Few things are sweeter than the moment you turn on your new TV. Mounted on the wall or balanced on the media unit, when the light comes on and – after a short time logging into all the many streaming services – the images begin to play.
So it’s a shame that the average TV – even the handsome one – often can’t compete when it comes to sound. And if you bought one of the best 4K TVs while on vacation, you might want to consider complementing your purchase with a soundbar.
Good sound is often an afterthought for TV brands that focus primarily on image processing and panel quality as key determinants of success. Cheap TVs can come with 10W of quiet stereo sound or clumsily applied bass, meaning a dedicated audio solution can make a huge difference to the sound quality on offer.
Even high spec models like the LG C2 OLED that excel in the picture department can’t offer the same experience through their speakers. The C-series OLED has 40W of power and 3.1.2-channel speakers, but that’s still a fraction of what’s possible with an extended audio setup.
Of course, some TVs are better than others in this regard. Samsung’s OTS (Object Tracking Sound) speaker systems pack a lot of drivers into their high-end Neo QLED models, offering a kind of built-in surround sound that matches the on-screen action. In general, the fancier the TV, the better the built-in sound.
But most TV buyers will find that their sound is probably thin and that you don’t need to break the bank to fix it.
A world of sound
It is difficult to express how good sound affects the visual experience. While this may not be as relevant to the 10 o’clock news, a Netflix movie or nature documentary can be taken to a new level with the audio details a good soundbar is capable of: the creaking of a floorboard, the patter of raindrops on a leaf, the purr of a distant explosion, or the crackle of someone’s voice when they argue with their lover.
All of these things can be missed in basic audio setups, robbing us of the complex sound design and spirited music that directors and composers intended for on-screen content.
The extra width and height of the multi-channel soundbars can also help position the sound in its environment – one of Samsung’s early OTS demos showed a volley of arrows raining down on the battlefield, with the whip of air around each bullet getting stronger and closer to the viewer with every moment.
But you don’t have to be an expert audiophile to get this benefit. Plug-and-play soundbars are simple additions to your home theater system that connect via HDMI and give soundtracks from movies, TV shows, documentaries and news an extra sound effect.
Standard stereo sound effectively has two channels – left and right. It’s nothing compared to the extensive driver arrays you can get in a soundbar, from smaller 3.1.2 channel setups to 7.1.2 surround sound that lets you hear all the highs, lows and mids you can squeeze out of movie soundtracks.
What does 7.1.2 even mean, you ask? This first number “7” is the number of main speakers, while the second number “1” is the number of subwoofers, and the last number “2” is the number of up-firing speakers. In general, you want that first number to be as high as possible, but a quality speaker with fewer channels should still be value for money – as long as it actually improves what your TV’s built-in screen drivers are capable of.
One great thing about a soundbar is that it’s not built directly into the TV – meaning you can move it between different screens, in different rooms or homes, and still have an audio system that can outlast your TV upgrade. Just because you’re replacing your old LCD screen with a fancy new OLED doesn’t mean you have to start your audio setup from scratch.
The soundbar doesn’t have to be limited to one device either. Many models come with dedicated subwoofers or the ability to connect various other speakers in tandem, allowing you to experiment with surround sound setups in your home theater space. They can also be used outside of watching TV, often with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections to connect to your phone, for use as a party speaker or similar.
What you need in a soundbar
It is very important that the soundbar works within the specifications of the TV. Owning a brand new Dolby Atmos soundbar is fine and good until you realize that your TV doesn’t support Atmos casting – which means an Atmos-encoded movie soundtrack won’t be picked up by your hardware.
Most soundbars connect via HDMI – although the HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) specification is usually required, which allows for easy two-way communication between the TV and the soundbar. HDMI eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel) builds on this further with improved data transfer, allowing higher quality audio to be sent from one device to another.
Some models, such as the budget Sonos Ray, use an optical digital connection port instead – a commonly used spec, but something you should check before buying a TV. Optical connections cannot carry the same audio information load as HDMI ARC or eARC and do not support immersive formats such as Dolby Atmos. So if you’re going to listen to Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks, you’ll need to choose one of the HDMI standards – specifically HDMI eARC – to hear them in their best, uncompressed state.
What soundbar should I buy?
Your soundbar budget will depend on how important enhanced sound is to you, as the price of a soundbar can be as high or low as almost any TV on the market today.
To help you choose, we’ve rounded up a rundown of the best soundbars we’ve seen across every budget below.