Gregg Ellman is a freelance photographer and syndicated tech columnist/reporter based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
A major AV manufacturer's spokesperson told me years ago that people will avoid good video with bad audio but watch mediocre video with good audio. That might help explain why soundbars have become one of the hottest categories in AV. How hot? An Amazon search for "soundbars" delivers over 6,000 results. That's because soundbars can provide a simple and relatively inexpensive upgrade over your TV's internal audio, without the expense and setup frustrations of a full-blown component sound system.
Even today's inexpensive TVs are capable of delivering 4K video on screen sizes often unavailable or unaffordable to the average consumer just a few years ago. But those TVs are also getting ever-thinner, which leaves minimal room for speakers. To make matters worse, those speakers have to be tiny and are usually pointed up, down, sideways, or even backwards, but not where they should be pointed: at the viewer.
A soundbar changes that awful audio equation. Plug one in -- and setup can literally be nearly that simple -- and the sound from your TV is now channeled through two or more larger speakers pointed right toward the viewer.
At this point we need to note that there are two categories of soundbars: passive and active. This article focuses on the latter because they are the most popular and have all the components required for plug-and-play operation built right in. Passive soundbars require the addition of other external components, such as an AV receiver, because they're essentially separate, unamplified speakers contained in a single box.
In its simplest and most common form, an active soundbar is a single, elongated speaker cabinet containing at least a couple of speakers, a signal processor, and an amplifier. It is designed to sit on a tabletop or hang on a wall next to a TV and connect to it with an HDMI, optical, or RCA cable. Plug it into an AC outlet, and you've upgraded your TV's sound.
But that's just the beginning. Soundbars also are available with separate subwoofers, rear surround speakers, and even up-firing Atmos speakers. They can offer connections for components such as Blu-ray Disc players and can play music streamed by Bluetooth from your smartphone. Some even have digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant built in. Yet even the most feature-laden active soundbar is easier to set up and operate than a conventional audio system with separate speakers and components. Another big soundbar advantage is that they almost always take up less space than a conventional audio system with comparable capabilities.
Despite all of their advantages and because of all their capabilities, finding the right soundbar for your needs can be challenging. Here's a Q&A that should make your soundbar-buying decision a little easier:
Soundbars range in price from under $100 to well over $2,000. There are even some high-end soundbars that cost quite a bit more than that. The same Amazon search mentioned previously showed soundbars costing as much as $9,000 and as little as $29. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. More money spent can mean more accurate and powerful sound, additional features, better build quality, and more elegant styling.
Start by determining what features you want, and then check Amazon, Crutchfield, and other retail sites for a list of soundbars that include them. You'll find a wide range of prices on that list, but now your budget can help determine which one is right for you. Decide where it's going to live in your viewing space and whether you plan to wall-mount or place it on a tabletop. Size doesn't necessarily determine price, so you should be able to find something that works for your space within your budget. If that budget is somewhat flexible, read consumer reviews to see which bars in your price range get high marks for sound and ease of use. When you do that, keep in mind that although it's great to hear what dozens or even hundreds of consumers say about a soundbar they purchased, human nature encourages most people to generally look favorably on something they invested time and money into acquiring. Or they're disgruntled enough by an issue or lack of consumer report to rip a product. Our reviewers have no such biases, so their evaluations are more objective and in-depth.
First and foremost, you need to decide the type of sound upgrade you're seeking. Do you simply want more distinctive and powerful audio? You can get that in a 2.0 (left and right channels only) or a 2.1 (left/right and subwoofer) soundbar. Or do you want a full-blown 5.1 (front left/right/center and surround speakers plus subwoofer) sound system? Soundbar makers have even embraced the growing popularity of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio, which can provide additional overhead sound effects, by offering 5.1.2 (surround, subwoofer and two front overhead channels) and 5.1.4
(surround, subwoofer and two front/two rear overhead channels). There are great values out there -- our reviews and consumer reviews will help you find them -- but within any given manufacturer's lineup, the more channels you want, the more it will generally cost you.
One thing that can be confusing is the way some soundbars use digital signal processing (DSP) to simulate separate channels -- typically rear or overhead -- that don't physically exist. This is to create a more immersive listening experience without the cost or placement challenges presented by adding extra external speakers (called "satellites"). But the realism of these virtual channels depends greatly on soundbar placement and the size and shape of a room, and it almost never compares to having actual speakers located where the sound is supposed to be coming from. So if you're shopping for a 5.1.4 system, be sure you know whether or not it has speakers for each channel of audio or it is going to simulate the rear and overhead effects using DSP.
