Like it or not, soundbars have become a big part of the audio market. Even the best soundbar is pooh-poohed by the average audiophile.
But let’s get one thing straight: Soundbars are popular. Earlier this year, Quixel Research said that revenue for the soundbar market rose by 31 percent in 2014, all the way to $1.5 billion. So apparently, someone is buying them.
Still for some people, nothing but a full set of speakers will do. It’s true that a soundbar won’t be able to deliver the feeling of an airplane flying overhead or even Superman darting across the room. That said, under no circumstances should you ever settle for the sound that’s coming directly out of the TV. Okay—let’s not get scary or anything. However, there’s no reason to settle when soundbars are so plentiful.
In case you aren’t entirely sure what a soundbar is, know that this one single box packs in all of the necessary audio goodness, including drivers, digital amplifiers, crossover circuits and inputs. It works with your TV, receiver, Blu-ray player, and even all alone. While a 3-channel system is recommended as the minimum, there are 2-channel options available—as well as 5- and 7-channel soundbars. Some even come with a wireless subwoofer to complete the package.
While nothing can rival a full complement of good speakers, there are a lot of soundbars out today that actually sound better than some full speaker sets (true). How do you know you’re getting the best soundbar possible? Here are five things to look for when shopping for a soundbar.
How big is it? If you plan to pair your soundbar with your TV, you want something that’s going to match the size of that TV. Don’t get something that’s insanely big or super small. Typically, soundbars are rated for a specific TV size. If you choose to ignore that suggestion, it shouldn’t affect the quality of your experience. However, it can stick out in your room’s decor.
Most soundbars are designed to go right under the TV on the wall, so it looks like it’s part of the overall system. If you don’t have the space or know-how to mount a soundbar, make sure your option comes with a tabletop stand.
How does it connect to my TV? Want to plug that new soundbar into an available HDMI port on your receiver? Yeah, not all of them offer that option. Make sure your soundbar has the connections you need to complete the installation. Sony’s HT-ST9 7.1 soundbar ($1,499.99) has: an HDMI input, while: Yamaha’s high-end YSP-2500 ($999.95) and Sony’s less-expensive HT-CT380 ($349.99) offer three. Some have zero, though. If that’s the case, expect to use a: digital optical input or an analog input.
Despite the aforementioned Sony and Yamaha options, most soundbars are not designed to be the cornerstone of your home theater setup. That means you won’t be plugging everything into them. If that’s something you need, plan accordingly. And if you think you desperately need to have HDMI running to your Blu-ray player, know that most soundbars don’t support high-resolution tracks like DTS-HD Master Audio. That doesn’t mean it won’t play them, but it does mean that HDMI isn’t a must-have. If you have a compact setup without a receiver, it’s probably easiest to plug all of your essentials directly into the TV.
Does it do wireless? You may think that you don’t want Bluetooth or the ability to stream stored music and apps: directly to your soundbar, but it’s certainly a nice option. It’s also an option that’s becoming insanely popular. In fact, according to The NPD Group’s Soundbar Ownership and Usage Study, 55 percent of soundbar owners are using that slim speaker for music. A lot of soundbars feature wireless connectivity these days, so this may be something to consider if you plan to use it for music. In fact, get one anyway; you never know when you’ll need to rock out.
Any other perks? Of course, connectivity and inputs are nice, but many soundbars offer modes that can tweak the sound quality. This means everything from the option the pump up the bass to having a specific sound mode for sports or movies.
Also know how: you will access those perks. Does the system come with its own remote? That’s always nice, but some don’t. This is for people who don’t want to add: another remote into the: mix. Some actually: prefer to use the cable/satellite remote used for everyday TV watching. Just make sure the soundbar has a “learning” feature, if that’s your preference.
Are there options to add on? Although most people buy a soundbar because of space (or a lack of it), your needs may change. More importantly, your room may change. Some soundbars, such as the Sonos Playbar ($699), have the ability to link to other speakers and even a subwoofer. For more information on the Sonos Playbar, check out “Hands On: Sonos Playbar Soundbar.”
So there are plenty of things to consider when it comes to shopping for the best soundbar. Typically, the more options you have, the better the soundbar will be—and the more it will cost. Happy shopping!
Still looking for the best soundbar for your room? Check out our article on “Affordable TV Audio: 3 Soundbars that Won’t Break the Bank.”