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Sound Bars: How to Choose
Getting better sound from your TV
The Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR sound bar easily fills a room with sound while maintaining a small footprint.
As sleek and stylish as today’s TVs are, there’s one aspect of their performance that you’ll almost certainly find disappointing: the sound. That’s because those svelte TV cabinets don’t leave much room for speakers. The result? Pictures that pop with color and detail, paired with thin, uninvolving sound and hard-to-hear dialogue.
You might be thinking a roomful of home theater equipment is the cure for blah TV sound, and indeed it can be. But when space is an issue, or when you’d just like something that takes minutes to install, there’s a dead-easy way to give your home entertainment a figurative shot-in-the arm. [Shop for sound bars.]
Amplification: Built-in or separate?
Most sound bars are powered – that is, they have the necessary amplification and signal processing built right in. These models are easy to set up, and offer more choices along the budget spectrum. [Shop for powered sound bars.]
Other sound bars are passive – and essentially, they’re a specialized form of loudspeaker. They require an external amplifier for power. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be primarily talking about powered systems. [Shop for passive sound bars.]
Inputs: What connection strategy will you choose?
If you have all your inputs connected to your TV, you won’t need a lot on your sound bar. Just make sure it has an audio input that matches one of the audio outputs on your TV — likely analog stereo RCA or optical digital outputs.
If you’ll be connecting components directly to your sound bar, you’ll want to be sure that your sound bar has enough audio inputs for everything you want to connect. Take a look at the graphics below for examples. And let’s not forget that some sound bars act like A/V receivers in their own right, offering video source switching.
Don’t complicate things unnecessarily
Sometimes, you can mix your input strategies, connecting some components to your TV and some to your sound bar, but bear in mind things can get complicated in a hurry. Imagine your neighbor coming to your house to house-sit for a day or two. Does the note you leave start, “to watch a Blu-ray, set the TV to aux 1 and the sound bar to optical 2, but if you want to watch regular broadcast…”
That’s probably not why you bought a sound bar. Life is good when either your TV, or your sound bar has enough inputs for all the components you normally use, and then just ONE unit can be the boss. That’s when your notes to neighbors – and your lessons for how to operate the home theater in general – get simple. Consider a connection strategy based on one of the two concepts below.
Here, your TV has control of your input selection, and passes the signal to your sound bar.
In this example, your sound bar keeps control of your systems inputs, and passes the video signal to your TV.
Other inputs that may be available on sound bars are analog stereo minijacks, commonly used to accommodate the headphone outputs of smartphones and media players, and built-in Bluetooth® or Wi-Fi® receivers that can accept wireless streaming signals. More on these in a second.
Placement: Tabletop or wall-mounted?
Check your sound bar's height against your TV screen. 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.
Check the sound bar footprint. Depending on the depth of the tabletop and the shape and size of the TV pedestal, the sound bar may not fit safely in front of your TV.
If you’ve placed your TV on a table or entertainment cabinet, setting the sound bar just in front of it seems like an obvious option. Many models come with special “feet” to make this easy. But if you’d like to go that route, it’s worth taking a couple of quick measurements.
If you’d like to wall-mount your sound bar to match your TV, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, check your model to see if mounting brackets are included. If not, be aware that not all sound bars, or included components, are wall-mountable. For example, a few sound bars are too deep to wall-mount – instead, they’re designed to sit on a tabletop, with your TV sitting directly on top of them. Also, included components such as subwoofers will not be wall-mountable.
Also, make sure there’s enough space below the wall-mounted TV to accommodate the sound bar without things looking crammed or cluttered. For example, if you’ve got an entertainment cabinet a few inches below your TV, you may have a tight fit.
If you do choose to mount your sound bar on the wall, remember your input choice, above. Will you need lots of wires leading to your sound bar? You’ll need to decide in advance how best to manage your cables. You'll have to run at least a signal cable, plus a power cable if the sound bar is amplified.
