Technology has enabled TVs to become ever flatter, thinner, and lighter, but it can’t overcome the laws of physics when it comes to audio. Filling a room with sound requires substantial speakers that can move a lot of air, and those types of speakers just won’t fit inside a thin TV chassis. That’s where soundbars come in.
SOUNDBAR BUYER’S CHEAT SHEET
Our quick-hit recommendations
- Best budget soundbar:Denon DHT-S216H
- Best mid-range soundbar:Yamaha YAS-207
- Best high-end soundbar:Samsung HW-Q90R
- Best soundbase:Fluance AB40 Soundbase
We’ll explain all the latest soundbar technology, show you the most important features you should look for, and name our top picks in budget, mid-range, and high-end categories. We’ll also provide links to all our reviews of soundbars currently on the market, so you can find exactly the right one for your needs.
Here are our current top picks, with brief summaries explaining our reasoning. These will change over time as new models come in for evaluation. Our soundbar reviews will go into some depth, so we encourage you to follow the links to read them in their entirety. Beneath our top picks you’ll find some general guidance about soundbars, followed by explanations of the features you should consider when choosing one. Links at the bottom of the page will take you the rest of our soundbar reviews.
Updated July 17, 2020 to add our DALI Katch One soundbar review. This innovatively designed speaker sounds great, provided you can install it where it can bounce its sound off a vertical surface behind it. That’s easy if you’re mounting it to the wall with either its brackets or its unique leather straps, but the requirement becomes problematic if you resting the speaker on a cabinet in front of the TV, because it’s very tall and might block the bottom of your TV’s screen.
Best budget soundbar
Denon is known for manufacturing premium home-audio gear with price tags to match, but the Denon DHT-S216H delivers a fabulous audio experience for not a lot of money, plus it supports DTS Virtual:X to add an immersive quality to movie soundtracks. This soundbar produces very good bass response, too, but Denon also gives you the option to add any wired subwoofer you’d like if you want to kick low-frequency effects up a notch.
This compact $130 soundbar lacks such basic features as HDMI inputs and Wi-Fi connectivity, and with just a pair of mid-range drivers in the main soundbar cabinet, it can’t compete with larger, pricier soundbars with additional upward- and side-firing drivers. But with rich, detailed sound that belies its small size plus immersive DTS Virtual:X 3D audio, we believe the Vizio SB2021n-G6 offers plenty of bang for the buck, making it a terrific fit for a second TV.
Best mid-range soundbar
Our previous pick in this category—the JBL Cinema SB 450—is no longer available, so we moved up Yamaha’s YAS-207 to take its place. This soundbar-with-wireless-subwoofer combo delivers immersive audio, in the form of DTS Virtual:X at a phenomenal price.
The Sonos Beam is our runner-up pick for best mid-priced soundbar. It’s a powerful speaker for its size, and you can expand it into a full-fledged 5.1-channel system by adding a wireless sub and wireless surround speakers. The Beam also has built-in support for Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant (and it will soon support Google Assistant), so it can become a key element in your smart home system. Apple fans, meanwhile, will appreciate the Beam’s support for AirPlay 2.
Best high-end soundbar
Samsung keeps upping the ante when it comes to high-end soundbars, and the 7.1.4-channel HW-Q90R is its most luxurious, complete with four up-firing drivers, support for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and rich, deep, and detailed audio with an expansive, enveloping soundstage. Yes, the lack of a night mode or room correction is a bummer given the eye-popping price tag. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the sound, and the HW-Q90R doesn’t disappoint.
LG’s SN8YG doesn’t support Apple’s AirPlay technology, but it delivers just about every other feature you could want in a soundbar at this price, including support for both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X object-based soundtracks. Having a great spec sheet, including dual HDMI ports and support for eARC, isn’t enough, of course: A soundbar needs to sound fantastic to gain our approval, and LG’s speaker doesn’t disappoint.
A soundbar isn’t the right audio experience for every TV viewer. If you want a very good audio performance—including strong bass performance, without need for a separate subwoofer—a soundbase might be what you’re looking for. Fluance’s AB40 Soundbase is our current top pick in this category, boasting a fabulous price/performance ratio by virtue of its $250 price tag and excellent audio capabilities.
What exactly is a soundbar?
A soundbar is typically a one- or two-piece speaker system whose primary purpose is to bring quality sound back to modern TVs (two-piece systems include a subwoofer). They’re designed to appeal to people who can’t (because of the wiring requirements and/or expense associated with traditional home theater audio) or won’t (because they object to the visual intrusion an A/V receiver and six or more loudspeaker cabinets presents) install freestanding speakers.
