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28 July 2021

How to buy the best sound bar

A sound bar is a simple way to give your TV a much-needed audio boost. To help you choose the best, we've explained key features to look out for and selected some of the best sound bars for 2021
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Felix Wilson
Soundbar-Main-Image

A sound bar is a compact speaker system designed to improve your TV's audio. They contain several speakers in one long bar-shaped box and are much easier to set up than a full home cinema system.

We’ve tested the latest sound bars from all the biggest brands to help you pick a model that will make your TV sound sensational and avoid making a costly mistake by picking a dud. 

Just want to see which models we recommend? Take a look at our best sound bars.

Video: how to buy the best sound bar

Watch our video to find out which type is best for you.

What to consider when buying a sound bar

A great sound bar will take your home entertainment to the next level, giving you exciting bass and audio clarity that means you won’t ever miss a word of dialogue. 

Important factors to think about include:

  • How much are you willing to spend? If your budget is limited, you need to see our expert pick of the best cheap sound bars.
  • How big is your TV? Some sound bars are more suitable for TVs of a certain size, so use our reviews to help you buy the right one.
  • How big is your room? Check whether your chosen sound bar is designed to work best in a small, medium or large room.
  • Where will the sound bar go? Can it sit comfortably in front on your TV? Does it need to be wall-mounted?

Will a sound bar work with my TV?

In theory, any sound bar will work with any TV, regardless of the brand. This is especially true of newer models, which use standard cable types. If you’re buying a sound bar for an older TV, check what output channels it supports and make sure your it supports one of them before you commit. It's also worth thinking about the size of your TV - a sound bar that's wider than your TV can look awkward (although it will still work).

Best sound bars to buy in 2021

The models we've highlighted below are among the best sound bars you can buy right now. Only those that have excellent sound, are easy to use and have outstanding features become Which? Best Buys.

  • 85%
    £798.00

    With Dolby Atmos and fantastic sound quality, this big-brand sound bar justifies its high price tag. It's stylishly design, too, and so will fit in well with even the most chic of living rooms.

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  • 77%
    £999.00

    This premium sound bar comes with a sound bar unit, a wireless bass subwoofer and two rear wireless speakers . It also comes with just about every audio bell and whistle there is, including Dolby Atmos. Expect fantastic sound quality – if you can stomach the price.

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  • 75%
    £345.00

    This premium soundbar comes with a wireless subwoofer, designed to improve bass performance. As you’d expect at this price, there are plenty of fancy features, including voice control options and Dolby Atmos. It sounds great, but it’s not the easiest to use – so it might take some getting used to.

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  • 71%
    £649.00

    The innovative and unusual sound bar has detachable, battery-powered speakers that can be used as part of a surround-sound setup in your living room. With the right set up, the audio quality it gives is simply fantastic.

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  • 71%
    £188.00

    If you're on limited budget but don't want to sacrifice quality, this sound bar is going to tick all of your boxes. It has excellent sound quality, and comes with a separate wireless subwoofer, yet has an affordable price tag.

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Pricing and recommendations correct as of August 2021.

Best sound bar features to look for

Beyond great audio quality, there are a few things you should expect from a good sound bar.

Sound bar on a cabinet underneath a TV

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 it 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 it is when you’re not sitting front and centre.

Audio power is measured in watts – usually stated as 'watts RMS'. This figure refers to the combined energy output of all of the sound bar’s speakers, including subwoofers. A higher audio wattage can result in a wider, richer or louder sound, but this type of power doesn't always equate to quality, and sound quality is what counts. 

So a powerful sound bar isn’t necessarily the best.

Energy usage is also given in watts, so it’s easy to get the two figures confused.

Good speech quality

A common reason for getting a sound bar is to make speech in TV and films sound clearer.

Some TV speakers can make dialogue sound muffled and unclear. Most sound bars come with an external or built-in subwoofer for extra bass. But the bass can sometimes be too harsh and overpowering, which can leave you straining your ears to make out what characters are saying.

Some sound bars have a voice-enhancement setting designed to sharpen dialogue. Not all actually work well, though. We evaluate the speech sound quality of each sound bar to weed out models that have below-average speech quality and will leave you resorting to pressing the subtitles button. 

Our best sound bars make speech sound crystal clear in TV and films.

Wireless connectivity

Most sound bars come with Bluetooth (as well as wired connections). This is great if you want to use yours for listening to music without having to turn on your TV.

Some sound bars come equipped for wireless multi-room music streaming. By pairing speakers together around your home, you can enjoy seamless access to your music library in multiple rooms.

Sound bars with wi-fi are able 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.

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 the TV. Sound bars with built-in IR (infrared) repeaters negate this problem by forwarding the signal from your remote control to the TV.

Sound bars that have a display and controls on the device tend to be easier to use.

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.

