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25 Nov 2020

Will a sound bar really make your TV sound better?

This can be a great time of year to pick up bargain tech; we take a look at whether a sound bar should be on your Black Friday wish list
Sound bar vs TV

Cinemas are closed right now, and even when they reopen social distancing and masks are going to make it a bit of a different experience for the time being.

With TV screen sizes of 65 inches or more and truly impressive picture quality, today's premium TVs are making it easier to get the silver screen experience in your own home.

There's one thing that even some otherwise fantastic TVs get wrong though - sound. With all that tech packed into razor-thin screens, decent speakers are often left out - and that's where a good sound bar comes in.

Read on to find out how a sound bar can make your TV sound sensational, plus the key features of some popular models that could see decent discounts this Black Friday.

Already know you want a sound bar? Check our full list of sound bar reviews to work out which sound bar is best for your TV.

How much better will my TV sound with a sound bar?

It's often said, but not always the case, that things were made better back in the 'old days'. In the case of built-in TV audio though, that really might be true.

Unlike the hulking televisions of yesteryear, modern TVs are increasingly thin; even the bezels (the borders around the screen) are beginning to disappear. While this is both stylish and less imposing, the pursuit of wafer-thin TVs means speakers having to be smaller and smaller.

Lower tones (bass) and higher tones (treble) can be especially affected by this, leading to underwhelming explosions or tinny, hard to understand voices.

Some TVs still manage to impress our panel of sound experts though. If you'd rather avoid an extra gadget, the first step to getting crystal clear audio is to buy a TV with great sound. Check out our guide to the best TVs for sound to see your options.

If you're already happy with your TV and just need an audio boost, a sound bar can make a big difference.

Looking for great TV deal this Black Friday? Check our latest updates

How do sound bars work?

At their most basic, sound bars work by simply connecting with your TV and outputting the sound through higher quality speakers. They usually sit in front of your TV, though some can be wall mounted (a useful feature if your TV is on the wall).

A good-quality sound bar, set up properly, is likely to outperform even the best inbuilt TV audio - take a look at our top tips on how to set up your sound bar correctly.

Sadly, not all sound bars are created equal. Buy a dud, and you could even end up with worse quality audio than than that from your TV. Price isn't always a good indicator either - we've been blown away by budget options and left wanting by some of the more expensive models.

Avoid disappointment with our expert guide on how to buy the best sound bar - it combines expert advice with our pick of some of the best sound bars.

What size sound bar should I buy?

Soundbar or TV audio

Any sound bar should theoretically work with any modern television, but for aesthetic reasons, it's worth thinking about size before you buy.

Ideally, you want your sound bar to be roughly the length of your television, give or take a few inches. Much wider than your TV can look odd, but you might get away with a shorter model.

TV screen sizes are measured diagonally, so you'll need to measure the width of the TV yourself if you don't already know it. At the very least, you'll probably want your sound bar to cover the base of your TV.

Sound bar features to look out for

The best sound bar for you will depend on the size and type of TV you have - as well as how big your room is. We investigate the power and listening angle of every sound bar we test so you'll know whether it's right for your setup.

Separate subwoofer

Some models come with a separate subwoofer, which are increasingly wireless at the pricier end of the spectrum.

Subwoofers are separate speakers that are great at creating deep, bassy tones - think helicopter blades, explosions or earthquakes. You might expect a separate subwoofer to be a no-brainer, but in our test labs, the results are surprisingly close between some of our best multi-speaker and all-in-one sound bars - which have smaller subwoofers hidden inside them.

Surround sound

Traditional surround sound works by playing audio from multiple speakers around your room. It's designed to give the impression that the sounds in your movie are coming from all around you, and has been used in cinemas for donkeys' years.

Some of the more expensive sound bars come with additional surround-sound speakers, while you can buy add-on kits that work with many of the lower-priced models. Setting up surround sound works best in large rooms, and may be impractical in small spaces.

Dolby Atmos and DTS:X

Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are the most well-known examples of the latest feature in surround sound technology: 'object-based audio'. This is designed to create a true cinematic experience in your own home.

