Sound bar buying guide: What you need to know

Sound bars are the cheapest and easiest way to get better sound in your living room. Here's what's important, what's not, and why you should still consider a simple stereo system.

Vizio SB4021M-A1
Sarah Tew/CNET

For most people, sound bars are the best way to get better sound quality in the living room. They're simple and inexpensive, and don't have all the frustrating wires that come with a true surround-sound system. Sound bars don't sound as good as true separate speakers -- especially with music -- but if you're mostly looking for better sound with movies and TV shows, they're vastly better than your TV's built-in speakers.

So which sound bar should you buy? A good place to start is CNET's list of best sound bars. At the moment, the sound bar with the widest appeal is the Sony HT-CT260 , although there's strong competition from Vizio's 5.1-channel S4251w-B4 sound bar and SpeakerCraft's sleek CS3 .

But before diving into specific products, it's worth brushing up on the different types of sound bars offered, what features are important, and why you may be better off buying a simple stereo system instead.

Traditional vs. pedestal design

Toshiba SBX4250
Toshiba SBX4250: a typical "traditional" sound bar Sarah Tew/CNET

There are two main types of sound bar designs. The most common design is quite literally a sound bar: it's a long, thin speaker that's typically paired with a wireless subwoofer. The sound bar can be wall-mounted or, more commonly, placed on your TV stand in front of the TV. It's largely a hassle-free design, although with some notable drawbacks , including some models blocking your TV's remote sensor.

Speakercraft CS3
The Speakercraft CS3 is the best pedestal sound bar you can buy. Sarah Tew/CNET

Pedestal-style sound bars are even sleeker than the more traditional bar design. "Pedestal" refers to the fact that they are designed to sit under your TV; they actually end up looking more like part of your TV stand than a speaker, plus they never block the TV's remote sensor. Zvox pioneered this design, but there are now several companies that use the pedestal design. (I did a roundup of the most popular pedestal sound bars in late 2012.)

The main drawback of the pedestal design is bass, or lack thereof. Pedestal sound bars lack a separate subwoofer and just can't produce the same kind of deep bass that traditional sound bars with wireless subwoofers do. There are some exceptions, but if you're looking for powerful bass, you should generally stick with the traditional sound bar design. Of course, the best of both worlds would be a pedestal sound bar paired with a wireless subwoofer, but I haven't seen one yet.

Use your TV as a switcher and don't worry about inputs

If you look at the back of many sound bars, you may be surprised to see just a few audio-only inputs, which doesn't seem helpful in modern home theaters filled with HDMI-equipped gadgets.

Sonos Playbar back panel
The Sonos Playbar only has one audio input on the back: an optical input. Sarah Tew/CNET

But the sparse back panel is by design. Nowadays, most manufacturers expect you to use your HDTV to switch among devices. The idea is you connect all your home theater devices directly to the TV, then connect your TV's optical audio output to the sound bar. It's a simpler overall design, since you only have to switch inputs on one device (your TV), instead of having to also switch inputs on your sound bar. (For more information, read my guide to using your TV as a switcher .)

Panasonic UT50 back panel
Most HDTVs these days have an optical audio output, but no analog audio output. Sarah Tew/CNET

There are some drawbacks to this configuration. For one, you're limited by how many inputs your TV has; if your TV only has three inputs, you can only connect three devices. You can get around this using an HDMI switcher, but then you start adding complexity you were probably hoping to avoid by getting a sound bar in the first place.

And if you really want to get geeky, there's the issue that most TVs downgrade incoming audio to stereo, rather than a true surround-sound signal. It's not a big issue on most sound bars, which wouldn't sound any better with a true surround-sound signal in the first place. There are some annoying niche instances where TVs will output a true Dolby Digital signal, which can be a problem if your sound bar doesn't have Dolby Digital decoding -- there's more information in the FAQ below if you're interested. For most people, it's not something to worry about.

Even with these drawbacks, for most people using your TV as a switcher is the way to go. So when you're buying a sound bar, you don't need to worry about how many inputs it has, as long as there's an optical audio output on the back.

Built-in Bluetooth is worth it

Features and inputs are overrated on sound bars, with one big exception: built-in Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your smartphone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app (think Pandora), plus it's platform-agnostic -- nearly all iOS, Android, and Windows 8 phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth. If your music experience these days revolves around your phone, you really want built-in Bluetooth.

Belkin Bluetooth adapter
While it's possible to add Bluetooth later with an adapter, it's not an ideal solution. Sarah Tew/CNET

If a sound bar lacks built-in Bluetooth, it's possible to add it later with an adapter (like Belkin's or Logitech's ), but that's not a great solution since inputs are typically limited on sound bars. The adapters are also more cumbersome if you use your TV as a switcher -- you need to connect it to an analog input and have your TV on a blank screen when you want to stream music.

Most 2013 sound bars feature built-in Bluetooth, so there's less of a reason than in the past to settle for a sound bar without Bluetooth.

