Best Sound Bars of 2018

Billy Bommer ·
Audio & Travel Writer
Updated
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We spent more than 40 hours researching and testing the best sound bars under $500 to find the best for upgrading the audio experience in your entertainment room. 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.   

Best Overall
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.
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Best Value
Vizio SB3621n-E8M
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.
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Best for Small Rooms
Yamaha YAS-207
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.
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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
$195 BestReviews
4 4.5 5 5
B+
B+
B+
B
Alexa
X
A
Alexa, Polk Connect
Wireless
$269.95 Amazon Warehouse
4 5 3 4.5
A-
A+
B+
A-
N/A
X
A-
Home Theater Controller
Wireless
$244.93 Amazon Marketplace
4 5 3 4.5
B
A-
B+
B
N/A
X
B+
JBL Music
Wireless
$399 Amazon
3.5 5 3.5 3.5
A-
A+
B
A-
Alexa
Adapter
No Remote
Alexa, Sonos
No Sub
$109.99 Best Buy
5 4.5 1.5 4.5
B
A
B
B-
N/A
X
A
Vizio SmartCast Mobile
Wireless
$399 Amazon Marketplace
3.5 5 3 2
A-
A
B+
A-
N/A
X
A-
No App
No Sub
$190.69 BLINQ
3.5 5 3 2.5
A-
B
A+
A-
N/A
X
C
No App
Wireless
$299.99 Best Buy
3 5 3 4
B+
B+
B+
A+
N/A
X
B
Music Flow Player
Wireless
$254.99 Newegg
3.5 4 3 3
C+
A-
B-
C-
N/A
X
B
No App
Wireless
$299.99 Amazon Marketplace
4 4.5 1.5 2.5
C+
B+
B
C
N/A
X
B
No App
Built-in
Best Overall
The Polk Audio Command Bar has all the important connectivity options, including the Amazon Alexa voice assistant and HDMI inputs and outputs. Unlike the other Alexa-enabled sound bar we tested, the Command Bar has a durable physical remote with an Alexa action button that temporarily turns the volume down to help you interact with the voice assistant during loud action scenes.
The Polk Connect companion app is easy-to-use and walks you through the setup process step-by-step, including the Alexa setup. The Alexa app is voice-controlled and helps you add streaming services. The Command Bar also has Bluetooth connectivity for quickly streaming a song or podcast from a mobile device. This sound bar also serves as a smart-home control center. You add smart home devices like lights, thermostats and door locks to the Alexa app and ask the Command Bar to dim the lights, turn up the heat or lock your front door before bed. This sound bar comes with a wireless subwoofer that automatically connects to the bar. The bass response and surround simulation weren’t on par with the best sound bars we tested, but the Voice Adjust feature allows you to customize the volume of the dialogue to suit your preferences. The physical remote has controls for adjusting the subwoofer volume too.
Pros
  • Built-in voice assistant
  • Clear dialogue reproduction
  • Great physical remote
Cons
  • Subpar bass response
  • Disappointing surround simulation
Amazon
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Best Value
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, such as HDMI ports and Wi-Fi connectivity. However, it has an auxiliary input, USB port and Bluetooth connectivity. This is one of the few sound bars we tested with a USB port for playing high-quality WAV files – the USB connections on most models are only for servicing the product or updating the firmware.
Pros
  • Affordable
  • Clear dialogue
  • Durable remote
Cons
  • Lackluster surround simulation
  • No HDMI ports
  • Companion app has limited functionality
$129.98Amazon
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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.
Its 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, 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.
Pros
  • Compact
  • Great virtual surround simulation
Cons
  • No Wi-Fi connectivity
  • No voice assistant
  • Feeble remote
$299.95Amazon
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Best Voice Assistant
The Sonos Beam is a compact and powerful sound bar that functions as a full-fledged smart speaker.
The Amazon Alexa voice assistant is built-in 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.
Pros
  • Built-in Alexa
Cons
  • No subwoofer
Amazon
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Best Virtual Surround Sound
The LG SJ8 has the widest, most immersive surround simulation of all the sound bars we tested.
The 4.1-channel audio output includes two vertical surround channels that use the new Dolby Atmos surround codec to add depth to your movie watching experience. The subwoofer is underpowered compared to those included with most of the sound bars we tested, but that’s 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. Connect to it wirelessly over either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. It also has Google’s Chromecast streaming device built in, so you can send video and audio from any supported app at a higher quality than you can with a Bluetooth connection.
Pros
  • Dolby Atmos
  • Google Chromecast compatible
Cons
  • Disappointing subwoofer
$496.99Amazon
Read the full review

Why Trust Us 

We spent more than 20 hours in our AV testing room listening to all the available sound modes on each sound bar and playing a variety of content. Once we found the best movie and music setting for each model, we played the same movie clip and a short music clip with a variety of genres and quickly switched back and forth to do a true side-by-side comparison.


