Sound bar buying guide: What you need to know

Sound bars are the cheapest and easiest way to get better sound in your living room. Here's what's important, what's not and why you should still consider a simple stereo system.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

For most people, sound bars are the best way to get better sound quality in the living room. They're simple and inexpensive and don't have all the frustrating wires that come with a true surround-sound system. Sound bars don't sound as good as true separate speakers, especially with music, but if you're mostly looking for better sound with movies and TV shows, they're vastly better than your TV's built-in speakers.

Traditional vs. pedestal design

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

There are two main types of sound bar designs. The most common design is quite literally a sound bar: it's a long, thin speaker that's typically paired with a wireless subwoofer. The sound bar can be wall-mounted or, more commonly, placed on your TV stand in front of the TV. It's largely a hassle-free design, although with some notable drawbacks, including some models blocking your TV's remote sensor.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

Pedestal-style sound bars are even sleeker than the more traditional bar design. "Pedestal" refers to the fact that they are designed to sit under your TV; they actually end up looking more like part of your TV stand than a speaker, plus they never block the TV's remote sensor. Zvox pioneered this design, but there are now several companies that use the pedestal design. (I did a roundup of the most popular pedestal sound bars in late 2012.)

The main drawback of the pedestal design is bass, or lack thereof. Pedestal sound bars lack a separate subwoofer and just can't produce the same kind of deep bass that traditional sound bars with wireless subwoofers do. There are some exceptions, but if you're looking for powerful bass, you should generally stick with the traditional sound bar design.

Use your TV as a switcher and don't worry about inputs

If you look at the back of many sound bars, you may be surprised to see just a few audio-only inputs, which doesn't seem helpful in modern home theaters filled with HDMI-equipped gadgets.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

But the sparse back panel is by design. Nowadays, most manufacturers expect you to use your HDTV to switch among devices. The idea is you connect all your home theater devices directly to the TV, then connect your TV's optical audio output to the sound bar. It's a simpler overall design, since you only have to switch inputs on one device (your TV), instead of having to also switch inputs on your sound bar.

There are some drawbacks to this configuration. 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 can get around this using an HDMI switcher, but then you start adding complexity you were probably hoping to avoid by getting a sound bar in the first place.

Built-in Bluetooth is worth it

Features and inputs are overrated on sound bars, with one big exception: built-in Bluetooth. Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your smartphone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app (think Pandora), plus it's platform-agnostic, since nearly all iOS, Android, and Windows 8 phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth. If your music experience these days revolves around your phone, you really want built-in Bluetooth.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

If a sound bar lacks built-in Bluetooth, it's possible to add it later with an adapter (like Belkin's or Logitech's), but that's not a great solution since inputs are typically limited on sound bars. Most 2013 sound bars feature built-in Bluetooth, so there's less of a reason than in the past to settle for a sound bar without Bluetooth.

Alternative: Consider a basic stereo system

I'm a fan of sound bars if you're simply trying to get better sound than what comes out of your TV. But if you care about audio even a little, and especially if you love music, you should consider a simple stereo system. A basic two-channel stereo system is only slightly more complicated than a sound bar and it sounds much better, especially with music, which sound bars don't handle well.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

And for most people, I'd say a simple 2.0 (left/right stereo speakers) or 2.1 (left/right plus subwoofer) setup is a better idea than going for a full 5.1 surround system (five speakers plus subwoofer). Surround sound is great, but there's a lot more hassle and bulk involved.


My sound bar didn't come with a remote! What gives? Many sound bars don't include a remote, instead relying on you to program the sound bar to respond to commands from your TV's remote. In theory, it's not a bad idea: nobody wants another remote to deal with. In practice, it's sometimes more problematic.

Do I need a sound bar with a front-panel display? A surprising number of sound bars 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.

What about passive sound bars? Most sound bars you see at retailers are "active sound bars," meaning that they have built-in amplification and don't need a separate AV receiver. There are also passive sound bars, which are typically more expensive and lack amplification, so you need a separate AV receiver.

Do I need Dolby Digital on my sound bar? For most people, the short answer is no, but the long answer is more complicated. If you use your TV as a switcher, the TV will likely convert any incoming audio to a two-channel PCM signal, which is playable by sound bars without Dolby Digital decoding.

However, you typically shouldn't worry about your sound bar getting "just" a stereo signal as opposed to a true Dolby Digital surround-sound track. Sound bars typically don't sound much different between the two options, especially since they're not creating a true surround-sound experience in the first place.


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