Choosing the Best Sound Bar

As TVs slim down, the quality of their sound often follows suit. The reason is fairly simple: There’s less room for a powerful sound system. To be fair, sound quality has been improving on many of the highest-performing, and most expensive, TVs on the market—but most TVs still don’t sound nearly as good as they look.

In fact, the majority of the 200-plus televisions in our TV ratings earned no more than a Good score for sound. While that’s perfectly adequate for routine programming—sitcoms, reality shows, talk shows, and the like—you might want a bit more sonic oomph for movies and even TV dramas.

One great—and increasingly popular—option is to add a sound bar speaker, an easier and less expensive fix than purchasing a complete add-on component system. A sound bar has several speakers and the electronics to power them in one thin enclosure that you connect to your TV—no need for a receiver. Some have a separate subwoofer, usually wireless, and a few have rear speakers to create a full surround-sound system.

Most sound bars are long, relatively thin speaker systems that are mounted on the wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. There are also pedestal-style sound bars called sound bases that can serve as a base for a TV.

Sound bar speakers are found in all price ranges. You can spend as little as $100 or more than $1,000. Many sell for between $200 and $600.

Bar Crawl: Sound Bar Types

In CR ratings, a sound bar speaker is held to a higher standard than a TV: A sound bar with a Good score for sound in our tests will sound better than a TV with a Good score.

Note that sound bars often have less power and fewer features than a component system, so they’re not the best choice for a very large room, nor for audiophiles craving a theaterlike experience. But a sound bar or sound base is a great if you have a small or medium space and want a simple way to enhance your TV’s sound.

Photo of a sound bar.

Sound Bars

About 40 inches or longer, sound bars can be mounted on the wall or placed on a shelf above or below a TV. For larger TVs, consider a wider model for a wider stereo image (the spatial location of the sound). For smaller TVs, consider one that’s no wider than the screen.

Sound bars can have anywhere from two to five-plus speakers in the main enclosure. Some have drivers that angle outward toward the sides of the room to create a broader sound field. Most now come with a wireless subwoofer you can put almost anywhere in a room, even out of sight.

CR's Latest Sound Bar Ratings
Photo of a sound base.

Sound Bases

If your space is limited, consider a sound base that will sit underneath the TV. You don’t have to deal with wall mounting or worry about placement. Just make sure the sound base can support the weight of your set if you plan to put your TV on top of it. Also make sure it’s wide and deep enough for the TV’s base or legs. (Some may be slim enough to sit underneath a TV if its legs are at the edges of the screen.) 

Sound bases also have speaker arrays, but most have built-in subwoofers rather than separate ones.

Check Out Our Latest Sound Bar / Base Ratings

Bar Exam: What to Look For

Try Them Out
Sound bars with similar scores in our ratings for sound quality are likely to sound different from each other because of the way they handle various frequencies and how they interact with the acoustics in your room. Audition sound bars in the store and ask about returns and exchanges if the one you buy doesn’t suit you once you get it home.

Decide How Many Channels You Want
If you simply want to enhance your TV sound, a sound bar with 2.1 channels (two front channels and a separate subwoofer) could be enough. If you want true surround sound, buy a sound bar with a subwoofer and rear speakers—preferably wireless—for multichannel sound. Some new models may include Dolby Atmos, a newer immersive sound technology that adds the element of height to speaker systems. With sound bar speaker systems, this is usually accomplished by having upfiring drivers in the main enclosure.

Consider Placement
If you’ll be placing the sound bar on the TV stand, make sure there’s enough room in front of the set, and check to see that the sound bar isn’t so tall that it will block the remote control’s line of sight to the TV.

Don’t Overbuy
If you’re using the sound bar only for listening to your TV, you can go for a low-priced, no-frills model that has at least Good sound quality in our ratings. It will be a step up from almost any TV’s built-in sound. But if you want to use the sound bar for music as well as TV, we recommend a model with Very Good or Excellent sound quality.

Compare Warranties
Most manufacturers provide 12 months of coverage, but check before you buy.

Making Connections

You’ll need a variety of inputs for connecting various audio and video sources, so make sure the inputs on the sound bar or sound base match the outputs on the source components. Additional options allow you to stream content wirelessly.