It's a clever feat of acoustic and digital trickery, throwing layered sounds around at different heights and bouncing them off walls to create the illusion of immersive, moving audio all around you - even when it's just coming from the one speaker. Depending on the movie, that could sound like bullets whizzing past you or a string quartet sat in the corner.

Is it any good? That depends on the speaker. We've tested some truly fantastic Dolby Atmos and DTS:X capable speakers, as well as some real duds.

Sound bars vs soundbases

You may also have come across soundbases. These are essentially larger versions of sound bars. Their size means there's no option for wall mounting, and they sit under your TV, so your TV's feet need to fit comfortably on top.

Despite the different designs, both meet the same need. Sound bars are increasingly more popular than soundbases, though in certain circumstances a soundbase might be a better choice for you, since their bulkier profile gives more room for larger speakers.

How much should I spend on a sound bar?

We've uncovered Best Buy sound bars at a wide range of price points - starting at less than £300, with the most expensive models more than £1,000.

Why the big difference in price? Higher end models tend to have more features. All of our Best Buy sound bars offer a great sound experience, but some of them have additional bells and whistles - from Dolby Atmos and wireless speakers to voice recognition and smart tech.

It is possible to buy a passable sound bar on a budget of £150 or less, and your chances of this are greater on Black Friday, but it's worth doing your research so you know what to expect. You might be willing to put up with awkward controls or a fiddly installation process, but there's no getting over terrible sound quality.

The most expensive Don't Buy model we tested costs more than £700 - which goes to show that price isn't always an indicator of quality.

Popular sound bar models

LG SN11RG - usual price £1,299

Samsung SN11RG deal

Key features

  • Dolby Atmos ready
  • Wi-fi connected
  • Voice controls
  • Wireless subwoofer included
  • Surround sound speakers

This premium sound bar is packed with the latest features - it stops just short of making your popcorn for you. It's easy to get started, though you'll need two separate apps to use all the features. It also comes with additional rear speakers, so it works as a traditional surround sound setup too. But does all that extra tech really lead to better sound?

If you are interested in this model, it's well worth shopping around for a deal so close to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. At the time of writing, our experts spotted it on sale for as little as £750 at Richer Sounds and Currys PC World.

(A recent Which? investigation into Currys PC World suggests the firm has an issue with how it handles complaints about faulty products. So do consider this before making a purchase.)

Read our full LG SN11RG reviewto find out if you should buy it.

Sonos Arc - usual price £799

Sonos Arc

Key features

  • Dolby Atmos ready
  • All-in-one design
  • Wi-fi connected
  • Voice controls

Sonos has had mixed success in our sound bar tests - its models include both Best Buys and mediocre sets that are best avoided. For an all-in-one sound bar, this model has a wide listening angle - a big positive in large rooms. But is that enough to give Sonos another Best Buy?

Read our full Sonos Arc review to find out if this sound bar is right for you.

Samsung HW-S61T - usual price £349

Samsung HW-S61T Vs TV

Key features

  • Dolby Atmos ready
  • All-in-one design
  • Voice controls
  • Smart functionality

This model, released in 2020, has some surprisingly high-end features for a sound bar at this price point - including Dolby Atmos and voice controls. It has some limitations - for example, the smart functionality prevents this model from going into standby, making it more power-hungry than most. But the most important thing is, of course, how good the sound quality is.

If you like this model but could do with a discount (and let's be honest, who couldn't?), there's a good chance you'll see it in the Black Friday sales. We've seen it on sale for £299 at John Lewis and Currys PC World in the lead up to the big day.

Read our full Samsung HW-S61T review to find out if this is the sound bar for you.

LG SN5Y - usual price £299

LG SN5Y Sound bar

Key features

  • DTS:X ready
  • Stream music from your phone using Bluetooth
  • Wireless subwoofer included

On paper, this LG sound bar ticks all the right boxes for a classic sound bar. It looks stylish, it's easy to set up and it comes with a separate wireless subwoofer unit, for an extra shot of bass. The price is tempting, but can it compete with more expensive models where it counts?

Read our full LG SN5Y review to find out.

How to get a great deal this Black Friday