Soundbars have been around for a while but are still a good option if you want to upgrade aspects of your home entertainment system. These long units are designed to sit below, in front or above your TV. They contain two or more speakers, and may operate in tanden with a separate subwoofer that produces the lower frequency sounds.
Many people are unhappy with the sound quality delivered by their flatscreen TV, but fears of a difficult setup routine and a mess of unsightly wires mean they are unwilling to install a surround-sound system. Perhaps they simply don’t have a big enough room.
Not all soundbars replicate surround, by they do offer a convenient, relatively compact solution for getting better quality audio in your living room.
Consider how the soundbar will connect to your TV. The most common method is to use an optical cable, also known as Toslink. Most modern TVs support this, but be sure to check before choosing your soundbar.
Some soundbars have HDMI inputs, which can be convenient, but do the same job as Toslink.
You should also check that this output will route all incoming audio from connected devices such as Blu-ray players and games consoles, as well as the internal TV tuner. This way, to hear audio from all your devices you need to have only one cable going to your soundbar.
Most soundbars have other inputs, including a 3.5mm minijack and/or stereo phono jacks. These take analogue feeds and allow you to play audio from just about any device, including phones and tablets.
However, if you’d prefer the convenience of wirelessly playing music from a mobile device, look for built-in Bluetooth. By this method though, be aware that unless your mobile device and soundbar both support aptX, the default codec within the A2DP standard, sound quality won’t be as good.
A standalone soundbar will be unable to offer full-range sound, so many come with a separate subwoofer. This produces the deep bass required by movie special effects such as explosions. You can get aay without a subwoofer if you’ll mostly be watching dialogue heavy programmes.
Subwoofers are either active or passively powered. Passive models don’t have a built-in amp, so do not require mains power. These rely on an extra amp in the soundbar.
Active subwoofers have their own amp, so require an external power source. They can wirelessly receive audio though, so you can place them away from the soundbar without trailing wires. Watch out for soundbars such as the Samsung HWE551, which puts all the inputs on the sub. This is an advantage if your TV and soundbar are to be wall-mounted and the cables would otherwise have to run to the soundbar.
Don’t pay much attention to manufacturers’ amplifier power figures. Even when they’re accurately described, watts don’t directly translate to volume, since the speaker sensitivity also affects things. Some brands rightly avoid printing power figures.
The number of speakers isn’t that important either. If you’re after a convincing surround-sound effect, be sure to read reviews rather than rely on makers’ claims. Also, don’t confuse terms such as ‘3D sound’ or ‘spatial sound’ with surround sound. Some soundbars use Dolby Virtual Speaker technology, while others have their own names for pseudo-surround.
Most soundbars are limited in where they can be mounted If you plan to wall-mount, check this is an option. Some soundbars can be positioned at different angles; others will even convert into separate stereo speakers, should you want to chop and change.
Henry Burrell contributed to this article.
Bose Solo 5
- RRP: £199.95
You know you’re getting quality with Bose, and this reasonably priced soundbar keeps up that reputation. The single bar immediately improves your TV’s audio capabilities with one simple connection.
There’s a Bluetooth mode for wireless streaming, dialogue mode to improve the detail in dialogue-heavy films and programmes all in a compact, easy to install unit that’s under 2kg.
Small enough to place just in front of a slightly raised TV but powerful enough to produce room-filling audio, the Bose Solo 5 is a popular choice.
- RRP: £199
This Yamaha unit is a beast. With dual front speakers and dual built-in subwoofers, it’s a great, affordable option for those who want one product that solves all their TV audio problems.
Its slim, one-body design is really low profile so will sit in front of a slightly raised TV with no problem. The pairing of speakers and subwoofers allows for the best virtual surround sound possible from a single bar unit.
It comes with a remote control that allows for precise fine-tuning of the set up, handy if you use the system for music playback as well as TV.
- RRP: £599
Sonos has stormed onto the world audio scene at an impressive rate of knots. This, the PLAYBAR is one of its most popular and versatile products and is one of the best soundbars in the world – if not the cheapest.
Sonos’ attraction is its quality and its simplicity. You can use it as a home HiFi system as well as your TV’s speaker. Wireless setup is a breeze with the companion app, which also connects to major streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music with ease.
If you love the PLAYBAR you can then easily expand your speaker setup around the home with the rest of the Sonos line; speakers can be added, moved and customised with ease and all controlled from your phone or tablet. It’s expensive, but with good reason – it’s one of the best soundbars out there.
See also: Best Sonos speakers 2016
- RRP: £149
This Sony soundbar comes with a subwoofer and is excellent value at just over £100 at the time of writing. The system packs in virtual surround sound processing and an easy way to connect wireless devices with NFC.
The 2.1 channel system’s two drivers give balanced audio reproduction for your main TV, creating a cinematic experience wherever you decide to place it. This is helped by Sony’s ClearAudio+ technology that automatically optimises depending on the audio format.
If you want room filling, knock-you-off-your-chair sound, then there are better (and more expensive) options but as a midrange soundbar it will perform very well.