Sound Bar Review
How to Choose a Sound Bar
The top performers in our review are the Vizio SmartCast 38 2.1 Sound Bar, the Gold Award winner; LG SH6, the Silver Award winner; and Bose SoundTouch 300, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Televisions are getting bigger and more affordable with increasingly better picture quality. One thing remains constant with almost all televisions – poor sound quality. Audio quality is every bit as important to your movie watching experience as picture quality, and bad audio can leave you underwhelmed when you are trying to enjoy movies on your big screen.
A sound bar is an inexpensive and simple solution to your sound quality woes. It is a single unit that contains an array of speakers, sometimes with a separate subwoofer to enhance the sound. Sound bars improve your audio experience significantly with virtually no setup required.
How It Works
Do you have to max out your TV's volume settings in order to hear your shows sometimes? Sound bars increase the overall volume so you don't have to continually reach for your remote to turn up the volume. A good TV sound bar also produces more consistent volume and enhances dialogue. This means you won't need to turn up the volume when characters are just talking, then get blown away when an action scene starts.
Some sound bars simulate surround sound to make it seem like you have a multi-speaker setup in your home entertainment room. Sound is dispersed at different times and toward different parts of the room. This creates the illusion of surround sound without the hassle of installing multiple speakers together.
Sound bars not only provide enhanced sound, but also convenient installation. Most sound bars connect to your TV with one cable, usually a digital optical or coaxial cable. There is no need for added equipment. Generally, when you install a full home theater speaker system, you have to purchase an additional AV receiver that connects all the speakers to the television. You also have to run multiple sets of speaker wires to the AV receiver and figure out a way to hide them so you don't have speaker wires strewn about your room.
The additional equipment needed for full surround sound can be far costlier than purchasing a sound bar. A quality AV receiver will run upwards of $300 dollars. Floor standing speakers can cost $200 or more per speaker, and that is not including the surround sound speakers or center speaker. A whole system can be well over $1,000, whereas a home theater sound bar gives you premium sound quality for far less. If you feel as though you want a larger sound system, visit our site on floor standing speakers and AV receivers for more options.
The amount of space you have in your home is a factor to consider when you upgrade your home entertainment center. Sound bars are good for people who are not only on a budget, but who have limited space. They can be a good audio upgrade for apartment living as they sit right in front of your television and don't take up additional space. Space restrictions, cost efficiency and overall sound quality are all reasons to consider a sound bar for your home entertainment upgrade. For more information on this topic, visit our learning center for articles on sound bars.
Sound Bars: What We Tested, What We Found
For our sound bar reviews, we didn’t test any that cost as much as a home theater system. We tested affordable TV sound bars. All of the sound bars will greatly enhance the audio of your home entertainment center without sacrificing your wallet.
We took on the arduous and painful task of watching movies and listening to music through each sound bar system (real tough, right?). The movies we watched included "Star Trek Beyond," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," "The Bourne Supremacy" and "Mad Max." We also tested the sound bars with a handful of songs from different musical genres. We used the films and music to test a variety of audio qualities including bass response, dialogue clarity and surround sound simulation.
We volume matched all of the sound bars so we wouldn't mistake volume for quality. We used our HDMI switcher to connect multiple sound bars simultaneously so we could quickly switch back and forth between the them for a direct sound quality comparison.
After our testing was complete, we determined the sound bars with the best audio quality are the SONOS PLAYBAR, Polk MagniFi One and Vizio SmartCast 38 2.1 Sound Bar. All of these displayed great bass response that make action scenes sound and feel real. Both movies and music flourished through these home theater sound bar systems. Keep in mind that there is more to our evaluations than sound quality alone, but these sound bars are top of the line in this decisive category.
Remote Control Evaluation
We evaluated each sound bar's remote. We looked for a lightweight remote that fits nicely in your hand and allows you to comfortably reach all of the buttons with one hand. Good button spacing and size are also important. Although a remote control might not be the main consideration for choosing your sound bar, we made sure to evaluate multiple aspects of each product so you have the information you need to make an informed purchasing decision.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a Sound Bar?
