of a package.
– Some soundbar systems include discrete surround speakers that can be wired or wireless.
– Separate surround speakers can significantly expand the perceived size of the soundstage that a soundbar can reproduce.
– Inexpensive all-in-one soundbars usually don’t offer the option to add a subwoofer. Higher-end models often include a subwoofer output.
– The subwoofers that are included with pre-packaged soundbar systems are typically not of the same caliber as even entry-level standalone subs.
3. Number of Channels
– You’ll find soundbars with as few as two channels and as many as 15.2—for 11.2.4 immersive audio—and everything in between.
– A 2.0 soundbar may be all you need if the goal is to simply improve upon poor-quality built-in TV speakers.
– There is practically no situation in which a subwoofer won’t improve upon the performance of a soundbar.
– 3.0 and 3.1 soundbars add a center channel to the mix, which can help reproduce dialog clearly.
– A 5.1 soundbar system can make the most of the many 5.1 surround mixes that are available. Most surround content is mixed in 5.1.
4. Wired Connections
– If the soundbar is intended simply to improve the sound quality compared with a TV’s internal speakers, the TV’s optical digital-audio output is usually connected to the corresponding input on the soundbar.
– Some TVs only output 2.0 PCM audio over S/PDIF, while others support 5.1.
– Some soundbars offer an HDMI input, which is connected to the HDMI output of an AVR or source device, such as a Blu-ray player or media streamer.
– Some soundbars provide an HDMI output, which passes video from the source device connected to the soundbar to the TV’s HDMI input.
– If the soundbar’s HDMI output and the TV’s HDMI input support ARC (Audio Return Channel), audio from the TV’s built-in streaming apps or over-the-air tuner can be sent to the soundbar over the same HDMI cable that carries the video from the soundbar to the TV.
– Soundbars that provide multiple HDMI inputs can be used for source switching, which is very handy if you don’t use an AVR. If you have a 4K UHD TV, and especially one that supports HDR, make sure the soundbar’s HDMI ports support HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2.
– An HDMI connection is necessary for Atmos-enabled soundbars.
– Dolby Digital decoding is an important feature for decoding bitstream audio from streaming services.
– Some soundbars provide a USB port to play media files from USB storage devices.
5. Sound Quality
– Soundbars vary greatly in terms of fidelity. Typically, you get what you pay for.
– While you might find soundbar demos at big-box stores, it’s hard to judge sound quality in that sort of environment.
– Use specifications and online reviews to make the best purchase decision you can, but if you don’t like what you hear when you set up your new soundbar at home, don’t be afraid to try something else.
– Higher-end soundbars can sound as good as a decent speaker system; it’s surprising how far they’ve come. Entry-level models may improve upon a TV’s built-in sound, but they can’t match the fidelity of even a cheap pair of bookshelf speakers.
– Consider a premium soundbar that supports an external subwoofer if you want the best audio quality from this type of system.
– Typically, soundbars that feature 2-way speakers for each channel outperform those that use single full-range drivers.
6. Active or Passive?
– Most soundbars are self-powered, aka “active.”
– Active soundbars are self-contained; hook one up to a TV, plug it in, and go.
– Passive soundbars require external amplification, typically an AVR.
– You can combine a passive soundbar with a standalone sub and surround speakers to create a complete surround system.
– Typically, passive soundbars are high-end devices that can cost as much as a good speaker system.
7. Dolby Atmos & DTS:X Compatibility
– Soundbars with immersive-audio capability are a relatively new development.
– Some soundbars only decode Dolby Atmos, not DTS:X. Atmos is by far the most popular immersive audio format.
– Other soundbar offers Atmos compatibility, 1000 watts of total system power, and support for up to four wireless subs.
8. Bluetooth & Wi-Fi Streaming
– Soundbars often double as stereo systems for music listening. Some soundbars offer wireless streaming and Bluetooth connectivity to facilitate this.
– Look for aptX support if you plan to stream music using Bluetooth; it provides higher fidelity by reducing compression-related loss.
– Many of the latest soundbars support Wi-Fi streaming. The specific protocol they use to achieve this varies from brand to brand.
– Sonos offers a great-sounding model, the PlayBar, but it is only compatible with the company’s popular yet proprietary wireless ecosystem.
– DTS Play-Fi is a comparatively open standard; you can purchase products that support it from numerous manufacturers.
– A number of soundbars support Google Cast, which is another comparatively open and popular networked-audio ecosystem.
– Yamaha offers soundbars that feature compatibility with its MusicCast networked-audio system.
9. Budget and Recommendations
– With options ranging in price from under $100 to over $1000, there are plenty of soundbars to choose from at various price points.
– There are tons of options that cost less than $200 yet still provide a boost in fidelity when the main goal is simply to improve upon a TV’s built-in sound.
– At Goodyear Custom Audio Video we can sit down with you and discuss your requirements and budgets and help with information so you can make an informed decision.