Soundbars: Feature Options and Installation Issues
There's no one-size-fits-all solution
Smart Homes of Chattanooga installed this soundbar under a TV above a fireplace.
August 21, 2013 by Grant Clauser

Connection Issues

Most, not all, soundbars offer one or two digital audio connections (usually an optical input) as well as a set of analog inputs. When hooking up you connect all your audio sources to your TV (ideally via HDMI) and then use your TV’s digital audio return channel (ARC) output (usually an optical output) to connect to the soundbar. Then all the audio going into the TV will come out of the soundbar. Unfortunately most TVs downconvert an incoming surround-sound signal to stereo when sending out via ARC, which means the 5.1 audio from your Blu-ray player or DVR may be turned to stereo by the time your soundbar gets it. This may not matter a whole lot depending on how your soundbar creates its soundstage, but it’s worth considering if you hope to get a simulated surround-sound experience.

A few soundbars include HDMI inputs, which will usually preserve the full multichannel audio signal. Some are even able to decode Dolby and DTS formats properly.

Sony’s HT-ST7 includes 4 HDMI inputs.

While most people select a soundbar to play back their TV and movie soundtracks, a great benefit of many models is their smartphone and tablet connections. Bluetooth is the most common wireless connection you’ll find on a soundbar because nearly every cell phone and tablet includes the technology. With a Bluetooth connection you can play back your stored music as well as streaming apps such as Pandora or Spotify. Apple’s AirPlay as well as NFC (near field communications) are sometimes found on soundbars. These features extend the soundbar’s functionality beyond just a TV accessory.

Remote Options

Most soundbars operate as a separate product in your A/V system, rather than like a speaker (passive soundbars need to be connected to a receiver/amplifier). The system will likely come with a remote, but most users will be happier either configuring the soundbar to operative with their DVR or TV remote, or will want to integrate the soundbar control with a separate universal remote or third-party control system. Better-designed soundbars will automatically turn on when an audio signal is detected in the input. Some soundbars also include an IR pass-through to make control easier.

Mounting Issues

So where do you put your soundbar? The most obvious place is on the wall directly under your TV, but the truth is that most people don’t put their TVs (at least not all of them) on a wall.

If you’re not going to mount the TV on the wall, make sure the TV’s base doesn’t get in the way of placement of the soundbar, and likewise make sure the soundbar doesn’t get in the way of the TV or its IR sensor. Sometimes a soundbar resting on a low table can benefit from small wedge feet to help angle the sound up toward the listener.

Some soundbars also don’t sound well when placed in aside a TV cabinet, so make sure you talk to your dealer or integrator about placement.

Standard on-wall installation, for the most part, is fairly straightforward. Many include the mounting hardware. The main concerns are hiding the connection wires and AC cable (an Insta Outlet can be useful here) as well as making sure the wall can support the system. The Atlantic Technology PB-235 can be mounted on top of a TV with an accessory shelf kit. 

Soundbar mounted on a fireplace mantel by Smart Homes of Chattanooga.

Fireplaces can pose the same problems for soundbar mounting as they do for TV mounting. “Most people like to tilt their TV down [to improve the viewing angle], so we have to mount the soundbar to the TV instead of the wall,” says Dan Hong, of Global Custom Integration. Stein notes that if the wall above the fireplace is stone, placing the soundbar on the fireplace mantel can be a good option. Otherwise, he attaches the soundbar to the TV.

Global Custom Installation included a soundbar with this corner-mounted TV.

Articulating mounts are attractive options for people who want to be able to move their TV into different positions, but that poses a problem for soundbar mounting. How do you hang a soundbar on the wall when the TV swings away from the wall? As with tilted TVs over fireplaces, the best option is to attach the soundbar to the TV with a mounting device such as the OmniMount OCSBA universal soundbar mount or the Sanus VMA202.

A soundbar attached to a TV using OmniMount’s OCSBA.

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
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. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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