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Speakers

Sound bar vs. speakers: Which TV audio system sounds best in 2019?

Whether you're looking at a sound bar or a full surround sound system, these are the tips you need to help you spend your money wisely.

003-klipsch-reference-theater-pack

The Klipsch Reference Theater Pack is a set of ultra-compact 5.1 surround speakers with a wireless subwoofer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you want to upgrade your TV sound, the big choice is between the convenience and affordability of a sound bar and the sound quality and extra expense of a dedicated multispeaker system. 

Each type has its pros and cons, but each will enable you to experience better-quality sound in your movies and TV shows. They can also stream music from your phone or voice assistant, like Alexa or Google Assistant.

Where do you start? First, you'll need to decide how much you want to spend, and how much of your living space you're willing to give up. Sound bars require less money and space, while multispeaker surround setups take more of both.

Here are the things you need to know.

How much do you want to spend?

One of the main advantages of a sound bar system is that you don't need to lay out as much cash. Excellent sound bars can be had for around $100, and spending $200 or more will get you something pretty great.

It takes more money to assemble a separate speaker system. You'll need at least two speakers and an AV receiver, which will cost at least $300. From there you'll have a platform that you can build and grow as your finances allow. 

Buying a complete 5.1 speaker set is even more expensive up front, but will give you full surround sound (with rear speakers, a center speaker for dialogue and a subwoofer for bass) and the results will be that much better. 

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Sound bars

Best budget sound bar

Vizio SB3621n-E8 ($130)

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The Vizio SB3621n-E8 ticks all of the boxes: affordable, great sound, and enough volume to fill your living space. It comes with a separate subwoofer, and it offers Bluetooth streaming. It sounds great with both movies and music alike.

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Best midrange sound bar

Polk Command Bar ($250)

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The Polk Command Bar offers the sound quality we've come to expect from a Polk sound bar, plus it includes the Alexa voice assistant. It's an Amazon Echo speaker in everything but name.

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If you're just starting out, the best way to upgrade your TV sound is with a sound bar. It's simple, everything you need is included in the box and it's easy to set up. There are only a couple of cables to connect, and they don't require multiple speakers in the room.

As we discuss in our sound bar buying guide, there are two main types: sound bars that are usually accompanied by a wireless sub, and sound bases. For most people, a sound bar is the best option, and the features to look for are Bluetooth and an optical and/or HDMI connection.

Advantages

  • Affordable
  • Easy to set  up.
  • Sounds a lot better than TV speakers.
  • Self-contained, so it doesn't need a separate box to make it work.
  • Some models include advanced features such as Atmos compatibility or surround speakers (or the ability to add them later). 

Disadvantages

  • Don't sound as good or play as loud as a full surround-sound system, especially in big rooms.
  • Usually can't upgrade individual components or add new surround formats.
  • Limited features compared to a receiver.
  • Spending more won't necessarily improve sound quality. (Sound bars can only be so big without blocking the TV).

Speakers and surround sound 

There are many different brands of receivers and speaker-makers that it can be hard to know where to start. Here's a solid "starter set" to give you an idea of what $700 buys.

Pioneer SP-PK52FS ($400)

The Pioneer SP-PK52FS is an excellent surround-sound package designed by one of our favorite speaker designers, Andrew Jones. It offers all the elements you need for movies and music and can be upgraded later if you need. The downside? Those big, ugly speakers.

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Onkyo TX-NR585 ($300)

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The Onkyo TX-NR585 is a great match for the Pioneer speakers as it offers home-theater thrills and great music replay. It's also loaded with streaming features, support for Dolby Atmos, and will allow you to control it via a Google Assistant smart speaker. It's CNET's current Editors' Choice.

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If you're a home-theater fan, then a surround-sound system is probably what you're after. Having a 2.1, 5.1 or full 5.1.4 Atmos delivers an audio experience, for both movies TV shows and movies, that can't be beat by a sound bar at any price. The sound is bigger and more enthralling, an advantage that's particularly important in large rooms.

At the very least ,you'll need a pair of stereo speakers and a receiver or integrated amp. You can also add surround speakers, Atmos heights and a subwoofer for sound that rivals your local cinema.

Though the complexity increases over a sound bar, adding a universal remote will help make the system more user-friendly for the less technical of your friends and family.

Advantages:

  • Better sound quality, including true surround effects with rear speakers.
  • Users are no longer bound by manufacturer and can mix and match as they like. 
  • Adding height or surrounds doesn't mean necessarily buying a whole new system.
  • Very flexible, as you can upgrade either the receiver or speakers at a later date. 

Disadvantages:

  • Costs more than a sound bar.
  • Takes up more space.
  • More complex.
  • Wires and more wires.

Other alternatives

Powered speakers: There is an increasing number of powered speakers designed to fill the gap between sound bars and surround systems. These can be straightforward systems like the Klipsch RP-15M or more specialized offerings like the Roku Wireless speakers.

Headphones: Some TVs offer headphone jacks or Bluetooth outputs that enable you to connect a pair of headphones. There is a wide variety of models available for every price point. This option is particularly useful for use in environments where you don't want to disturb others. 

Which should you buy?

If you're looking for the simplest possible solution to improving TV sound, get a bar or maybe a pair of powered speakers first. There are plenty of affordable options available, and you don't need to sacrifice style for performance. The sweet spot is between $200 and $300, as spending more than that doesn't guarantee improved sound.

If you're serious about sound quality, separates are the only way to go. You can mix and match according to your needs, and it's easier to upgrade once new formats come in -- you won't need to replace everything if you want to add Dolby Atmos, for example.

Which ever option you choose, you will never be able to go back to tinny, little TV speakers ever again. Happy listening!