Choosing the right soundbar for you

Updated: July 16, 2018

 

There is still one aspect where today’s modern flat-panel 4K TVs do not cut it: Sound.

With the latest OLED and QLED technologies, modern, thinner and space-saving flat-panel 4K TVs deliver the best picture quality we have ever seen. However, these leave them with no room to fit in good full-range speaker drivers. As an alternative, small built-in TV speakers are usually embedded behind or underneath them, often resulting in sub-standard dialog, thin sound and inadequate bass.

So, how do people match their 4K TVs with immersive sound?

Some soundbars today can effectively contend with full-featured surround sound systems . Slim, easy to setup and affordable, they have evolved from singular, rectangular-shaped speaker boxes with only 2 enclosed speakers to high-performance multi-channel surround soundbar systems. The latter can now deliver theater quality immersive surround sound experiences without the complexity and hassle of assembling traditional AVR-powered surround sound systems.

It is no surprise that there are many soundbars available in the market today, ranging from “simulated surround” soundbars as low as $100 to “true discrete surround” soundbar systems, some of which come with two subwoofers and multiple surround speakers that cost more than $1,000.

There are several tips to look out for when choosing the right soundbar system. We have added a comprehensive comparison table with the top reviewed soundbars for you to make the best purchase decision.

Disclaimer: All product images, lifestyle images, brand names, brand logos, model numbers and technology logos on this page belong to their respective copyright holders.

 

There are THREE types of soundbars available in the market for different needs:

nakamichi-elite-7.1-soundbar passive-soundbar soundbase
TYPES ACTIVE SOUNDBAR PASSIVE SOUNDBAR SOUNDBASE
Characteristics Includes everything you need in one box (speakers, subwoofer, amplifier, processor and connection ports) Separate audio video receiver (AVR) required (for amplification, signal processing and connection ports) Standalone speaker that acts as pedestal for your TV while improving sound quality
Placement
  1. On the console
  2. Wall mountable
  1. On the console
  2. Wall mountable
  1. On the console (under the TV)
Pros
  1. Simple to setup
  2. Small footprint
  3. Less cabling
  1. Flexible for customization
  2. Future expandability
  1. More depth improves bass output
  2. Simple with single unit
Cons
  1. Fixed system configuration
  2. Not expandable
  1. Costly setup
  2. Home theater speaker knowledge required
  3. More cabling
  4. Bigger footprint
  1. Limited bass effect compared to soundbar with external subwoofer
  2. Limited Stereo separation
  3. Unusable for larger TV with feet located at both ends
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Types of Soundbar".

 

To get life-like surround sound that is true to the cinema experience, multiple speakers are needed. In soundbars, there are 2 ways to achieve surround sound.

 
virtual-simulated-surround-soundbar true-discrete-surround-soundbar-7.1
TYPES VIRTUAL SIMULATED SURROUND TRUE DISCRETE SURROUND
Characteristics Relies on sound to reflect off your walls to trick your ears into thinking there are speakers all around you Discrete surround speakers placed around listening position similar to a traditional home theater system
Audio Performance
  1. More powerful and dynamic sound than your TV speakers
  2. Widen the soundstage of your TV
  1. More prominent surround effects with accurate sound directivity
  2. Delivers home theater experience
Pros
  1. Clean and neat setup with single soundbar
  2. Less cabling
  3. Soundstage wider than its size
  1. Sound from all directions; true surround sound
  2. Consistent surround sound quality regardless of room shape/size
  3. Easier to set up than traditional surround sound system
  4. Wider listening sweet spot
Cons
  1. Highly dependent on room shape and size
  2. Narrow sweet spot
  3. Lack of rear surround effects; sound only coming from front
  1. More space required for setup
  2. More cabling
  3. Price tends to be more expensive
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Virtual Surround Soundbar vs Discrete Surround Soundbar"

 

Do you need a subwoofer?

Do you like to get your adrenaline pumped from chest-thumping explosions and low-rumbling thunder effects? If your answer is yes, you probably do need a subwoofer.

The subwoofer is a key component dedicated to reproducing low-frequency sound effects. No matter how powerful your soundbar is, the full impact of your movies will never be felt if a dedicated subwoofer is not used.

