For many people, sound bars are the best way to get better sound quality from a TV.
They're simple and inexpensive, and don't have all the frustrating wires that come with a true surround-sound system. While most sound bars don't sound as good as true separate speakers -- especially with music -- 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, but if you just want a quick recommendation, here you go. All three of these represent the best we've tested (as of February, 2019) at their price points.
If you want the maximum amount of performance for a minimum outlay, the Vizio SB3621n-E8 is CNET's Editor's Choice in the budget category. It offers Bluetooth connectivity and a wireless subwoofer. It sounds great and doesn't look too shabby either.
The Polk Command Bar is the best sound bar with an onboard voice assistant (Alexa). While it's going to see plenty of competition this year, it will remain a dynamic performer with a pleasing Amazon Echo vibe.
It may be getting a little long in the tooth and lack Dolby Atmos, but the Sony HT-NT5 nevertheless offers excellent performance for the money. It also adds HDMI switching for some added flexibility.
Want to know more? Here's a quick primer on which features are the most important for your needs and other stuff you should know.
Which size sound bar do I need?
Sound bars come in all shapes and sizes: from under a foot long to as long as a person. While the larger sound bars sometimes offer more drivers and hence a bigger sound, at others all you're paying for is longer boxes.
Take note that the length of a sound bar doesn't correspond directly to the screen size of your TV, as televisions are measured diagonally. Using this handy chart will help you work out the typical width of your TV compared to screen size.
Sound bar lengths for TV screen sizes
|Length in inches||TV screen size|
|38 to 45||42-inch to 50-inch|
|50||55-inch to 65-inch|
|60||70-inch and larger|
Of course the sound bar may not necessarily match the width of your TV, even if they're both by the same manufacturer. So if this is important to you, check the width of both models in the manufacturers' spec sections before you buy.
Which connections do I want?
Many manufacturers still expect you to use your TV to switch among devices. For a long time this involved using an optical output but the prevalence of HDMI sound bars means you know have a choice between the two formats. The idea is you connect all your home theater devices directly to the TV, then connect your TV's HDMIor optical output to the sound bar. It's a simple overall design, since you only have to switch inputs using your TV remote. (For more information, read .)
Given the ease of use, using the TV as a switcher is the way to go for most people, as long as there's an optical audio output on the back.
There are some drawbacks to this configuration, though. 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 could 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. Another issue is that most TVs downgrade incoming audio to stereo, rather than a true surround-sound signal. Most bars are stereo-only, but surround-capable bars work best with a surround input.
Many newer sound bars, usually at the $200-and-over mark, do include actual HDMI inputs, which you'll need if you want to connect AV devices directly to the sound bar (rather than route them through the TV). For the sake of future proofing, look for at least three inputs and try to make sure they can pass -- especially if you already have a 4K TV. If the sound bar only has an input, be aware that you can't connect a cable box or Blu-ray player to this. Connect your set top devices to the TV first and then connect a cable between the TV's HDMI ARC port and the sound bar.
Do I need wireless music?
While many features are superfluous when it comes to sound bars, there is one main exception: wireless streaming. This can take one of two main forms: Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Wireless streaming lets you play music from a multitude of sources -- like iTunes, a computer or streaming services -- on your sound bar.
Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your phone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app (for example Pandora or Spotify), plus it's platform-agnostic -- virtually all iOS, Android and Windows phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth. Likewise, almost every sound bar on the market features the wireless standard, and if it doesn't you can buy an adapter like 's or 's.
Wi-Fi offers several upgrades to Bluetooth including the ability to listen in multiple rooms and even control it with Google Assistant or Alexa. There are several competing "open" standards, including Sonos -- so it's worth .-- not to mention proprietary manufacturer ones such as
Do I need Alexa or Google Assistant built-in?
In 2019 you're going to see a lot of sound bars which offer built-in voice assistants from either Amazon, Google or both (in the case of the ). The argument goes like this: why buy a Google Home Mini and a sound bar when you can combine the two? It saves space and looks nicer, especially if you're wall mounting the speaker.
Buying a voice assistant depends on how comfortable you are with an "always on" microphones in your living space. If you have an Echo Dot speaker or two already then it makes total sense, and models such as the will also enable you to control the functions of the sound bar itself. You can also do cool stuff like turn off lights or ask for the weather.
If you're uncomfortable with the idea, think of it like a web browser: The assistant just sits there waiting for you to say the wake word and then responds (the vocal equivalent of a web search). The voice assistant apps even let you read back everything it records if you're concerned about privacy. However, if this is too much, you can simply opt for a model without the feature.
It's also worth mentioning that thewill let you add Alexa capability to any sound bar with an analog input (most have them), but you'll need to turn to that input to hear its responses (and music).
Do I need surround sound or Dolby Atmos?
Two-channel sound bars typically don't sound much different between stereo and surround modes, especially since they're not creating a true surround-sound experience in the first place.
Sound bars with optional surrounds, such as the LG and Samsung. Typically they use Wi-Fi to connect to standalone wireless speakers, but as this can add $300 to $400 to the cost, it can be an expensive option., are the obvious exception to this: they add a tremendous sense of immersion when playing movies. This ability to add surround speakers to existing 'bars is now supported by many midrange sound bars, across brands such as Polk,
Finally this brings us to. In the last few years we've saw an explosion in the number of Atmos sound bars released, with the price finally dipping under $500 in 2019. While , the number of titles is still dwarfed by the number of titles with surround audio. While it's worth considering an Atmos bar for some future proofing, it's still not an essential buy. When we find an Atmos bar we can recommend for the money we'll let you know.
What is the difference between a sound bar and a sound base?
The most common design for sound bars is quite literally a bar: it's a long, thin speaker that's often paired with a wireless subwoofer. The subwoofer can make a big difference, and if you have a choice between an "onboard" or separate sub, go for the discrete version. The sound bar can be wall-mounted or, more commonly, placed on the stand in front of the TV. It's largely a hassle-free design, although there can be some drawbacks including the potential to block your TV's remote sensor.
Sound bases are even sleeker than the more traditional bar design: they act as a pedestal for your TV and as a result never block the TV's remote sensor. Zvox pioneered this design, and despite excellent models such as the televisions have moved away from centralized pillars in favor of feet located at each end -- mostly for safety reasons. This effectively renders compact "bases" mostly unusable for large TVs while smaller, 40-inch TVs should still fit on them., but this style has sadly fallen out of fashion. The main reason is that
Apart from limited availability, the other drawback of the pedestal design is bass, or lack thereof. Sound bases lack a separate subwoofer and struggle to produce the same kind of deep bass that traditional sound bars with subwoofers are capable of.
Do I need to use the remote that comes with the sound bar?
While most sound bars include a remote, they're pretty crummy quality-wise, and most manufacturers enable you to use your TV's remote instead.
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 can 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. The easiest workaround for this issue is using your cable box's remote with a volume control or purchasing a.
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.
A front-panel display is certainly nice -- especially if it's well-hidden, like on the Vizio models, have a perplexing series of LEDs that are supposed to correspond with the input you're on, but are almost worse than no display at all.-- but we 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." Some sound bars, and here we're thinking of
What else do I need to know?
That about covers it. For more in-depth info, head over to our latest reviews of the best sound bars and dig in.