Sound bars

Use this buying guide to learn how a sound bar compares to a full surround sound system, and decode some of the jargon.

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TV displays are always improving, but sound quality often suffers as their frames become too thin to house decent speakers. A sound bar can match your video with the audio it deserves but, before you buy one, find out what they can and can’t do.

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Why buy a sound bar?

Photograph of a Samsung sound bar.

A sound bar is a plug-and-play device that fits snugly beneath your TV, or occasionally mounts to a wall. It uses several internal speakers, sometimes paired with a wireless subwoofer, to create virtual “surround sound” by bouncing audio off the room’s walls.

As a compact unit, a sound bar can emulate a home theatre system without the stack of speakers or annoying cables. It’s also much easier to set up – usually, you only need one cable to connect it to your TV or other source. Plus, they’re cheaper.

While any sound bar will work with your TV, one from the same manufacturer tends to be simpler to connect. If you’re buying a new TV, the retailer might offer a sound bar in a bundle deal.

A sound bar can do more than just play TV audio. Nearly all of them have Bluetooth and can act as wireless speakers when connected to your phone or tablet. Many models can connect to WiFi, which is more versatile than Bluetooth. For example, you can use compatible streaming music services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, without needing to connect your phone. It also allows you to use a voice assistant, like Siri or Alexa.

Most sound bars can be controlled via your TV. So, for example, if you use the volume up button on the TV remote, it’ll turn up the sound bar. However, this may require playing around with your TV’s settings to make sure the sound bar is connected properly – the settings vary depending on the TV.

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How they work

Illustration of how surround sound works.

Sound bars deliver surround sound by projecting audio in different directions, which bounces off the walls so it seems like the sound is coming from the left or right. Some sound bars also bounce sound off the ceiling.

However, anything can disrupt this virtual surround sound, from a wide or irregularly shaped room to furnishings, which can soften the echo.

The limitations

For all the claims about delivering multi-channel surround sound, sound bars aren’t all that good at it. You simply can’t get perfect 5.1 surround sound from a single source.

Some sound bars come with (or can be expanded with) separate rear speakers, which is the best way to get a genuine surround experience. However, the speakers usually connect to the main unit via Bluetooth, so they’re susceptible to dropouts. Similarly, wireless subwoofers can suffer the same connection issues. You’ll really notice when the bass drops out while watching a movie.

Features and jargon

Sound bars grew out of the technical world of high-end audio systems. If you’re not an audiophile, here’s what you need to know before you buy:

External subwoofer

A separate, larger speaker that produces deep bass. A subwoofer significantly improves audio quality at the low end, but be aware it may not fit beneath your TV.

Multi-channel codes (such as 5.1)

This code tells you how many independent speakers (or channels) there are.

  • The first number is how many are at ear level. Generally, “2” indicates regular stereo sound, “3” adds a separate channel for dialogue, and “5” or more means sound is projected beside or behind you for a surround sound effect.
  • The second number is how many subwoofers there are. It’ll either be 0 or 1.
  • If there’s a third number (for example, the “4” in 5.1.4), it counts the speakers pointed toward the ceiling – again, for surround sound purposes.

Dynamic range compression (DRC)

An optional setting that makes loud sounds quieter and quiet sounds louder. DRC is most useful for helping you to be considerate of others while watching TV, as it lets you turn down the volume but still hear quiet dialogue.

DLNA certified

Devices with Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) certifications can communicate with other DLNA products. For example, if your sound bar and TV are both DLNA certified, they’ll work together well.

NFC

Lets you tap your compatible smartphone or tablet on to the sound bar to automatically connect.

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