Soundbars have become an indispensable component of most modern home entertainment systems. This is because the speakers built into most TVs are typically not as powerful as people require for an enjoyable and immersive audio experience. While purchasing a five-speaker or larger surround-sound system is an option, most living rooms only require a single soundbar, often paired with a subwoofer for added bass. Here, we outline the key factors to consider when looking for the perfect soundbar, as well as our top picks across a range of budgets.
When it comes to features, the amount one pays is usually directly proportional to the breadth of choice. Those looking for affordable options (around $150 or less) will likely get a significant audio boost for their TV. However, in the $300 to $400 range, one can find a soundbar with built-in voice control, wireless connectivity, Chromecast, AirPlay 2, and even Android TV. Although such features are handy when one wants to avoid reaching for the remote control, the best sound quality is usually reserved for the premium tiers. High-resolution audio standards, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, are what an audiophile should be looking for in a soundbar if they crave an immersive sound experience in their living room.
The number of ports is also a critical factor. Less expensive soundbars typically have fewer connectivity options, with either an optical port or one HDMI jack, and sometimes even both combined. Mid-range soundbars can improve connectivity, but it is not always the case. For example, the Sonos Beam, which costs $449, only has a single HDMI port. Those who want to connect their set-top box, gaming console and other devices directly to the soundbar for the best possible audio should look for a soundbar with at least two HDMI (eARC) inputs. HDMI connectivity is also essential for high-resolution and immersive audio formats, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. With the advent of HDMI 2.1, soundbars can now support HDR, 8K and 4K/120 passthrough, making them ideal companions for game consoles.
The number of channels is also critical when selecting the perfect soundbar. The number before the decimal point corresponds to the channels included. A two would represent left and right audio speakers, while a more robust Dolby Atmos system, particularly one with rear satellite speakers, could be five or seven (left, right, center and upward). The second number corresponds to the subwoofer, so one would see a 1 here if the soundbar comes with one or has one built-in. The third digit represents up-firing speakers, which are essential for the immersive Dolby Atmos effect.
Most soundbars today offer either Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or both. Wi-Fi connectivity enables voice control (either built-in or with a separate device), Chromecast, Spotify Connect, and AirPlay 2. Depending on one’s preferences, some of these features may be unnecessary. For example, some people may find AirPlay 2 and Chromecast essential, while others may not require them at all. AirPlay 2 and Chromecast offer the added convenience of streaming music and podcasts from favorite apps without having to do battle with a Bluetooth connection.
It may seem obvious, but size is also a crucial factor when selecting a soundbar. Nothing is more soul-crushing than purchasing a pricey soundbar and discovering that one has to rearrange the entire living room to make space for it. The Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar, for instance, is massive and heavy, and most soundbars are not nearly as large. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that the selected soundbar will fit in the intended spot.
In summary, the ideal soundbar for one’s home entertainment system depends on the TV model and one’s desired audio experience. Audiophiles seeking to build an immersive home theater system with surround sound may require a more powerful soundbar, whereas others may prefer a single, easy-to-use soundbar or soundbar/sub combo. To aid in the selection process, we have tested numerous soundbars at Engadget and have compiled a list of our top picks for different budgets.
Best premium soundbar: Sony HT-A7000
For those seeking to splurge on a soundbar that provides top-tier audio quality, the Sony HT-A7000 is the complete package. The soundbar incorporates Sony’s latest technology, including 360 Sound Mapping, Sound Field Optimization, vertical surround technology, and S-Force Pro front surround. With HDMI eARC inputs, users can connect multiple streaming boxes or gaming consoles, and the HDMI 2.1 support also ensures 8K and 4K/120 passthrough. Although the soundbar is costly at $1,198, it features a built-in subwoofer and offers sub and rear satellite speaker options.
Runner-up premium soundbar: Sonos Arc
The Sonos Arc is the perfect choice for those desiring a modern design, stellar sound, and all of Sonos’ innovative features. The ability to automatically calibrate to a living room and the option to add additional speakers are just two of its many features. Although the $899 soundbar does not include a sub, pairing it with the Sub Mini is a more affordable option that provides sound quality that is on par with the more premium combination of the Arc and larger subwoofer.
Another premium soundbar: Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3
The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 has a 3.1.2-channel configuration for a well-rounded sound experience. The soundbar delivers excellent audio quality with its unique Nautilus tube tweeter technology and built-in subwoofers. Although it is quite expensive at around $2,000, it is ideal for homeowners looking for a top-tier sound experience.
When choosing a soundbar, there are numerous factors to consider, including features, channels, ports, wireless connectivity, and size. The ideal soundbar for one’s home entertainment system depends on the TV model and one’s desired audio experience. This guide provides a starting point for those in search of the perfect soundbar, with our top picks across a range of budgets. Ultimately, selecting the ideal soundbar requires balancing one’s budget with the features and audio quality that is essential.