Sound bar reviews: FAQs
What is a sound bar?
A sound bar is a bar-shaped enclosure of speakers that, when plugged into the TV, bypasses the internal TV speakers.
A neat and tidy option sound bars are designed to sit on the same stand as the television and fit snugly underneath the screen (you don't fix them to the telly).
Will sound bars work with any brand and size of HDTV?
Yes. All the sound bars we tested would work with any brand of TV. They will work with any size of TV too, but obviously for aesthetic reasons they are suitable for particular screen size ranges (usually from 40 inches to 50 inches). A sound bar that's too long or short for your TV display might look a bit odd. The place you put the sound bar, whether it's below the TV on a stand or mounted on a wall for example, needs to be able to accommodate the sound bar.
As well as stating a size for aesthetic reasons, manufacturers also state a TV size to use the sound bar with because many sound bars designed for big screen TVs are more 'powerful' than those designed for TVs with a screen size up to 40 inches. Bigger TVs are normally located in a big room, such as a living room, which may require a loudspeaker with a bit of clout.
To help you figure out the best size TV for your needs check out our interactive HDTV screen size tool.
How do I attach the sound bar to my HDTV?
In most cases there's no need to attach the sound bar to the television. Sound bars are designed to sit on the same stand as the TV and fit underneath the screen.
If you have mounted your HDTV on the wall, most sound bars come supplied with an additional wall mounting kit.
How many 'watts' do I need for the sound bar to be loud enough for my HDTV?
Audio power is measured in watts, which describes the energy output of the receiver or amplifier that powers a loudspeaker (such as a sound bar). The power output of all the sound bar system's speakers (including the subwoofer) is normally stated as the total 'watts RMS'. The figure given for a sound bar's audio output (in watts) shouldn't be confused with that stated for its power use - this is also stated in watts, but describes the power used in watts when the sound bar is turned on and in use or in standby mode.
It's important to note that while a sound bar with a higher wattage can provide louder sound, it isn't a measure of volume, but it can result in a wider, richer range of sound. Instead, volume is measured in decibels - the volume of the sound bar speakers (and separate subwoofer if it has one), can normally be controlled using the remote control. Similarly, power doesn't always equate to quality, and sound quality is what counts. So a powerful sound bar isn't necessarily the best - our listening tests assess the sound quality of speech, music, TV, and film, and across different tracks, so you can choose a sound bar that offers the best chance of improving your TV's sound. We've also provided the recommended audio settings from our listening tests in the 'Full Specification' tab of each sound bar review.
Do they gobble up a lot of extra power?
They don't tend to use too much extra power - usually around 10 watts or less, no more than a typical tabletop radio. Many sound bars switch into standby if no signal is detected from the TV, but they don't tend to have an actual 'off' switch. We provide power information for each model in the 'Full Specification' tab of each sound bar review. The figure stated for power use describes the power used in watts when the sound bar is turned on and in use or in standby mode. It shouldn't be confused with the sound bar's audio power.
Some come with a 'subwoofer' too – what's that for?
The subwoofer is an additional speaker, about the same size as a bookshelf speaker, which delivers some extra bass.
This should be a big plus for film fans, but our experts feel the extra bass is probably excessive for serious music listening.
For single sound bars, there's normally a subwoofer built-into the sound bar, but some have an external subwoofer speaker which is about the same size as a bookshelf speaker. Sound is either passed to an external subwoofer over a wired (audio cable) or wireless connection from the sound bar. If you'd like a sound bar with some extra bass or just to get the 'home cinema' look, read Which? reviews of sound bars with a subwoofer.
What's the best way to connect to my TV?
Most sound bars connect via traditional red and white analogue phono sockets or an optical digital (Toslink) connection. But connecting by HDMI offers the most versatile functions. Connect this way and you should be able to control the sound bar using just the TV remote.
Older HDMI-equipped TVs can't pass audio out of HDMI ports, so require a Toslink or phono connection to send audio to your speakers. However, if you connect both HDMI and optical digital (Toslink), you can at least control the volume using your TV remote.
Luckily, newer TVs sport a feature known as ARC, which stands for audio return channel. It's easy to spot - the socket on your TV will be labelled ARC.
If you have a television with this feature and a sound bar to match then audio will pass through the HDMI and will work with your TV remote. Check your TV's user guide if in doubt or if it doesn't work.
Does the quality of the cable matter?
Cables from the cheaper end of the market will normally do the trick for sound bar set-ups. Sound bar audio performance is still short of decent hi-fi system so cable quality is less important.
But cheap cables used over 'long runs' may actually deteriorate sound. It's not as relevant for sound bars but if you have a discerning ear or an expensive audio system you will probably notice. To ensure a decent cable look to spend a minimum of £2 per metre and up to £10 per metre if you need to have decent terminals fitted.
Like HDMI cables, audio cables can go up to ridiculous prices with Oxygen-free cable, solid silver and even directional cable. These can generally be disregarded.