 

There are THREE types of subwoofers that can be found in a soundbar:

built-in-subwoofer single-dedicated-sub dedicated-dual-subwoofers-nakamichi
TYPE BUILT-IN SUBWOOFER SINGLE DEDICATED SUBWOOFER DUAL DEDICATED SUBWOOFER
Characteristics Subwoofer integrated into soundbar without a separate, external enclosure Dedicated powered subwoofer for more impactful bass TWO dedicated powered subwoofers that emulate the movie theater, for deep and room-filling bass
Pros
  1. Better-than-TV bass effect
  2. Space-saving solution
  3. No additional connection needed
  1. More powerful bass output
  2. Deeper bass with bigger driver (typically 5” to 10”)
  3. Better bass distribution
  1. More powerful bass with greater headroom
  2. Less bass distortion
  3. Deeper bass with bigger driver (typically 8” to 10”)
  4. Zero bass localization
  5. Room-filling listening sweet spot
  6. Evenly-distributed bass across the room; maximum sweet spots
Cons
  1. Driver size is restricted (typically 2.5” to 4”)
  2. Bass is not as deep and impactful as a as dedicated subwoofer
  1. Localizable bass if not placed strategically
  2. Limited listening sweet spot
  3. Space requirement
  1. Space requirement
  2. More expensive
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Types of Subwoofers".

You have probably come across some numbers like ‘2.0’, ‘3.1’ or ‘5.1’. Typically, these numbers represent the number of discrete channels in a sound system. Each discrete channel is independent, meaning that it outputs an entirely separate and different sound signal from the rest.

What is the significance?

This is important especially when listening to multi-channel surround sound that mainstream movies are usually encoded with, where the surround sound effects are mapped by the sound engineers to be outputted to various channels depending on where they should be coming from based on what is happening in the movie scenes.

 
7.
1.
4
Number of audio channels
Number of external subwoofers
Number of channel heights
 

Surround sound on soundbars

Most soundbars simulate the surround sound effects using a technique called virtualization, which involves the cross-mixing/matrixing of the multi-channel sound information to give listeners the impression that they are listening to surround sound, even though all the sound is coming from the front of the room.

However, soundbars with dedicated surround speakers have significant advantages in terms of delivering more immersive and precise surround sound that is closer to what the movie sound engineers intended.

 
9.2-channel-discrete-surround-placement.jpg
virtual-simulated-surround-audio-channels true-discrete-surround-nakamichi-7.1
TYPE VIRTUAL SIMULATED SURROUND TRUE DISCRETE SURROUND
2.X Stereo audio with wider soundstage Stereo audio with wider soundstage
3.X Addition of center channel for clearer dialog Addition of center channel for clearer dialog
5.X Addition of side-firing channels on the soundbar to create simulated surround by reflecting the sound off the wall Separate left, right and center channels on soundbar. Addition of two surround speakers to provide more accurate directional sound effects from left to right and front to back for more realism
7.X Addition of surround channels on the soundbar for more detailed simulated surround. Sound is also reflected off the walls to mimic true discrete surround sound Addition of 2 more surround speakers to complete a 360-degree surround sound coverage
9.X N.A Additional effects channels for wider soundstage, completing the 360 degree surround sound capsule
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Virtual Simulated Surround vs True Discrete Surround".

 

Dolby and DTS are the 2 companies who develop most of all the audio formats that mainstream video content is encoded in, including those found on online video streaming platforms like Netflix, Blu-ray discs, gaming and broadcasting. When such content is decoded by sound systems, the sound outputted is known to be rich, dynamic and of high-quality. The various Dolby and DTS audio formats are also widely adopted by movie theaters and production studios.

Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) format contains an already-decoded Dolby or DTS audio signal. Since the audio is already decoded, it provides the best compatibility across the large variety of devices. However, it is not the most suitable format for reproducing the surround sound experience intended by the content producers.

The following tables show the mainstream surround sound formats currently available on soundbar systems:

 

DTS Audio Formats

dtsx dts-hd-master-audio dts-hd dts
TYPE DTS:X DTS-HD MASTER AUDIO DTS-HD DTS DIGITAL SURROUND
Description High bitrate, lossless object-based surround with height channels High bitrate, lossless surround with 2 extra rear channels Lossy surround format with more channels than DTS Digital Surround Lossy surround with lesser compression than Dolby Digital
Audio Channel (Max) 9.2 / 7.1.4 7.1 7.1 5.1
Content Blu-ray Disc Blu-ray Disc Blu-ray Disc Blu-ray Disc, Console Gaming, DVD
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "DTS Audio Formats".

