Story by Nick Hastings via our partner site, Digital Trends /
These days, even the cheapest televisions are rocking pristine, high definition displays. You can sort through Amazon’s bargain bin, pinching pennies like Scrooge McDuck, and still come away with a TV screen detailed enough to make out the individual hairs on a spider’s leg. But in the age of 4K Ultra HD and HDR color, there’s still one aspect where modern TVs don’t cut it: sound. It’s no surprise that wallpaper-thin screens don’t have room for top-tier speakers, but what’s the best solution? The most popular option: soundbars. They’re slim, unobtrusive, and easy to set up. But figuring out how to buy a soundbar can be difficult, given the diversity of options and the confusing numerical suffixes attached.
HRAC‘s site partner Digital Trends is here to help, and our soundbar buying guide will tell you what you need to know when shopping for one. So, read on and prepare yourself for a viewing experience filled with sweet, sweet sound. Don’t let your dreams be dreams, as Shia Labeouf would say!
Regardless of which soundbar you choose, it’ll be a major improvement over the internal speakers of just about any modern TV. Still, there are decisions to be made, and the first one’s extra important: Should you get a soundbar with a subwoofer, or without?
Subwoofers are speaker drivers dedicated to the reproduction of low-pitched frequencies — think rumbling bass, exploding bombs, the whump-whump of a helicopter’s blades. A soundbar with a subwoofer will add punch and rumble to TV shows and movies, creating a fuller sound and more effectively projecting audio across the room. If you plan on watching lots of action movies or movies with epic music, you’ll likely want a subwoofer.
For the most part, you’ll need just one cable to connect a soundbar with your TV. Some soundbars use optical cables, which work fine, but HDMI is preferable: The HDMI interface supports more audio formats than does optical, which effectively means you’ll get higher quality sound that’s more immersive with HDMI.
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Additionally, HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) is a protocol that appears on most HDMI cables, allowing the television and soundbar to more easily exchange information. It also allows you to control the volume with a single remote. Some soundbars can even act as entertainment hubs for your home, where you can plug in all your gear for simple, easy control.
Channels and Dolby Atmos
When shopping for soundbars, you’ll probably come across some confusing numbers. Labels like ‘2.0,’ ‘3.1,’ or ‘5.1’ are there to let you know A) how many channels a soundbar has, and B) whether or not it has a subwoofer. The first number (before the period) refers to the number of drivers, and the number after the period tells you whether there’s a subwoofer (1) or not (0). Two channels means two drivers, left and right, while three means left, right, and center; five adds channels for rear or surround sound speakers.
Often, a soundbar will come with wireless satellite speakers and a wireless subwoofer. These don’t need to connect physically with the soundbar itself, but they’ll need a power source, so you’ll have to position them near wall outlets (or get creative).
If there’s a third number — i.e. 5.1.4 — that means the soundbar supports Dolby Atmos surround sound. The number itself refers to the number of dedicated drivers that fire upwards at the ceiling, bouncing sound down to create an enveloping effect. Some surround speakers are actually built to be mounted on the ceiling itself. Atmos is currently the most popular surround sound technology, capable of processing 128 distinct objects in a given scene.
IR Sensors and Placement
Assuming you want to be able to control your TV (you do), you’ll need to be careful with where you place a soundbar. Typically, soundbars are at home directly below your TV — even mounted on the wall, if that’s where the TV is. But if you’re using an entertainment center, you don’t want the soundbar sitting on it in front of your TV’s infrared (IR) sensor, which is where the remote control directs its signal.
Some soundbars come with IR repeaters; these pass the signal through the soundbar itself to the TV’s sensor. If yours has one, awesome — just make sure the soundbar isn’t obscuring the screen. Generally speaking, you want a soundbar that’s approximately the same width as your TV; soundbar proportions are mostly an aesthetic factor, though, and shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
If a soundbar isn’t for you, or if you’ve got more available real estate on an entertainment center below the TV, it’s worth looking into soundbases as well. A soundbase is similar to a soundbar, except noticeably thicker, with more room for big drivers and built-in amplification. If you want bass without the hassle of a standalone subwoofer, a high-quality soundbase might be a good fit.
If you do decide on a soundbase, consider its measurements to make sure the TV stand will either fit on the surface of the soundbase, or that the soundbase will slide under the TV and fit comfortably between its legs.