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.
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.
Plug and play
In most cases, you can connect soundbars with a couple of cables and optimise sound for your room with a few settings. You may have a few input options including HDMI, optical (Toslink) and RCA, but nothing that compares to the complexity of a traditional receiver. These are crammed with so many options, you need to sit down and really learn the ins and outs of almost everything to get the best audio outcome. Soundbars are much simpler.
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.
- 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.
Most soundbars support common cable formats, the big ones being:
- Optical (aka Toslink or digital RCA)
- RCA (the red and white stereo cables).
This should cover 99 percent of modern entertainment devices in your home. And if you have an average set of ears, that can't detect the nuances between audio options, then HDMI or optical will suit you just fine (RCA stereo is a little long in the tooth and best avoided). However, you may need to use a specific cable type if you want to enjoy the highest audio quality available.
There are a few broad audio options encoded in most movies, TV shows and video games:
These dictate how the sound goes from the disc, to your ears, and each one does things a little differently (e.g. more bass, punchier vocals and so on). They've been around for a some time, through a number of iterations that have gradually improved in quality over the years. This has caused some cables to become redundant:
- 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, Atmos, DTS-HD 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 support these modern formats.
- 5.1/7.1 analogue outputs work too, but they're typically limited to high-end players and soundbars.
So, if your soundbar, and the content you're watching, supports one of these formats (which you can see on the back of the Blu-ray box), 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.
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.
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.