Sound Bar Speakers Buying Guide
Inform Yourself before you buy!
Sound Bar Speakers represent an easy, affordable way, to enjoying
better TV sound, but...
are they always the best, most affordable option?
There is no doubt that sound bar systems represent a popular, easy-way, to enjoying a better 'surround' sound from your HDTV without being surrounded with speakers. Freeing up your room from the many speakers and associated cable clutter typical of multi-channel surround — while still enjoying an enveloping soundfield — is surely most appealing.
But this does not mean they are perfect, or that they always represent the best most affordable 'easy' option, to better TV sound! They have quite a few limitations one needs to be aware of before proceeding with a sound bar purchase. The issue is...
What should you look at when considering the sound bar as a possible speaker solution? Read here to discover more.
Polk Audio SurroundBar IHT 5000
This is a compact yet powerful speaker bar system that uses Polk's proprietary SDA (Stereo Dimensional Array) technology, to simulate an immersive soundfield without surrounding yourself with speakers. The included wireless subwoofer delivers relatively good bass response and rich overall sound.
Sound Bar Speakers
a most appealing 'better' TV sound option, but...
There is no doubt that a sound bar speaker solution appeals to many as the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to enjoying better sound when watching movies and TV shows. It is surely the go-to option for those who want to enjoy relatively good surround sound without being surrounded with the many speakers, and trailing cables, associated with multi-channel 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound system installations.
Yet, there is more in favor of a sound bar solution...
It takes significantly less effort to install a sound bar than a multi-channel speaker setup, even cost less than a basic 5.1-channel surround sound package. Most do not even require an AV receiver as all necessary amplification is built-in. Above all, a sleek 2-inch deep sound bar positioned under an-inch deep LED TV, represents a more aesthetically appealing option than even a pair of compact bookshelf speakers!
But a sound bar does not always represent the best easy-to-implement option. In particular, when it comes to music listening, an inexpensive two-channel separate speaker installation paired with a compact stereo amplifier/receiver, would often sound much better than a typical sound bar solution. If music is your primary listening mode, do not under rate the basic stereo system solution. It would surely sound better, does not cost much more than a good quality sound bar system, and does not require any special effort to install in comparison to what it takes to installing a sound bar solution under your TV.
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Having a true understanding of the different sound bar types as well as the advantageous and limitations associated with sound bar systems, is thus important to help you make the right choice. It is in this respect that this sound bar speakers guide comes in.
Sound bar types can be divided into active and passive single speaker units; the latter may seem strange and are less common, but yes... are available — often at a significantly more expensive price tag!
Passive Sound Bar Speakers
For many, a sound bar is an all-in-one inclusive piece of gear that includes the necessary built-in amplification and sound processing. Yet a few systems come as passive systems.
Passive sound bar systems are in most cases high-end single speaker units with an array of speaker drivers; these are designed for use in conjunction with a separate AV receiver equipped with appropriate virtual surround technology. This lends the passive surround speaker bar solution rather very expensive, and one that in our opinion forfeits the main concept behind the sound bar solution, namely that of providing an affordable simple solution to enjoying better sound, without being surrounded with speakers.
Not only adding a separate AV receiver adds more equipment clutter and complicates system connectivity, it further boosts the overall system cost considerably. Except for a few niche applications, the passive sound bar is simply a no-go solution in home entertainment.
Our advice: For the expense and effort involved, you will get better sound with a stereo setup and a good set of bookshelf speakers; alternatively, opt for the traditional active sound bar solution!
Active Sound Bar Speaker Systems
The majority of sound bars come as active single speaker units. Most take the traditional slim 'bar' design that is typically three to four feet long, and that is best placed just below the TV screen; this represents the ideal sound bar type in the case of a wall mounting TV installation.
With a tabletop TV installation, a 'pedestal-type' sound bar represents a better option.
Among the best, most affordable options within this category is the Bose Solo shown here. The Bose is capable of relatively very good sound; it is selling online at around $400 - typical for the average mid-range sound bar solution.
The problem with sound bars in general is their lack of bass output. For this reason, most traditional-type sound bars come accompanied by a paired wireless subwoofer; typical sound bars within this category include the Polk Audio SurroundBar IHT 5000 featured above and the Yamaha YAS-203 Sound Bar speaker system with Bluetooth and wireless subwoofer. Both the Yamaha and the Polk have a rated total audio power output of 160W rms, and are selling on amazon for around $400 — the same as the Bose Solo. However, for the price, the Polk and the Yamaha deliver excellent overall sound quality, with a superior bass response to that of the Bose pedestal-type sound bar speaker solution.
The reason for the 'lack' of bass output on the Bose is that it does not feature a separate subwoofer unit. In reality, there is no pedestal-type sound bar we are aware of that comes paired with a separate subwoofer. Unfortunately, there is no way a built-in woofer driver within a sound bar unit, would ever deliver the same level of bass as a separate active-subwoofer unit.
Despite the many touted sound-related features and often impressive terminology adopted by manufacturers, sound bars are in essence basic single speaker solutions incorporating multiple speaker drivers and built-in amplification (in the case of active systems). Most also include some sort of virtual surround sound processing technology, to generate a surrounding sound ambience from a single speaker unit.
In other words, do not expect too much in terms of 'real-value' features; a few may include a remote control and even a basic front display to show the volume level. Yet, none of these are of essence in that you can easily control the sound level via the TV, making both the use of a sound bar remote and a sound level display on the sound bar, redundant!
Others like the Yamaha, incorporate an infra-red repeater in case the sound bar placement blocks the remote control sensor on the TV when the latter is used in a tabletop installation; again, this feature would generally be of no use when the TV is mounted on the wall.
