The soundbar category continues to grow in popularity by all accounts. The phrase "everybody's doing it" comes to mind. In just the past couple of weeks, I've received communications from Audio Xperts, Triad, and Monitor Audio, all touting new additions to this crowded space. These days, soundbar options run the price gamut from below $200 to beyond $2,000. How do you even begin to navigate the myriad choices to find the right model? We've come up with a list of five questions for soundbar shoppers to consider in order to find a good match.
Before we dive in, though, allow me to wax philosophical on the soundbar genre for a moment. Suffice it to say, many audiophiles and theaterphiles don't hold the soundbar category in the highest regard. Whenever we run a review of a soundbar, regardless of price or manufacturer, we inevitably hear from readers who question why we'd bother with the review and offer up strongly negative opinions about performance, whether they've actually heard the product or not. To which I must ask, why so much hate? Nobody's asking you to trade in your dedicated audio system for the latest soundbar. To be sure, soundbars aren't for everyone. They were born out of a specific need - namely, to provide better audio quality than TV speakers in a form factor that's more compact and décor-friendly than separate speakers, even small ones. Not everyone wants to set up a home theater system in their living rooms. Many have no interest in shopping the home theater aisle, so to speak, but they are open to the ease and aesthetic of a soundbar. That aesthetic often mandates some sonic compromise, and it's our job as reviewers to make clear exactly how much compromise a certain product makes. Don't soundbar shoppers at least deserve props for wanting something better than the abysmal performance of their TV speakers? I think so. For some, the soundbar could very well be a gateway that leads them to a better multi-channel HT setup in the future. And if not, well, that's okay, too.
The two speaker markets can peacefully coexist and even compliment each other. I, for one, wouldn't use a soundbar in my primary theater room, but that's not the only room in my house where a TV is located. I have no desire to assemble a full-scale multi-channel HT setup in my living room, where the vast majority of content comes from Nick Jr. and ESPN. However, as someone who values good sound, I still want better than the TV speakers provide, and I appreciate the wide range of price and performance options that are now available in the soundbar arena.
Okay, back to the matter at hand ...
Active or Passive?
The first thing you need to do is decide whether you want an active or passive soundbar. Active soundbars house everything you need in one box: speakers, amplification, and signal processing. You simply connect your sources directly to the soundbar, and you're good to go. You don't have to add any additional electronics, except perhaps a subwoofer - although many of the newest active models come with a subwoofer, too. The biggest benefits to the active approach are its easy setup and its clean, one-box look, both of which have made this category very popular. Far more options exist in the active category, covering a wider range of price points - from lower-priced models like the $300 LG NB3520A up to the $2,000 Definitive SoloCinema XTR 5.1 and beyond.
A passive soundbar is similar to a traditional speaker, in that you need to power it off of an external amplifier or AV receiver, and it does not include any digital signal processing or inputs (beyond traditional speaker-wire connectors). One benefit to the passive approach is that it gives you more flexibility: you can choose your own receiver/amplifier, connect more (and more types of) sources, decode more audio formats, and experiment with different crossover settings to find the best blend between subwoofer and soundbar. The tradeoff for that flexibility is a more complicated setup process that requires some basic knowledge of home theater principles; also, you lose the sleek, all-in-one design of the active soundbar. In my experience, passive soundbars have a more natural, less processed sound precisely because the amplification and DSP are located elsewhere in the chain. Passive soundbars generally fall at the higher end of the price spectrum, and that's before you add the receiver and subwoofer (which you will need). A few examples include the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array, Polk Audio's Component Home Theater Series, the Definitive Technology Mythos Series, and the Klipsch Gallery Series.
How Many Channels?
