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How to buy a soundbar in 2021

Buying a soundbar is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to upgrade the sound of your television. Here's the questions you should be asking.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 for the prices as of early 2021.

If you want the maximum amount of performance for a minimum outlay, the Vizio V21 offers excellent performance for under $200. It offers HDMI and Bluetooth connectivity plus a wireless subwoofer. It sounds great and doesn't look too shabby either.

Read our Vizio V21 review.

 

Read more: Best soundbars with Amazon Alexa    

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.

 

Read more: Best Dolby Atmos soundbar    

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. Get one before they sell out.

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?

sony-sound-bar

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-screen 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.

If you want the soundbar to be exactly the same width as your TV then take note. Televisions are measured diagonally while soundbars are measured lengthways, so a 46-inch TV won't match up with a 46-inch wide speaker, for example. Buying a soundbar that is designed by the same manufacturer may help but it's not guaranteed. If you want them to match you have two main options, a) check the width of your TV compared to screen size with this handy chart, or b) 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

HDMI eARC, Optical: Which connections do I want?

For a long time, most soundbars were connected via an optical output between the TV and the speaker, but the increasing prevalence of ARC (audio return channel) and even newer eARC HDMI means you now have a choice of connection types. The idea is you connect all your home theater devices directly to the TV, then connect your TV's HDMI  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.  If you have a more expensive soundbar with Dolby Atmos you will need a TV which can pass these signals over HDMI. Look for HDMI 2.1 or eARC compatibility.   

Do I need Bluetooth or Wi-Fi music?

sonos-beam

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 those made by Belkin or Logitech

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 two main "open" standards, AirPlay and Chromecast built-in, plus numerous app- and manufacturer-specific ones such as Spotify Connect, Sonos and Yamaha MusicCast. With so many options it's worth investigating Wi-Fi music options before you buy

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

Do I need Alexa or Google Assistant built-in?

19-polk-command-bar

The Polk Command Bar has an Echo-like lighting ring

Sarah Tew/CNET

In 2020 a lot of soundbars offered built-in voice assistants from either Amazon, Google or both (in the case of the Sonos Beam). The argument went 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.

There is one main problem with this, however: If you utter the voice assistant's wake word (eg "Hey Google") the sound of your program goes away until you tell it something. It's much easier to have a second device in the same room which can also control the soundbar  -- you can ask a question and your show goes on uninterrupted. Both Echo and Google Assistant devices are smart enough to work with lots of background noise. As a result there are much fewer soundbar models which still sport voice assistants onboard this year.  

Buying a soundbar with a voice assistant on board does cut down on clutter, although it depends on how comfortable you are with an "always on" microphone in your living space if you haven't had one before. If you have an Echo Dot ($20 at Amazon) 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 or Echo Dot will let you add Alexa capability and music to any soundbar with an analog input (most have them), but in the case of the Link you'll need to turn to that input to hear its responses.

Do I need surround sound or Dolby Atmos?

Sonos Arc
Ty Pendlebury/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 recent models: the Sonos Arc 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. Adding the Ikea Symfonisks to the Arc for example, adds 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 seen an explosion in the number of Atmos soundbars released, with the price finally dipping under $500, though be careful as some only simulate Atmos. Look for dedicated height speakers to be sure. 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. 

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.