An awesome upgrade for your home theater.
Last Update: June 2018
Your television’s picture might be top of the line, but without a soundbar, you won’t be getting the full experience. There’s one truth about the vast majority of flat-panel televisions: the sound they offer is terrible. But it isn’t the television’s fault; they’re doing the best they can. The odds are stacked against them.
In order to maintain a sleek and clean look, most speakers are either aimed back towards the wall or down towards the floor (or whatever the display is sitting on). The thin cabinet also requires the use of small speakers that can’t faithfully reproduce lower frequencies. This leads to an indirect sound with a limited frequency range that doesn’t accurately portray the visuals on screen. One popular solution to this problem is the soundbar.
The best soundbars are for people who want dedicated speakers for their TV, but don’t want to deal with the hassle of setting up individual speakers all around their living room. Since the best soundbars are long and contain multiple speakers, you just set them below your television. Since the soundbar is a dedicated audio component, you’re almost certain to get a better auditory experience than if you just used your television speakers. Here are the key features you need to pay attention to when considering one for your home theater.
Soundbar Buyer’s Guide
The best soundbars come in a variety of lengths so you can match them to the length of your television if aesthetics are important to you. If your television is sitting on a surface, as opposed to being mounted on the wall, keep in mind the height of the soundbar you’re placing in front of it. Some televisions have a relatively low-profile stand, so a tall soundbar might block the bottom of the screen and the IR receiver for the remote. Alternatively you could look into a soundbase, which is significantly deeper than a soundbar, and designed to have your television sit on top of it. This extra cabinet size lets it have larger speakers to enhance the bass response over that of a soundbar.
As with all speakers, there are both passive and active soundbars. A passive speaker doesn’t include any amplification and will require its audio signal to come from an AVR (audio/video receiver). Active soundbars include a built-in amp (and some digital processing/decoding) so you can connect your source – be it a PS4, Xbox One, or stand-alone TV and/or Blu-ray player – directly to it. This also means you won’t need that AVR taking up space adding to the clutter. Because of the convenience afforded by a soundbar with a built-in amplifier, all of our recommendations are active.
There are different sound configurations available with the best soundbars. A LCR soundbar has dedicated left, right, and center channel speakers. If you want bass response an added subwoofer is highly recommended, and many soundbars come with them. With all that out of the way – let’s get right to it. These are the best soundbars at every budget level:
Best Budget 2.1 Soundbar – Vizio SB3821-C6
This 38-inch soundbar is a great size to match with a 42-inch television. It includes a subwoofer to add some low-end response that connects to the soundbar wirelessly which helps minimize cabling (it still needs to be plugged in to an outlet for power). You can also stream music to it over Bluetooth from your phone. There are some buttons on the soundbar to turn it on, pair with Bluetooth, and adjust the volume or you can use a small remote that comes with it. The sound is pretty good, although the sub doesn’t do too well below 60 Hz. At $150 it’s an enormous upgrade from your TV speakers.
A Step Up in Sound – Klipsch R-10B
The Klipsch is a little longer than the Vizio at 40 inches but would still pair well with a 42-50 inch television. It has a bit more amp power than the Vizio as well, and its wireless subwoofer has a more robust sound. There’s Bluetooth connectivity and aptX technology for lossless streaming. If you’re looking to pick up something in the $300 range, the sub quality boost is worth the price increase over the Vizio.
The SoundBase Pioneering Soundbar – ZVOX SoundBase 570
In the audio world, the term soundbase is practically synonymous with ZVOX. They even hold the trademark on the word SoundBase. The SoundBase 570 is designed to hold up to a 60-inch TV. As mentioned above, one of the benefits of the soundbase design is that it has a built-in subwoofer. The bass extension isn’t as low as you get with a dedicated sub (it goes down to around 50 Hz), but the bass you do get is satisfying. It also includes a proprietary feature called AccuVoice. This boosts dialogue in a way similar to a hearing aid for moments when it might sound buried in the mix. It does cause the high end to get a bit harsh, so it’s really only recommended for those hard-to-hear moments.
Best Expandable Soundbar System – Sonos PLAYBAR
Unlike the previous soundbars listed, the Sonos PLAYBAR has dedicated left, right, and center channel speakers. This helps with dialogue clarity as dialogue is sent to the center channel in movie and TV mixes. It also means that it is easily expandable to a full five-channel surround-sound system with the addition of two more Sonos speakers. You can also add a Sonos sub, although it costs as much as the PLAYBAR. Adding speakers to the home ecosystem is one of the bonuses of Sonos, as its intention is to be a whole-home multi-room system for easy access to your music library. If you already have some Sonos products or you’re looking at getting some, a PLAYBAR soundbar for your home theater should be a no-brainer. There’s also the PLAYBASE for the same $700 if you’d rather have a soundbase version.
The Virtual Surround Soundbar Choice – Yamaha YAS-207
Sound is cool. And the idea that you can create something that sounds like it’s coming from all around when it’s really all coming from right in front of you is amazing. The Yamaha YAS-207 soundbar won’t completely fool you into thinking there are speakers all around your room, but the DTS Virtual: X processing does an admirable job of increasing the size of the soundscape. If you have no desire or ability to ever place surround speakers in your room, the Yamaha soundbar will still help give you an immersive experience. There’s an included wireless sub, and a HDMI 2.0 input and output that will pass through a 4K signal to your TV.
Money is No Object – Denon HEOS 3.1 Channel Speaker System
HEOS is Denon’s version of the Sonos multi-room system, so you have the capability to connect speakers wirelessly to the setup if you want a full 5.1 experience (you’ll need a robust wireless network to run them all at once). There’s plenty of connectivity on the soundbar, with four HDMI inputs that all pass through 4K and HDR, and the subwoofer connects wirelessly (as all HEOS speakers will). A HEOS app is available on Google Play and the Apple App Store that can control the entire system, add new speakers, and stream from a number of different services including Pandora, iHeartRadio, and SiriusXM. If you’re looking to build a multi-room ecosystem and want an alternative to Sonos, the HEOS 3.1 Channel Speaker System is a fantastic way to start.
John Higgins has been writing and testing all manner of audio, video, computer, and gaming gear since the early ’00s. He has written for print and online publications including Home Theater, Wirecutter, Sound & Vision, SoundStage!, and Channel Guide. He is also a post audio editor, composer, and musician in Los Angeles.