How we test sound bars
By Jack Turner
A sound bar can be an easy way to revitalise a dull-sounding TV. We explain how we test them, and what to look for.
Sound bar testing in brief
Which? tests around 30 sound bars a year, from all the major brands that you'll find on the high street. We test a range of models, from compact single-bar types to those that come with a separate bass-boosting subwoofer speaker. We select sound bars styled for different TV and room sizes, so whether you want it for a big screen TV or need something smaller, you'll find something to suit you.
The best sound bars deliver:
- Top-quality audio, so films and TV will be more exciting
- Clear dialogue, so you won't miss a crucial line
- Versatile features that are easy-to-use, so you can get the most out of your sound bar.
Real-world sound testing
Sound quality is rated by our five-person expert panel using 11 tracks, including TV dramas, and classical, pop and jazz pieces, as well as speech and film material.
But this being a Which? test, we don't stop there. We listen to every model from different distances and angles. This checks for any issues that may arise if you’re not sitting directly in front of the sound bar, such as when watching a film with a group of friends who are sitting around the TV. We've found that even some of the better models don't sound quite as good when you are sitting at an angle, and this could be worth noting, depending on your living room set-up.
Finally, we put bold claims of big volume and impressive-sounding specs, such as '300 watts', to the test by checking how loud you can push each sound bar before distortion kicks in. To help you choose the right sound bar for you, we recommend the size of room it’s suitable for, from small to large, or even those that can be heard throughout the whole house for music fans.
We give every product individual ratings, such as those for sound quality at different angles and distances, and at louder volumes. These are given alongside overall sound quality ratings. See how each compares to other models over at our expert sound bar reviews.
Once we have all our test results in, we evaluate the data to determine the total test score for each sound bar. The sound bar score ignores price and is based on:
- Sound quality: 80%
- Ease of use: 10%
- Features and power use: 10%
Those models that score 75% or more are awarded Best Buy status.
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Sound bars vs alternative sound systems
To get to the fundamentals of just how sound bars actually perform, we lined them up not just against each other, but a range of common audio alternatives: a budget hi-fi set-up, a surround sound system and, of course, a typical flat-panel TV.
Many of the sound bars we test manage to sound better than a typical flat-panel TV but, while some models have only delivered a marginal improvement, several have sounded excellent. Previously, we had found none had come close to the budget hi-fi system that grabbed the top spot - a Cambridge Audio amp coupled with KEF Coda 7 loudspeakers - which was in a 'different league to any TV' according to our testers.
We check all sound bars for power use to make sure they're efficient and keep your bills down. A sound bar is likely to spend most of its life either switched on so you can get the best sound when watching your TV or sitting on standby waiting to be used, so it's vital that its power consumption isn't excessive.
An additional subwoofer speaker could increase the amount of power it consumes. We take a number of energy use measurements and examine the effectiveness of any power-saving features, and we measure energy use when the sound bar has been on standby.
How we choose products for testing
Dedicated researchers carefully select the products Which? tests, scouring the market for the latest releases and the most innovative products. Our researchers aim to cover a very high percentage of the market in any one product area. And, while we do test some premium products, we avoid testing those products that you would need a second mortgage to afford. We take the following criteria into account when choosing soundbars:
- Popularity - we test soundbars that are the biggest sellers
- Brand reliability - we test more soundbars from brands that are reliable and tend to do well in our testing
- Innovation - we test new and innovative soundbars, such as those that have the facility to slot into your multi-room speaker set-up
- Cost - we typically test soundbars that cost between £80 and £500.