Choosing the right soundbar for your entertainment room takes some thought, and a little guidance can help you along.
Most of us want a soundbar to compensate for the underwhelming speakers in modern displays, but the humble soundbar can do much more. The right soundbar can add dimension to the sound coming out of your TV while occupying very little space.
Full guide for choosing the right soundbar
So, how do you choose a soundbar that offers good sound while keeping your wallet happy? Here are a few considerations to chew on. Pick the ones that matter most to you and you’ll find yourself a soundbar that you can enjoy for years. Here’s what you need to know when choosing the right soundbar:
The shopper’s checklist
Anyone shopping for electronics should have a list of must-have features and deal-breakers. This list touches on six categories:
- Adequate input ports
- Wireless connectivity
- Ease of use
- Smart features, among other bells and whistles
- Sound profile/sound stage
- Audio format support
The first half of this guide is a deep dive into each of these categories and it explains how price plays into each consideration. Once we flesh out the checklist, we move on to the second part of the guide. It covers choosing the right size and placement for a soundbar. But first:
Soundbars work by connecting to different devices, the most important being the TV. Budget soundbars have limits to the type and number of ports they carry. The upside of this type of soundbar is that it’s more affordable.
Manufacturers expect people who buy soundbars with few ports to use the TV as a switcher. This means that you’ll have to connect your other devices (gaming console, Blu-ray) directly to the TV. In its role as a switcher, the TV channels sound output from the devices to the soundbar. This setup only works on a fairly modern TV with enough ports to connect several devices at once.
If you want a future-proof soundbar that will keep up with your evolving needs, pay a little extra for a wider selection of ports. Three HDMI ports (preferably with HDMI 2.1 or later) is a good start. HDMI ports make the soundbar versatile in terms of function and audio format support. A few legacy ports wouldn’t hurt either. Most soundbars will also carry an optical port.
1.2 Wireless playback and multi-room setup
A soundbar gives more value when it offers convenience along with good sound. Part of that convenience is wireless playback that allows you to stream or cast music via Bluetooth or WiFi.
Soundbars that ship with separate subwoofers usually have Bluetooth capability.
Higher-end soundbars will have Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth. This type of soundbar allows you to enjoy a multi-room sound system. It also allows you to control the soundbar with a mobile device, which makes your audio setup that much easier to use. Speaking of ease of use:
1.3 Ease of setup
The ideal soundbar is a plug and play affair, with minimal cables. Connecting the soundbar to the TV should automatically redirect sound from the display’s internal speakers to the soundbar. HDMI ports are your best bet in this respect.
An HDMI port with ARC capability is even better since it allows the movement of signals to and from the soundbar. This is an HDMI capability you need to have if you want to control the soundbar via the TV (with HDMI-CEC).
A digital optical port may or may not work perfectly the first time you connect it to the TV. You may have to play around with the TV settings before you get sound to redirect to the soundbar.
1.4 User interface and overall ease of use
This brings us to the second measure of user-friendliness: The user interface. Some soundbars have a row of LED lights to indicate volume, current input, and other pieces of basic information. This type of soundbar can be hard to read and operate. If you happen to come across a soundbar with an LED display instead of a digital one, make sure you can control it through the TV via HDMI-CEC.
Some soundbars with hard-to-read LED displays come with companion apps. This transforms your phone or tablet into a remote with an expansive graphical interface.
All things being equal, a soundbar with a digital screen is your most convenient option. It will save you the trouble of relying on the TV or your phone every time you need to switch inputs or adjust the volume.
1.5 Smart features
Are you the kind of person who likes their soundbar with a side of bells and whistles? Then you should pay a little extra for a unit with smart capabilities. Devices with smart capabilities have Wi-Fi connectivity, smart soundbars included. A smart soundbar will come with at least one of the following features:
- A smart assistant that allows for voice commands, like Alexa or Google Assistant
- Multi-room playback capability via a Wi-Fi network
- A companion app that allows you to operate the soundbar from your mobile device
Smart soundbars that give maximum value for money are future-proof. They are compatible with a wide variety of speakers, which gives you the option of expanding your audio rig with time. In fact, this is how multi-room audio setups work: By creating a network of smart speakers that channel sound to ‘dumb’ satellites and subwoofers.
1.6 Sound profile
Each shopper has their own needs and preferences when it comes to home entertainment rigs. Some people are comfortable with a soundbar that performs dialog enhancement and little else. The music aficionado or sound engineer will want full immersion into the content that they consume. Then there’s the person who wants to strike a balance between both.
The buyer who only wants an upgrade to their TV speakers will be happy with a 2.1 channel soundbar. If they want a setup that occupies minimal space, they may go for a soundbar with an internal subwoofer.
Audiophiles who want movie-theater acoustics will splurge on a soundbar with at least three channels. They will likely choose one that comes with a subwoofer and satellite speakers. This shopper may spend extra on a soundbar with height channels that deliver Dolby Atmos. Speaking of audio formats:
1.7 Audio format support
If all you want is to upgrade your TV speakers, you can find an affordable soundbar that delivers loud, clear sound. This type of soundbar should have two or three channels; maybe a separate subwoofer. The limited number of channels means that surround sound will downmix to stereo.
For an immersive sound stage, choose a soundbar that supports surround sound formats like Dolby Digital Plus and DTS. Support means enough physical channels to simulate or execute surround sound. It also means circuitry that can decode a range of audio formats.
Five-channel soundbars do a decent job of creating surround sound, more so when they pair with a subwoofer. Seven and nine-channel soundbars perform even better. Satellite speakers add extra depth to the soundstage while height channels allow for perfect execution of formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS-X.
