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Sound bars more popular than ever – what to expect in 2018

It's set to be a bumper year for tech-heavy sound bars. Which? explains why, and looks at what the big brands have to offer

Sound bar sales have exploded in recent years. In fact new research from analysts GFK (as reported by What Hi-Fi) estimates that based on market turnover, they now dominate 95% of home cinema audio.

While that figure is high, it’s not entirely surprising. TVs are getting thinner all the time, which often impacts sound quality, and low-cost sound bars can easily boost audio oomph without breaking the bank. More recently, high-tech sound bars have upped the ante and even started to replace full surround sound and hi-fi systems, offering room-filling and 5.1-like audio at a big price premium.

With sound bars now a dominant force in the home audio market, tech brands are cashing in on their popularity with what looks like a big crop of new launches. Themes include increased connectivity, more Dolby Atmos support and slimmer and sleeker designs.

But with a big market, there are ups and downs. There’s a huge gap in quality between the best and the worst sound bars, and our sound bar reviews show that paying more for a sound bar doesn’t always result in a better experience.

Read on to see what some of the big brands have planned.

Sony loads up on techie features

Last year, both Sony and Samsung pushed the boat out on ultra-expensive sound bar models supporting the latest audio trend, Dolby Atmos. This year, Sony has decided to bring the Atmos experience to cheaper sound bar models.

The HT-XF9000 is a 2.1-channel sound bar with a wireless subwoofer that employs a so-called ‘Vertical Surround Engine’ that processes sound in a way that it adds height to the sound, making it sound like audio is coming at you from all directions – a key feature of Atmos – despite only actually processing two channels of audio. We expect this model to launch for around £450, although UK pricing hasn’t been confirmed yet.

Sony has also applied this technology to the higher-end HT-ZF9, which is a 3.1-channel sound bar with built-in support for 4K video, HDR and Dolby Vision. This model supports Google Chromecast, Bluetooth and Spotify Connect for wireless music streaming.

At the lower end of the market, Sony has launched the HT-SF150, which is already on store shelves. Priced at £150, this no-nonsense sound bar features HDMI, a digital optical connector, USB and Bluetooth connectivity. This model sits alongside the newly-launched HT-SF200 (pictured above), which should offer an even fuller sound and come in at a higher price.

Panasonic keeps things simple

Panasonic is back for another crack at the sound bar market in 2018. The company has launched two exclusive models for Dixons Retail Group (Currys/PC World) and John Lewis called the SC-HTB208 and SC-HTB200, respectively. They’ll both sell for £149 and feature virtual surround sound, HDMI connectivity and Bluetooth.

There will also be models featuring the same bar but that will also be sold with a wireless subwoofer (pictured above) that can be laid flat or stood upright, depending on your preferred aesthetic.

Samsung slims down

Samsung is one of the main players in the world of TVs and sound bars, but has so far only revealed its HW-MS700 Sound+ sound bar. This is the follow-up to 2017’s HW-MS650, but features a significantly trimmed down design, making it taller than it is deep. This makes it easier to wall-mount, and Samsung claims that sound quality and bass delivery will continue to impress. We’ll have to wait for it to perform in front of our expert audio panel before we know more.

Samsung hasn’t revealed the rest of its 2018 launches, and neither has key rival LG.

Why buy a sound bar?

It’s no real surprise that sound bars have become so popular. While TVs have made significant improvements to screen and picture processing to improve image quality, for the most part this cannot be said for their built-in sound. To get a real home cinema experience, you’re going to need some help.

We sat our expert listening panel in front of a range of audio samples – from blockbuster movies to music, and asked them to rate sound quality with four different set-ups. The results show that even the best sounding TVs pale in comparison to dedicated speakers. What’s more, a good sound bar can outperform a conventional multi-speaker home cinema set-up, and while our audiophiles naturally preferred a full micro hi-fi system, these can come at a huge extra cost.

Read more about home cinema systems versus sound bars in our advice guide.

Last year we tested 50 of the most popular sound bar models to sort the wheat from the chaff. Our Best Buys let you know which ones are worth the cash, no matter your budget. And with new models on the way, now might be a great time to bag a bargain as retailers clear out last year’s stock.

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