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How to buy a soundbar in 2019

For many people, soundbars are the best way to get better audio quality from a TV. They're simple to install, without all the speakers and frustrating wires that come with a surround-sound system. While most soundbars don't sound as good as separate speakers -- especially with music -- they're still vastly better than your TV's built-in speakers.

So which soundbar should you buy? A good place to start is CNET's list of best soundbars, but if you just want a quick recommendation, here you go. All three of these represent the best we've tested at their price points as of late 2019.

Read More: Best Soundbars 2019

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. Read CNET's review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In a competitive field it's the Yamaha YAS-209 which emerges as the best soundbar with Amazon Alexa onboard. The Yamaha offers excellent sound quality and enough connectivity to suit most users. Read our Yamaha YAS-209 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Though there are more expensive, better-sounding Atmos soundbars, the excellent Vizio SB36512-F6 offers the best value in this category. It brings refined atmospheric effects to a compact soundbar with rear speakers and a sub -- all for a very affordable price. Read our VIZIO SB36512-F6 review.

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 soundbar do I need?

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Soundbars are sometimes designed to match the width of certain TVs.

Sony

Soundbars come in all shapes and sizes: from under a foot long to wider than a big-sceen TV. While the larger soundbars sometimes offer more drivers and hence a bigger sound, there are others where all you're paying for is a longer box.

Take note that because televisions are measured diagonally, the length of a soundbar doesn't correspond directly to the screen size of your TV. Of course the soundbar may not necessarily match the width of your TV, even if they're both by the same manufacturer. There are two options, the first is to check the width of your TV compared to screen size try this handy chart, or more accurately, you can check the width of both models in the manufacturers' spec sections before you buy.

If matching the dimensions precisely isn't as important you can try the following guide:

Soundbar lengths for TV screen sizes

Speaker length (in inches) Recommended TV screen size
12 Any
38 to 45 42-inch to 50-inch
50 55-inch to 65-inch
60 70-inch and larger

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 between the TV and the speaker, but the increasing prevalence of HDMI soundbars means you know have a choice between the two input types. The idea is you connect all your home theater devices directly to the TV, then connect your TV's HDMI ARC (audio return channel) or optical output to the soundbar. It's a simple overall design, since you only have to switch inputs using your TV remote. (For more information, read our guide to using your TV as a switcher.)

Panasonic UT50 back panel

Most TVs these days have both an optical audio output and HDMI ARC.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Given the ease of use, using the TV as a switcher is the way to go for most people. 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 soundbar 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 soundbars, usually at the $200-and-over mark, do include multiple HDMI inputs, which you'll need if you want to connect AV devices directly to the soundbar (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 4K and HDR signals -- especially if you already have a 4K TV. 

If the soundbar only has an HDMI ARC input, be aware that you can't connect a source directly to it. Connect your set top devices to the TV first and then connect a cable between the TV's HDMI ARC port and the soundbar.  

Do I need Bluetooth or Wi-Fi music?

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The Sonos Beam is a soundbar with support for wireless music and multiple voice assistants

Juan Garzon/CNET

While many features are superfluous when it comes to soundbars, 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 Spotify on your phone, or iTunes on your computer -- via your soundbar.

Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your phone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your device 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 soundbar on the market features Bluetooth, and if it doesn't you can buy an adapter like Belkin's or Logitech'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 Play-Fi, AirPlay and Chromecast -- not to mention proprietary manufacturer ones such as Sonos -- so it's worth investigating Wi-Fi music options before you buy

The most cost-effective system right now is Google's Chromecast which also allows multi-room playback and control with the Google Assistant. 

Do I need Alexa or Google Assistant built-in?

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The Polk Command Bar has an Echo-like lighting ring

Sarah Tew/CNET

In 2019 a lot of soundbars offer built-in voice assistants from either Amazon, Google or both (in the case of the Sonos Beam). The argument goes like this: why buy a Nest Mini and a soundbar when you can combine the two in one device? It saves space and looks nicer, especially if you're wall mounting the speaker.

Buying a voice assistant speaker depends on how comfortable you are with an "always on" microphone in your living space. If you have an Echo Dot speaker or two already then it makes total sense, and models such as the Polk Command Bar will also enable you to control the functions of the soundbar 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 the Amazon Echo Link will let you add Alexa capability to any soundbar 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?

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The Samsung HW-Q70R is an Atmos-ready soundbar.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the past, two-channel soundbars typically didn't sound much different between stereo and surround modes, but the arrival of technologies such as Dolby Virtual:X and wall-bouncing speakers have really improved the immersion you get from from single bars. We were impressed by the sound of two particular models in 2019: the Samsung HW-Q70R and the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar. Both were able to produce near-surround-sound without the use of rear speakers. 

Adding optional surrounds does help most bars achieve better surround. The Sonos Playbar paired with the Ikea Synfonisks, for example, gains a tremendous sense of immersion when playing movies. This ability to add surround speakers to existing 'bars is now supported by many midrange soundbars, across brands such as Polk, 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. 

In the last few years we've saw an explosion in the number of Atmos soundbars released, with the price finally dipping under $500 in 2019. While Netflix and other streaming services now offer movies and TV shows with Atmos soundtracks, 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. 

What is the difference between a soundbar and a sound base?

The most common design for soundbars 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 soundbar 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.

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The Sonos Playbase ($699, £649, AU$995) is CNET's favorite sound base

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Sonos Playbase, but this style has sadly fallen out of fashion. The main reason is that 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.

Apart from limited availability, the other potential drawback of the pedestal design is bass, or lack thereof. Sound bases typically lack a separate subwoofer and struggle to produce the same kind of deep bass that traditional soundbars with subwoofers are capable of.

Do I need to use the remote that comes with the soundbar?

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

Do I need a soundbar with a front-panel display?

Zvox Z-Base 420 front-panel display

A legit front-panel display is nice, but not a must-have.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A surprising number of soundbars 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 Zvox SB500 -- 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 soundbars, and here we're thinking of 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.

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 soundbars and dig in.