Best Sound Bars of 2019 - Dialogue, Bass and Surround Sound Tests
The latest TVs can deliver a breathtaking picture, but can be underwhelming when it comes to sound quality. To really do your TV justice then, especially if it’s 4K television, is to invest in a soundbar to deliver the sound quality to match the razor-sharp picture.
Why do you need to buy a soundbar? As TV manufacturers have sort to design and manufacture ever slimmer TVs, it’s meant that’s not a lot of space for speakers in the units, and the tiny speakers used has resulted in a sound that fails to impress.
That’s why you need a soundbar, and the best soundbars can deliver a powerful sound that will transform the sound quality to give you a much more satisfying overall viewing experience. They don’t have to take up loads of space either, as the slim designs are perfect for positioning in front of your TV.
After compiling the audio performance results, we recommend the Polk Audio Command Bar as the best sound bar because of the built-in Alexa smart speaker and clear and accurate dialogue reproduction. It has all the best connectivity options and the Polk Connect app walks you through the setup process step by step.
Polk Audio Command Bar
The Polk Audio Command Bar has the Alexa voice assistant built into the sound bar. You don’t need a remote to switch to the next song, find a movie or change the volume – just ask Alexa.
The Vizio SB321n-E8M has clear and accurate dialogue reproduction. That makes it a great sound bar for watching TV shows and listening to music.
The Yamaha YAS-207 is compact and has the latest virtual surround technology that simulates vertical facing speakers. Quality surround simulation is important for watching action movies.
|Product||Price||Overall Rating||Pricing||Audio Performance||Connectivity||Peripherals||Overall Sound Quality||Dialogue Clarity||Bass Response||Surround Sound Simulation||Voice Assistant||Bluetooth||HDMI Input||Optical Input||Remote Control Quality||App Control||Subwoofer|
|Polk Audio Command Bar||View Deal||4.5/5||4||4.5||5||5||B+||B+||B+||B||Alexa||✓||✓||X||A||Alexa, Polk Connect||Wireless|
|Yamaha YAS-207||View Deal||4.5/5||4||5||3||4.5||A-||A+||B+||A-||✓||✓||X||A-||Home Theater Controller||Wireless|
|JBL Bar 2.1||View Deal||4/5||4||5||3||4.5||B||A-||B+||B||✓||✓||X||B+||JBL Music||Wireless|
|Sonos Beam||View Deal||4/5||3.5||5||3.5||3.5||A-||A+||B||A-||Alexa||✖||✓||Adapter||No Remote||Alexa, Sonos||No Sub|
|Vizio SB3621n-E8M||View Deal||4/5||5||4.5||1.5||4.5||B||A||B||B-||✓||✖||X||A||Vizio SmartCast Mobile||Wireless|
|Focal Dimension||View Deal||4/5||3.5||5||3||2||A-||A||B+||A-||✓||✓||X||A-||No App||No Sub|
|Klipsch RSB-6||View Deal||4/5||3.5||5||3||2.5||A-||B||A+||A-||✓||✓||X||C||No App||Wireless|
|LG SJ8||View Deal||4/5||3||5||3||4||B+||B+||B+||A+||✓||✓||X||B||Music Flow Player||Wireless|
|Sony HT-CT390||View Deal||3.5/5||3.5||4||3||3||C+||A-||B-||C-||✓||✓||X||B||No App||Wireless|
|Q Acoustics M4||View Deal||3.5/5||4||4.5||1.5||2.5||C+||B+||B||C||✓||✖||X||B||No App||Built-in|
The Polk Command Bar is the most well-appointed sound bar we tested in terms of connectivity options and quality peripherals. The Polk Connect app is easy-to-use and makes the setup process quick and easy. Once the sound bar is connected to a home Wi-Fi network, use the Alexa app to add smart home products and music streaming services to Alexa’s voice-control capabilities.
This sound bar has an HDMI input that was tailor-made for Amazon’s Fire TV and other wide HDMI streaming devices. You connect the video streaming device to the input and ask Alexa to play movies or TV shows from your favorite streaming services, or music from Spotify or other popular music services. The Command Bar and Alexa app are also compatible with an exhaustive list of smart home products, like lights, door locks, thermostats and Alexa-compatible TVs. When you are done watching TV for the night, use the voice control feature to lock the front door, turn down the heater and turn off the lights and TV, all from the comfort of your couch.
The Command Bar scored above average in our dialogue and overall audio performance tests, but we felt it was lacking in bass response and surround simulation compared to the best sound bars we tested. The wireless subwoofer looks modern and the matte black finish fits in well amongst most home furnishings, but when we turned it up during loud action sequences, it exhibited moments of flabby and disproportionate bass. The music, movie and sports sound profile settings do a good job of automatically adjusting to specific situations, but we found ourselves turning down the bass and turning up the voice during our tests.