HDMI: Some sound bars have one or more HDMI inputs and may include an HDMI output to the TV, allowing you to use the sound bar to switch between video source components. Many HDMI connections now support the audio return channel (ARC) feature, which lets a TV send audio back to the sound base or sound bar. This allows a single connection from the sound bar to the TV if your source component, such as a cable box, is connected directly to the TV. If you intend to connect a Blu-ray player or an Ultra HD Blu-ray player with either 3D or 4K video capability, make sure the sound bar has a pass-through feature to send these signals to your TV.

Bluetooth: More sound bars now support Bluetooth, which allows you to send music from mobile devices (tablets, phones, or computers) wirelessly to the sound bar speaker. Some support near field communication (NFC), which is quick way to make an initial Bluetooth connection. Some have two-way Bluetooth, which will let you send music from the sound bar to Bluetooth-enabled speakers or headphones.

WiFi: Models with built-in WiFi let you access online music services such as Pandora and Spotify directly from the sound bar. Some models may include an Ethernet jack for a wired connection to your home network.

Digital audio inputs: Most sound bars have at least one digital audio input (optical or coaxial), as well as analog stereo RCA (red and white) or mini-jack inputs, for connecting cable boxes, TVs, disc players, portable music players, and other gear. In recent years, optical digital audio inputs and outputs have become the more common of the two types of connections. But increasingly, newer equipment—such as cable boxes and Blu-ray players—send digital audio signals over an HDMI cable.

Streaming: Some sound bars offer access to streaming movies or TV shows from services such as Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix; internet radio stations such as Napster/Rhapsody, Pandora, and Slacker; and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This is a plus if your TV doesn’t have this capability built-in and you don’t own a media player such as a Roku or an Apple TV.

Other Considerations Before You Shop

Do you want to use your sound bar to switch between sources?
If so, make sure it has at least two HDMI inputs, plus an optical input for a component that lacks HDMI. If you’ve moved up to a 4K TV with HDR, make sure the sound bar has a pass-through feature that sends 4K HDR video signals to a 4K TV.

Are new immersive audio formats, such as Dolby Atmos, important?
Many sound bars offer multichannel audio, but a few newer models now also support Dolby Atmos and/or DTS: X, the two newest surround-sound formats. Both are “object-based” audio technologies, where sound engineers are able to place sounds almost anywhere in a listener’s environment during the recording and mixing process. 

Both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X try to map sound effects, or “objects,” in a three-dimensional space. Dolby Atmos, which was initially developed for movie theaters, does this by adding the element of height to a surround-sound setup. In sound bars, this is achieved by using upfiring speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling toward your listening position. This can create overhead sound effects, such as a plane flying above you and then disappearing in the distance.

DTS:X is a bit different, in that it doesn’t require special “height” speakers, though it will work with them. Instead, it will remap the sound effects based on the number of channels and you have in your system. 

Sound bars and other components that support Dolby Atmos use three sets of numbers to describe the system instead of just two. For example, in a regular 5.1-channel system, the first number indicates the number of channels and speakers, while the second shows if it has one or more subwoofers. But a Dolby Atmos setup has three sets of numbers (5.1.2), the last one indicating the number of upfiring (or ceiling-mounted) height speakers.

DTS:X tends to use the more conventional naming system, though you may see a higher number, such as 11.1, which indicates additional channels and speakers, such as height speakers.

With Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the content has to be encoded to support the format. Dolby Atmos is currently more widely available, on some Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray discs, as well as on some titles offered by streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix, and Vudu. DTS:X is playing catch-up, and it’s available on a few dozen Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray discs but so far not from any streaming services. Most new A/V receivers now support both formats.

Bar Menu: The Important Features

Once you have an idea of what type of sound bar you’d like to purchase and what your budget is, you can consider the features or specs you might want.

Sound Bar Brands

Most of the major electronics companies make home-theater-in-a-box systems. Some offer systems across all categories while others concentrate on a specific price range. You can use this alphabetized guide to compare home-theater-in-a-box systems by brand.