Are you satisfied with stereo audio for all of your sources, or do you want a soundbar that's designed to reproduce the multichannel experience? The number of speaker channels you choose will affect how much the soundbar costs. The lowest-priced option is the two-channel soundbar, designed to provide a basic alternative to your TV speakers. A two-channel bar may include the ability to decode multi-channel Dolby Digital/DTS soundtracks, but the sound is output in stereo or at best a virtual surround mode. The next step up is the three-channel approach. Here, you get dedicated left, center and right channels, usually with the option to connect separate surround speakers for a true surround sound presentation. The three-channel design is more common in passive soundbars, but some active models (like the recently reviewed Vizio S4251w-B4) also take the L/C/R approach. If you choose not to add the surrounds, then either the active soundbar or your AV receiver can be set up to mix the surround information into the three main channels. Finally, there's the five- or seven-channel soundbar designed to reproduce multi-channel soundtracks. These types of soundbars use DSP, room boundaries, or some combination of the two to create a greater sense of surround envelopment than you get from the tw
o- or three-channel bars. The effectiveness of this "surround sound" varies widely per model, but seldom can any of them replicate the immersion that you get from discrete surround speakers. Those who truly want to feel surrounded by a film or TV soundtrack need to use discrete speakers to the sides and/or back.
Click on to page 2 to find out about subwoofers, audio sources and HDMI . . .
To Sub or Not to Sub?
Do you need to add a subwoofer? In 99.9 percent of cases, I say absolutely. The smaller, flatter cabinet design that makes a soundbar so aesthetically appealing also makes it nearly impossible for the speaker to generate lower midrange and bass frequencies. A few soundbars currently on the market claim that a subwoofer is optional: Atlantic Tech's PB-235 and Outlaw's OSB-1 both employ Atlantic Tech's H-PAS technology to improve bass response in smaller speakers. Some of the soundbars from companies like ZVOX and Bose are shaped more like larger component boxes than flat speakers, and these may do a slightly better job with lower frequencies, although I haven't tested one personally.
As I mentioned above, many active soundbars now come with a subwoofer, while passive soundbars generally require that you add your own. The hot trend these days is to pair the active soundbar with a wireless subwoofer, which allows for even easier setup and the flexibility to place the subwoofer wherever you get the best performance, instead of wherever the cable length mandates.
If your soundbar of choice doesn't include a subwoofer but does allow you to add one, there are plenty of great budget subwoofers on the market these days. Products like the $249 Outlaw M8, the $160 Pioneer SW-8, or the $200 Polk PSW10 can help you flesh out the low end without breaking the bank.
How Many Audio Sources Do You Want to Connect?
This question applies mainly to active soundbars, to which you will directly connect your sources. Before you settle on a certain model, it's important to figure out not only how many sources you want to connect, but also the exact type of connectors you want to use. This is especially important if you want to feed digital signals into the soundbar. Lower-priced soundbars generally max out at two digital audio inputs (if that), but the type varies; you might get two optical, two coaxial, or one of each. You don't want to buy a soundbar that only has optical digital audio inputs if your cable box or DVD player only has a coaxial digital audio output, unless you're okay buying a converter box or using an analog connection instead. In most cases, the soundbar's analog input is a single mini-jack, as opposed to a pair of RCA jacks.
Want to access music stored on a smartphone, tablet or computer for playback through the soundbar? Look for an active model with USB ports or, better still, built-in Bluetooth (or other wireless technology) for a quick, easy wireless connection. Bluetooth is growing increasingly common and can be found even on lower-priced soundbars.
Do You Need HDMI?
Many active soundbars, especially at the lower price points, do not come with HDMI connections. Not only does the inclusion of HDMI give you another audio option, but it allows for video pass-through to your TV. If you own an HD-capable cable/satellite box, Blu-ray player, gaming console, or up-converting DVD player, chances are, you're currently using HDMI to send both audio and video to your TV. Some sources, such as streaming media players like the Roku 3, only have HDMI output. If you select a soundbar that lacks HDMI, setup will be more complicated. Either you must split the video and audio into different connections (with one going to the TV and the other to the soundbar), or you can feed all of the HDMI sources directly into your TV and then run a cable from the TV's digital audio output to the soundbar. One potential drawback to the latter approach is that many HDTVs downmix the HDMI audio signal to be output as stereo through the digital output. You may not care about this downmix if you've purchased a 2.1-channel soundbar; however, if you've paid more to get a multi-channel soundbar, you probably want multi-channel signals to go with it. Some of the higher-end soundbars from companies like Yamaha and Definitive Technology can actually function more like AV receivers, with multiple HDMI inputs and the ability to decode high-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA soundtracks.
And there you have it. We hope we've provided good food for thought as you embark on your soundbar search. If you still have questions, feel free to post them in the comments section, and we'll answer as best we can.