Note the difference in size between each of those models — that affects the sound quality. 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 — which 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 sound bars with surround sound
Speaking of streaming audio: if you have a lot of Sonos devices in your house, you may want a soundbar that works with your existing setup, like the Sonos Beam. Sonos’ latest soundbar is small — only 26 inches — but it combines the convenience of Sonos with the improved TV audio of a soundbar (not to mention Alexa microphones for voice control). 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 surround system — that is, 5 speakers and one subwoofer — allowing you to hear gunshots, explosions, and other effects behind you in certain movie scenes. If you want something bigger and more powerful, the older Sonos Playbar is a great step up.
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.
That said, movies and TV shows are the prime use case here, and if you’re a big fan of action movies, I recommend a soundbar system that can reproduce those surround effects more accurately. A number of manufacturers have added multiple speakers to their soundbar setup, so you get the space-saving benefits of that single bar with a few small satellite speakers for better surround effects.
Vizio has a number of 5.1 setups, but their Slim Soundbar System is the most intriguing, since its subwoofer is a large flat panel rather than the typical cube design. This allows you to set it next to your end table or even slide it under your couch, keeping it from being an eyesore (while still getting those bass frequencies). Two satellite speakers connect to the soundbar with cables, so you get immersive audio from all around you — at a very reasonable price. I haven’t used this one myself, but if it’s on par with any of the other Vizio systems I’ve tried, it’s going to be a good buy.
Some soundbars go even further than 5.1, including support for Dolby Atmos, a new surround sound technology that adds sounds from above, as well as from 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.
If you want the best surround effects that soundbars have to offer, look no further than Vizio’s 5.1.4 setup. It’s a long, 46-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 relatively compact package.
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.
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