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Soundbar vs. Speakers: Which TV Audio System Is Best for You in 2024?

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

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Ty_Pendlebury.jpg
Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
Ty Pendlebury
6 min read
a Klipsch sound system and a TV showing a rock band
Klipsch

If you want to upgrade your TV's sound, the big choice is between the convenience and affordability of a soundbar, and the superior sound quality -- and extra cost -- of a dedicated surround-sound system. Both will enable you to experience high-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. and may also enable control from voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant. Soundbars and speaker systems both have their pros and cons, so where do you start?

Here's what you need to know.

How much do you want to spend?

Sonos Ray

The Sonos Ray is an affordable soundbar that offers multiroom music.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

First, you'll need to decide what your budget is, 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. 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 that 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.

Soundbars

Number of channels 2Wireless subwoofer NoConnections Bluetooth, optical, HDMI, USBDolby Atmos No

The Roku Streambar is both insanely affordable and surprisingly talented. It will lift the sound of dialog in your movies to make it more understandable, but the speaker's secret weapon is its built-in 4K streamer. It's easy to use and sounds great.

Read our Roku Streambar review.

klipsch cinema soundbar
Sarah Tew/CNET
Number of channels 2.1Wireless subwoofer YesConnections Bluetooth, 3.5mm, optical, HDMI, USB, subwoofer outDolby Atmos No

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 power for your next movie night.

Read our Klipsch Cinema 400 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 the best features to look for are Bluetooth and a HDMI-ARC or optical digital connection.

Soundbar advantages

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

Soundbar 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.)

Read more: Best Soundbars of 2024

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 $900 buys. First, pick your speakers and then add a receiver.

Either...

001-klipsch-reference-theater-pack
Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Or...

01-elac-debut-2-0-6-2
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 decent price tag to boot. Usually selling for $400 they are currently on sale for $330.

Read our Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 review.

Then add...

onkyo-tx-nr6100-receiver-cnet-review-2021-003
Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Onkyo TX-NR6100 is the best receiver under $1,000 and offers everything you need to build a great system. It offers 8K video compatibility (for whenever you might need that), streaming features and support for Dolby Atmos. It sounds amazing for the money and is simpatico with Klipsch speakers in particular.

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 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 $399.

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 I've summarized below.

Surround system 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.

Surround system disadvantages

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

Read more: Best AV Receivers of 2024

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 $179 Klipsch RP-15M or more specialized offerings like the Roku Wireless speakers.

Headphones: Most TVs offer headphone jacks while newer TVs also include Bluetooth outputs to connect wireless headphones. We especially love the Roku Smart Remote which comes with a 3.5mm jack onboard for use with Roku TVs and streamers. Headphones are particularly useful for use in environments where you don't want to disturb others and they can be bought quite cheaply. 

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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