Good-quality connections

Any good sound bar will have at least one digital connector: optical, coaxial or HDMI. These minimise interference compared with lower-quality 3.5mm audio jacks that you find on cheaper sound bars and allow for special features such as virtual surround sound. 

The best sound bars will offer HDMI ARC connections. Additionally, models with HDMI-CEC will allow you to use one remote to control both your TV and the sound bar. 

For more information, read our guide to setting up a sound bar with a TV.

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.

Plus, any buttons on the sound bar itself should be within easy reach and won't require you to have to contort your body into an uncomfortable position to make adjustments or change audio sources.

Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is the newest innovation in surround sound and is one of the most sought-after premium sound bar features. One with Dolby Atmos should create a convincing surround-sound experience that matches a multi-speaker home cinema setup.

Originating from cinema theatres, it’s described as object-based sound. This means that the movement of objects in films will sound very realistic, and it bounces sound off the walls and ceiling to create an immersive surround-sound experience. For instance, rain in films and TV can be heard above and around you.

DTS:X  

This surround-sound format is similar to Dolby Atmos and delivers cinematic, object-based sound.

Surround-sound speakers

Some premium sound bars come with separate surround speakers, as you'd find in some home cinema systems. Surround sound is designed to give a sense of movement and direction to sound for an immersive cinematic experience. 

Unlike Dolby Atmos, which works by bouncing sounds around, surround speakers work because the sound really is coming from different directions.

Surround-sound speakers can be wired or wireless, but wireless modules usually still need to be plugged in to a power source.

Dedicated surround speakers are generally reserved for the most expensive sound bars, but some affordable models are compatible with surround speakers purchased separately. 

Voice assistants

Built-in voice control is becoming increasingly popular, especially in high-end models. Amazon Alexa and Google Home are common examples, and they allow you to control features using your voice.

Some sound bars have these features built in, while others require additional hardware, such as Amazon Echo or Google Nest products.

How much do I need to pay for a good sound bar?

Sound bars vary wildly in price – from less than £100 to well over £1,000.

We’ve seen fantastic models, as well as some disappointing ones, in every price range. Generally, though, mid-range and premium sound bars tend to outperform budget models – both in sound quality and in features.

Below, we outline what you can expect to get for your money in different price ranges.

Budget sound bars: up to £200

  • The vast majority of Don’t Buy sound bars fall into this category – so it’s easy to buy a dud if you’re not careful.
  • However, we occasionally find gems for less than £200 that score more than 70% in our tests – enough to be a Best Buy.
  • The best budget models produce clear sound and are easy to use, but they’re less likely to have advanced features such as wi-fi connectivity or Dolby Atmos.

For great sound on a budget, check out which cheaper models sailed through our tough lab tests. Go to the best sound bars under £200.

Mid-range sound bars: £200 to £700

  • There are plenty of Best Buys and fewer Don't Buys in this category, although there are still plenty of mediocre models. 
  • Some high-end features such as Dolby Atmos begin to appear in this category.
  • Good models in this price range sound great wherever you’re sat, are easy to use and can belt out sound at maximum volume without much distortion.

Premium sound bars: more than £700

  • Fortunately, it’s rare to see Don’t Buys at this price range – but we do see some occasionally.
  • Some of the best sound bars we’ve tested fall into this category, but there are still plenty of disappointingly average ones even at this price.
  • Good models at this price are likely to include all the latest bells and whistles – from smart features to Dolby Atmos and surround-sound speakers.

Sound bars to avoid - see our round-up of Don't Buy sound bars.

Do I need a sound bar with a subwoofer?

Some can offer the complete package when it comes to sound quality, and many people will be happy with the depth of bass a standalone sound bar can provide.

Sound bar with subwoofer

Most sound bars these days come with a subwoofer and some have it built in. Those that don't come with a subwoofer can usually be paired with a compatible one that can be bought separately. These external boxes do all the bass work, which dramatically increases the punch of your audio setup. 

They can come at an extra cost and it’s yet another object in your living room, which 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 sound cables around your lounge. 

Our tests 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 – so it pays to do a little research.

Sound bar vs soundbase: what’s the difference?

Sound bars and soundbases are both designed to do the same job in the same way – to improve your TV’s sound by providing bigger, better speakers.

The biggest difference between the two is shape. Sound bars are long and thin, sitting either in front of your TV or mounted to a wall. A soundbase is wider and has a flat surface, allowing your TV to sit on top of it.

Generally, soundbases are bigger than sound bars, meaning more space for speakers. In theory, this should mean they're able to produce better bass (although we don’t always find this in our tests). Sound bars are easier to move around and more likely to be compatible with any TV since they don’t need to be big or strong enough to support the weight of a TV.

Soundbases have declined in popularity recently, with many big brands discontinuing their models. We’ve tested several fantastic soundbases over the years, though, so if you see one and you’re not put off by its size, it could be worth considering.

Know what you're looking for? Time to find the sound bar with the features you've decided on. Visit our full list of expert sound bar reviews to compare models.