Soundbar loudspeakers can be sound saviors for living rooms, bedrooms and dens. They can be the answer to a homeowner’s home audio prayers, but there’s no one-size fits all solution.
At its most basic, a soundbar is a small tube or long box outfitted with a variety of drivers, digital amplifiers, crossover circuits and inputs designed to give you better sound than the array of speakers wedged into your half-inch thick flat-panel TV. Soundbars basically sound better, because they’re bigger. They usually have bigger (and often more) drivers than a TV’s built-in system. They have a cabinet that was designed for sound rather than designed to keep a big glass panel from falling on the floor, and they offer some placement flexibility.
Soundbars (not counting the LFE—low-frequency effects—channel) are usually offered as 2-channel or 3-channel systems, though 5- and 7-channel soundbars are also available and wireless subwoofers are often a packaged option. You should consider a 3-channel system (right, center and left fronts) as the minimum because it will deliver the best dialog performance. The more channels also usually means the soundbar will do a better job at simulating a surround experience.
Why Use a Soundbar?
Like traditional speaker form factors, soundbars vary widely in design and performance. Shopping for a soundbar isn’t as simple as picking the one that’s the same length as your TV (though that helps, and looks nice too). Future soundbar owners need to consider where they plan to put them and how they plan to use them.
People choose soundbars over receiver/speaker combinations for a variety of reasons, including space and budget. “If a soundbar is the right fit [for the client] we recommend them,” said Mark Fienberg, VP of sales for The Source Home Theater Advisers (a division of The Source Home Theater). “But if they want it for their main viewing/listening room, or if music is important to them … we will have a serious discussion about it.”
Is a soundbar user sacrificing much performance compared to a full speaker system? That really depends on the soundbar and the user. “New soundbars have 80 percent of what a full surround sound has,” says Ryan Herd, CEO of One Sound Choice. “They’re also a great alternative for a kids’ gaming room or the bedroom where the client would like to keep cost under control.”
A soundbar used with a flat panel TV in a built-in wall cabinet.
Noah Stein, of Smart Homes Chattanooga also encourages soundbars for clients who are wary of the space that amplifiers and separate speakers take up, especially when in-wall speakers are not an option. “They are really great, and our customers are happy with them. We feel that the tradeoff of sound vs. aesthetics is well worth it.”
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.