Sound Bars: How to Choose the Right One for Your Home
About sound bars. And fixing the one thing your TV fails at: sound.
Here’s the deal: a wafer-thin TV only has room for a wafer-thin speaker inside. And maybe a small speaker is fine for a cell phone or tablet, but if you’re watching "Wonder Woman" on one of today’s amazing 4K HDR TVs with breathtaking picture technology, you’re going to want some serious audio to go along… because Wonder Woman should sound like Wonder Woman, not Minnie Mouse. And a good sound bar will take care of that. After all, its full-time job: making your TV sound awesome, particularly with respect to dialogue.
# Sound Bar Buying Guide Cheat Sheet
If you read anything, read this.
In a hurry? Here are the most important things to know (or do) before buying a sound bar, in bitesize form:
- Choose a sound bar with 3 or more channels – at a minimum. There are still 2-channel sound bars out there, and they’re no more than glorified mini-stereos. With 3 or more channels, you can simulate surround sound for a more immersive experience.
- Go with an active sound bar. Active sound bars come with built-in amplifiers (passive sound bars do not). We say it's worth it, especially if you're trying to save space or want a 2-for-1 solution.
- Consider where you want to place your sound bar. Are you hanging it on a wall or laying it on a table? Aesthetically speaking, your new sound bar shouldn’t be any wider than your TV. And in a perfect world, whether hanging on a wall or sitting on a shelf, the perfect spot for your sound bar: centered beneath or above your TV. Just make sure you have enough space!
- Pay attention to connectivity. Most sound bars come Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth-enabled , so you can easily stream music from any computer, phone, or tablet – making your sound bar a stereo, too. And check for HDMI-switching, which makes it easy to switch audio sources without having to re-route HDMI cables.
- Buy your new sound bar from an authorized dealer. Do this, and you get the manufacturer's warranty, service, and support. (In our case, guaranteed support even long after the sale. Not to brag, but we did take #2 in Customer Service by USA Today. Just sayin'.)
Wait, time-out: Are sound bars worth it?
Most folks buy sound bars because they just don’t have the space necessary for real home theater surround sound. Sound bars are slim, low-profile space-savers. Real home theater sound comes in many variations, but typically, home theater sound requires a separate amplifier and at least 5 speakers (one center, one left, one right, two rear) and a subwoofer. (All of which typically costs more than a sound bar alone.)
The point? If you have the space and the budget, you might want to consider authentic home theater sound because it’s amazing in so many ways. Put it this way: If a good sound bar improves your TV audio 100-fold, then a real home theater improves your TV audio — and the overall experience — 10,000-fold. But if you're just looking for a simple solution, a sound bar will be a definite upgrade from your TV's audio.
The two types: Sound Bars and Sound Bases.
What’s a sound bar?
A sound bar is a long, thin rectangular-shaped bar filled with speakers and a lot of technical wizardy. A good sound bar does for the spoken word what a good pair of glasses does for making things crystal clear. The result: voices come through crisp and distinct — and so much so, even whispered dialogue can be heard clearly. (No more turning on subtitles or raising the volume to hear what’s being said.) And since sound bars are wider than sound bases, they throw sound further afield (left and right) and to a degree (albeit a very small degree) get closer to a real home theater effect.
As for where they go, sound bars either A) mount to the wall under your TV, B) sit in front of your TV if your TV is on a table, or C) sit on a shelf below or above your TV if your TV is in a shelving system. Many sound bars these days come packaged with a separate wireless subwoofer, and the extra thumpa-thumpa kick really does round out the experience.
What’s a sound base?The purpose of a sound base is exactly the same as a sound bar (make your TV sound amazing), but they differ in size and power. Sound bases are deeper (front to back) than sound bars, but generally shorter in width (side to side)… and they are principally designed to sit under the TV or on a shelf directly below the TV. Sound bases typically have more room inside than sound bars, and as a result, they come with better built-in amplification and bigger bass drivers, lessening the need for a subwoofer — though it’s tough to beat a good standalone subwoofer. And bigger is better when it comes to anything audio. Sound bases are harder to come by these days and advancements in sound bar technology, the versatility they offer, and the fact that they're well represented from some of the best brands out there, usually have us recommending a sound bar before a sound base.
Tips from our experts
- Sound bases don’t do stereo as well as sound bars. (Sound bars do a better job with stereo channel separation because the speakers are further apart.)
- Sound bars are getting skinnier and skinnier just like TVs. And though skinny makes for a great look, skinny isn’t good when it comes to audio quality. You really should consider incorporating the subwoofer to get the best audio from your sound bar.
- Depending on your setup and how you arrange things, a sound bar can block the signal from your remote to your TV. (There are workarounds, like this universal IR extender from Salamander.) Best pay attention to how things will fit so your new sound bar doesn’t block your TV’s IR receptor (where you point your remote).
Next: What to consider when buying a sound bar.
