How to buy the best sound bar
By Michael Passingham
A sound bar is the simplest and often the most cost-effective way of giving your TV a much-needed audio boost. But with the market fit to burst with dozens of models for sale, researching what’s best for your needs is time well spent.
The very best sound bars aren’t necessarily the most expensive, especially if you only have modest requirements and just want to pump up the audio that comes from your TV.
In other words, you don’t need an expensive sound bar for audiophiles if you just want to watch EastEnders with a bit more oomph.
Just want to see which sound bars we recommend? Take a look at our Best Buy sound bar reviews.
What is a sound bar?
A sound bar is a compact speaker system designed to improve your TV's audio. Flatscreen 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 bar-shaped box - much easier to set up than a full home cinema system.
They are not a replacement for a full-fledged hi-fi setup, but some models can cost in excess of £1,000, more than the cost of a decent amp and surround sound system. These high-end models come packed with high-end audio kit including more powerful amplifiers, better audio tuning and advanced connectivity options.
Keen audiophiles will often point out that sound bars can sound a bit boxed in. This comes with the territory, but with a slight loss in fidelity you get a system that’s more practical than a multi-speaker setup and often cheaper, too. But if you’re worried that your keen ears might not enjoy the sound bar experience, it’s worth booking in a demonstration at your local AV retailer for a proper listen before shelling out.
Top 5 sound bar features
Beyond great audio quality, there are a few things you should expect from a good sound bar.
1. Wide listening angles and high maximum volume: Many sound bars have a ‘sweet spot’. This might sound like a good thing, but it actually means there’s one specific sitting position at which the sound bar sounds best, and quality deteriorates as you move away from it.
If you regularly share your TV viewing with friends or other family members sitting around your living room, you’ll want to pay attention to our ‘different angles and distances’ scores in our sound bar reviews. This tells you how versatile a sound bar is when you’re not sitting front-and-centre.
Our audio experts also crank sound bars up to the max to see whether they can really fill a room with sound without causing uncomfortable distortion.
2. Good-quality connections: Any good sound bar will have at least one digital connector: optical, coaxial or HDMI. These minimise interference versus lower-quality 3.5mm audio jacks you find on cheaper sound bars, and allow for special features such as virtual surround sound. For more information, read our guide to setting up a sound bar with a TV.
3. Wireless connectivity: In addition to wired connections, many sound bars come with Bluetooth. This is great if you want to use your sound bar for listening to music without having to turn on your TV.
Some even come with wi-fi, allowing them to become part of a multi-speaker, multi-room music system. You’ll need other compatible speakers of the same brand in your home to make use of this.
4. Ease of use: A sound bar that’s easy to use will be a great long-term investment. Look out for fiddly remote controls in particular, as these are easily lost and often have tiny, hard-to-press buttons.
If you’re buying a big sound bar, it might block the signal between your remote control and your TV. Sound bars with built-in IR (infra-red) repeaters negate this problem by forwarding the signal from your remote control to the TV.
Many sound bars now have simple LED displays that let you switch audio sources and adjust sound settings. But some can be very hard to use, which is something we pay particular attention to in our reviews.
5. Attractive and practical design: They sit in front of your TV, so sound bars should be well-designed with at least some thought given to style, without making them stand out so much that they become a distraction.
Furthermore, any buttons on the sound bar itself should be within easy reach and not require you to have to contort your body into an uncomfortable position to make adjustments or change audio sources.
Do I need a sound bar with a subwoofer?
Sound bars can offer the complete package when it comes to sound quality, and many people will be happy with the depth of base that a standalone sound bar can provide. Sound bases in particular are capable of delivering great bass all by themselves.
Sound bars can also be bought with a subwoofer. These external boxes do all the bass work, dramatically increasing the punch of your audio setup. They come at an extra cost and it’s yet another object in your living room that might negate the practicality of having a simple sound bar in the first place.
Nonetheless, external subwoofers are common and the majority of them connect to the sound bar wirelessly, meaning you can place it anywhere in the room without having to trail cables around your lounge. Our reviews have found these to be a very mixed bag, with some subwoofers totally overpowering the sound no matter where you’re sitting and others delivering the bass notes so late it’s distracting. It pays to do a little research.
Can sound bars manage surround sound?
Many sound bars claim to be able to deliver realistic 5.1 surround sound audio. Our most recent testing has found that, generally, sound bars can’t manage this to any proper degree. Perhaps in an ideally sized, acoustically-tuned room this is possible. But in the real world, we’ve found that sound bars making these claims rarely live up to this. If you’re dead-set on surround sound, take a look at our reviews.