Soundbars are the latest craze in home entertainment. These long units are designed to sit below, in front of or above your TV. They contain two or more speakers, and may operate in tandem with a separate subwoofer that produces the lower-frequency sounds. See all audio reviews.
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 sound, but 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, PVRs 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 every 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. 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 away 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 HW-E551, 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 particularly important. 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.
How we test
We test all our soundbars in a typical living-room environment.
We install them in the same position, connected to the same audio sources, and use the same cables. Each is connected to a 40in Philips LCD TV, with its built-in speakers muted.
To thoroughly test the features and sound quality of each soundbar we use various audio sources and types of content.
For example, we watch a variety of standard Freeview television programmes, and connect an Android smartphone over Bluetooth (or a cable where this isn’t possible) to listen to a range of musical genres from classical to drum and bass.
A 20-minute clip from Blu-ray movie Battle: Los Angeles is also used to assess effect reproduction, dialogue and virtual surround.
We listen to the output of each soundbar from various points in the room, both standing and sitting. We also judge the sound quality at low, regular and loud volume levels, and try out the Night mode where one is available.
Despite being the most expensive soundbar here, the Sonos Playbar wins our recommendation. It combines outstanding build quality with gorgeous design, and offers both the best features and sound quality here. We could hardly find fault with the Playbar.
Of course, not everyone has £599 to splash out on a soundbar. Taking price into account, Samsung’s HW-E551 may be a better proposition. For £280 it offers a versatile, attractive design, plenty of features and excellent sound quality.
The Orbitsound M12 impressed us, majoring on a room-filling spatial sound, but it’s too expensive at £399.
Toshiba’s Mini 3D is cheap, but a pain to use. It doesn’t offer enough of a boost to sound quality to warrant its purchase.
For an extra £25 the Sony offers much better sound, but is overly wide and lacking in features – notably Bluetooth.
Finally, the Bose Solo offers an awkward combination of a high price and a lack of inputs. We wouldn’t recommend it.