The audio performance of nearly any soundbar will surpass the quality of just about any modern TV while consuming minimal space and requiring little more than a power cord and one or two cables. Soundbars are designed to fit in front of your TV if your TV is resting on a piece of furniture, or beneath your TV if it’s hanging on the wall. There’s also a subcategory—the soundbase—that can support the weight of your TV. You can even find soundbars from TV manufacturers that are designed to match the aesthetic of the TV it’s paired with.
Nearly all modern TV and movie soundtracks are recorded in surround sound, so most soundbars are equipped to decode at least Dolby Digital and play back discrete left, right, and center channels, plus low-frequency effects (LFE). A great many models include a separate self-amplified subwoofer to handle LFE, which establishes a wireless connection with the soundbar. Purchasing a soundbar doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll miss out on a full home-theater experience; in fact, some models offer optional surround speakers and others can even support object-oriented codecs, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, that deliver a sensation of height.
How does a soundbase differ from a soundbar?
Search for soundbars and you’ll see some models described as a “soundbase.” The two are similar—and they might even share identical technological feature sets—but they’re not the same thing. Unlike a soundbar, a soundbase is specifically designed to sit on a cabinet and support the weight of a television. Their form factor means they can’t be mounted to the wall.
What size soundbar should I buy?
Most people buy a soundbar that is either the same width or narrower than their TV, but that really has more to do with aesthetics than audio performance. If your TV is on a piece of furniture, and you’re buying a soundbar that will sit in front of it, you need to take the speaker’s height into consideration, so that it doesn’t encroach on the screen or block the TV’s infrared receiver. Sound soundbars include an IR repeater for this reason. If you’re shopping for a soundbase, you need to make sure that the speaker will fit in the space you have for it, and that it can bear the weight of your TV.
Everything else being equal, the smaller the sound soundbar or soundbase, the less room it has for larger speakers and features (codec support, wireless connectivity, multiple inputs and outputs, and so on). That’s not to say that a bigger speaker will always sound better than a larger one, of course.
Do soundbars support Dolby Atmos and DTS:X?
Buying a soundbar doesn’t mean you need to give up an immersive home theater experience, but be prepared to pay for that feature. Most soundbars are two-channel stereo or left-, center-, and right-channel speakers. Many of these soundbars claim to deliver a true surround-sound experience.
For soundbars to achieve the magic of surround sound, they must rely on the shape of your room, sophisticated digital signal processing, and psychoacoustics. Consequently, your mileage may vary. Some rooms will be more conducive to a good surround-sound experience than others. Some soundbars eschew this artificial processing and offer you the option of adding surround speakers, often wireless ones, to deliver a true 5.1-surround sound.
A few very expensive soundbars (typically starting at more than $1,000) support Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X object-oriented audio. These soundbars have multiple speakers in the soundbar, some dedicated to left, center, and right channel duty while others handle the surround and height cues. Most soundbars in this class support 5.1.2- or 7.1.2-channel setups, rendering only the front height channels. Once again, you’ll need the right kind of room—with the right kind ceiling—to take advantage of an object-based audio soundbar.
Do I need an A/V Receiver?
There are two types of soundbars: active and passive. An active soundbar is more or less self contained. It has its own amplifier, digital signal processing, and volume control, all in the same cabinet as the speakers. Some active soundbars can even accommodate multiple HDMI sources. If you choose a model with HDMI support, make sure it also supports the audio return channel (ARC), to reduce the number of cables you’ll need between the soundbar and your TV.
A passive soundbar relies on the amplifier in an A/V receiver, just like a traditional loudspeaker. You connect the audio output from your TV (along with your Blu-ray player, media-streamer, and other components) to the A/V receiver’s inputs and the passive soundbar to the A/V receiver’s loudspeaker connections. The A/V receiver amplifies the signal and sends it to the speaker.Onkyo
Soundbar features you should look for
Sorting through different soundbars can be a dizzying experience. Here’s an alphabetized list of some of the most important features you’ll encounter
App control: If you want to control everything from your smartphone or tablet, you’ll want to know if the manufacturer offers an app for your mobile operating system of choice.
ARC: The acronym stands for Audio Return Channel. First introduced with HDMI 1.4, ARC enables your TV to send its audio output back through the HDMI cable to your soundbar or A/V receiver. This is especially important if you’re using your smart-TV’s onboard tuner or any of its media-streaming apps (Netflix, YouTube, Vudu, etc.). A newer variant, eARC (enhanced audio return channel) provides more bandwidth than the original ARC, enabling it to handling lossless high-resolution audio, including Dolby True HD and DTS:X. This article provides in-depth explanations of both HDMI ARC and HDMI eARC.
Dialog enhancement: If you find yourself turning on closed captions because you can’t make out what people on your TV are saying, you might want to invest in a soundbar that offers dialog enhancement. This feature uses an algorithm that identifies frequencies commonly associated with speech and runs them through a digital signal processor to make them easier to distinguish from sound effects, music, and other background audio.