The 6 most important details to keep on your radar.
Should you get a passive sound bar or an active sound bar? A 3-channel sound bar or a 5-channel sound bar? And are they hard to connect? Here are the questions we hear most:
1. Where will it live?
Where you put your TV and how much space you have around your TV may dictate which type (sound bar or sound base) will work best for you — and the type will influence where you place it. Sound bars are more versatile when it comes to installation – they’re made to hang on the wall or sit under (and in front of) your TV. Also true for all sound bars: set up is easy. If your TV if is on a table or credenza, just place the sound bar on the same table, directly below the screen. (Just make sure you have enough space between the bottom of the TV and table - check the sound bar specs and measure the area before buying.) If your TV is wall-mounted, mount your sound bar to the wall directly below it. Some sound bars even come with mounting kits to make DIY installation a cinch.
Sound bases, on the other hand, are built to live beneath your TV (which is why they're so heavy), on top of a table or shelf.
Tips from our experts
- We're often asked if you can put a sound bar above a TV. Our take? Yes, you can if that’s the only place you have available... but it won’t sound quite as good. Still, it will be better than your TV's built-in speakers.
Putting a sound base under your TV (where it belongs) will raise your TV a few inches. Maybe that’s trivial, but it’s better you know that now so you can measure the space you have available.
Some sound bars are pretty sharp looking, some are very understated to better blend in, and some are purposely made for specific TVs so they pair together beautifully. If you want to go that route, check to see if your TV's manufacturer builds sound bars designed for the model you have. Some Sony 4K TVs, for example, look gorgeous with their super low-profile sound bars.
2. What size sound bar should you get?
Aesthetically speaking, your new sound bar shouldn’t be any wider than your TV — and in a perfect world, both are the same exact same width for an even look. However, you can technically pair a sound bar with just about any size TV. So when it comes to size, use your discretion. Just make sure your TV has the right connectivity to hook up your new sound bar, especially if your TV is 8 years or older.
3. What are active or passive sound bars, and why is that important?
Passive means the sound bar does not have a built-in power amp, and thus requires a receiver or amplifier to work. They do, however, have better speakers — and better speakers mean better sound. As a result, a passive sound bar will cost you a little more, and you'll have to connect more components together. You’ll also need a traditional subwoofer connection if you want extra bass.
Active means the sound bar comes with built-in amplifiers that power everything, as well as channel processors that separate left, right and center speakers in the sound bar. So, no extra receiver to plug in to (or buy), plus less wires with an all-inclusive device.
recommendation: If you’re looking to simply upgrade your TV’s audio, go with an
active sound bar. Passive sound bars are better suited for custom installations
(e.g., if you want your sound bar to disappear as part of the TV, or want a
full-blown Dolby Atmos system).
4. What are sound bar “channels” and how many do I need?
Think of channels as sound sources or individual speakers. Most shows and movies these days offer 5 different audio channels (and in some cases, more for surround sound) embedded digitally: center, left, right, plus two in the rear (left rear and right rear). What makes a sound bar different from a typically home theater setup: all channels/speakers are contained in one unit. So the logic follows:
2-channel sound bar: 2 speakers: left and right.
3-channel sound bar: 3 speakers: center, right and left.
5-channel sound bar: all 5 speakers mentioned above: center, right, left, and two rear speakers. (5-channel systems have been the home theater standard for close to 20 years now.)
7-channel sound bar: 7 speakers. Essentially, 7-channels is the same as 5-channels with a bonus: By splitting surround and rear channel information in 4 channels, you get 7 total. (The newest and best standard.)
Dolby Atmos sound bar: This is the "Holy Cow" version of 5- or 7-channel sound bar. What makes it different: upward-firing speakers located in the sound bar, which reflects sound above you for a heightened, three-dimensional soundstage. So when you see channel numbers like 5.1.2 or 7.1.2, the third represents Dolby Atmos upward firing speakers (the first is for number of traditional channels and the second is for a subwoofer). This sound bar works best in rooms with flat ceilings up to 11 feet high that are made of hard, reflective material.
Bottom line: So to the question “how many channels do you need?” The more, the merrier… and the better and more immersive the experience.
5. What connections do I need?
Today's newest sound bars come with a variety of connectivity options — and more than one way of doing things. Some key connections to keep an eye out for:
So easy. Just connect your sound bar to your TV’s audio return channel (ARC) input with an HDMI cable, and you’re all set. HDMI is especially good for multi-channel sound bars.
Want the ability to stream audio on directly from your sound bar or via your phone or tablet? Here's what to look for:
- Bluetooth: Many sound bars today come with Bluetooth built-in, making it easy to stream music from your computer, smartphone, and tablet.
- Wi-Fi: There are wireless sound bars, which come with Wi-Fi so they can hop on your home's Internet network and stream pretty much anything from anywhere (Spotify, TIDAL, Pandora, you name it).
