How to buy the best sound bar
By Jack Turner
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What is a sound bar?
A sound bar is a compact speaker system that connects to your TV to enhance its audio performance. Modern TVs might have fantastic picture quality, but their sound is often disappointing as new slimline TVs have limited space for built-in speakers. Sound bars offer a stylish and compact solution. They contain several speakers in one long rectangular enclosure, boosting the sound output from your TV, but with easier set-up and fewer components than a full home cinema system.
It can be a great option for film buffs, or those who simply want to get the best out of their favourite TV programmes with good sound, not just a good picture. They may also appeal to music fans, and some models can play back music from portable devices via a cable or wireless Bluetooth connection. The best sound bars offer excellent sound quality and a range of sockets to connect other devices, such as a TV set-top box or DVD player. But get it wrong, and you could be left with poor or laggy audio. We test a range of sound bars with TV shows, films and music, to find those that will genuinely enhance your TV viewing.
What makes a good sound bar?
Fantastic sound quality - a good sound bar provides big, well-balanced stereo sound, which can dramatically improve the audio performance of even the best TV. Audio is richer, deeper and more detailed, and voices have increased clarity. Some models have different sound settings to enhance speech or to specifically suit films, gaming or music.
Good connectivity - you can connect your other devices, such as a TV set-top box or DVD player, directly to the sound bar. However, if you have HDMI ports on both the TV and sound bar, you can simply connect your sound bar to the TV and audio will be passed out to it from other devices via the TV. (Alternatively, if you have more devices than ports on your TV, you can do a mixture of both.) This bypasses the TV’s internal speakers and plays all audio through the sound bar. Ensure that you buy a sound bar with enough of the correct connections to match those on your TV and any devices you might want to connect to it. Read more about different connections and features in the sound bars glossary.
- Easy to set up and use - some sound bars come with cables included, while others don't, so check if you need to buy them separately. If you suffer from 'remote overload' you'll appreciate being able to operate both the TV and the sound bar with one remote - provided you have the right connections on the sound bar, and the right TV.
Take a look at all of our sound bar reviews.
What else should I consider when buying a sound bar?
Do I need an external subwoofer? Most sound bars have subwoofers to boost the bass - this can be built in or external. Our tests found that it's possible to get outstanding sound quality from both types, so don't let this influence your choice. If you do opt for a sound bar with an external subwoofer make sure you have space for it. Some are wired and some are wireless; with wireless ones the external speaker can be placed elsewhere in the room, although it will need to be close to a mains socket for power.
Do I need a wall-mountable system? No. Sound bars can be stood on a flat surface, such as your TV stand, and should fit snugly in front of your TV or below it on a shelf. But many sound bars come with wall mounting brackets so can be fixed to the wall to save space, if you prefer. Alternative configurations, although less common, include those that can be separated into two speakers to sit either side of a TV to improve the stereo effect or have detachable speakers to place around the room.
- Would I be better off buying a home cinema system? Sound bars come in a range of sizes to suit different sizes of rooms and TVs - not just large-screen models. They are perfect for small to medium sized rooms, giving enhanced stereo sound and bass, without lots of wires and multiple speakers. Home cinema systems can have up to eight speakers, so you need to have room to locate them. They can also be trickier to set up and involve more wires.