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.
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