Alternative: Consider a basic stereo system

I'm a fan of sound bars if you're simply trying to get better sound than what comes out of your TV. But if you care about audio even a little -- and especially if you love music -- you should consider a simple stereo system. A basic two-channel stereo system is only slightly more complicated than a sound bar and it sounds much better, especially with music, which sound bars don't handle well.

Pioneer SP-FS52
A pair of tower speakers just sounds better. Sarah Tew/CNET

For example, pair up Pioneer's excellent SP-FS52 tower speakers ($250 per pair) with a compact integrated amplifier like the Onkyo A-5VL ($370). The Onkyo amp has an optical input, so you can take advantage of your TV's capability as a switcher, just like sound bars do. The only hassle is running speaker wire from the amp to the speakers, but it's not that arduous for two front speakers. And if Pioneer's speakers aren't to your taste, Polk Audio's TSi300 ($420 per pair) offer a more stylish look.

And for most people, I'd say a simple 2.0 (left/right stereo speakers) or 2.1 (left/right plus subwoofer) setup is a better idea than going for a full 5.1 surround system (five speakers plus subwoofer). Surround sound is great, but there's a lot more hassle and bulk involved. 5.1-channel speaker systems also ask you to spread out your home audio budget over five speakers, instead of investing in two great speakers up front, where most of the sound comes from anyway.

Sound bars are still going to be the go-to option for most buyers, but a basic stereo system is a seriously underrated, better-sounding alternative. The components cost a little more upfront, but they'll likely last far longer than your sound bar.

FAQs

My sound bar didn't come with a remote! What gives?
Many sound bars don't include a remote, instead relying on you to program the sound bar to respond to commands from your TV's remote.

In theory, it's not a bad idea: nobody wants another remote to deal with. In practice, it's sometimes more problematic. After you disable your TV's internal speakers, some televisions display an annoying status message whenever they receive volume remote commands, which will happen if you're using your TV remote to control your sound bar.

TV error message
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

The easiest workaround for this issue is using your cable box's remote with a volume control or using a universal remote .

Do I need a sound bar with a front-panel display?
A surprising number of sound bars don't have a true front-panel display, so you don't get much (or any) visual feedback as to how loud the volume is or what input you're on.

Zvox Z-Base 420 front-panel display
The Zvox Z-Base 420's front-panel display is nice, although not a must-have. Sarah Tew/CNET

A front-panel display is certainly nice -- especially if it's well-hidden, like on the Zvox Z-Base 420 -- but I don't think they're essential. Generally, you just turn the volume up to a comfortable level and it doesn't matter much if you're at "20" or "30."

What about passive sound bars?
Most sound bars you see at retailers are "active sound bars," meaning that they have built-in amplification and don't need a separate AV receiver. There are also passive sound bars, which are typically more expensive and lack amplification, so you need a separate AV receiver.

GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array
Passive sound bars like the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array can sound good, but require a lot more hassle than active sound bars. GoldenEar

In general, I'm not a fan of passive sound bars. Adding an AV receiver increases the system cost quite a bit, plus you add more clutter by needing to run speaker wire from the receiver to the sound bar. For that price and hassle, you'll get much better sound from a stereo setup with an amp and a pair of good speakers.

Outside of some niche scenarios, I'd say get a standard (active) sound bar or go with traditional, full-size speakers.

Do I need Dolby Digital on my sound bar?
For most people, the short answer is no, but the long answer is more complicated.

If you use your TV as a switcher, the TV will likely convert any incoming audio to a two-channel PCM signal, which is playable by sound bars without Dolby Digital decoding. There are a few exceptions: using your TV's internal tuner, using your TV's internal Smart TV features, and TVs that offer true Dolby Digital pass-through.

If you use your TV's internal tuner to pick up over-the-air TV signals, chances are it will pass a Dolby Digital signal to your sound bar. And if your sound bar doesn't have Dolby Digital decoding, you won't hear any audio. You might be able to adjust the settings in the setup menu, or use your TV's analog audio output (if it has one), but if you use your TV's tuner, then I'd get a sound bar with Dolby Digital decoding.

Some TVs' Smart TV features also output a Dolby Digital signal, in which case you'll need to use the same workarounds. (Or just buy a Roku 3 .) If you're one of the lucky owners of a TV that will actually pass through a true Dolby Digital signal, you may be able to adjust the settings on your TV or on your source device, such as your Blu-ray player.

The one thing you typically shouldn't worry about is your sound bar getting "just" a stereo signal as opposed to a true Dolby Digital surround-sound track. Sound bars typically don't sound much different between the two options, especially since they're not creating a true surround-sound experience in the first place. (One exception is the Sonos Playbar , which sounds considerably better with a true Dolby Digital signal, especially when used in conjunction with other Sonos speakers.)

Editors' note: This story was originally published on March 19, 2013. It has been updated to reflect recent reviews.
 

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