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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While soundbars are big improvements over a TV’s built-in speaker, their slim profile and small drivers make them ill-suited for bass. Some soundbars today come with separate, active subwoofers. Often these subwoofers are wirelessly connected to the system, which makes them very flexible in terms of placement. When hooking one up, it’s a good idea to test it out in a number of locations to see which gets you the best performance, because things like corners or floor material can make a difference in how the bass sounds. Usually the subwoofer in a soundbar system has a higher crossover than a typical home theater setup.
Feinberg says that he usually incorporates a wireless subwoofer into systems because they’re flexible and less expensive to install. “We always suggest a subwoofer with a soundbar to give the customer more bass,” says Stein. Hong adds that he usually suggests an in-wall subwoofer, so there’s nothing else to clutter up the room.
What about tabletop TV speakers?
In addition to the soundbar, another category of speaker solution has gotten popular lately. These TV speakers or tabletop speakers look something like soundbars, except they’re much deeper—18 inches or so—and also act as a base for the TV to stand on. SpeakerCraft, AudioXperts, Onkyo, Pinnacle, Z-Vox and others offer tabletop TV speakers.
Most tabletop TV speakers deliver better bass than a stand-alone soundbar, because they have the cabinet space for bigger drivers (often including passive bass radiators). If you know your TV is going on a table, then a tabletop speaker may be able to save you from needing a separate subwoofer. However, a tabletop speaker will raise the height of the TV by a few inches, so if you’re putting it inside a cabinet, make sure you’ve accommodated for the extra height.