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1 May 2019

Do hi-tech sound bar features mask poor audio quality?

Many sound bars that have a lot of features let themselves down with poor sound quality and ease-of-use issues

The main reason for getting a sound bar is to take your home entertainment experience to the next level with sound that your TV speakers can't beat. With scores of models to choose from, many sound bars these days are coming with fancy, hi-tech features in a bid to stand out among the crowd.

However, in many cases, these enticing features are just a mask and distraction from the sound bar's poor sound. We've seen many models that come packed with features but have awful sound quality.

Two of the sound bars we've listed below are Best Buys with brilliant features to match their outstanding sound quality. But we also reveal two seemingly impressive models with such bad sound quality that we named them Don't Buys.

Jump straight to our reviews of thebest sound bars.

Sound bars with hi-tech features: which models impress?

Along with sound quality, our listening experts score each sound bar on their various features, including connection options, wireless connectivity and any added smart features. Many sound bars have features that look good on paper but, in practice, they're not very useful and/or they don't work as well as they promise.

As you can see in the graphic below, our test scores unearth a huge disparity in the quality of feature-packed sound bars. The difference between our highest-scoring sound bar and our lowest is virtually 50%.

LG SK5R, £200

Despite the SK5R being at the cheaper end of the sound bar market, it's not short on features and even uses DTS Virtual X to create three-dimensional virtual surround sound. It comes with a wireless subwoofer for deeper bass and two wireless wall-mountable rear speakers for a full surround sound experience.

Different types of media have different audio properties. This sound bar uses special technology to deliver the best sound possible for different types of entertainment (eg news, music, sports, movies). Whether you're watching a football match, the Oscars or Eastenders, Adaptive Sound Control automatically adjusts the sound mode accordingly.

You can also choose between three Enhanced Sound Modes to match what's playing. What's more, Auto Sound Engine works to optimise TV, movies and music depending on high the volume is.

We've tested over 40 LG sound bars and results have been mixed: it's produced Best Buys, Don't Buys and mediocre models. Find out where this one sits by reading our LG SK5R review.

Sonos Beam, £400

The Sonos Beam has built-in Amazon Alexa, meaning that it works in the exact same way that an Echo Dot would. So it's a sound bar and voice assistant all-in-one. You can use voice commands to control the sound bar and your other smart devices.

Compatibility with AirPlay means you can stream directly from your iPhone, iPad or Mac. Plus, if your wi-fi is playing up, streaming should be unaffected because the sound bar runs independently from your own broadband.

You'll need to download the Sonos app to set up the sound bar. The app can be used as a remote if you don't fancy using voice control, plus music lovers can use it to keep their favourite streaming services, internet radio stations, podcasts and audiobooks in one place. If you want to search for a certain song, the Sonos app will search across all your music services and files at the same time. Anyone in the house can share their playlists, as long as they've downloaded the app, so friends and family can share their music too.

You may have seen some positive reviews raving about the Sonos Beam, especially on Amazon. But with the internet being flooded with fake reviews, it's hard to know which ones to trust. Read our trusted Sonos Beam review to find out whether we think it's worth buying.

Yamaha MusicCast Bar 40, £290

This sound bar has DTS Virtual:X, one of the newest innovations in surround sound technology. It should make you feel like you have ceiling speakers because this feature is designed to bounce sound off the walls and ceilings for an immersive surround sound experience.

For a full surround sound set-up, you can opt to buy compatible MusicCast 20 or MusicCast 50 speakers. Also, if you feel like you need extra bass, you can purchase the MusicCast SUB 100.

You might be particularly drawn to this sound bar if you already own other MusicCast products. With the MusicCast Controller app, you connect the sound bar to other MusicCast devices around the house.

Yamaha has given us a mixture of Best Buy sound bars, average ones, one Don't Buy and few almost-Don't Buys. You could easily waste over £200 on a sound bar with terrible audio - or you could avoid that by reading our Yamaha MusicCast Bar 40 review.

Polk Audio Command Bar, £230

Here's another sound bar with built-in Amazon Alexa for voice control and, out of all the sound bars we've tested with either built-in Alexa or Alexa compatibility, this one's the cheapest. Is it too good to be true? Polk Audio markets it as 'the best Alexa-compatible sound bar yet'. We've found Best Buys cheaper that this model so it's possible to get an excellent cheap sound bar.

