Sound Bar Buying Guide
What Is a Sound Bar?
Sound bars pack the multiple speakers you’d find in a surround-sound arrangement into one sleek component, reproducing the surround-sound feel without needing to have speakers all over your room. Thanks to the unified design, they’re quick and easy to set up and won’t take up much space on your wall or entertainment center. Before you buy, consider these factors to ensure you pick up the best device for your needs:
What's Your Space Like?
Anyone can benefit from the simplicity and elegance of a sound bar, but certain home-theater situations are especially well-suited to the technology:
If you’re currently using your TV’s built-in speakers: Even the highest-end flat-screen HDTVs tend to have small built-in speakers, which are incapable of producing the powerful audio that external speakers do. You’ll especially notice the lack of the rumbling low bass expected during a concert DVD or stock-car race. A sound bar will beef up that less-than-ideal sound without a lot of setup time.
If you live in a small place, a surround-sound speaker setup is liable to take up space that could be otherwise used for more essential items. Sound bars are designed to be unobtrusive and can even be wall-mounted if entertainment-center space is at a premium.
If you’re budget conscious, a sound bar is one of your best options. They’re usually much cheaper than a full surround-sound setup, with comparable quality.
Where Do You Plan to Put It?
In Front of the TV or Mounted to the Wall: Traditional Style
These speakers are long and thin and designed to take up little space, whether you place it at the base of your TV screen or mount it on the wall overhead.
- Sleek design with a small footprint
- Easy to mount on the wall or place in front of TV
- Often include an external subwoofer, which will take up more space
- Pro tip: low frequencies are direction-agnostic, so your subwoofer will deliver booming bass anywhere you put it
- May block your TV’s remote control sensor if placed in front of the screen.
- Pro tip: Consider mounting (or try a pedestal style)
Under the TV: Pedestal Style
True to its name, a pedestal-style sound bar features a flat, square housing designed to provide a base on which to place your television. They might not appear as stylish, but they have a few benefits their skinnier counterparts lack.
- Takes up minimal space, as it sits where the TV is already
- Most don’t require an external subwoofer
- Pro tip: the larger the speaker housing, the better bass can reverberate
- Won’t block the TV’s remote sensor
- Not wall-mountable
- Not as sleek and streamlined as traditional styles\
How Much Sound Do You Want?
2.1, 5.1, 7.1—what do all these numbers mean? The short answer: they refer to the number of channels, and the more channels a sound bar has, the more surround-sound effects it can create.
The first number lays out how many full-bandwidth audio channels there are; the second defines the number of low-frequency channels, or subwoofers. For example, a 2.1-channel sound bar has two full-bandwidth channels—right and left—and one low-frequency channel.
|Total Channels||Full Bandwidth Channels||Subwoofer?||Benefits|
|No||Simple audio needs|
|Yes||Simple reproduction of music and movie audio with rich bass|
|Yes||Basic surround sound with better movie sound effects, such as footsteps|
|Yes||Ability to pinpoint direction in sound effects, such as a plane flying overhead|
|7.1||Right Surround Back
Left Surround Back
|Yes||Precise placement of directional sound effects, ability to hear butterfly screams|
What Kind of Subwoofer is Included?
By emitting exclusively low frequencies, subwoofers add depth and fullness to the audio profile. If one comes with the sound bar, it will be one of these types:
Built-in Subwoofers: Compact and Economical
The perfect solution for an audiophile in a small space, these subwoofers are placed right inside the speaker cabinet alongside the tweeters and midrange drivers. Because of their physical size, they’re less powerful than external subwoofers, but they also make the sound bar more compact and less expensive.
Wired Subwoofers: Stay Connected
There are two options when it comes to external subwoofers. The less expensive route is to go for a sound bar with a wired subwoofer, which requires a cable to run across the floor from the sound bar to the subwoofer’s location (and a bit of homeowner gymnastics to keep it hidden or in a place where it can’t trip anyone). This might sound like a headache, but it may be worth it: wired subwoofers are less expensive than wireless ones, so you can get a top-of-the-line wired subwoofer for the same price as a lower-quality wireless model.
Wireless Subwoofers: Portable Power
Wireless subwoofers don’t require a speaker cable, so you can place it virtually anywhere in the room. Most still require a power cord, however, so don’t go too crazy—wherever the subwoofer ends up, it’ll need to be near a wall. This extra convenience has a price tag, as wireless subwoofers are invariably more expensive than wired models.
Will You Use It with a Mobile Device?
One advantage many sound bars have over full surround-sound setups is their ability to stream audio wirelessly from a phone or tablet, which is ideal if you want to pump a party full of tunes or listen to your favorite podcasts. This wireless technology usually comes in one of two forms:
Bluetooth: Quick Pairing at Short Range
- Quick setup, typically in less than a minute
- Requires no network connection or password entry
- Hands-free calling functions (as long as sound bar comes with built-in mic)
- 33-foot wireless range, so devices can’t come along if you want to roam the house
- Not all versions support stereo audio
- Pro tip: look for Bluetooth with A2DP (advanced audio distribution profile) to ensure you can stream music in stereo
WiFi: Lossless Connection With More Setup
- 150-foot wireless range for a dependable connection throughout the house
- Lossless audio streaming
- More complicated up-front setup, including finding the network and entering the WiFi password
- Comes in one of two types, neither of which is compatible with all devices
- Used by Apple devices, such as iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks
- Can stream to multiple speakers
- Not compatible with Android devices
- Used by Android devices, Windows PCs, and even some A/V components such as TVs and Blu-ray players
- Streams to one speaker at a time
- Not compatible with Apple devices
What Are You Going to Plug Into It?
Most sound bars don’t come with the same number and variety of inputs you might find on your run-of-the-mill stereo receiver; in fact, many come with only a few. This is by design, as sound-bar manufacturers expect you to use your HDTV, not your sound bar, as your system’s main hub—you’d achieve this by connecting all of your components to your television, connecting the television to the sound bar, and using your TV remote to switch among your various audio sources. If finagling your TV’s function buttons sounds exhausting, you can always look for a sound bar with more inputs.
HDTVs, DVD Players, and Other New Components: Optical Digital
This is a modern refresh of the traditional red and white RCA cables, with a stronger, cleaner signal that works with Dolby Digital technology. Optical digital ports are commonly found in any new HDTV.
Blu-ray Players and Video-Game Consoles: HDMI
This format is virtually identical in quality to optical digital and works with higher-resolution audio such as that found on high-definition video game consoles or on Blu-ray discs (optical digital doesn’t work with Blu-ray).
Vintage Turntables and Other Older Components: RCA
Identifiable by its telltale yellow and white plugs, this purely analog, encoding-free connection can often be found in older components, such as vintage stereo receivers.