Serious audiophiles might find the overall sound quality a bit boring and flat compared to a high-end audio solution, but this is a capable and future-proof audio upgrade compared to the poor sound emanating from your TV’s speakers.
Since this Vizio sound bar is less than $200, it’s not expensive to upgrade the lackluster sound coming from your TV’s built-in speakers. Even though this Vizio sound bar is cheaper than others, it produced some of the best results in our listening tests.
There are only two speakers in the sound bar, so its surround simulation is lacking compared to the best models we tested. However, movie dialogue and vocals were clear and concise, which is important if you use your entertainment room to watch TV and listen to music.
This sound bar package includes a 5.4-inch wireless subwoofer that connects automatically. It is one of the smaller subwoofers in terms of speaker size, but it was accurate and surprisingly powerful compared to its larger competition in our tests. The SB3621 had no problem filling our 300-square-foot AV room, but we suggest getting a sound bar with a larger subwoofer and more speakers if you have a medium- or large-size entertainment room. It is missing a couple of the more important connections though, such as HDMI ports and Wi-Fi connectivity. However, it has an auxiliary input, USB port and Bluetooth connectivity.
Best for Small Rooms
The Yamaha YAS-207 has six speakers in the sound bar itself and a 6.25-inch wireless subwoofer. In addition, it has the newest vertical surround codec, DTS Virtual:X, which adds depth to the movies you watch, and it’s easier to set up than a traditional surround sound system.
It’s Clear Voice setting produced some of the best sounding vocals and dialogue in our tests. When you combine clear dialogue and immersive surround sound with a price of less than $300, it is hard to justify using your TV’s built-in speakers. This sound bar has most of the important connectivity options as well, including HDMI ports, a 3.5mm auxiliary input and Bluetooth. The HDMI connections support 4K and HDR video pass-through, so the YAS-207 doesn’t degrade the video quality of content you play through your stream box or UHD Blu-ray player if you connect them directly to it. However, the easiest way to set up your sound bar is to use your TV as the connection hub and send digital audio to the sound bar via the optical input. It’s also easy to connect mobile devices to the YAS-207 via Bluetooth so you can play your favorite songs from your phone or mobile devices. The one important connection option missing on the YAS-207 is Wi-Fi. Sound bars with Wi-Fi use your home’s wireless network to connect to devices and allow you to stream higher-quality content from greater distances than with Bluetooth. Bluetooth is best transmitted within roughly 30 feet of the sound bar, and the connection doesn’t transmit lossless audio.
Best Voice Assistant
The Amazon Alexa voice assistant is built-in to the Sonos Beam and serves as the remote control for your music and movie streaming services. It doesn’t have a physical remote control, but the voice commands are intuitive and easy-to-use. Alexa had no problem hearing our prompts from 40 feet away in our audio performance tests.
The Beam projects a stunningly accurate and detailed sound stage that had no problem filling our 300 square-foot AV lab. It doesn’t come with a wireless subwoofer like most the sound bars we tested, but you can add the Sonos Sub if you enjoy chest thumping bass while watching action movies. The Sonos companion app walks you through the setup process step-by-step and automatically customizes the audio attributes to fit your entertainment room.
Best Virtual Surround Sound
The LG SJ8 features a 4.1-channel audio output that includes two vertical surround channels that use the new Dolby Atmos surround codec to really add depth to your movie watching experience.
The subwoofer is a little underpowered compared to those included with most of the soundbars we tested however, but this may be a benefit if you live in an apartment building with thin walls. The SJ8’s connectivity options are among the best in our test group, with the choice to either connect to it wirelessly over either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. It also has Google’s Chromecast streaming device built in as well, so you can send video and audio from any supported app at a higher quality than you can with a Bluetooth connection.
If you want a future-proof sound bar and enjoy watching action movies in surround sound, this is a great way to upgrade your TV’s built-in speakers.
What are the alternatives to soundbar?
We focused our testing and comparison on soundbars under $500 (around £380). If your audio upgrade budget allows for more than that, as an alternative to a soundbar you might want to consider investing in a $300 A/V receiver, along with a $300 pair of bookshelf speakers and a $200 home subwoofer.
The installation process is more tedious when you integrate an A/V receiver into your home entertainment system compared to a soundbar, but the upgrade possibilities and connectivity options are much better. A soundbar can significantly improve the sound coming out of your TV’s speakers, but they can’t compete with 2.1 system built around a quality A/V receiver.