If you don't intend to run your cables through the wall, you can just let them hang down, or use a cable-hiding raceway to cover them. But if you do want to hide the wires in the wall, here are some important things to consider:
- Try to avoid mounting your sound bar on an exterior wall, since these walls have extra bracing and insulation that can make running wire difficult.
- Follow local building and fire codes. In many cases, this means you'll need to get UL-rated A/V cable labeled CL2 or CL3.
- Don't run the power cable inside the wall. If you want the power cable hidden, you'll need to hire a licensed electrician to install a recessed AC receptacle in the wall, in a location where it will be covered by your sound bar or TV, and not obstructed by the sound bar's mounting bracket. You and your electrician may also want to consider in-wall power protection units. Another option is to route the A/V cable in-wall, and use a small wire raceway on the outside of your wall for the power cord.
You can find additional in-wall wiring tips and considerations in our detailed in-wall wiring guide.
Lastly, consider a platform-style unit, like those made by ZVOX. Your TV may be correctly sized to fit easily on top of the unit when stand-mounted, and many platform-style systems have swivel bases that can increase the number of available viewing angles in your TV room. Wires have a very short distance to travel and, generally, can be hidden easily behind the stand.
Bass: Do you want a separate subwoofer?
If you plan to use your sound bar with your main HDTV, you’ll probably want a model with good bass response for higher-impact movies and TV shows. Many powered sound bars come with separate subwoofers for big, full-bodied bass. A few models that don’t come with subwoofers include subwoofer outputs so that you can add your own. An increasing number of sound bars now come with wireless subwoofers, so you don’t need to figure out how to run wires cleanly to its location. In fact, that location (within a reasonable radius of the main sound bar) can be anywhere in the room within reach of a power receptacle. [Shop for a powered sound bar with a separate subwoofer.]
On the other hand, if you’re buying a sound bar for a secondary viewing room, or if you don’t want the extra clutter of a subwoofer, you may prefer a model with built-in woofers for improved low-end. In general, these models won’t offer bass that’s as low or punchy has a separate subwoofer. But if room-shaking bass isn’t what you’re going for, these sound bars can be a great fit. [Shop for a powered sound bar without a separate subwoofer.]
A number of sound bars feature special audio processing to improve the listening experience. Look for a dialog enhancer for clear, easy-to-understand on-screen conversations. Or keep a lid on loud commercials by selecting output-leveling. These features may be called different things -- so be sure to check each product’s description for details.
If you want to hear special effects all around you – a car racing by on your right, or a thunderstorm filling the room – consider a sound bar with virtual surround sound. Many sound bars offer some form of virtual surround sound. Some just create a synthetic soundfield from 2 stereo channels; others decode a program’s original surround sound channels and use clever audio processing to trick your ears into thinking certain sound effects came from another direction. And some feature carefully aimed drivers that bounce sound off of surrounding walls to “bank-shot” the surround channels to your ears.
Some Yamaha sound bars use the room's walls to help generate an expansive sound field
It’s important to think about which approach your sound bar may use – if it uses the wall-bounce option, an open-plan living space may not be the best placement for that class of sound bar.
On the other hand, if you just want a broader, more immersive front soundstage – clearer dialogue, with a wider, deeper sound field – then you may prefer a sound bar that plays two-channel stereo (front left and right) or three-channel sound (front left, center, front right).
Additional music sources
Some sound bars allow you to access a variety of music sources. For example, some are satellite radio-ready — just add a tuner and you’re ready to rock. Others let you wirelessly play music, streaming services like Pandora® Internet radio and MOG®, or other Internet radio stations from an iPad®, iPhone®, and Android™ device via Bluetooth or over your home Wi-Fi network. Features like these can broaden your sound bar’s utility from simply being an adjunct to your TV’s sound, to being the nerve center of your day-to-day in-home entertainment.
Remote control options
Many sound bars with limited inputs either include a very basic remote with on/off, mute, and volume up/down commands, or don’t offer one at all. Often these remotes can learn the same commands from your television's remote control.