Bose offers a variety of home-theater systems, including sound bars, sound bases, and 2.1- and 5.1- channel systems. Bose products tend to be higher priced.
Boston Acoustics is a midpriced audio brand best known for its speakers. The company, part of D&M Group—which also includes Denon and Marantz—now sells sound bars and a sound base to complement flat-screen TVs.
Gordon Brothers purchased the Coby brand and all its assets—but not its liabilities—in 2013. To date, there have been no new Coby-branded sound bars or sound bases. Per its agreement, Gordon Brothers is not honoring warranty claims for any Coby products sold before its purchase.
Denon—part of D&M Group, which also includes Boston Acoustics and Marantz—is well known for its products in all home-theater categories, including sound bars and 2.1- and 5.1-channel home-theater systems. The products tend to be mid- to high-priced.
Funai controls the Emerson, Funai, and Magnavox brands in the U.S. Its products are typically sold at mass-market stores and warehouse clubs. A Funai subsidiary, P&F Holdings, is the exclusive licensee for Philips consumer televisions and home-theater products, and acts as the exclusive distributor in North America for Philips lifestyle entertainment, which includes home and portable audio, headphones, portable DVD players, and accessories.
Harman Kardon—part of Harman International, which also owns the AKG, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson, and Revel brands—is a well-known home-theater brand. Its products, which include sound bars and 2.1- and 5.1-channel systems, tend to be mid- to high-priced.
Insignia is Best Buy’s house brand, sold exclusively by the retailer. Insignia’s products are positioned as a value line offering a decent number of features at a relatively modest price.
Klipsch is part of Voxx International, formerly known as Audiovox, which also owns the Jamo and Energy speaker brands. Klipsch is well known for its speakers, sound bars, and sound base systems.
LG Electronics is a major consumer electronics brand that manufactures a wide range of products under the LG and Zenith brands in the U.S. Its products include sound bar and sound base systems, and 5.1- and 7.1-channel home-theater systems. Prices are typically in the lower- to midpriced ranges.
Onkyo, which recently bought a major stake in Pioneer’s audio/video business, offers 5.1-, 5.2-, and 7.1-channel home-theater systems. Its products typically carry midrange prices, though they can escalate as the number of features increases.
Panasonic is a major consumer-electronics brand in several audio and video categories. It manufactures sound bars, sound bases, and 5.1-channel home-theater systems. The products are competitively priced and widely available.
Philips licenses its North American consumer electronics business to Funai as part of a deal that has been renewed through 2015. A new company, P&F, was formed to market those products, which include televisions and home-theater products. The company also acts as the exclusive distributor in North America for Philips lifestyle entertainment, which includes home and portable audio. The Philips brand sells sound bars and 5.1-channel systems that are typically priced in the low- to midpriced ranges.
Pioneer is a well-known consumer electronics company whose products include sound bars, sound bases, and 5.1-channel home theater systems. Its products tend to be midpriced. The company recently sold a major stake in its audio/video business to Onkyo.
Polk Audio is a well-known speaker company that has a full line of sound bars with and without separate subwoofers. Its products are typically in the mid- to higher-priced ranges.
Samsung is a major electronics brand in multiple product categories, including home-theater systems. It sells sound bars, sound bases, and 5.1- and 7.1- channel home-theater systems. Prices vary widely, though they are typically moderate to somewhat expensive.
Sharp Sharp, perhaps best known for its Aquos LCD TVs, also sells sound bar speaker systems to complement its TV line. Its products tend to be midpriced. Sonos Sonos has helped pioneer the multiroom wireless speaker category. It now offers several styles of WiFi speakers at varying prices, and a sound bar that can be used either independently, as part of a multichannel sound system, or as a speaker in a multiroom system. Sony Sony, a major consumer electronics brand, sells home-theater products across a wide range of categories, including sound bar and sound base systems, and 5.1-channel home-theater systems. Sony products cover all price ranges. Toshiba Toshiba offers sound bars and a sound bases to complement its TV products. Its audio products are typically value-priced. Vizio A major TV brand, Vizio has also entered several audio and video categories. The company offers 2.0-, 2.1-, and 5.1-channel sound bar speaker systems—some with wireless rear speakers—and a speaker base that complements its TV line. Vizio’s products are typically value-priced. Yamaha Yamaha sells products in all categories of home theater, including sound bars and 5.1-channel home-theater systems. Its products are typically in the mid- to higher-priced ranges. Zvox Zvox helped to pioneer the sound base speaker category. It now offers sound base speakers in several sizes, typically in the lower- to midpriced ranges.
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