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TVs are thinner than ever. And sure, they may look sleek atop a cabinet or mounted against the wall. But the thinner the TV, the smaller its speakers — which could mean your movies and TV shows sound much worse than they should. In fact, most TV speakers are either down-facing or rear-facing, given the constraints of engineering ever thinner television panels — diminishing the quality. Coupled with the small size of typical speakers, you might find your TV emitting unintelligible dialogue, unimpressive bass, and unfortunately low volume.
Soundbars aim to solve this problem by giving you better sound without a complex speaker-and-receiver setup. Instead, you get a single bar you can place on your entertainment center or table, or mount under your TV. The soundbar equips all of its speakers within a single unit — as well as a wireless subwoofer, if you want one. In other words, you get better sound without sacrificing a lot of space. Soundbars come in all shapes, sizes and prices, so shopping for one can be a bit overwhelming. After years of testing home theater equipment, I’ve learned which soundbar features make sense for which home setups (and for how the soundbar is used) — so let’s narrow it down to a few of the best.
Best affordable soundbars to shop
If you’re just looking to get a bit of extra volume out of your TV — without breaking the bank — a simple two-speaker soundbar will probably suffice.
Vizio is one of the top dogs in the lower price brackets, and their 29-inch 2.0 soundbar is a bestselling choice for under $100. It won’t blow your mind but it’s almost certainly a step up from the speakers built into your TV. There’s also a version with a subwoofer for $130, if you want to fill out the low-end.
Polk has long been a trusted name in audio, but their Command soundbar brings more than just better sound quality to your living room: You get a 43-inch soundbar (size matters, and we’ll get into it below), a stylish-looking subwoofer, and an Amazon Echo Dot built right in. The microphones on top of this soundbar let you invoke Alexa to control the soundbar’s volume, stream music, or control any of your other Alexa-compatible devices.
While any soundbar will improve audio quality over your TV's built-in speakers, a 3.1-channel soundbar like the 38-inch Samsung T650 will make dialogue even more intelligible thanks to its dedicated center channel. It also sounds great with music, moreso than most other soundbars I've heard at this price range — and you can add rear surround speakers for the full surround sound effect.
Soundbar size and features
Note also the difference in size between each of those models. The longer the soundbar, the more it’s going to be able to produce a separation between left and right — which we otherwise call stereo sound — like you’d get with two separate speakers on either side of your TV. In addition, the larger the speaker drivers — and thus, the thicker the soundbar — the better it’s going to reproduce the full spectrum of sound.
Each of these soundbars also has a number of input options. Ideally, you’d hook your Blu-ray player, game console or streaming box up to the soundbar using HDMI In, then use the HDMI Out port to carry video to the TV. You can plug your devices into your TV and send audio down to the soundbar, but this can be clunky — this path (known as HDMI ARC) can sometimes have lip sync issues that may require fiddling with your TV’s settings — and even then, you may not be able to get it just right.
If HDMI isn’t an option, that trapezoidal TOSLINK port on your soundbar is a great alternative, if your TV has a matching digital audio out jack. It’s not quite as high quality as HDMI, but on most soundbars, you’ll never notice. (If neither of those work with your TV, RCA will do in a pinch.)
You’ll also notice that many soundbars support streaming music services like Spotify, Pandora or others. Some even support Alexa — though be sure to read the fine print. Some have Alexa microphones built-in, while others can merely be used as an Alexa speaker in conjunction with an Amazon Echo — that is, they will play what an existing Echo is transmitting to them, not act as an actual smart assistant.
Best soundbars with surround sound
Vizio has a number of 5.1 setups, but their Series Soundbar System packs a solid wallop for the price, thanks to its two satellite speakers and sizable subwoofer for that low-end thump. For the price, it's hard to do better and get full 5.1 surround sound.
Some soundbars go even further than 5.1, including support for Dolby Atmos, a new surround sound technology that adds sounds from above in addition to the front and back. Dolby Atmos systems use another number to describe their configuration — like “5.1.2” or “5.1.4” instead of just “5.1” — where the third digit describes how many speakers are creating overhead effects. Traditional Dolby Atmos setups use in-ceiling speakers, but some soundbars mimic this with up-firing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling, creating a “bubble” of sorts for more immersive audio all around you.
5. Sonos Arc
If you have a lot of Sonos devices in your house, you may want a soundbar that works with your existing setup, like the new Sonos Arc. Sonos’ latest soundbar has three front-facing drivers and two that fire upwards to add a third dimension to your movie sound. It’s pricier than comparable soundbars but if you can afford it, you can pair it with your other Sonos speakers and a subwoofer for a full 5.1.2 surround system — that is, 5 speakers, one subwoofer, and the two up-firing — allowing you to hear gunshots, explosions, and other effects from all around you. If you don't want to spend quite so much, the smaller Sonos Beam provides 2-channel sound for your TV, with the same Sonos integration for your existing speaker setup.
If you’re already a Sonos owner, you probably know about Sonos dropping support for some of its older speakers, which is a good reminder that any cloud-connected features on these soundbars could stop being supported at any time. They’ll likely work with your TV as long as you want, but multi-room music streaming won’t necessarily work forever.
If you want the best surround effects that soundbars have to offer, look no further than Vizio’s new Elevate 5.1.4 setup. It’s a long, 48-inch bar with full, punchy sound, a large wireless subwoofer, and two surround speakers — plus up-firing speakers to both the bar and the satellites for an enveloping Dolby Atmos experience in a package more compact than a full speaker system.
Sony’s HT-Z9F doesn’t have up-firing speaker drivers, but it’s still able to add overhead Dolby Atmos effects through its virtual 3D surround engine. It’s not quite as good as the up-firing speakers on the Vizio, but it’s ideal if you have a room with vaulted or textured ceilings (which don’t work with up-firing speakers). Just make sure you pair it with the sold-separately Z9R rear speakers for the full effect.
Note that you won’t get those overhead effects in every movie — only movies with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which you’ll find on some newer Blu-rays, most UHD (or 4K) Blu-rays, and some streaming titles.
None of these soundbars will truly match a full, multi-speaker home theater setup — though some of the high-end ones might come close. But they take up way less space, are easier to set up, and can produce pretty great audio for their size. I rarely recommend watching TV without one.