Dolby Audio Formats

dolby-atmos dolby-truehd dolby-digital-plus dolby-digital
TYPE DOLBY ATMOS DOLBY TRUEHD DOLBY DIGITAL PLUS DOLBY DIGITAL
Description Object-based surround with height channels Lossless surround format with 2 extra rear channels Lossy, lower bitrate surround with more channels for streaming content Basic lossy surround
Audio Channel (Max) 7.1.4 7.1 7.1 5.1
Content Streaming Content (Netflix), Blu-ray Disc, PC Blu-ray Disc Streaming Content (Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Video) Blu-ray Disc, Console Gaming, DVD, TV Broadcast
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Dolby Audio Format".

 

Soundbars typically come with numerous connectivity options for connecting with content devices and TVs. To determine the receiving and processing capabilities of your soundbar, it is important to understand each connectivity type.

 

i. HDMI vs Optical/Coaxial

 

HDMI is the most advanced digital connection available for home audio and video products. It has a higher bandwidth to transfer high quality video format (4K UHD) and high quality multi-channel audio. HDMI also supports Audio Return Channel (ARC) for TV connection. You can send video and audio signal from soundbar to TV, and receive audio signal from TV to soundbar in a single HDMI connection.

Optical and Coaxial connections are both in digital format for audio transmission. However, their outputs are restricted to Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround in 5.1 bitstream signal due to lower transmission bandwidth as compared to HDMI. PCM audio is also restricted to a 2-channel signal only.

 
hdmi-cable optical-coaxial-cable
TYPES HDMI OPTICAL/COAXIAL
Stereo Yes Yes
Compressed 5.1:
Dolby Digital & DTS
Yes Yes
Uncompressed 5.1:
Dolby Digital Plus & DTS-HD
Yes No
Uncompressed 7.1:
Dolby TrueHD & DTS-HD Master Audio
Yes No
Object-based Audio:
Dolby Atmos & DTS:X
Yes No
Link Discovery:
Volume Control/Mute, Power Control
Yes (CEC) No
2-Way Transmission
(Video and Audio)
Yes (ARC) No
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "HDMI vs Optical / Coaxial".

ii. Bluetooth vs WiFi

  Source: Samsung website

Source: Samsung website

With at least Bluetooth connectivity found in all soundbars today, they can indeed perform well as living room speakers. Commonly, they are paired with mobile devices to play stereo content from platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and iTunes. Some soundbars also support Bluetooth AptX, a higher bandwidth codec that allows the transfer of high-quality audio wirelessly via Bluetooth.

WiFi connectivity is becoming increasingly popular in soundbars. As compared to Bluetooth, it allows devices to communicate with the soundbar within the same network, such that it is possible to stream music from anywhere at home instead of being constrained to the 33ft maximum distance from the soundbar (in Bluetooth). It also provides quicker access to online audio streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and Tidal, online video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Google Chromecast, as well as the user’s personal network-connected library.

streaming-websites.jpg

iii. 4K Compatibility

4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) is the up-and-coming high resolution video standard that is increasingly being adopted by streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV. Therefore, it is essential to have 4K compatibility on your soundbar today so that the high-definition video can be passed through to your TV. There are also hardware requirements for soundbars to send and receive 4K content, namely HDMI 2.0 and HDCP2.2 standards, so it is important to look out for them when buying a soundbar.

TYPES HDMI 2.0 HDMI 1.4
Description Connection standard for 4K/60fps video devices with higher bandwidth and HDR Connection standard for 4K video devices with lower bandwidth
Key Spec
  1. Up to 4K (2160p) @ 50/60 fps
  2. Up to 12 bit color depth with HDR
  3. Up to 32 audio channels with object-based surround
  4. Dynamic synchronization of audio and video stream
  1. Up to 4K (2160p) @ 24 fps
  2. Up to 8 bit color depth
  3. Up to 8 audio channels
Connector HDMI HDMI
Hardware 4K UHD TV, 4K UHD Blu-ray Player, 4K Streaming Devices, Gaming Consoles 4K TV, 4K Blu-ray Player, 4K Streaming Devices, Gaming Consoles
TYPES HDCP 2.2 HDCP 2.1/2.0/1.4
Description Content protection to prevent making illegal copy of 4K UHD video Content protection to prevent making illegal copy of HD video
Key Spec
  1. Create encrypted keys between the source and the display
  2. Required to transmit 4K content between devices
  1. Create encrypted keys between the source and the display
  2. Designed for 1080p HD content
Connector HDMI, DVI, DisplayPort, USB, Wireless (WiFi) HDMI, DVI, DisplayPort
Hardware 4K UHD TV, 4K UHD Blu-ray Player, 4K Streaming Devices, Gaming Consoles HD TV, Blu-ray Player, Streaming Devices
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "HDMI Version Compatibility".

