Soundbar Buying Guide

This article is on how to pick out the best soundbar for your needs. With TVs being so thin these days, there is not much room for speakers like there used to be. As a result, most TVs provide far worse sound than they did in the past.

A good soundbar will make it easier for you to understand what people are saying on TV, which we call the dialogue track, give you a better music soundtrack experience, and provide far richer deep bass than any TV speaker. The best ones can even put you in the middle of the action with immersive effects speakers. But, even more so than with separate home theater systems, there are different types of soundbar designs.

Here, we will go over how your listening and content tastes, your room size and shape, and where you will place your soundbar will impact your decision. We will not get into recommendations on specific models in this article as we have separate videos on that subject, but we may call out a particular model as a good example of what we are referring to. 

Sound bars are available with all sorts of built-in speaker options. Some are just designed to improve the sound of your TV speakers without really addressing surround sound. Others are pretty large with lots of built-in speakers to give you an immersive surround sound experience. Some even almost replicate a complete home theater system with external effects speakers and separate subwoofers.

The first question we like to ask people considering a sound bar is what is important to you about your TV experience? We find there are three categories of answers.

  1. For many people, they simply are having a hard time hearing and understanding dialogue clearly. This can be very frustrating and almost any soundbar will make a dramatic improvement on dialogue intelligibility. If this is all you need and you do not care about full rich bass or immersive effects, you will be satisfied with a basic soundbar.

  2. The next level up is the person who wants to have great dialogue but also wants to get some sense of audio immersion and have full, rich bass. This is probably the most common category of soundbar buyers.

  3. The final level is someone who wants to recreate the experience of dedicated home theater separate components but wants either the simplicity and/or space savings of a soundbar, the cost savings compared to home theater separates, or all three. These types of soundbars can put you directly in the middle of the action and provide quite deep and impactful bass response.

You will want to ask yourself which one of these categories you might fit into.

Within these categories, some people only want to use their soundbar for enhanced TV viewing, while others may also want to use it to enjoy music. If you do want to add music, you’ll want to be sure your soundbar has a way to play music via Bluetooth, Airplay, or Chromecast. Fortunately, most soundbars these days do offer a music streaming option. If voice control is important to you, confirm the soundbar you are looking at has that option as well, but our advice would be to choose the better soundbar for your tastes and room instead of choosing one based on it having voice control. 

We will now get into each category and also help you understand how your room and placement will be important to think about as well. 

We hope as you go through this, you will understand how passionate Audio Advice is about helping you get the best performance possible. Our team of experts is here to help you with anything home theater or home audio related and our world-class support team will be there for you should you have any issues setting up your new gear.

Basic Soundbars for TV Sound Improvement

This category will be the least expensive and for the most part, will make voices far clearer, more natural, and easier to understand than your built-in TV speakers. These come in a few configurations. You’ll find 2.0, 3.0, 2.1, and 3.1 systems. The first number represents the number of speaker channels in each and the second number represents the presence of a subwoofer or not. The 2 speaker versions will play back in stereo, whereas the 3 speaker versions have a dedicated center speaker. On soundtracks that are recorded in surround sound, and so many are these days, the 3 speaker versions can decode the center channel information and direct it to the center speaker in the soundbar for even clearer dialogue.

This type of soundbar will almost always have all of the speaker drivers in the front of the cabinet, which gives you a great deal of placement flexibility. They can typically be wall mounted under or above your TV, placed on top of the cabinet your TV sits on, as most are pretty short, or even put into a cabinet.

The models with a subwoofer will give you much more bass and will be especially good if you plan to also use your soundbar for music or if your room is pretty large. Some even have the option of adding a subwoofer later on.

All of these will have either an optical or HDMI ARC connection for your TV which means they will be compatible with almost any TV, but it's always a good idea to check your TV first for an optical or HDMI ARC output on its rear panel.

This is a great category for a wide range of people as the better ones really step up your TV sound whether it is for your primary entertaining space or a master bedroom, exercise room, or other rooms in your home where you want better TV sound but do not need full surround sound.

A really good example of this is the Sonos Ray. It is compact, has the Sonos music ecosystem, and you can add a subwoofer to it later.

Audio Advice Pro Tips

  • Just remember if you do place your soundbar in a cabinet move it as close as possible to the front of your cabinet for the best performance
  • Usually, the models that are taller have larger speaker drivers which give you a fuller sound.

  • If you get a model with a subwoofer, experiment with room placement as it can make a big difference in bass performance.

Soundbars with Surround Sound

This is where you will see the largest selection and a pretty wide range of prices on soundbars. These will typically be wider than the 2.0 and 3.0 soundbars and if aesthetics are important to you, we feel your soundbar will look better if it's about the same width or narrower than your TV. 

These will have designations from 5.1 to 9.1.4. The first number is the number of main and surround speaker channels, the second is the subwoofer, and if there is a third number, that is the number of height channels. 

