A family watching a TV with a sound bar speaker.
Photo: Sonos

Most of the 200-plus sets in our TV ratings earned no more than a decent score for sound. That’s fine for routine sitcoms, talk shows, and the like. But for movies and TV dramas, you might want a bit more sonic oomph.

You can buy a TV with an Excellent rating for sound quality, but you may have to pay more, and perhaps buy a larger TV than you really want.

One easy fix is to add a sound bar to the TV of your choice.

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Most sound bars have several speakers in a thin enclosure that can be mounted on a wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Pedestal-style sound bases can support the set.

Sound bars are often sold with a wireless subwoofer to help with bass, and a few have rear speakers for surround sound. Many have Bluetooth, letting you stream music from a phone. And some advanced models offer access to streaming video and music services.

Sound bar prices range from $100 to more than $1,000, with many selling for $200 to $600.

Sound Bar Shopping Advice

Here are a few tips to consider when you're shopping:

• Make sure you can return or exchange the sound bar. Speakers may sound very different in your home than they do during an in-store demo.

• Determine how many channels of sound you want. To simply enhance your TV sound, 2.1 channels (two front channels and a separate subwoofer) will do nicely. But if you want true surround sound, choose a 5.1-channel system with rear speakers.

• Decide whether to spring for Dolby Atmos or dts:X. These newer immersive surround-sound technologies can give movies with specially encoded soundtracks a more dramatic, lifelike effect. This is usually accomplished by using speakers that include upfiring drivers to create a sense of “height” to the sound.

“When done well, especially with models that have front and rear height-enabled speakers, listeners can really get a three-dimensional sound experience,” says Maria Rerecich, who leads electronics testing at CR. Some sounds, such as a helicopter flying overhead, can appear to be coming from above the listener.

Here are a few top picks for sound bar speakers at various prices. Members can get detailed test results for all the 38 tested models in our sound bar ratings.

Bargain Pick: Polk Audio Signa s1, $150

Not everyone needs a full surround-sound system, or one with advanced features such as voice control. This basic 2.1-channel system, which includes a main enclosure and a separate wireless subwoofer, delivers good overall sound quality at a price that won't break the bank. Note that this model has an optical input and a 3.5mm auxiliary jack, but no HDMI input. It does come with an optical cable, though.

Alternative pick: Vizio SB3821-C6, $150.

Quick Take

Polk Audio Signa s1 sound bar

Price: $150.00

Sound quality
Ease of use (Features)
Versatility
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Sonos Beam, $400

Sonos' newest model, called the Beam, is a compact smart sound bar speaker that delivers very good sound quality and is offered in a choice of black or white color schemes. It has a lot of features at a price several hundred dollars below the company's Playbar and Playbase models, which are both also highly recommended. The Beam has Alexa—Amazon's digital assistant—built in, so you can control it, other Sonos speakers, and additional Alexa-powered devices using voice commands. The Beam also includes support for Apple AirPlay 2, and the manufacturer says the Beam will start working with Google Assistant in the future.

Alternative pick: Yamaha YAS-207BL, $300.

Quick Take

Sonos Beam sound bar

Price: $400.00

Sound quality
Ease of use (Features)
Versatility
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Samsung HW-K950, $1,500

This pricier, top-rated, full-blown Dolby Atmos system delivers very good sound quality. The system comes with a fairly sizeable wireless subwoofer, plus a pair of wireless rear satellite speakers for a true surround-sound experience. Both the main sound bar and the rear speakers have upward-firing drivers to create the sense of height when playing content produced with Dolby Atmos.

Alternative pick: LG SJ9, $900.

Quick Take

Samsung HW-K950 sound bar

Price: $1500.00

Sound quality
Ease of use (Features)
Versatility
Unlock Sound Bar Ratings