Sound bars vs home cinema & surround sound systems: which is best?
By Haddi Browne
Want top-quality sound from your TV? We’ll help you decide whether a sound bar, a home cinema or surround sound system is best for you.
Modern super-slim TVs look great compared to boxy CRT televisions of yesteryear, but this often comes at the cost of sound quality. Simply connecting a compact sound bar can vastly improve your TV listening experience - and a surround sound system could do more still, giving an immersive feeling more akin to being at the cinema. Which you choose will depend on your budget, room size and requirements.
You may already have an idea of which type of home entertainment setup would suit you best, but to help you decide we did some head-to-head lab testing to see how sound bars compare with multi-speaker home cinema systems for sound quality. We also compared both with the built-in speakers of several TVs, and also some mini hi-fis to see whether you need to buy a separate TV sound system at all. Read on to find out the differences between product types.
If you're just looking for the best sound bars you can buy, head straight to our Best Buy sound bar reviews.
TV sound systems compared
We tested examples of each product against each other using our expert listening panel. They rated sound quality by listening to a range of different audio samples, including blockbuster films, TV dramas and music.
So what did we learn from the results?
- A four or five-star sound bar will provide better sound than your TV's speakers – no great surprise there.
- In our tests our panel preferred the sound quality offered by a good hi-fi system to the best sound bars and soundbases. That's likely to be down to the quality of the hi-fi's amplifier and the speakers themselves, which can be larger still than those crammed into a compact sound bar, even if they themselves are bigger than a TV's tiny speakers.
- Unsurprisingly, our panel disliked the sound of one-star products equally, no matter the type. So there’s no point buying a sound system just for the sake of it – you have to make sure it’s a good one or you’re wasting your money.
So, if you’ve already got a decent hi-fi in your living room, we recommend you look into whether you could connect your TV to your hi-fi (check the manual if you still have it). Bear in mind that to hear the benefit you'll need to ensure your hi-fi speakers are placed either side of the TV's screen and are, broadly speaking, pointing towards where you're sitting.
And what about multi-speaker systems? Our experts don't necessarily prefer the sound quality they produce to that of a sound bar or a mini hi-fi. However, there are certain things that only a multi-speaker system can give you, such as true surround sound.
Best for everyday TV - sound bars
Sound bars integrate several speakers into one long rectangular box. With fewer wires, these sound systems can simply sit in front of your TV or be fixed below a wall-mounted set.
All offer stereo sound, and they usually also have optional modes such as '3D' or 'surround sound' where the audio is digitally processed to achieve a simulated, or virtual, surround sound effect. In our experience, however, these modes often add very little to the listening experience, and some actually have a negative impact on quality.
Many sound bars also come with a separate subwoofer speaker – usually a sizeable rectangular box, housing large-diameter speakers that can produce low-frequency sounds (ie. bass tones) more effectively than the smaller speakers in the main sound bar unit. These subwoofers are sometimes wireless, although they still have to be plugged in to a wall socket to get power.
TV shows are generally recorded in stereo, so a more expensive multi-speaker home cinema set-up is often unnecessary. If you’re just watching Bargain Hunt at lunchtime or the Great British Bake Off in the evening, you’ll be fine opting for a sound bar.
That said, avid film fans shouldn’t be disappointed either. Our Best Buy sound bars deliver fantastic sound quality, whether you're watching Aliens or Antiques Roadshow.
Pros: Compact, improvement on TV speakers, usually cheaper than home cinema systems
Cons: Virtual surround sound not as effective as a multi-speaker home cinema system
Best for films and HD TV - home cinema and surround sound systems
Home cinema systems usually take the form of a Blu-ray or DVD player along with an amplifier, and multiple speakers. These typically give you '5.1' surround sound. The '5' refers to the five main speakers: two positioned behind you to the right and left, and three front speakers, which go left, right and centre of the TV. The '1' indicates the number of subwoofers. Although 5.1 is the most common set-up, systems can be as compact as 2.1 and as expansive as 9.2.
You can also buy surround sound systems with an amplifier unit (or 'receiver'), but not a Blu-ray or DVD player, but it's the full package that is usually termed a 'home cinema system'. If you already own a player, it's likely to be cheaper to just buy a surround sound system. Do carefully check what's included, though, as some manufacturers and retailers use the terms interchangeably.
Most Blu-ray films are recorded in a multi-channel audio format, such as Dolby Digital. As their name suggests, a home cinema system will allow you to experience the sound in a more cinematic way, with sound effects coming from in front, to the sides and from behind you, courtesy of the multiple speakers. Certain films and shows screened on TV are also recorded in surround sound. Many can be found on Sky's movie channels and other high-definition (HD) channels - to find them, look out for the Dolby Digital logo or 'DD' in the programme guide or in the corner of the screen.
Pros: The best option for a genuine surround sound experience
Cons: Lots of components means more clutter, as well as trailing wires (although wireless models are available)
See which systems will give you brilliant, captivating surround sound by reading our Best Buy home cinema system reviews.