This completes our checklist and moves this guide along to the second part of choosing the right soundbar: Size and placement.
Choosing the right size and placement for a soundbar
The layout of your entertainment room has a lot to do with the size and placement of the soundbar you ultimately choose. Before getting that soundbar, take stock of:
- The size and shape of your room
- Position of the TV in the room
- Whether your TV is a wall mount, sits in a cabinet, or sits on a stand
- Width of the TV
- If the TV sits on a stand, the height of the TV legs or pedestal
First, we look at the size of soundbars independent of where you put them, specifically the link between sound quality and soundbar size. Then we look at choosing the right placement for a soundbar, its subwoofer, and any satellites that come with it.
2.1 Sound quality, number of speakers, and soundbar size
There’s a rule of thumb that suggests that the bigger the soundbar, the more channels/speakers it packs, and the better the resultant sound. The rule holds most of the time, but not always.
As an example, a larger subwoofer cabinet will house a larger bass speaker. It will also provide more resonance, which results in bigger sound. A two or three-channel soundbar only needs about a foot’s worth of space. In contrast, a 5.1 or 7.1 soundbar needs to be longer to create space for extra speakers. Trying to save on space limits the size of speakers that go into the device, which in turn affects sound quality.
That said, it’s possible to find 3.1 channel soundbars with better audio than larger alternatives. It all comes down to execution. Some manufacturers are excellent at making the most out of the hardware that goes into their products. That means that execution matters just as much as the size and number of speakers in a soundbar. So read reviews that detail the sound quality of that soundbar that you’re eyeing.
2.2 Choosing the right size and placement for a soundbar: When does the number of channels count?
When you want a soundstage that’s large enough to simulate or execute surround sound. Audiophiles will want to hear a passenger plane as it takes off overhead. They will want to hear that ominous click in the hero’s ear as the cold steel of a gun is pressed against their skin. The acoustics buff will want to hear the roar of an explosion as the protagonist clears the burning building in the nick of time.
For this person, a 5-channel soundbar with a subwoofer, satellites, and height channels would be a good start. However, the person with simpler needs will be fine with a well-built 3.1 channel device.
2.3 Subwoofer and satellites: Do you need them?
The previous section goes over the kind of person that needs a soundbar with as many channels as possible. That person is the guy or gal who wants to be blown away by theater-level acoustics. When it comes to the issue of soundbar additions, space also comes into play.
2.4 Choosing the right size and placement for a soundbar: Placement, space, and acoustics
For starters, the soundbar should sit right below the TV, whether your display hangs off a wall or sits on a stand. Placing the soundbar above the TV will create unnatural acoustics which will throw you off. This option should be a last resort.
Here are other things to consider when placing a soundbar and its components.
2.4.1 The size of a soundbar in relation to your TV
For esthetic reasons, a soundbar should be almost as long as your TV. Ideally, it should fit between the legs of your TV. This is a moot point if your TV has a central stand, in which case you should choose a wide, flat pedestal soundbar if you can find one.
At less than three inches high, most soundbars are low enough to sit under the TV. However, some TV legs are so low that nearly all soundbar models will block the IR receiver and the bottom edge of the display.
Take note of these measurements as you shop for a soundbar. If need be, invest in an IR repeater or buy a soundbar that comes with one.
2.4.2 How your entertainment room informs the placement of your soundbar
Filling a bigger room with sound requires a soundbar with powerful speakers. If the room has sparse furnishing and many hard surfaces, you may have to account for potential distortion from sound reflection. However, reflection could come in handy with soundbars that bounce sound off surfaces to create a wider soundstage.
Wood and other soft surfaces absorb sound, which dulls sound output. This means cozy entertainment rooms with thick rugs, wood, and plush couches need powerful soundbars to compensate for absorption.
No matter the size and layout of a room, position the soundbar and its components in relation to the audience. This means the subwoofer behind the ‘audience’, satellites to the side, and the soundbar with the TV.
2.4.3 Subwoofer: Corner vs. along the wall
Placing a subwoofer in a corner adds resonance to the output sound, making it bigger, with more rumble. However, corner placement introduces the real downside of sound distortion. Placing the same subwoofer along the wall will enhance rumble but muffle the sound. Neither option is great, more so in a larger room that swallows sound.
The best placement for a sub is near furniture, behind the audience, where few obstructions limit sound travel.
2.4.4 Power sources for satellites and the subwoofer
Wherever you choose to place the different elements of your audio rig, consider the distance between each component and a power outlet. Satellite speakers often connect to the subwoofer by cable, so your arrangement also depends on the length of both media and power cables.
Most soundbars that come with subwoofers connect wirelessly, allowing more flexibility.
2.4.5 Wireless connections and distance
Many soundbars come with Bluetooth 1.0 connectivity, which allows you to place a subwoofer within 30 feet of the main unit. 30 feet is also the approximate distance between your devices and the main unit when you stream music wirelessly.
Wi-Fi connectivity eliminates this limitation. If your soundbar connects to your home Wi-Fi network, you can reach it from any place in your home with coverage. This allows for multi-room audio setups and other smart home tricks.
Everything you need to find a good deal on a soundbar, in one guide
This guide is good preparation as you hunt for good, clear acoustics without the bulk of a full home-theater audio setup. It details the must-have qualities to look for when choosing the right soundbar. You also find out how to set up your soundbar in a way that produces the best possible acoustics.
Keep this guide with you as you search for a soundbar that matches your budget, preferences, and living space. It will come in handy.