Experts at our National Testing and Research Center tested 36 models in sound bars to see which ones perform best.
We look for:
Overall score is based mainly on sound quality and picture quality for models with video players; ease of use and versatility are also factored in. The displayed score is out of a total of 100 points.
Sound quality represents tonal accuracy and ability to reproduce fine sonic detail of the front speakers, subwoofer, center-channel speaker, and surround speakers. Sound quality judgments are made with the system optimized using its own auto speaker set-up function (if so equipped), and with its own tone controls and/or pre-set tone settings (if any) adjusted for most balanced sound.
HD picture quality
HD picture quality indicates trained panelists' evaluation of clarity and color accuracy of a high-definition progessive-scan (1080p) signal, from the HTIB system’s Blu-ray player playing Blu-ray content on a HD TV. All signals were routed through an HDMI connection.
Upconverted DVD picture quality
DVD picture quality represents trained panelists' evaluation of clarity and color accuracy of an upconverted HD (1080p) signal, from the HTIB system's Blu-ray or DVD player playing DVD content on a HD TV. All signals were sent through an HDMI connection.
480i DVD picture quality
DVD picture quality represents trained panelists' evaluation of clarity and color accuracy of a Standard definition (480i) signal, from the HTIB system's DVD player playing DVD content on a CRT TV. All signals were sent via a S-video connection if available, or a composite video connection.
Ease of use
Ease of use indicates how easy it is to set up the system and use controls on front panel and remote.
Versatility score is based on the presence or absence of useful features. The inputs and outputs shown are on the receiver. (Does not include outputs on the video player, if that is separate.)
Number of channels
Number of audio signal channels supplied by the system. An HTIB system usually has 5.1 channels (front left and right, center, surround left and right, and subwoofer--that's the .1) or 7.1 channels (same as 5.1 but adds rear surround left and right). Note that some systems will require additional amplifiers to drive some speakers (i.e. subwoofers and/or rear surround channels).
Number of speakers supplied
Number of speakers that come with the system. An HTIB system usually comes with 5.1 speakers (front pair, center, surround pair, and subwoofer--that's the .1), and some systems come with extra rear surround speaker pair for a 7.1 setup.
Recommended sound bars are standout choices with high scores. They include CR Best Buys, which offer exceptional value. When narrowing your choices, weigh features, price, and attributes that matter to you.
Buying separate home theater components can be time consuming and expensive, and connecting them can be a challenge—that's why sound bar speakers are becoming an increasingly popular option. If you're looking for information about sound bar speakers, Consumer Reports is your best resource. Consumer Reports' sound bar reviews will give you honest buying advice that you can trust. Use our buying guide to discover which features are most important to consider. We also provide unbiased Ratings and sound bar reviews to help you choose the best ones for your needs.
Ratings & recommended sound bars
Sound bars (36)
With their relatively simple set-up and all-inclusive designs, home-theater-in-a-box (HTIB) systems have a lot to recommend them. There are three types of HTIB systems in our latest Ratings: those without a built-in disc player, those that have an integrated Blu-ray player, and soundbars.
Most HTIBs are now 5.1- or 7.1-channel systems equipped with either five or seven sonically matched speakers, plus a subwoofer (some powered and/or wireless). As an added convenience, some models include--or have an option for adding--wireless rear speaker amplifiers, and many have iPod docks that let you play songs or videos through your entertainment system. In addition, some models with an integrated Blu-ray player can access online content, including streaming movies from services offered by Amazon, Blockbuster, Netflix, or Vudu. 3D-enabled HTIBs either contain receivers that can pass through 3D signals to a TV, or include a built-in 3D-capable Blu-ray player. Many models include an auto-calibration feature that can automatically set appropriate speaker volume levels.
For Blu-ray models, high-definition 1080p picture quality was uniformly excellent when playing Blu-ray discs. Sound quality was a big differentiator among systems, as the scores show. Systems with good or even fair sound might satisfy less critical listeners, while models with very good or excellent sound are recommended for more critical listeners, especially with music.
The Ratings also include “soundbar” systems that you can connect directly to your TV without using a receiver, allowing for an even easier audio upgrade. The speakers housed within the soundbar generally provide stereo sound--some can decode Dolby Digital multichannel audio--and most of the tested models have an external powered subwoofer, often wireless, that handles the bass. Some models use electronic techniques to simulate surround sound, with varying degrees of success, but none come close to the real deal.
A sound bar is an enclosure that contains several speakers--front right and left and sometimes center--in one thin module that you connect directly to your TV, with no need for a receiver. Some also include a separate subwoofer, usually wireless, and a few have rear speakers as well. Many sound bars sell for $200 to $600 or so, with a handful priced as low as $100 and other models costing up to $1,000 or more. A prepackaged HTIB system combines a receiver with a set of matched speakers, wiring, and often a DVD or Blu-ray player. You'll see some home-theater-in-a-box systems starting at about $200; systems that include an integrated Blu-ray player generally cost $300 or more. Again, the priciest models cost considerably more.
Many consumers will probably find the sound quality of a sound bar or HTIB system to be just fine, and better than what you'd get using just the TV's speakers. Note that these systems typically have less power and fewer features than a full-fledged audio system assembled from separate components, so they're not the best choice for a very large room, or for those who will need to connect a larger number of devices. A component system would better suit those settings and appeal to a serious audiophile listening to music critically or a movie fan craving theater-like excitement.