I have 15 years of experience critically listening to speakers and evaluating the finite characteristics of home and professional audio products. As such, I also sought input from people with very little experience with home audio products as well as from expert evaluators since sound bars are the first step in the path toward upgrading your entertainment room’s audio.



In addition to in-house testing, we contacted experts from reputable sound bar manufacturers and professional audio associations to make sure we were up to speed on all the newest features and innovations. I asked the president of the Wireless Speaker & Audio Association, Tony Ostrom, if he thought manufacturers might start integrating sound bars into their televisions soon, and he responded that with TVs continuing to get thinner, he doesn’t think that will happen in the near future. However, he does believe “we will continue to see growth in matched audio solutions designed to aesthetically coordinate with and be physically adjacent to the screen.” This is an important insight if you’re waiting to make an audio upgrade in hopes that televisions include high-fidelity speakers soon.


How We Tested 

We connected all the sound bars simultaneously to our test TV using an optical switcher. This 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. Finally, we issued sound quality grades for each product based on the cumulative results of the survey test and my own professional impressions while setting up and trialing sound modes.

What’s a Good Price Range for Sound Bars?  

We focused our testing and comparison on sound bars under $500. If your audio upgrade budget allows for more than that, you might want to consider a $300 A/V receiver, 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, but the upgrade possibilities and connectivity options are much better. A sound bar 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.

HDMI ARC: The Best Connection Option for Sound Bars 

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 sound bar and TV with a single HDMI cable. Connecting your sound bar 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.

Using an HDMI ARC connection doesn’t require a specialized HDMI cable, but you may need to change your TV settings to allow two-way communication. Go to the Settings menu on your TV and find the Audio Settings. In that menu, enable HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) and use the same remote you currently use to control volume and power.

An HDMI connection between your TV and sound bar moves audio information faster than a digital output from the TV, but like a digital connection, the HDMI standard doesn’t allow for transmission of HD audio standards like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of HDMI 2.1 with eARC, which has support for full-resolution audio signals like Dolby Atmos.

HDMI eARC: The New Audio Standard 

The new HDMI 2.1 standard announced at CES in 2017 allows for more robust video and audio transmission through a single HDMI cable. The most important upgrade in terms of home audio and sound bars is eARC. I spoke to Marty Wachter, Director of UX & Technology at Sound United, about how soon this new HDMI standard is going to start affecting audio peripherals. He told me we are at least a year away from HDMI eARC connections becoming a popular feature, and probably two years until it is an industry standard.

Currently, the only way to send vertical sound codecs, like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, to a surround speaker setup is via a compatible A/V receiver. There are still very few sound bars that support vertical sound codecs, and if you use a television as the connection hub, the HDMI ARC connection only sends stereo audio and compressed surround sound codecs. The HDMI eARC upgrade makes the TV a worthy connection hub because it can send uncompressed surround sound from a stream box, Blu-ray player and any other source connected to the television.

If you are currently in the market for an audio upgrade but you’re nervous about missing out on the future of surround sound, don’t hold your breath. The next generation of A/V receivers, sound bars and televisions are years away, with the first wave of products significantly more expensive than the current offerings. 


Preset Audio Modes: What’s the Difference? 

All the sound bars 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. I talked to John Crisco, Director of Engineering for Sound United, about what those settings are and how to best utilize them.

Music Mode
John told me the music 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.

Movie Mode
The movie preset offers the most dynamic range of all the audio modes. This setting boosts bass response and dialogue volume and has the widest sound stage 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 sound bar to your television through the HDMI ARC port instead of using the optical input.

Night Mode
This 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.

Important Features to Look for When Buying a Sound Bar   

Wi-Fi vs Bluetooth
There are two wireless connection options available on sound bars. Some have Bluetooth, others have Wi-Fi and the best have both. I 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 sound bar.” We prefer sound bars with Wi-Fi connectivity for high-fidelity audio and Bluetooth connectivity for ease of use.

Subwoofer
Most the sound bars we tested come with a wireless subwoofer, and those that do connect to them automatically, so they are easy to set up. If you want theater-quality audio, a subwoofer is an important component. In addition, you may want to consider a sound bar that has separate volume controls for the subwoofer if you live in an apartment or house with thin walls so you can turn the bass down to keep your neighbors happy. 

Sound Bar vs. Soundbase 

Sound bars and soundbases have the same easy setup and connectivity options, but there are a few significant design differences. Instead of sitting below and in front of a TV like a sound bar, 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, but larger speakers move more air, which makes bass-heavy sound effects more impactful. Most sound bar packages 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 sound bars and a more complicated home audio system built around an AV receiver.

There are far fewer options for soundbases compared to the number of sound bars. 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. 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. 


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