There are two wireless connection options available on sound bars. Some have Bluetooth, others have Wi-Fi and the best have both. We asked Robert Goedken, the general manager of Yamaha’s AV division, what the best way to wirelessly stream high-fidelity content is, and he responded, “Wi-Fi offers greater range, better stability and supports transmission of higher-resolution audio content. Most people already have Wi-Fi in their homes, so it makes sense to use it to stream content to their soundbar.” We prefer sound bars with Wi-Fi connectivity for high-fidelity audio and Bluetooth connectivity for ease of use.
If you want theater-quality audio, a subwoofer is an important component as it will deliver a much deeper bass response. Most of the soundbars we tested come with a wireless subwoofer, with all connecting automatically that makes them easy to set up. In addition, you may want to consider a soundbar that has separate volume controls for the subwoofer if you live in an apartment or house with thin walls. This way, you can turn the bass down to keep your neighbors happy.
Soundbar vs soundbase
A sub-section of soundbars are soundbases. They have the same easy setup and connectivity options, but there are a few significant design differences between the two.
Instead of sitting below and in front of a TV like a soundbar, soundbases sit directly under the TV. For that reason, soundbases have a weight rating that typically ranges between 50-150 pounds. Because soundbases are designed to hold heavy televisions, the enclosure is also very heavy and isn't suited for flimsy furniture.
A soundbase houses larger speakers and more of them. A higher number of speakers doesn’t necessarily equate to better audio performance though, but larger speakers move more air, which makes bass-heavy sound effects more impactful. As we’ve mentioned, most soundbar packages on test come with wireless, external subwoofers, but our favorite soundbases have subwoofers built in, which saves floor space in a small entertainment room.
Soundbases bridge the gap between soundbars and a more complicated home audio system built around an AV receiver, but there’s not quite the same breadth of choice. The Sonos PLAYBASE and Fluance AB40 both have optical inputs that easily connect to your TV with a single cable. The Fluance soundbase also has an aux input and Bluetooth connectivity, while to wirelessly stream music and podcasts to the Sonos soundbase, you connect it to your home Wi-Fi network and use the intuitive Sonos mobile app to control audio settings and organize music streaming services.
HDMI ARC: the best connection option for soundbars
If your TV was manufactured after 2009, it most likely has an HDMI ARC connection. The ARC portion of that protocol stands for Audio Return Channel, and it allows for two-way communication between the soundbar and TV with a single HDMI cable. Connecting your soundbar to your TV with an HDMI ARC connection lets you control the volume with your TV remote and automatically turns the sound bar on when the TV is on. You can also use the HDMI ARC connection to send sound from your TV to an AV receiver if you have a traditional surround sound setup.
Preset audio modes: what’s the difference?
All the soundbars we tested have at least a couple options for preset audio modes to maximize the EQ and, in some cases, volume settings for a specific type of content. We talked to John Crisco, Director of Engineering for Sound United, about what those settings are and how to best utilize them.
John told us that the music mode preset is “the most natural audio preset.” Music mode doesn’t significantly boost or cut bass or treble frequencies, which makes it a good setting for most dialogue-based television shows too. This setting is optimized for conventional two-channel stereo – the format for most music recordings. If you use your sound bar mostly for listening to music and watching TV, the music mode is the best audio preset option.
The movie mode preset offers the most dynamic range of all the audio modes. This setting boosts bass response and dialogue volume and has the widest soundstage of all the audio modes. Sound effects don’t get compressed, so explosions and other loud effects are startlingly loud and impactful, just as the sound engineers intended. To take full advantage of movie mode, connect the soundbar to your television through the HDMI ARC port instead of using the optical input (if it’s supported).
Night mode is the newest and most helpful audio mode on our favorite sound bars, like the Polk Audio Command Bar and the Sonos Beam. Night mode is the perfect setting for watching movies and TV while you fall asleep. The dialogue frequencies are boosted, but the dynamic range is reduced. Compression is more evident, so the loudest sounds, like sound effects, are less startling and the quietest sounds, like whispering dialogue, get pushed to the forefront.
How the soundbars were tested
We spent more than 20 hours in our AV testing room listening to all the available sound modes on each to find the best soundbar.
We connected all the soundbars simultaneously to our test TV using an optical switcher which allowed us to quickly switch back and forth between each to make true side-by-side comparisons. After, we played a wide variety of content to find the best movie and music settings on each sound bar. We then played the same action movie clip and a music clip that contained songs from five different genres for a panel of evaluators whose experience in home audio ranged from novice to audiophile