Sound bars buying guide

Find the right one for your ears and your space

By

Woody Sherman

Former Crutchfield staff writer Woody Sherman spent years working as an editor and manager in the video industry at the national level.

More from Woody Sherman

There’s an unfortunate mismatch between the captivating on-screen images of today’s flat-panel TVs and the hollow sound coming from their built-in speakers. Adding a sound bar is an easy, space-saving way to bring good sound back to your viewing experience.

A sound bar brings TV sound to life

As TVs have gotten thinner, so has their sound. Adding a sound bar is an easy way to make your TV’s audio just as clear as its picture.

A sound bar mates perfectly with your flat-panel TV and is easy to install and use. Most sound bars have built-in amplification — no need for a separate amp. Just connect it to your TV, plug it into the wall, and you’re ready to start enjoying better sound.

What does a sound bar add?

Dialogue is easier to understand

Naturally, a sound bar will bring more volume and fullness to TV sound. That means you'll hear greater clarity, particularly when it comes to human voices. Many sound bars even have dialogue enhancement features, which make voices louder and more prominent in the mix.

Even volume

When you're watching TV at a comfortable volume level and a commercial comes on, the shift in volume that can be jarring. A lot of sound bars have technology to even out the sound so commercials aren't louder than show soundtracks. This is also good for late-night watching, so loud sound effects won't wake sleeping family members.

Simulated surround sound effects

if you don't have room for a multi-speaker surround sound system, you can still get captivating audio from a sound bar. If you want the best sound with the most realistic surround effects, look for a multi-channel sound bar. These models typically have five or seven audio channels, each with its own dedicated driver, with discrete sounds assigned to each channel to create a three-dimensional surround effect.

A multi-channel sound bar gives you immersive surround sound

A seven-channel sound bar with the front grille removed to show the discrete drivers that simulate TV and movie surround sound.

Some sound bars can actually reflect sound off your walls to trick your ears into thinking there are speakers all around you. In some cases, this effect can even be customized to account for your viewing space.

virtual surround sound

Sound bars with mulitple angled drivers, like Yamaha's Digital Sound Projectors, can create realistic surround effects.

It's a wireless music player, too

A sound bar is also a good way to fill a room with music. The easiest way to get music to your sound bar is to stream it wirelessly from your computer, phone or tablet. Quite a few sound bars have built-in Bluetooth for easy music streaming, and there are a handful that are Wi-Fi enabled as well. You can also play a CD on your connected Blu-ray player and hear it through your sound bar.

What are your placement options?

Table-top placement

If your TV sits on a stand and you plan on placing your sound bar in front of it, you'll want to measure the TV and stand to be sure you've got enough depth so the sound bar doesn't protrude from the stand at all.

Sound bar resting on a TV stand

Most sound bars can rest on your TV stand.

You should also make a note of the space between your stand and the bottom of your flat panel so your sound bar doesn't block your remote control signal or part of the picture. Certain sound bar models have built-in IR repeaters so your remote control will continue to work even if the TV's remote sensor is obstructed.

Sound bar is too tall

If the sound bar is too tall, it can block a small portion of your TV picture or your TV's infrared sensor, which may prevent it from receiving remote control signals. Some sound bars have a built-in IR repeater or adjustable height to deal with this problem.

Mount it on the wall

If your TV is wall-mounted, a sound bar mounted right under it is an elegant solution. If you're going this route, you'll need to consider how you'll hide the power cord and connection cable. Check out our cable management options to get an idea of what's involved.

Sound bar mounted under TV on wall

Most sound bars have keyhole slots for mounting to walls, but if you have an articulated wall mount bracket, you may also have the option of adding a specialized sound bar bracket so the two pieces always move on the same plane. There is also a universal sound bar mount that attaches directly to the back of most flat-panel TVs.

Place a sound bar on a stand below a wall-mounted TV

Placing a sound bar on a stand below a wall-mounted TV is a great option for sound bars that have more depth than your TV panel, and makes it easy to hide cables.

Platform-style sound bars disappear under your TV

A platform-style sound bar supports your TV and blends in with its base. Check the specs for the maximum TV weight, and make sure the platform is wider than your TV's base. These are a great solution if you're looking for full-spectrum sound without a subwoofer.

A platform-style sound bar sits under your TV

A platform-style sound bar is a neat solution. Since it fits larger drivers, it also has more low-end kick than a slim-profile bar.

Will you need a subwoofer?

A subwoofer is a speaker dedicated to reproducing only the lowest bass frequencies. Most sound bars are too slim to reproduce lower-frequency sound, so in many cases a separate subwoofer is included in the package so you can enjoy TV and movie sound the way it was meant to be heard. If you like action movies, video games, or TV programs that have a lot of bass, make sure you get a sound bar that comes with a sub.

A wireless subwoofer can be placed nearly anywhere in the room

Most sound bars come with a separate subwoofer, for deep bass and explosive sound effects. Many connect wirelessly to the sound bar for easy placement in your room.

Most of the subwoofers included in a sound bar package are wireless. They only need to be plugged into a wall outlet for power, and the low frequency sound they produce is more or less non-directional, so you've got plenty of flexibility as far as placement goes.

If you don't have room for two separate pieces but still want good bass response, we recommend a platform-style sound bar. These can fit larger-sized drivers and have better overall bass response than their slim counterparts.

Connections and control

When choosing a sound bar, make sure you pick one with the right connections for your TV and other gear. Optical digital is the most common connection for sound bars, but many models have analog inputs as well. Many models offer HDMI connections for more flexibility. If you have a multi-channel sound bar, using the HDMI connection helps you get the best sound quality from Blu-ray soundtracks.

Once your sound bar is set up, you can use your existing remote to control its volume. Most TV and cable or satellite remotes can be programmed to control a sound bar, or the sound bar can learn your TV's commands.