Published On: July 8, 2013

Five Tips to Pick the Right Soundbar

Published On: July 8, 2013
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Five Tips to Pick the Right Soundbar

With soundbars becoming more and more popular, as well as getting better and better, it is important to have a guide to navigate the many offerings out there. Here are five questions to ask that will help.

Five Tips to Pick the Right Soundbar

By Author: Adrienne Maxwell
Adrienne Maxwell is the former Managing Editor of, Home Theater Magazine, and Adrienne has also written for Wirecutter, Home Entertainment Magazine,,, and other top specialty audio/video publications. She is an ISF Level II-certified video calibrator who specializes in reviews of flat-panel HDTVs, front video projectors, video screens, video servers, and video source devices, both disc- and streaming-based.

GoldenEar-SuperCinema-3D-Array-soundbar-review-ht-setup-small.jpgThe 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.

Additional Resources
• Find more resources like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See more soundbar news from
• Explore reviews in our Soundbar Review section.

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 ...

LG-NB3520A-Soundbar-review-small.jpgActive 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.

Vizio-S4251w-B4-soundbar-review-full-system-angled-small.jpgHow 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?
Outlaw-Audio-OSB-1-souffndbar-review-angled-small.jpgDo 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.

Additional Resources
• Find more resources like this in our Feature News Stories section.
• See more soundbar news from
• Explore reviews in our Soundbar Review section.

  • jimf42
    2018-03-07 16:54:42

    so...what is the best soundbar with no subwoofer..I have no space for a sub visually.

  • Gary Bradley
    2018-01-30 06:19:29

    This means that the speakers, amplifiers and the bits that process killer surround sound are all housed in one sleek bar. This lends itself to a more streamlined, compact look.

  • Debbie
    2014-07-26 13:42:45

    Is it safe to hook up a 2.1 sound bar to a 5.1 amp?

  • Tzvi Rosen
    2014-02-18 17:01:02

    i have a small question, I use my TV screen as a projector i.e. it connected to my laptop with an HDMI cabel. if i were to buy a sound bar what connection do i need for the TV (since the HDMI is already in use)?

  • JES
    2013-11-24 01:27:19

    Hey there. I have a very similar situation and was considering nearly the same set-up as yourself. How did the Vizio soundbar workout for you?

  • MikeN
    2013-11-10 00:24:55

    Does anyone know of a sound bar that has an audio analog OUTPUT? I want to hook up a pair of wireless headphones, the new TV only has a digital sound output and it would really convenient if the sound bar had an output.

  • Jmikem
    2013-08-18 18:24:40

    I just moved into a new house that is prewired for sound in 3 areas: living room, master bedroom and outside patio. All 3 rooms have separate volume controls in each area. All 3 areas are wired for 2 speakers. I am planning on stereo in the master bed and patio, and 5.1 surround in the living. For the living room, My plan is to purchase a Yamaha rx-v475 receiver along with a soundbar and wireless subwoofer and then install 2 in ceiling speakers for the rear. I am considering the Visio 5.1 soundbar. It also comes with a wireless sub woofer and 2 wired speakers for the rear. I would not use the Visio rear wired speakers as I will have the 2 in ceiling speakers. Does this setup make sense? Am I missing anything? Thank you!

  • jerrydel
    2013-07-11 17:42:32

    It really depends how picky you want to be with your surround sound. I have yet to hear a soundbar that could beat say 5 small speakers (think: Orb, Aperion, Paradigm, B&W) and a sub paired with a receiver. The issue is more about the look of the installation. I am liking my GoldenEar soundbar with a Marantz slimline receiver and a small GoldenEar sub but I wouldn't say its rocking sick surround sound as I am running it basically 3.1

  • jerrydel
    2013-07-11 17:40:40

    Wow. Good to see the ZVox love here. Tom says nobody on our site ever buys their product. Guess that isn't true.

  • Peter
    2013-07-10 23:44:35

    The 6th tip should be "buy a Zvox" they are bloody brilliant as mentioned by JR.

  • Dave Rideout
    2013-07-09 22:59:26

    Have Samsung 2.1 sound bar plus sub woofer which produces ok audio - would like to upgrade however not convinced that sound bar can produce even 5.1 sound - how best to address

  • jerrydel
    2013-07-09 20:48:17

    That's great. Tom makes one hell of a neat speaker!

  • Veronica
    2013-07-09 19:09:01

    Agree Palm, but Bose only appeals to housewives who did not play in band and continue to appreciate music. Any of us reading HTR are certainly not going to appreciate Bose.

  • Phil BRABANT
    2013-07-09 15:59:05

    Listened to the end cap at B.B. so no A B comparison can be made. Based on what I heard, you would be better off with $40 computer speakers with a sub. Yes, they have a name that appeals to the housewife but the performance is limited at best and overpriced greatly for what you get.

  • JR
    2013-07-09 15:55:22

    I have the large Zvox that I love. Think of it as two audiophile bookshelf speakers in one cabinet, all wood, no cheap plastic. I use it most of the time because I don't care to fire up the entire surround system just to listen to the news, etc. It is ideal for my porpoises. :) JR

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