Dolby and DTS surround sound decoding should make TV, movies and music sound rich, detailed and natural. DTS-based tracks are a popular surround sound feature as they're sharper and more intense than Dolby Digital-based ones

You can treat this sound bar like it's an Echo Dot and use voice commands to get weather updates, play your favourite song or ask for train times. Integrated far-field microphones mean the sound bar should still be able to hear your voice even if the volume is very high.

But it doesn't stop there - the Command Bar is designed to work as part of a smart home and is compatible with a range of brands such as Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, WeMo and beehive. You can speak to the room to control compatible objects from your lighting to your door locks.

Sound bars that actually manage to create mesmerising virtual surround sound are gold dust. But we've found some excellent models. Read our Polk Audio Command Bar review to see whether you can get premium features and excellent sound quality at a lower price.

Samsung harman/kardon HW-N850, £1,000

Samsung's flagship Cinematic Wireless Smart Soundbar has Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, designed to create captivating virtual surround sound. It has 13 individual custom designed speakers built into the sound bar, including two up-firing and two side-firing speakers. But will the HW-N850 really provide you with the memorable home cinema experience that you would expect from it?

If you have a compatible Samsung TV, you can connect it to the sound bar wirelessly to reduce the amount of unsightly cables needed. Additionally, High Res Audio playback should transform music into the highest quality so every song you play should make you feel like you're in the recording studio with your favourite artist.

Head to our Samsung harman/kardon HW-N850 review because, unless you're a dare devil and money's no object, it would be risky to spend this much on a sound bar without being certain that it's worth it.

Two sound bars to avoid

They might have all the bells and whistles, but the sound quality of these sound bars were so bad that we made them Don't Buys.

Bose Soundbar 700, £800

Bose sound bars don't usually come cheap and this is the most expensive one we've tested. At this price, one may expect this feature-packed sound bar to create excellent sound to take your viewing experience to the next level.

However, we were thoroughly disappointed with its sound quality. Our experts described the sound as dull, over-processed and unnatural. Movies, TV and music sound overly dramatic and effects sound fake.

The Bose app can also be used to keep all your music playlists from different streaming services in one place. Music streaming should be a doddle due to built-in Apple AirPlay and compatibility with popular steaming services including Spotify Premium, Tidal and Deezer. But music lacks energy so these features are pointless.

If you like the idea of controlling the sound bar with your voice, this model is compatible with Alexa. This means that, if you own an Alexa-enabled device like an Echo Dot, you can use it to set up commands that control your sound bar.

But, for a fraction of the price, you could get a cheaper sound bar with built-in Alexa so check out our best sound bars to find an excellent model.

Sony HT-SF150, £90

Sony promises immersive, room-filling sound with this cheap sound bar. Its unique S-Force Front Surround technology should imitate the sound you hear in the cinema by creating the illusion that sound is coming from all around you. However, we found that movie action scenes sound weak and lifeless.

The Bass Reflex speaker should deliver powerful bass without overpowering other details in sound, so speech and effects should still sound clear. But, throughout our tests, the bass lacked depth and speech sounded fuzzy.

It's compatible with apps like Deezer and Spotify so you can stream music from your phone, laptop or tablet using Bluetooth or a USB. Unfortunately, no amount of apps can compensate for the thin, dull-sounding music this model plays.

These handy features and the low price weren't enough for us to recommend buying it.

What features should you expect in a good sound bar?

Any sound bar worth its salt will have the below features as standard:

  • Ease of use - useful features include a simple remote and a display and controls on the device
  • Wide listening angles - it should sound the same wherever you're sitting in the room
  • High maximum volume - it should still sound good even at high volumes
  • Good speech quality - dialogue in TV and movies should sound crystal clear
  • Wireless connectivity - most sound bars have Bluetooth and some have wi-fi for a multi-room speaker set-up
  • Good-quality connections - the best sound bars have HDMI ARC. Models with HDMI-CEC let you use one remote for the sound bar and your TV
  • Attractive and practical design - it should be stylish and buttons on the bar should be easy to reach

Find out more by reading our guide on how to buy the best sound bar.