iv. 4K HDR Standards

There are multiple HDR standards available along with 4K UHD content to provide lifelike picture quality with dynamic contrast, high brightness and vibrant colour. Streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV are increasing the number of 4K HDR contents available for viewing.

dolby-vision.jpg
dolby-vision hdr10+ hdr-10 4k-hdr hybrid-log-gamma
TYPES DOLBY VISION HDR10+ HDR10 HDR HYBRID-LOG GAMMA
Description Dolby version of HDR that is encoded scene by scene or frame by frame Scene by scene approach based on HDR10 technique HDR with average brightness range throughout the entire content High Dynamic Range with wide color gamut with lifelike bright- ness and contrast levels HDR format designed for cable, satellite and TV broadcasts
Key Spec Brightness levels present at a given reference frame or scene rather than limited value for the entire film Brightest point vs darkest point in a video content is determined based on scene by scene Brightest point vs darkest point in a video content is determined and fixed for the entire video Equal clarity and brightness levels in between very bright and darker elements in the same frame Designed for OTA broadcast with backward compatibility for SDR TVs
Content Online streaming contents (Net- flix, Amazon, and Vudu), 4K Blu-ray Disc Compatible with HDR contents Compatible with HDR contents Online streaming (Netflix and Apple TV), Blu-ray Disc, Console Gaming NHK (Japan), BBC (UK)
Creator Dolby Samsung, Panasonic, Fox Open Standard Open Standard NHK,BBC
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "4K HDR Standards".

 

User experience is also an important factor when choosing the right soundbar. The ease of control and navigation are critical for a hassle-free configuration and easy to use experience whenever you turn on the soundbar.

 
 
  Source: YouTube

Source: YouTube

i. On Screen Display

On screen display provides visual feedback for more complicated features on TV. This feature is commonly found on the soundbars that come with network connection and built-in online streaming services that require user navigation during setup and content selection.


 

ii. LED Display

Typically found on premium soundbars, LED displays provide visual feedback on volume level, input sources, audio settings, via the LED panel on the soundbar.

 
  Source: Samsung Website

Source: Samsung Website


 

iii. HDMI CEC

Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) is a feature of HDMI designed to allow users to control devices connected via HDMI using only one remote control. For example, with CEC, the TV remote can be used to control the soundbar, set-top boxes and Blu-ray player that are all connected via HDMI.

 
  Source: Yamaha

Source: Yamaha


iv. Remote Control

About every home theater device comes with its own remote but soundbars are an exception. There are some soundbars in the lower price range that do not include a remote but instead rely on programming the TV settings to enable soundbar control. However, it does not always work in practice, and only basic functions can be operated. If you want to control your feature-rich soundbar seamlessly, nothing beats having a remote. 

  Source: Nakamichi website

Source: Nakamichi website

Top 5 Ranked
True Surround Soundbars on Amazon

True Surround Soundbars feature discrete surround speakers that placed around listening position, similarly to a traditional home theater system for an immersive cinematic experience.

