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Soundbar vs. speakers: Which TV audio system is best for you?

Whether you're looking at a soundbar or a full surround sound system, we'll help you decide what works for your room and budget.

Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 Atmos speakers

The Focal Sib Evo 5.1.2 Atmos speakers, just add receiver

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you want to upgrade your TV sound, the big choice is between the convenience and affordability of a soundbar and the sound quality, hassle and extra expense of a dedicated surround sound system. Both will enable you to experience better-quality sound for your movies and TV shows. Both can also stream music via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi from your phone or enable control via a voice assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant. Sound bars and speaker systems both have their pros and cons, so 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. Soundbars require less money and space, while multispeaker surround setups take more of both. Let's break it down.

How much do you want to spend?

One of the main advantages of a soundbar system is that you don't need to lay out as much cash. Excellent soundbars 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 ($200-and-up) and an AV receiver that will cost at least $300 on its own. The advantage is that 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 its performance will be that much richer. 

TL:DR Got under $500 to spend? A soundbar is your best bet. Over $500? Get a stereo receiver and decent speakers and upgrade over time.

Soundbars

The Vizio M21d-H8 ticks all of the boxes: relatively affordable, great sound, and enough volume to fill your living space. It comes with HDMI connectivity, a wireless subwoofer and Bluetooth streaming. It sounds great with both movies and music alike.

Read our Vizio V21 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Yamaha YAS-209 is a significant upgrade on the previous model as it includes both Wi-Fi streaming and Amazon's Alexa voice assistant. It performs well and represents excellent value, especially if you can find it under $300.

Read our Yamaha YAS-209 review.

 

If you're just starting out, the best way to upgrade your TV sound is with a soundbar. 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 soundbar buying guide, there are two main types: soundbars that are usually accompanied by a wireless sub, and sound bases. For most people, a soundbar is the best option, and the features to look for are Bluetooth and an optical 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 Dolby 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. (Soundbars 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 $1,000 buys.

Klipsch Reference Theater Pack: $388

Sarah Tew/CNET

Usually a cool grand, the Klipsch is currently selling for a third of the price. With five discrete satellites and a capable subwoofer, this Klipsch system offers all the elements you need for both movies and music.

Read our Klipsch Reference Theater Pack review.

 

Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 $290

Sarah Tew/CNET

If the Klipsch is no longer on sale, then a pair of great stereo speakers could be all you need, and the Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 punches well above its weight. The pair offer eye-catching looks and a very attractive price tag to boot. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Onkyo TX-NR696 is a great match for both a stereo and a surround sound system as it offers home-theater thrills and great music replay. It's also loaded with streaming features and support for Dolby Atmos, and you can control it via a Google Assistant smart speaker. It's CNET's current Editors' Choice.

Read our Onkyo TX-NR696 review.

 

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 an Atmos 5.1.4-channel setup delivers an audio experience that can't be beat by a soundbar at any price. The sound is bigger and more enthralling, an advantage that's particularly important in large rooms. For instance the Klipsch Reference Theater Pack offers a big sound from a compact system. It's on sale at Amazon right now for $359.

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

Though the complexity increases over a soundbar, adding a universal remote will help make the system more user-friendly for the less technical of your friends and family. If you want to know more check out our receiver buying guide which can be summarized as below.

Advantages

  • Better sound quality, including true surround effects with rear speakers
  • You're no longer bound by manufacturer and can mix and match as you 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 soundbar
  • Takes up more space
  • More complex
  • Wires and more wires

Other alternatives

Powered speakers: There are an increasing number of powered speakers designed to fill the gap between soundbars and surround systems. These can be straightforward systems like the $250 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 for a soundbar is between $200 and $300, as spending more than that doesn't guarantee improved sound.

If you're serious about sound quality though, 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 8K video capability, for example.

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

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