It’s time for an audio upgrade. Your TV’s built-in speakers just aren’t doing it anymore. But a full home entertainment system is far too expensive and clunky for you. What’s left to choose from?
Sound bars are designed to be a compromise between high-quality, immersive home audio and budget and space constraints.
What are sound bars? How do they work? Are they the solution to your movie-watching woes? Read on to find out!
What are sound bars?
Sound bars are a type of loudspeaker, designed to upgrade the sound quality from your TV’s in-built speakers. They are wide, thin and short, so that they can easily sit beneath or on top of your TV without taking up much space.
One sound bar actually integrates multiple speakers to emulate the surround sound effect. These usually include at least left, centre, and right speakers, plus a subwoofer. There can be many more speakers plus woofers and tweeters (speakers designed for deep and high pitched sound respectively) integrated into one sound bar.
What kinds of sound bars are there?
There are two main kinds of sound bars:
- Active sound bars have built-in amplifiers. This means they’re quick and easy to set up – they just need to be plugged into your TV/Blu-ray player/web streamer/other device.
- Passive sound bars do not come with built-in power amps. These require a separate amplifier or receiver, and need speaker wires running to either. While they’re a little bit more effort to set up, they deliver a crisper sound and greater control over settings and inputs.
Beyond these two categories, the main difference between sound bars is the number and type of speakers integrated into the unit.
Why would I need a sound bar?
Sound bars were developed in response to a problem caused by flatscreen TVs. While today’s slim screens produce amazing image quality, they’re now too thin to fit decent speakers inside. This means audio quality has dropped, particularly for bass frequencies, as these require bigger speakers that can’t be accommodated by most modern TVs. That’s why you may have a harder time picking up dialogue or getting a strong deep sound from your brand new TV.
While you could get the best sound quality by picking up a surround sound system, that’s an expensive path to take. Plus, having multiple speakers set up all around the room takes up space and adds clutter.
A sound bar is a compromise between audio quality, budget, and space efficiency. You’ll get better sound than from your TV alone without taking up much space. Most can easily pop on top of your TV or sit below in the TV cabinet, or even be mounted onto the wall.
Check out the LG sound bar in this video:
How much do sound bars cost?
Just like any speaker, there’s a wide price range. You can go for something basic and affordable, or get a high-end high-tech setup that’ll make you feel like you’re at the movies. Getting the most expensive sound bar doesn’t necessarily mean getting the best – this depends on what you want and need out of a sound bar, so take the time to explore your options.
Below is an indicative price range for sound bars produced by major audio electronics brands, based on advertised prices at time of writing.
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What features should I look for in a sound bar?
Here are a couple of the key features to look out for. Audiophiles will consider a lot more than we cover here, but this is a solid starting point for beginners.
- Subwoofer: This kind of speaker is designed for deep, intense sounds. It’s a must-have to get the full effect from action movies. These are usually best as an external speaker, and are included with most sound bars. Most are wireless, but double check this before purchasing. The power of the subwoofer is another factor to consider – a higher wattage means the more powerful a sound it can produce. It’s not an absolute necessity, but without a subwoofer your TV shows and movies will sound more shallow and less realistic.
- Bluetooth: If you want to be able to play music from your mobile phone or music app, Bluetooth connectivity is a must. While you can add Bluetooth with an adapter, this isn’t ideal as it’s clunky to use.
- HDMI ports: Some sound bars have them, some don’t, some have a lot. But you don’t necessarily need a HDMI port on your sound bar. It can actually be neater to connect all of your home theatre gadgets to your TV, then connect the TV’s audio output to the sound bar. This way, switching inputs into the TV automatically switches which audio is input to the sound bar, and you only need one cable running to the sound bar. However, it can be limiting, especially if your TV is older and has fewer HDMI ports – in which case more ports on your sound bar may be useful.
- Front panel display: A plain, sleek sound bar may look good, but it can be handy to know how high the volume is or which audio input has been selected. More new sound bars are including displays, so keep an eye out for them.
- Remote control: You can program the sound bar to take instructions from your TV’s remote, but this can cause a bit of disruption to your TV screen. To use your TV’s remote with your sound bar, you’ll need to disable your TV’s speakers so you’re not doubling up on audio. However, every time you use the TV remote with the sound bar, the TV will still receive the signal and may display a message reminding you that the speakers are disabled. This depends on the TV, but if yours does this it can be annoying to have text pop up on the screen every time you adjust the volume.
We recommend reading into the tech specs and reviews of a number of different sound bar models to find the best one for you and your budget.
Should I buy a sound bar?
While so far sound bars may sound amazing, at the end of the day they’re still a compromise. A sound bar will give you far better audio than your TV’s built-in speakers at a great price, but they won’t be as good as an equivalent surround sound system.
- Relatively small and unobtrusive
- Much more affordable than other speaker setups
- Won’t fill a room with sound as well as a surround sound system or even just a couple of separate speakers
- Smaller speakers
- Less flexibility with positioning
If you’re looking for an affordable way to boost audio quality from a TV, a sound bar can be great value. We suggest having a detailed look into both sound bars and separate speakers to figure out which kind of audio setup is the best for you.