NAKAMICHI
SHOCKWAFE ULTRA 9.2NAKAMICHI
SHOCKWAFE ELITE 7.2 SONY
Z9F BUNDLE SONOS
HOME THEATER NAKAMICHI SHOCKWAFE PRO 7.1
YEAR 2017 2017 2018 2015 2017
MODEL NAKAMICHI SHOCKWAFE ULTRA 9.2 NAKAMICHI SHOCKWAFE ELITE 7.2 SONY Z9F BUNDLE SONOS HOME THEATER NAKAMICHI SHOCKWAFE PRO 7.1
PRICE & RATING
Price* $1,099 $799 $1,096 $1,735 $649
Rating* 4.7 4.6 4.3 4.6 4.4
AUDIO
DTS DTS:X DTS:X DTS:X No DTS:X
Dolby Dolby Digital Dolby Digital Dolby Atmos Dolby Digital Dolby Digital
Audio Channel 9.2 7.2 5.1 5.1 7.1
Subwoofer 2 x Wireless 10" 2 x Wireless 8" 1 x Wireless 2 x Wireless 10" 1 x Wireless
Rear Speaker 4 x Wired 2-Way 2 x Wired 2-Way 2 x Wireless 1-Way 2 x Wireless 2-Way 2 x Wired 2-Way
Power 1000W (110dB) 800W (106dB) 450W - 600W (105dB)
CONNECTIVITY
Video Passthrough 4K HDR 4K HDR 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, HLG HD 4K HDR
HDMI 3 x Inputs 1 x Output ARC 3 x Inputs 1 x Output ARC 2 x Inputs 1 x Output ARC No 3 x Inputs 1 x Output ARC
Optical 1 1 1 1 1
Amazon Link Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Top 10 Ranked True Surround Soundbars on Amazon".

* Amazon Data on 7/16/2018

For complete comparison of the top reviewed soundbars, click here to download the complete guide.
 

Top 5 Ranked
Virtual Surround Soundbars on Amazon

Virtual Surround Soundbars with external subwoofer rely on sound to reflect off your walls to trick your ears into thinking there are speakers all around you.

VIZIO
SB3621n-E8MKLIPSCH
SB 3 VIZIO
SB2821-D6 SONY
Z9F SONY
X9000F
YEAR 2017 2012 2016 2018 2018
MODEL VIZIO SB3621n-E8M KLIPSCH SB 3 VIZIO SB2821-D6 SONY Z9F SONY X9000F
PRICE & RATING
Price* $130 $799 $130 $798 $598
Rating* 4.6 4.4 4.4 4.3 4.3
AUDIO
DTS DTS Digital Surround No DTS Digital Surround DTS:X DTS:X
Dolby Dolby Digital Dolby Digital Dolby Digital Dolby Atmos Dolby Atmos
Audio Channel 2.1 2.1 2.1 3.1 2.1
Subwoofer 1 x Wireless 5.4" 1 x Wireless 10" 1 x Wireless 1 x Wireless 1 x Wireless
Power - 150W - 400W 300W
CONNECTIVITY
Video Passthrough No No No 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, HLG 4K HDR10, Dolby Vision
HDMI No No No 2 x Inputs, 1 x Output ARC 1 x Input, 1 x Output ARC
Optical 1 1 1 1 1
Amazon Link Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Top 10 Ranked Virtual Surround Soundbars on Amazon".

* Amazon Data on 7/16/2018

For complete comparison of the top reviewed soundbars, click here to download the complete guide.

Top 5 Ranked Single Soundbars on Amazon

Single soundbars are the most simple and space-saving solution, giving you more powerful, wider soundstage and better dynamic sound than your TV speakers.

zvox-sb380zvox-av200 YAMAHA
YAS-107BL Sonos-playbar VIZIO-
SB3820-C6
YEAR 2017 2016 2017 2014 2016
MODEL ZVOX SB380 ZVOX AV200 YAMAHA
YAS-107BL
SONOS PLAYBAR VIZIO SB3820-C6
PRICE & RATING
Price* $199 $170 $190 $699 $88
Rating* 4.7 4.5 4.4 4.3 4.2
AUDIO
DTS No No DTS Virtual:X No DTS Digital Surround
Dolby No No Dolby Digital Dolby Digital Dolby Digital
Audio Channel 2.0 3.0 2.0 2.0 2.0
Subwoofer 1 x Built-in 4" No 2 x Built-in 3" No No
Power 45W 24W 120W - -
CONNECTIVITY
Video Passthrough No No 4K HDR HD No
HDMI No No 1 x Input,
1 x Output Arc
No No
Optical 1 1 1 1 1
Amazon Link Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon Available at Amazon
 
 

Click to open and download the image of "Top 10 Ranked Single Soundbars on Amazon".

* Amazon Data on 7/16/2018

For complete comparison of the top reviewed soundbars, click here to download the complete guide.

 

Complete Soundbar Guide

For the best soundbar buying tips, setup and most complete soundbar comparison, download the Best Soundbar Buying Guide.

 
 
best-soundbar-buying-guide-may-2018-cover.jpg

Issue 2 (July 2018)

The complete soundbar guide with latest rating and pricing. Get yours today!