Sound bar buying guide: What you need to know in 2017

polk-omni-sb-1-soundbar-12.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

For most 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. Most 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, 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.

Want to know more? Here's a quick primer on the different types of sound bars offered, which features are the most important for your needs and other stuff you should know.

Sound bar vs. sound base

lg-sh7b-soundbar-01.jpg

The LG SH7B is a typical example of a wireless sound bar and subwoofer combo.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are two main types of sound bars:

  • Sound bars
  • Sound bases, also known as pedestal sound bars

The most common design is quite literally a bar: it's a long, thin speaker that's often paired with a subwoofer, wireless or otherwise. 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 with some notable drawbacks, including some models blocking your TV's remote sensor.

Speakercraft CS3

The pedestal sound bar, or sound base, is a rare breed.

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, but it has sadly fallen out of fashion again. 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" unusable for large TVs. However, sound bases are still available and many smaller, 32-inch TVs will fit on them.

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 do.

What size sound bar do I need?

Sound bars come in all shapes in sizes: from under a foot long to as tall as a person. There are two main companies that offer sound bars in different lengths -- Vizio and Zvox. While sometimes the larger sound bars offer more drivers and hence a bigger sound, sometimes all you're paying is for longer boxes.

The length of a soundbar 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.

Typical lengths of sound bars are:

Length TV screen size
12 Any
38-45 42-inch to 50-inch
50 55-inch to 60-inch
60 70-inch

The sound bar may not necessarily match the width of your TV, even if it's 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.

Sonos Playbar back panel

The Sonos Playbar only has one audio input on the back: an optical input.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Which kind of connections do you need?

Many manufacturers still 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 simple 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 our 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

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.

Some newer soundbars, usually at the $500-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 4K and HDR signals -- especially if you already have a 4K TV.

Bluetooth and wireless streaming

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

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 phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth. If your music experience these days revolves around your phone, you really want built-in Bluetooth in your sound bar.

Belkin Bluetooth adapter

While it's possible to add Bluetooth later with an adapter, it's not an ideal solution.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Almost every sound bar on the market features built-in Bluetooth -- even the $100 ones -- so there's no reason to settle for a sound bar without it. If a sound bar somehow 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, and you also need to make sure your sound bar is already turned on and set to the correct input.

Despite its ubiquity, Bluetooth does have its issues: namely you get message alerts interrupting your music and the music cuts out if you leave the room with your phone. The way around this is to get Wi-Fi streaming. 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 these options before you buy. The most cost-effective right now is Google's Chromecast -- and even if your sound bar doesn't have wireless, you can add it with the purchase of a Chromecast Audio for $35, £28 or AU$59.

Other stuff to know

samsung-hw-k950-atmos-soundbar-01.jpg

The Samsung HW-K950 is a surround sound bar with dedicated Atmos height speakers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do I need surround sound? What about 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 Sonos Playbar, are the obvious exception to this: they simply sound better playing movies. This ability to add surround speakers to existing 'bars is now supported by many midrange sound bars, 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-$400 to the cost, it can be an expensive option.

And this brings us to Dolby Atmos. At CES 2017 we saw an explosion in the number of Atmos sound bars announced, with the price finally dipping under $1,000. While Netflix and Blu-ray discs now offer movies and TV shows with Atmos soundtracks, the number of titles is still dwarfed by the number of titles with surround audio. Buying surround speakers just for Atmos doesn't make financial sense just yet.

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, and most manufacturers instead rely 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?

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 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 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 sound bars, 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.

Close
Drag
Autoplay: ON Autoplay: OFF