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How to buy the best soundbar

A soundbar is a compact and cheaper alternative to a home theatre set-up for your TV.

soundbar

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 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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What is a soundbar?

A soundbar is basically a box containing several speakers designed to sit just below your TV screen and give your home movie experience an audio boost. Most can't deliver the same sound quality as a dedicated multi-speaker setup - but many get close enough for the average set of ears, they take up less room, and there is a lot of choice for a variety of budgets.

  • If you're an audiophile who simply wants nothing but the very best in sound, a collection of carefully placed speakers, in a dedicated enclosed room, is the best option.
  • These typically consist of five speakers and one subwoofer (5.1), or seven speakers and one sub (7.1).
  • 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.
  • Though they claim to deliver true surround sound, they're better thought of as an alternative to traditional 5.1/7.1 systems, rather than a direct substitute. 
  • 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.

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.

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 and it uses a cable connection, make sure there's enough cable length to position it for best effect.
  • Most models now use wireless connections, so you can place them anywhere in the room.

What else should I look for in a soundbar?

  • Connections: 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.
  • Video switching: 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.
  • Music: 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.
  • Music streaming: Inbuilt streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal can be handy if you like your tunes. Rather than streaming via Bluetooth, inbuilt connectivity uses your phone/tablet as a remote, while streaming to the soundbar directly from the cloud via Wi-Fi. This can improve audio quality and battery life.
  • Wi-Fi: Some models up the streaming ante with Wi-Fi support, so you can stream lossless audio over a home network.
  • Wired/wireless speakers: Some soundbars support wired or wireless connectivity to other speakers. This is sometimes limited to a subwoofer, but a few models have added "surround sound" support, so you can connect additional speakers that sit at the back of the room, to mimic 5.1. These speakers are sold separately as optional extras, or in bundles at an additional cost.
  • Subwoofer: A soundbar that includes a dedicated (external) subwoofer can sound better than one that doesn't, particularly in a large room. A well-made sub will improve low-end audio quality, while adding that cinematic feel to your setup. However, a poorly made sub can have a negative impact on sound quality. If you want some bass but don't have room for an external sub, consider a soundbase. These include a built-in subwoofer.
  • Wall mount: Soundbars are usually designed to be placed on a stand below the TV, though you can buy third party wall mounts if you'd prefer. These only come in horizontal orientations. Though you could find a way to mount a soundbar vertically, they're not designed to project audio that way so there's no real reason to. For example, putting a soundbar on its end won't replicate the sound you'd get from floor standing speakers.

How to connect your soundbar to the TV

This really depends on the ages of your TV and soundbar and if you are connecting any additional devices such as a Blu-ray player, games console or set top box. The easiest option is to connect your devices to the TV, then send audio via the TV out to the soundbar. You can do this using a number of cable types such as HDMI, optical (TOSLINK) and RCA.

HDMI is the best option as it has enough bandwidth to support the highest quality audio currently available in all surround sound formats. But you need ARC or eARC ports on your TV and soundbar to get the best results. Other outputs, such as optical, can do the job, but with some audio compression and surround limitations. Optical, for example, doesn't support Dolby Atmos or DTS-X object based surround, even if the TV and soundbar can decode these formats.

Alternatively, you can connect your devices, such as a games console, directly to the soundbar for optimal sound quality. Instead of accepting audio from your TV, it sends the image to the TV via HDMI without the need for ARC or eARC. But there aren't many soundbars with multiple HDMI inputs that support this.

Understanding where cables go and which ones provide the best quality sound can be confusing. So, we put together a guide on how to connect your TV to your soundbar here.

Dolby, DTS and surround sound explained

Dolby, DTS and PCM are different audio technologies that essentially tell the soundbar how to decode and play multichannel audio. Movies, TV shows, live concerts and so on usually offer just one of these codecs, though they do occasionally let you choose between two or more. The number of channels refers to the number of speakers used to create a surround sound effect, such as stereo or 5.1.

All the major streaming services use Dolby while video games tend to support it and DTS. These two technologies have been around for some time, so there are a few different versions available with different audio quality and support for additional channels.

Dolby and DTS are the baseline versions that support stereo or surround sound. However, they compress the signal. DolbyTrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio however, can do the same thing with an uncompressed signal, so the quality is much better.

What's Dolby Atmos (and DTS-X)?

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology that expands upon 5.1 and 7.1 systems. Instead of sending tracks to specified speakers around your ears, Atmos creates a spherical space that adds a sense of height. There's also a DTS equivalent called DTS-X, and both have started making their way into high-end soundbars. In fact, you've probably seen them advertised across the packaging.

How do they work?

Say a helicopter flies overhead on screen. 

  • 5.1 and 7.1 surround can send it front to back, left to right or all the way around on a horizontal plane.
  • You may get a slight sense of height, but it won't sound lifelike. 
  • With Atmos/DTS-X (if it's done well) the aircraft can feel like it's above your head with a more immersive feel.
  • This effect is called positioning or object based surround, which fits into the broader category of 3D audio.
  • To achieve this, proper 3D audio configurations require a number of speakers around the room and on the roof to truly fill the space.
  • Your amplifier/receiver is programmed to identify where the sound should be in relation to your room, thus creating the 3D effect.

Soundbars claim to replicate the effect via clever speaker positioning:

  • In addition to speakers that bounce sounds off your walls, Atmos and/or DTS-X enabled soundbars include speakers angled towards the roof.
  • This sends sound diagonally up, where it bounces back down towards your ears, to simulate the sense of height.
  • Though it can be effective, this simulated approach rarely sounds as good as a dedicated Atmos or DTS-X setup.

It's still early days for Atmos and DTS-X in the consumer space, which is why we are only just starting to incorporate this content into our tests although the results won't be included in our overall score yet. But given that brands and retailers are touting this as an amazing new feature, it's important to understand what you may be buying into.

We suggest connecting your soundbar with a new HDMI cable, as this will support the uncompressed version of Dolby and DTS, as well as Dolby Atmos and DTS-X (as long as the soundbar can decode them). However, you can use optical, RCA and so on, but this will limit performance. Our guide on how to connect your TV to your soundbar covers this in detail.

How much do soundbars cost?

In our latest soundbar reviews, we tested models ranging in price from $100 to $4000.

If you want to upgrade to an Atmos/DTS-X soundbar, you'll also need a Bluray/4K player, and content, that supports this format. Check the back of the box, or video information on streaming services such as Netflix, for Atmos, DTS-X, or both, to confirm if the content you're viewing supports 3D audio.