An optical patch cord gives you a solid, best-case scenario connection between your TV and sound bar. It's also one of the easiest, simplest and most reliable connections available. However, it does not have the bandwidth to carry over a 5.1 signal.
Normally, USB inputs are only included for firmware updates. But most sound bar updates today are done through software updates. We say you don’t need this — unless you’re looking to plug in a thumb drive with your songs on it.
6. How will I control the sound bar?
Does a new device mean you have to use yet another remote control? Yes and no. Meaning, yes, your new device will come with its own remote control, but you can usually program your existing TV remote to also work with your sound bar. (A cocktail table full of remotes? We all hate that. We can show you how to simplify with just one remote that controls everything.)
P.S. Some sound bars also come with a free mobile app, so you can operate your device via your phone or tablet.
A few final thoughts: Sound bar frequently asked questions.
Our customers' most common questions, answered all in one place.
Can you add speakers to a sound bar?
Some yes and some no. In fact, some of the newer sound bars come with additional speakers as part of the system which gets you much closer to real home theater sound. The only other way you can add wireless rear speakers: if the sound bar is multi-room capable. And that's a great option if you have (or want to set up) a multi-room audio system throughout your home.
Can you add a subwoofer to a sound bar?
Many wireless sound bars ship with a wireless subwoofer. And the ones that don't usually incorporate a woofer port so you can add your own if you want to. (And you will want to if you want an even more immersive experience.)
Do you need a receiver if you have a sound bar?
No if you buy an active sound bar, yes if you buy a passive sound bar. Scroll up to “what to consider” for details.
What are Dolby Atmos sound bars?
Some newer sound bars come with Dolby Atmos technology, which bounces audio off ceilings to simulate a surround sound effect. It’s quite good, but it’s still not the real thing.
What is "Cinema Sound"?
Most sound bars have a feature called “cinema sound” or “movieplex sound” (or just “virtual surround sound”), which they say mimics actual home theater sound. Reality: All that does is add a little digital delay, sort of like a fractional echo (think reverb). This doesn’t equal authentic home theater sound, but it does make it sound like you’re in a bigger room. Admittedly, some are amazing, but you have to pay extra.
Can a sound bar be used as a center speaker?
Some can, some can’t — but we don't recommend it. Technically speaking, though a passive sound bar could potentially be used as a center channel speaker, it's not designed for that purpose. It's like asking a baseball pitcher to also catch and play second base, instead of sticking to the one position he's stellar at.
What brands should you buy?
We thought you’d never ask. There are plenty of brands that build quality sound bars (including greats like Bose, Sony, Sonos, Klipsch, and Yamaha). And our handy-dandy “Best Sound Bars of 2021” guide will definitely help with that!
What about the warranty?
When you buy from an authorized dealer, your new sound bar will come with the full manufacturer's warranty. What’s more: with an authorized dealer, you also get support from the dealer in addition to support from the manufacturer.
Still not sure?
No problem. We’re here, and this is what we do every single day.
At World Wide Stereo, we carefully vet all of our sound bar brands and models so you don’t have to, and our 40-year near perfect track record and #2 Customer Service rating from USA Today says it all. Your new sound bar is an investment — buy it from a trusted dealer with a stellar track record and you’re good as gold.
And if you’re still not sure which sound bar is right for you, or if you have a question we didn’t answer or a unique situation, do not hesitate to pick up the phone and talk to us. Seriously, we live for helping customers make great choices, whatever the budget or situation. The way we see it: When we do right by you, whether now, next year, or even years after a sale, you’re going to come back. And probably more than once. Eventually, we’re on a first name basis… and if you’re in the neighborhood, you’re even stopping by for our special events. Life is good.
Thank you for reading – and enjoy your awesome new sound bar!
Bob, Ron, Gavin, Kristin, Emily and the rest of us at World Wide Stereo.
About World Wide Stereo
World Wide Stereo is home to some 90+ industry-leading audio/video professionals who love what they do, and talking about it, too. We opened our doors in 1979, gained a small yet diehard following, won a slew of national awards, grew the business online, and today we enjoy a sizable fanbase of like-minded TV-watching, music-listening, gear-loving defenders of fun for the whole family. Our only rule: no one leaves unhappy. Learn more about World Wide Stereo here.
Too much helpful this was. Few days ago i am finding the right way to select the best soundbar and now i got this one. Thanks for sharing the info
GREAT ARTICLE ON SOUND BARS. BEST IVE SEEN . WELL WRITTEN AND COMPLETE. WISH YOU GUYS WERE IN WILMINGTON NC. LOOKING FOR A COIPLE FOR MY NEW HOME. THIS MAKES IT EASIER TO CHOOSE.
Good Article but does not address room size vs watts. Does a small (12x16) room need high wattage in order to get good sound at a normal listening level?
Best article i have read on this subject. Very helpful, now have a sound understanding of the various numbers and what to look for, Many thanks!
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