You may think a home theatre sounds like a great idea, but you don't want a room cluttered with speakers. If you don't want to spend your weekend(s) weaving a web of wires and cables around your living room, we have one word that will keep your home movie experience dream alive: soundbar.
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A soundbar is basically a box containing several speakers designed to sit just below your TV screen and give your home movie experience a real audio kick.
Despite the glossy advertising shots showing TVs displayed beautifully on a wall, it seems most of us still put our TV on a table, so another popular option that we've found performs well in delivering good sound without all the extra speaker clutter is a soundbase or pedestal solution. A soundbase sits under your TV, often integrating a subwoofer making it even more compact and giving your audio more punch. However, some of the more modern TV stands have splayed legs that may not sit on a sound base without toppling. One solution would be to place the sound base in a shelf underneath the TV, but you won't get the best audio position if the sound base is placed too far below your ear level.
If you're an audiophile who simply wants nothing but the very best in sound, a collection of carefully placed speakers is the best option. However, a soundbar might be all that's needed for most situations, albeit a compromise compared to a multi-speaker set-up. Some soundbars use technology to mimic the effect of having surround-sound speakers and will be a big improvement on the audio of most TVs.
The technologies used in soundbars either bounce sound around your room (called beamforming) or use signals to trick us into thinking the sound is coming from a specific position (called HRTF). If you have a lot of soft surfaces in your room, it's harder for sound to bounce around, so avoid the beamforming models as they're better suited to rooms with lots of hard surfaces.
Will a soundbar work for me?
Soundbars perform poorly in large open-plan areas but do well in smaller enclosed rooms where you sit no more than a few metres away. A soundbar can be ideal for lounge room entertainment, but less useful to wheel outside for a BBQ.
Setting up a soundbar is quite straightforward, but make sure you have enough space in front of or below your TV screen (they are usually less than 15cm tall). If you use a subwoofer, make sure there's enough cable length to position it for best effect. Many models use wireless connections, so you can place them anywhere in the room.
What else should I keep in mind?
To connect a DVD or Blu-ray player, check that the soundbar has at least one digital audio connection (either Toslink or Digital RCA) as well as stereo inputs. HDMI input is ideal. This connection will pass the video signal through the soundbar to the TV with just one cable.
A Bluetooth connection will make it easier to connect your phone or tablet, but you will have to "pair" them before this will work.
Front display panel
A display panel at the front of the soundbar is very handy when you want to listen to music without turning on the TV. Look for a model that allows you to dim the display or turn it off when you don't need it, as it can be distracting if too bright.
Allows you to pass the video signal through the soundbar to your TV. This is only available on soundbars with HDMI connections, and reduces the number of wires from the DVD player to the soundbar to one, and one from the soundbar to the TV. If you connect the soundbar to the TV using a digital audio connection, anything playing on the TV will send the audio through the soundbar.
Some models may include an iPod dock, which is great for stand-alone music listening. Otherwise, look for models with an additional analog input (such as a headphone jack) which can also be used for playing music.
How much do soundbars cost?
In our latest soundbar reviews, we tested models ranging in price from $280 to $2800.