More important is built-in Bluetooth. This is still a rather uncommon feature, often found only on the latest and more expensive sound bar speaker systems! One such excellent Bluetooth enabled sound bar is the JBL Cinema SB400 featured here. The JBL comes paired with an 8-inch 100W rms wireless subwoofer, and is capable of relatively very good sound.
Bluetooth represents the easiest way today to wirelessly stream music from your smartphone or tablet device. If most of your music is stored on your smartphone, a sound bar with built-in Bluetooth would surely represent a great, single speaker solution, to enjoying better sound.
The fact that active sound bar speakers come with built-in virtual surround sound technology means all you need to drive an active sound bar, is either a Dolby Digital, or a stereo audio signal. Generally, the included virtual surround sound technology is able to generate an expansive sound field even through a stereo signal, much like Dolby Surround Sound expansion technology. However...
VIZIO SB3821-C6 38-Inch 2.1 Channel Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer and Dolby Digital, SRS TruSurround HD and SRS TruVolume technology
At $150, this is possibly the best 'cheap' sound bar speaker solution; for sure it is one of the most affordable and stylish sound bars around. Do not expect built-in Bluetooth at this price, but you will get a simple yet effective remote control. Sound quality does not match that of the very best sound bar speakers, but it is exceptionally good for the price especially during movie playback.
The Vizio only real drawback is a rather short wireless range of the included wireless subwoofer, which has to be kept at just a few feet away from the sound bar for the best sound.
This does not imply you do not need a Dolby Digital decoder on your sound bar speaker. In general, you don't as most TVs will convert any incoming audio via the TV HDMI inputs, to two-channel audio. In other words, the likelihood is that if you are making use of the TV as an HDMI switcher, the audio from the TV is in most cases a stereo version of the input signal.
At the same time, it is worth keeping in mind that some of the newer TVs include Dolby Digital pass-through; in addition, most will output Dolby Digital audio when this is available via the TV internal tuner or Smart TV platform. The problem here is that unless your sound bar has a built-in Dolby Digital decoder, it will not play any sound unless you can set your TV to output audio in stereo mode. We do not consider this an issue as even older flat-panel HDTVs generally support this feature.
This means that an onboard Dolby Decoder is not an essential feature on a sound bar single speaker system. Rather, our experience here is that sound bars with a Dolby Digital decoder do not generally sound much better when feed with a Dolby Digital signal versus a stereo signal. This is more than expected since sound bars are not creating a true surround sound stage; instead, they are only trying to recreate an expansive soundfield via the use of virtual surround sound technology. In this respect, more important than having an onboard Dolby Digital decoder, is the virtual surround sound processing technology in use; it is this that will determine the sound bar's ability to create a convincing enveloping soundstage.
What many may consider a real limitation with sound bars is connectivity. Most sound bars just include a single audio connectivity — often in the form of digital audio, apart from a power socket. Mind you, we do not think this is much of a limitation with a sound bar speaker solution especially if your TV has all the necessary connectivity built-in, in which case, all you have to do is use your TV to switch between inputs. However, considering the limitations here, it is important to ensure that the selected sound bar solution comes with the required audio connectivity to match your TV.
A few sound bars like the JBL Cinema SB400 (featured above), include both analog and digital audio inputs; in addition, the JBL has three HDMI inputs with HDMI pass-through and one HDMI output. In this respect, the JBL is a rather unconventional sound bar that comes with more inputs than any other; and this apart from a most extensive set of sound controls. Mind you, it does not come cheap, but at $550 online, it is one of the best-value Bluetooth-enabled sound bar speakers presently available on the market.
For many, sound bar speakers represent the ideal speaker solution. Yet, it is important for one to be aware of a few issues that may arise with sound bar systems, to avoid unpleasant surprises later.
1. Do not expect the heavily processed sound coming from sound bar systems to please everyone, nor for this to sound the same as true surround sound.
2. Do not try to create a more expansive soundfield via your sound bar by activating also any virtual surround sound technology present on your TV. This will only result in over-processing, leading to loss of sound detail, and often, incorrect virtual surround imaging by the sound bar system itself.
3. Sound bar speakers have a rather restricted seating position at which it is possible to enjoy a 'convincing' surround sound stage. For best sound, your seating position should not be located against a wall. As explained in our Virtual Surround Sound guide, most sound bar systems today make use of virtual surround algorithms complemented by sound projection technology to create a more convincing surround sound field. This means that in part, most single speaker systems also rely on bouncing sound off the walls to create a virtual surround sound stage; you have to allow enough space between the wall and the seated position for the reflected sound to correctly merge at the seating position, as it is this mix of direct and reflected sounds that create the virtual sound stage.
4. Point 3 above also means that a room with lots of furniture and drapes, or even chairs, does not represent the ideal setting for a surround sound bar system; these will both reduce the reflected sound as well as interfere with the sound pattern in the room — thus reducing the sound bar effectiveness in generating a 'convincing' surround sound field.
5. Be careful with sound bar system placement in that you may easily block the infra-red sensor on your TV, especially when the sound bar is placed too close to the lower part of the TV screen. Always check that line-of-sight is maintained between the sensor on the TV and the remote, especially from your seating position, before proceeding with a sound bar installation.
6. Finally, make sure you read carefully the sound bar specifications before you proceed with your sound bar purchase, to avoid some unpleasant surprise later! Not all sound bars are capable of re-creating a virtual 'enveloping' sound. Some just create an expansive stereo soundstage; this means... you will get a wider sound stage on the front, but one that still lacks the sensation of rear surround sound so necessary for an enveloping sound experience!
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