Audio quality is the factor we consider most important when selecting the best sound bar. However, there are other things to consider – such as connectivity options, a separate subwoofer and, of course, price – when making your final purchase decision. The sound bars we reviewed range from $300 to $700.
Multiple USB ports, HDMI connections and RCA (analog) inputs can be useful if you are connecting your sound bar to various home entertainment devices simultaneously. Many home theaters include a DVD player and a gaming console along with the television. A sound bar that doesn't connect to all of your devices at once can be an annoyance. You shouldn't have to unplug one device on the back of your sound bar to connect something else. Make sure your sound bar has adequate connectivity options for your needs.
There are a handful of products in our lineup that go beyond Bluetooth capabilities. Some sound bar systems are enabled with Wi-Fi connectivity. These systems connect to your home network and allow you to stream music and other media from your smartphone or tablet over your Wi-Fi.
You might be wondering what advantages Wi-Fi offers over Bluetooth. Wi-Fi has wireless range anywhere your home network is. This means if someone is streaming music from their phone to the sound bar via Wi-Fi and walks into another room, streaming isn’t limited to the standard Bluetooth range (generally around 30 feet). These sound bars also offer wireless apps that conveniently manage the music on your phone for easy access and streaming all within one place.
Some sound bars come with a subwoofer. This separate speaker with a large driver boosts low-end sound quality. The subwoofer sits on the floor and reverberates low-end frequencies across the ground to help you not only hear, but also feel the bass. If you live in an apartment with people below you, you might not want to purchase a sound bar that includes an additional subwoofer as it might be too noisy. On the other hand, if you want to feel the large explosions or car crashes in your action movies, you probably want a sub.
All of the sound bars that come with a subwoofer connect to the sub wirelessly. This enables you to move your subwoofer to the best place in the room without cables being exposed. What’s really cool is they connect to the sound bar automatically – no additional steps are required.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
The overall best sound bar in our lineup is the Vizio SmartCast 38 2.1 Sound Bar. This system provides a lot of everything – great sound quality, lots of connection options, Wi-Fi and a remote that is simple to use. In our tests, it sounded great regardless of the movie, scene or song we played. Our only qualm with the Vizio sound bar is the lighting display. Since there isn’t an actual display, Vizio created a light system to show the currently selected functions, and this is confusing until you read the manual. Outside of that, we couldn’t have been more impressed with the sound bar.
The LG SH6 is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award Winner. This sound bar doesn’t come with a subwoofer, but surprisingly, it does a great job producing low frequencies that make movie explosions sound more realistic. The LG SH6 is also one of the few sound bars that is Wi-Fi enabled. Through the LG Music Flow app, music and other content can be streamed via Wi-Fi. This gives you better music quality and more range of connectivity than Bluetooth provides.
The Bose SoundTouch 300 is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. Like the LG SH6, this doesn’t come with a subwoofer. But unlike the LG, it doesn’t produce great bass without it. What the sound bar does well – really well – is simulate surround sound. Several times during our testing we walked up to another sound bar to mute it, thinking we had accidently left it on, but it was the Bose deceiving our ears. It was impressive. The SoundTouch 300 is also Wi-Fi enabled, like the Vizio and LG sound bars, to provide better connectivity range and quality while streaming music. If you are willing to spend a little more for great surround sound, this is a top choice for a sound bar system.
A standout product outside of our top three is the SONOS PLAYBAR. It ranks toward the back of our lineup but was one of the top performers in our sound quality testing. Even without the need for an external subwoofer, it provides excellent bass response and great dialogue clarity. The PLAYBAR takes some time to set up before use – a Wi-Fi connection and the smartphone app are required for use. It also has fewer connectivity ports than others – HDMI, aux and analog audio inputs are all missing. However, if sound quality is your main priority, the SONOS PLAYBAR is a great option.