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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. For most people, the best solution is to plug your devices and soundbar into the TV separately, so all audio goes out via the television.

Most soundbars support these common cable formats:

  • HDMI
  • Optical (aka Toslink or digital RCA)
  • RCA (the red and white stereo cables).

HDMI is the best option as it has enough bandwidth to support the highest quality audio currently available. This covers all the major codecs – Dolby, DTS and PCM, including the Dolby Atmos and DTS-X object-based surround formats. For a detailed explanation, see "Dolby, DTS and surround sound explained" below.

Optical is fine, but it can't transmit high-quality audio like HDMI. It also caps out at 5.1, so you won't hear the added surround effects offered by 7.1, Atmos and DTS-X soundbars. RCA does the job but soundbars only support it in the stereo configuration so it should only be used as a last resort.

Getting connected

These steps are basically the same regardless of whether you own a Samsung, LG, Sony, JBL, Bose etc TV and/or soundbar. However, some settings may have slightly different names depending on the brand and model.

Firstly, figure out your connection options. Look for an HDMI port on your TV and soundbar labeled "ARC" or "eARC." There are two versions that let you send audio to the soundbar via HDMI:

  • Audio Return Channel (ARC): The original version of ARC that can deliver 5.1 surround including compressed Dolby and DTS.
  • Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC): The latest version of ARC with additional bandwidth, which supports uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 surround as well as Dolby Atmos and DTS-X object based surround.

Note, this will not work if the soundbar doesn't have an ARC/eARC input. Both the TV and the soundbar need ARC/eARC in order for the handshake to work. If this is available on your TV and soundbar then use it, as you'll get the best audio experience.

If your TV is older or doesn't support ARC, you'll need to use the optical port. This is often called Toslink, depending on manufacturer. Like HDMI, all you need to do is plug it in. If neither option is available you can use RCA and start looking for a new TV as it's probably time for an upgrade.

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ARC and eARC offer the best audio quality. Look for inputs like the one pictured here.

Adjusting the settings

Once you're all plugged in and everything is turned on, you'll need to tell your TV to send audio to the soundbar. You'll need to adjust two settings in the TVs audio options.

  1. Change the audio output from "TV speaker" to the cable type you used to connect the soundbar. This will be labelled "ARC", "eARC" or "optical."
  2. Look for a setting called "pass through" and turn it on or select it as the default audio option. This will tell the TV to take incoming audio from a broadcast or your external devices (e.g. set top box) and pass it through so the soundbar decodes it.

Some TVs give you the option to play audio through the TV speaker and soundbar at the same time. This can be handy if you only want to use the soundbar for things like movies, as audio will still come through the TV speakers even if the soundbar is turned off when you're watching the news for example. It's really a matter of personal preference so try watching your favorite movies, shows etc with the TV speaker on and off and go with whatever suits your ears.

Directly connecting a device

Some soundbars have one or two HDMI inputs that let you connect an external device rather than going via the TV. In this case, audio goes directly into the soundbar which then sends the picture to the TV for processing via HDMI out or ARC/eARC. It's basically the same approach you would use to connect things up to a home cinema receiver.

This can be useful if you want top quality audio but the TV doesn't support ARC. Let's say you're watching a movie on a 4K player. The 4K player will send the audio directly to the soundbar for processing while the image is passed through to the TV via regular HDMI. It's a handy little workaround for older TVs.

Connecting a soundbar with Bluetooth

Some soundbars include Bluetooth connectivity but this isn't designed to work with your TV. It actually operates more like a wireless speaker, the idea being that you can connect your phone, tablet, laptop and so on if you want to listen to music, podcasts etc on your soundbar.

Though you may be able to connect it to the TV via Bluetooth, you'll face a lot of issues. Audio quality will drop, there will be lip sync issues which throws the timing out of whack and it may be subject to interference if there are other Bluetooth devices nearby.

Dolby, DTS and surround sound explained

There are a few broad audio options encoded in most movies, TV shows and video games. The main ones are:

  • Dolby
  • DTS
  • PCM

These dictate how the sound goes from the disc/stream, to your ears, and each one does things a little differently (e.g. more bass, punchier vocals and so on). 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.

All the major streaming services use Dolby while video games tend to support both. If you're not sure, check the stream information or the back of the box where you should see which codec(s) are available.

All three have been around for a some time and they've through a number of iterations that have gradually improved in quality over the years. As a result, some cables don't have the bandwidth to provide the highest possible quality, even though you can still use them to connect your soundbar to the TV.

  • Older versions of Dolby and DTS require less bandwidth, and can run through RCA, optical (Toslink), coax and HDMI cables.
  • Recent iterations such as Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-X however, deliver higher-quality audio which requires much more bandwidth. These entered the consumer space around the same time as Blu-ray.
  • HDMI is the only practical cable with enough bandwidth to fully support these modern formats.
  • 5.1/7.1 analogue outputs work too, but they're typically limited to high-end players and soundbars.

You will also have access to different versions depending on whether your TV and soundbar supports ARC or eARC.

  • If your devices support ARC, then you can only hear the compressed versions of Dolby and DTS with a maximum of 5.1 surround.
  • If your devices support eARC, then you can enjoy the top quality uncompressed versions called Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Atmos and DTS-X. The original version of ARC does not support this high quality formats as it doesn't have enough bandwidth.

So, if your soundbar, and the content you're watching, supports one of these codecs, you will need to connect your player to the soundbar via HDMI. Older cables including RCA and Toslink will default to an older audio format, which won't sound as good.

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

Dolby Atmos is a new 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.

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.