Here you will see models with additional speakers built in that send the sound upwards, outwards to the sides, or both to improve that sense of immersion. Some will have everything built in, while others might have separate surround speakers and subwoofers. Until you get into the upper end, these usually do not improve the dialogue that much compared to the best 3.0 models, but the surround sound effects will make a world of difference on any content with some action or spatial audio effects.

Not all of them will have these, but the upward-firing speakers are used to create the height effect channels present in immersive surround sound like Dolby Atmos. They are designed to bounce the sound off your ceiling and back down to you, and in most rooms, it works really well. With the better ones, you will swear there might be crickets in the air 5 feet behind your head when you watch movies with great height effects.

These do come with some caveats regarding placement. You will not want to put this type inside of a cabinet as you would be blocking a lot of the sound. If you wall mount one, we recommend it be at least 4” below the bottom of your TV. The ones with upward-firing drivers work best with rooms that have flat ceilings less than 12 feet in height. However, if your room is not like that, the only other option is separate speaker components mounted on the wall or in the ceiling. So if you don’t want to go the separates route, we still suggest the upward-firing speakers. It will not be perfect, but will be more fun than none at all.

Some of the models in this category have pretty impressive bass on their own, but you will see a lot of them come with a subwoofer. 

The JBL Bar 1000 is a good example of one that has a lot of channels for a great immersive experience. It has detachable surround speakers and upward-firing speakers for nice Dolby Atmos effects.

Audio Advice Pro Tips

  • We feel you get the best performance from these types of soundbars if they are sitting towards the front of your equipment cabinet, as far away as possible from the TV surface.

  • If your TV has an HDMI ARC or eARC connection, use that instead of its optical connection. You will get uncompressed surround sound if it is on the content you are viewing.

  • With the ones that have external surround speakers, play around with their placement setting them anywhere from off to the sides of our couch to behind it. And if yours has a subwoofer, placement can make a big difference too.

The Ultimate Soundbars

Now we are in the no-holds barred and most expensive category. These soundbars will elevate all parts of your TV audio experience including dialogue. Some will even rival separate center channel speakers in their ability to let you hear subtle nuances in the dialogue track.

They will all be at least 5.1.2 and some will be up to 11.1.4 with all kinds of effects speaker channels.

A few models here have done an amazing job of keeping everything, including a subwoofer, self-contained in one box while providing deep bass and very immersive surround effects. Others will have separate surround speakers and a subwoofer.

What really separates these in our opinion is the pure audio quality. They will have better speaker components and usually come from speaker companies known for great sound and audio engineering.

While the cost is higher, if you want to keep things simple and have excellent TV sound and the ability to enjoy music, these fit the bill. These also have the same caveats we mentioned in the section above so you will need to pay attention to placement for best performance.

A great example of a self-contained model we thought sounded the best of all the soundbars we tested is the Devialet Dione.

Audio Advice Pro Tips

The same tips apply here as for the section above, but we will repeat them in case you missed them. 

  • We feel you get the best performance from these types of soundbars if they are sitting towards the front of your equipment cabinet, as far away as possible from the TV surface.

  • If your TV has an HDMI ARC or eARC connection, use that instead of its optical connection. You will get uncompressed surround sound if it is on the content you are viewing.

  • With the ones that have external surround speakers, play around with their placement setting them anywhere from off to the sides of our couch to behind it. And if yours has a subwoofer, placement can make a big difference too.

Additional Considerations

Active room correction has come a long way in the last few years. You use a microphone, either on your iPhone or included with the soundbar, to measure the acoustic characteristics of your room. The soundbar then takes out any peaks in specific frequencies and in many rooms, the difference is astonishing. If the soundbar you choose, comes with room correction, be sure and use it.

Soundbar Alternatives

If you care more about music but still want to improve your TV sound, consider a pair of powered stereo speakers. You will need to make sure they have either an optical or ideally an HDMI ARC connection to send them sound from your TV. But once you get above around $350-$400 a pair, most of these sound a lot better on music than a soundbar. And dialogue can be quite good as well.

This alternative will be two larger speaker boxes instead of one sleek soundbar, but it's definitely worth considering if you spend more time playing music than watching TV.

We’re here to help!

We hope you have enjoyed this article on how to pick out a soundbar and we have provided you some good education. If you have further questions, contact our experts via chat, phone, or email. Or simply visit one of our world-class showrooms to experience speakers, projectors, TVs, and everything in between for yourself before you make a purchase! 

If you’re planning your home theater or media room, check out our Home Theater Design page, where we have everything Home Theater related, including our FREE Home Theater Design Tool.

When you buy from Audio Advice, you’re buying from a trusted seller since 1978. We offer Free Shipping, Lifetime Expert Support, and our Price Guarantee. We look forward to serving you!

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