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How to buy the best sound bar

By Jack Turner

Sound bars could improve your TV's sound with fewer speakers and wires than a surround sound system. Read on to find out what to look for in a sound bar.

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What is a sound bar?

A sound bar is a compact speaker system designed to improve your TV's audio. Flat-screen TVs might have fantastic picture quality, but sound is often disappointing as there's limited space for built-in speakers. Sound bars contain several speakers in one long enclosure - much easier to set up than a full home cinema system.

Sound bars can be a great option for film buffs, or those who simply want to get the best out of their favourite TV programmes. They may also appeal to music fans, and many models can play music from devices via a 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 Blu-ray player. But get it wrong, and you could be left with poor or laggy audio. We test sound bars with TV shows, films and music, to find those that will genuinely enhance your viewing.

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What makes a good sound bar?

  • Fantastic sound quality - a good sound bar provides big, well-balanced 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 so you'll find it easier to follow your favourite dramas.
  • Good connectivity - you can connect your other devices, such as a TV set-top box or Blu-ray player, directly to the sound bar. However, if you have HDMI ports on both your TV and sound bar, you can simply pass all audio from other devices through the TV (If you have more devices than ports on your TV, you could 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 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' it's possible to operate both the TV and the sound bar with one remote - provided they are compatible.

Take a look at all of our sound bar reviews.

 


 

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.

If you're willing to go to the extra effort of setting up a home cinema system then you should probably also consider just going for a normal hi-fi system. Our lab testing has found that a good hi-fi will give you the most pleasing TV sound most of the time - better than both sound bars and home cinema systems. 

A stereo hi-fi won't give you surround sound, but you won't get that from the majority of sound bars either. You can read more about the testing we did in our sound bar vs home cinema guide

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 - either built-in or external. Our tests found that you can 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 subwoofers are wireless. These can be placed anywhere in the room, although it will still need to be close to a power socket.
  • Do I need a wall-mount? No. Sound bars can be stood on any flat surface, such as your TV stand. Many sound bars come with wall mounting brackets and can be fixed to the wall to save space, if you prefer. Although less common, some models can be separated into two speakers to sit either side of a TV or have detachable speakers to place around the room.

Which sound bar has the best bass?

It is possible to get a good bass sound without having a separate subwoofer, especially for sound bases which are larger than standard sound bars. However, to get the best possible home cinema bass you'll want a sound bar with a subwoofer. 

It's not a simple case of the bigger the better though. We've reviewed  subwoofers with a huge amount of power that sound completely awful, and we've seen lovely cinematic bass from subwoofers far smaller than the biggest. 

The only way to be sure of getting a sound bar with great bass is to read our reviews. The table below rounds up some models that have really excelled in the low frequency range during our testing. 

To see the which sound  bars are behind the scores in our table below, try Which? for a £1 trial. If you're already a member, go to the log-in page and unlock the table.

Sound bars with the best bass

Canton DM55
Today's best price £270.00
Which? score 84%
Tested Jan 2016
Best Buy
Overall sound quality:
5 out of 5
Volume before distortion :
5 out of 5
Sound bar type:
Member exclusive
Separate subwoofer:
Member exclusive
Suitable TV size (inches):
Member exclusive

This sound base may be relatively small, but somehow it manages to pack a massive bass punch. With two built-in subwoofers that give a powerful and controlled output this model will give you plenty of depth when you're watching the latest blockbusters. It's not all brashness though - it'll sound equally good playing a TV drama or just some music.

Samsung HW-J650
Today's best price £299.99
Which? score 83%
Tested Aug 2015
Best Buy
Overall sound quality:
5 out of 5
Volume before distortion :
5 out of 5
Sound bar type:
Member exclusive
Separate subwoofer:
Member exclusive
Suitable TV size (inches):
Member exclusive

This sound bar and separate subwoofer isn't the newest on the scene, but it's still one of the best models we've ever tested. It will give you rich and powerful sound that sounds great at all volumes, and there's enough detail that you'll never miss a bit of dialogue. Whether you're listening to opera, watching a rock concert or the latest Hollywood blockbuster this sound bar will have it covered.

Samsung HW-J8500
Today's best price £547.97
Which? score 82%
Tested May 2016
Best Buy
Overall sound quality:
4 out of 5
Volume before distortion :
5 out of 5
Sound bar type:
Member exclusive
Separate subwoofer:
Member exclusive
Suitable TV size (inches):
Member exclusive

This sound bar is pretty huge - it's designed for TVs sized up to 65 inches. It's also one of the best-sounding models we've seen. The bass is powerful, without overdoing it, and is handled well by the separate subwoofer. Volume isn't a problem either, we managed to get up to 91dB before there was any distortion - that's about as loud as a petrol lawnmower.

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