2015 AVS Forum Holiday Gift Guide: Soundbars

Sometimes, the much-maligned soundbar really is the best solution for enhancing the audio capabilities of an AV system. Today, there are more soundbar options than ever, some of which actually sound great! Choosing only three from the vast array of soundbars that are available was surprisingly challenging, but I took my best shot. Here are three soundbars that are sure to please your ears.

Value: Vizio SB4051-C0 5.1 System ($350)

While Vizio may be best known for its affordable yet excellent TVs, the company also does brisk business selling soundbars. The company’s latest 40” soundbar system is a perfect example of the value Vizio offers. You get all-metal construction, a wireless 6” sub, and a pair of satellites—not to mention all the cables you need to connect the soundbar to a source.

You don’t expect to find an HDMI input plus an HDMI output with Audio Return Channel (ARC) on a wallet-friendly soundbar, but Vizio includes it. The same goes for Bluetooth with aptX, for CD-quality wireless audio. Furthermore, when I reviewed Vizio soundbars in the past, I found their performance to be better than expected. Don’t let the low price fool you; Vizio’s soundbars are solid performers, and you won’t find a better-sounding 5.1 surround system for this low a price—soundbar or not.

Performance: Yamaha YSP-1600 ($500, subwoofer optional)

Yamaha’s sound projection technology uses precisely controlled reflected sound to create a compelling surround sound experience without the need for satellite speakers. The YSP-1600 is a 40” wide low-profile soundbar—it’s only 2.5” tall. It has an HDMI input as well as output that supports HDCP 2.2, 4K pass-through, 3D pass-through, plus Audio Return Channel (ARC). Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth make streaming music easy, especially since the YSP-1600 supports Yamaha’s MusicCast wireless audio ecosystem.

The YSP-1600’s dual 3.5” drivers handle bass while an array of eight 1.125” beam drivers create an immersive soundfield. A subwoofer output offers the option of improving the system’s bass performance with an optional standalone sub of your choice. Yamaha’s YSP-1600 is a great choice for cinephiles searching for a compact all-in-one soundbar that offers high-quality surround-sound.

Cost No object: GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array XL 5.1 System ($3250 plus an AVR)

No ordinary soundbar can come remotely close to the performance of the GoldenEar 3D Array XL, a passive 62”-wide soundbar that crushes the competition when it comes to sound quality. I reviewed the 5.1 system featured here last December, and the experience left me in awe of its capabilities—I had no idea a soundbar could offer such high fidelity.

Since the 3D Array XL is a passive device that relies on an AVR (or a pre/pro plus amps), its feature set is largely determined by the gear you use to drive it. The upshot to using an AVR is the 3D Array XL won’t become obsolete; when technology inevitably marches on, you need only replace the electronics. These days, $350 buys you a lot of capability in an AVR.

The inclusion of the ForceField 5 sub ($1000) and SuperSat surrounds ($650 with stands) allows the 3D Array XL to serve as a proper surround system, with the fidelity you’d expect from a similarly-priced system featuring stand-alone speakers. You could even choose to go beyond the capabilities of the system I reviewed by opting for the new SuperSub XXL ($2000) that’s essentially two ForceField Five subs in one enclosure. The 3D Array XL doesn’t limit your options, it can handle serving as the foundation of a high-performance surround system.

In my review, I wrote “Whether you use it to listen to music or movies, the SuperCinema 3D Array XL 5.1 system performs at a level that transcends the soundbar category. It is an audiophile-quality system that happens to fit underneath or above a TV, and it’s equally adept at playing 2-channel and surround-sound content. It’s the first soundbar I’ve heard that I could live with as my primary sound system.” One year later, that 3D Array XL 5.1 package remains the best soundbar-based system I’ve ever heard—bar none.