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Soundbar vs. Speakers: Which TV Audio System is Best For You?

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

a Klipsch sound system and a TV showing a rock band

If you want to upgrade your TV's sound, the big choice is between the convenience and affordability of a soundbar, or the superior sound quality -- and extra cost -- of a dedicated surround-sound system. Both will enable you to experience better quality sound, including Dolby Atmos, for your movies and TV shows. Both can also offer streaming music via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi from your phone or enable control via a voice assistant such as 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 AV 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. If you're spending over $500 on a soundbar though, you should think about separates.

It may take more time and money to assemble a separate speaker system, but the effort is well worth it. For this, you'll need at least a pair of stereo speakers ($200 and up) and an AV receiver which will cost at least $300 on its own. The advantage to all of this is that you'll then have a platform which you can build upon and grow as your finances allow. 

Buying a complete 5.1-or-more speaker set may be 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 an AV receiver and decent stereo speakers, and you can upgrade over time.


The Vizio V21 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.


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If sound quality is your main aim, they don't sound any better for the money than the Klipsch Cinema 400. It boasts exposed tweeters for enhanced aesthetics as well as a sonic boost. The subwoofer also offers plenty of grunt for your next movie night.

Read our Klipsch Cinema 400 review.


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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.


  • 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) 


  • 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 $1,100-plus buys. First, pick your speakers and then add a receiver.

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

Read our Klipsch Reference Theater Pack review.



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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 decent price tag to boot. Usually selling for $400 they are currently on sale for $260.

Read our Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 review.


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Then add...

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The Denon AVR-S960H may not be the flashiest receiver around, but it's a solid foundation to build a surround system on. It offers 8K video compatibility (for whenever you might need that), streaming features and support for Dolby Atmos. As many of its competitors are either out of stock or going end-of-life this Denon is the best bet right now.

Read our Denon AVR-S960H review.


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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 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 $330.

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.


  • 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.


  • 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 $275 Klipsch RP-15M or more specialized offerings like the Roku Wireless speakers.

Headphones: Some TVs offer headphone jacks or Bluetooth outputs which 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 any 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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