The simple answer is: it depends on the soundbar you're buying and the source material you listen to most often. Larger, premium soundbars can often produce more than enough bass for dramas and musicals. But if you love action movies, you may need the extra thumb that can be provided by a subwoofer handling the very low bass frequencies generated by explosions and other onscreen pyrotechnics. Generally, the bigger the subwoofer, the bigger the boom ... and the more likely you are to feel as well as hear it.
It's also worth noting that some soundbars come with a wireless subwoofer included in the box, while others simply have a subwoofer output, allowing you to bring your own bass-maker to the party. Going the latter route will almost always be the more expensive option, but it will allow you to buy a sub that perfectly matches your preferences (and the size of your room), assuming you have the budget for it.
Of course, there are plenty of other features and factors to consider. Do you want Bluetooth and Wi-Fi streaming capability so you can use the soundbar to play music from your smartphone, tablet, or computer? Soundbars with Apple Airplay and Google Chromecast provide additional ways to stream music.
Virtually every soundbar comes with a remote, so you shouldn't need to search for that. But some soundbars up the ante with a WiFi remote, which enables it to control the soundbar without being pointed at it. Many manufacturers also offer apps that enable their soundbar to be controlled by a mobile device. This feature can enhance ease of operation and provide access to additional features, such as enhanced tone controls, not found on their conventional remotes.
Some do, generally by offering built-in digital assistants like Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, or Google Assistant. In addition to providing voice control, these built-in assistants do all the other things that have made them so popular. For example, if you're watching a movie and enjoying an actor's performance, you could pause the movie and ask the assistant to name other movies the actor has appeared in.
All but the least expensive soundbars will come with at least one HDMI input, which is important because HDMI can deliver higher-quality audio than optical or analog RCA connections. Multiple HDMI inputs will enable you to connect external source devices such as a streaming media or disc player directly to the soundbar. If the soundbar has only one HDMI port and you have multiple sources, it's a great idea to make sure that port supports eARC. Most do, but some inexpensive soundbars don't. HDMI eARC enables the TV to send audio from all of its input sources right to the soundbar.
There are small soundbars that deliver big sound, and large soundbars that don't. But size does still matter. Although good soundbars can create the impression that audio is coming from well beyond the constraints of the speaker cabinet, it's going to be very difficult for a 22-inch wide soundbar to generate a convincing soundstage for a 75-inch TV. In general, the closer a soundbar is to the width of your TV, the more likely it is that its sound will seem like it's coming from characters and action on the screen.
The other consideration for soundbar size is placement. Whether you're hanging it on the wall or placing it on a tabletop, be sure the soundbar will fit where you plan to put it. And don't forget to consider height -- not just width and depth -- if you're going to put it on a tabletop in front of your TV. A soundbar doesn't have to be particularly tall to block the bottom edge of your screen or the TV's infrared remote control sensor.
When it comes to soundbars, there are two completely different meanings for "wireless." One of those meanings relates to soundbar systems with external speakers like those mentioned above. In keeping with the fundamental soundbar philosophy of making hookup as easy as possible, most satellite speakers connect to a soundbar wirelessly. You'll have to connect the surround speakers and subwoofer to a power source, but you won't have to run speaker wires from the soundbar to the surround speakers at the rear of the room the way you do with a conventional surround system consisting of separate components. Another variation on this theme involves connecting the satellite surround speakers to the subwoofer via a wired connection, with the subwoofer connecting to the soundbar wirelessly.
The other meaning of wireless when it comes to soundbars is the way the bar connects to some sources of content. A soundbar that has WiFi and Bluetooth can stream content from a mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc.) to the soundbar without a physical connection. Many soundbars enable streaming through Chromecast and Apple AirPlay, which rely on WiFi. And some manufacturers, like Sonos, create soundbars that are designed to function as part of an entire ecosystem of wireless multiroom speakers.
Only one more thing to add: If all of this sounds like a lot to digest and a lot of work, take a deep breath and relax. Today's technology is getting better and more affordable all the time, so you're likely to be able to find a soundbar you'll love for around the price you want to pay. And if you stick with a name-brand model and use the info you found in this article, you're most likely going to be delighted with how much better your TV sounds once your new soundbar is connected to it.
• Check our our Soundbar Reviews page to read in-depth reviews of a wide variety of products in this category.