The best soundbars
- A good soundbar enhances your home theater, offering a nice upgrade over built-in speakers on most TVs.
- Soundbars are available at a variety of performance levels, from basic 2.1-channel to surround-sound and even Dolby Atmos.
- Many soundbars also include wireless connectivity for easy music streaming, as well as smart features like voice control.
- With an attractive price point and great audio performance, the Yamaha YAS-209 is the best soundbar for most needs.
A good home theater isn't complete without an upgraded audio system. Most TVs don't offer great built-in audio - even if the picture looks stellar - and it's almost mandatory to fix that with an external solution.
For most people, the search begins with a soundbar. While everyone's dream is to have an elaborate 7.1-channel surround-sound setup, that's not a realistic or practical proposition for many. Some can cost a pretty penny, but you would also need ample space to place all those speakers and a subwoofer around the room. Not to mention, you'll need a separate AV receiver to process and power everything.
With that in mind, a good soundbar is a perfect alternative - offering a smaller footprint, punchy sound, and no need for a receiver. Great soundbars are available at all price points, including solid entry-level models with simple stereo playback and more expensive models with surround sound capabilities. Some flagship soundbar systems even include support for advanced home theater formats like Dolby Atmos, enabling enhanced movie performance with sound effects that come from behind and above the listening position.
When choosing a soundbar, it's important to note how many audio playback channels it supports. Channels essentially refer to audio separation, allowing directional mixes to be processed and speaker drivers to be positioned in order to create the effect that sound is coming from different directions.
Channel specifications are listed as a string of up to three numbers separated by decimal points. The first number represents how many standard directional channels are included (left, right, center, surrounds). The second number indicates if the device includes a dedicated low-frequency channel or separate subwoofer for extra bass. The final number indicates how many height channels are included for Dolby Atmos support.
A few common channel configurations found on soundbars include:
- 2.0-channel: This kind of soundbar includes two channels for basic left and right stereo audio separation.
- 2.1-channel: Like the above but includes a built-in low-frequency channel or a separate subwoofer unit for dedicated bass.
- 3.1-channel: In addition to left, right, and low-frequency channels, a 3.1-channel soundbar also features a center channel for dialogue when watching movies.
- 5.1-channel: Soundbars with more than three channels step things up through the addition of surround sound. These extra channels can be simulated via special acoustic and virtualization techniques, or they can be physically added through separate satellite speakers meant to be placed behind or to the side of your listening position.
- 5.1.2-channel and above: Soundbars that have a third channel designation include support for Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X audio. This means that they feature special virtualization or upfiring speaker drivers designed to simulate the effect of sound coming from above. The final number in the sequence after the low-frequency channel specifies how many overhead channels are included.
Beyond channel support, connectivity is another key factor you should look at when buying a soundbar. Most include standard wired audio ports for connecting to a TV or other media device. The most common connections are Toslink optical and HDMI ARC. In addition to wired ports, most soundbars also now support wireless connectivity, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for easy music streaming from a mobile device or music service like Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Music.
Some wireless soundbar models also support multi-room audio playback, enabling them to pair with other audio products throughout your home. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant functionality are becoming more common as well, giving select soundbars integrated hands-free voice control and digital assistant support.
With all these factors in mind, there are plenty of soundbars out there suited for all types of buyers. Whether you just want a simple upgrade from your TV's wimpy speakers or you want a full home theater experience, we've researched and tested several soundbar models, selecting the very best options for a variety of needs.
Here are the best soundbars you can buy:
- Best soundbar overall: Yamaha YAS-209
- Best budget soundbar: Vizio SB362An-F6
- Best digital assistant soundbar: Sonos Beam
- Best soundbar with Dolby Atmos: Vizio SB46514-F6
- Best media player soundbar: Roku 9101R
- Best soundbar for hearing impaired: ZVOX AccuVoice AV155
Updated on 01/14/2020 by Steven Cohen, Quentyn Kennemer, and Les Shu: Added new options and updated formatting.
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