If you don't have the space or the inclination to install a full-on surround-speaker system—say, in a bedroom or other secondary zone—you might think you're stuck listening to the TV's onboard audio, which is almost always dreadful. But there is an alternative that greatly improves on the sound of the TV's speakers without taking up much space at all—a soundbar.
Most soundbars have speaker drivers in a long, narrow, horizontal housing that is placed directly below—or possibly above—the TV screen, and they are available in different sizes to match the width of different-sized screens. A few models are more rightly called soundbases or pedestal soundbars because they are squarish boxes on which you place the TV. These have the advantage of providing more space behind the drivers, allowing them to reproduce lower frequencies without a subwoofer. And they serve double duty as a TV stand without having to balance a narrow soundbar in front of the TV, where it might block the TV's IR remote sensor. Still, I'll use the term "soundbar" to refer to both types in this guide.
Some soundbars are passive, requiring external amplification from an AV receiver, while others are powered with their own built-in amps. This buying guide is limited to powered soundbars designed to replace a TV's built-in sound system.
In addition, some models provide two or three main channels—left/right or left/center/right—while others attempt to simulate surround channels in addition to the front three channels. This can be done by sending the surround channels in focused beams to reflect off the side walls of the room or by applying sophisticated DSP (digital signal processing) to create the psychoacoustical effect of surround channels without needing side walls. In either case, the surround channels rarely seem like they are coming from behind you, but the front soundstage can be broadened considerably.
Powered models are typically designed to be connected to the TV's optical-digital or analog audio output while all the source devices are connected to the TV's inputs, using the TV as the source selector. These soundbars often provide Dolby Digital and sometimes DTS decoding, though most TVs downmix those bitstreams to 2-channel before sending them to their audio outputs. A growing number of powered soundbars can also play audio from Bluetooth devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Because the housing is so narrow in most soundbars, they can't reproduce much bass, so most come with a separate subwoofer to handle the low frequencies, and in most cases, the sub connects to the soundbar wirelessly. The subwoofers that come with low-cost soundbars are rarely the be-all and end-all of bass, but they do improve the overall sound quality. A few models even include separate surround speakers to provide a complete surround-sound experience.
The powered soundbars in this buying guide were selected as the best models available in 2013 by consulting various review outlets such as CNET, Sound and Vision, The Wirecutter, and Consumer Reports as well as AVS reviews and owner threads and a special call out to members for their top picks.
This 2.1 soundbar measures 37 inches long and comes with a wireless subwoofer and virtual-surround capabilities. It's odd hexagonal profile makes it deeper than most, and it might block the TV's IR remote sensor if placed in front of the TV, but it has an IR flasher on the backside to convey remote commands, so no worries there. Inputs include optical and coax digital audio and analog minijack as well as HDMI, and it can decode Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams. It can also play audio via Bluetooth. The HT-CT260 (no HDMI) is a Consumer Reports Best Buy and a CNET top choice.
Scott Says: One of the most well-regarded low-cost soundbars among professional reviewers.
In addition to flat-panel TVs, Vizio has made quite a name for itself in the soundbar market with excellent-sounding models, such as the 42" S4251W, that include separate surround speakers in addition to a wireless subwoofer. The surround speakers connect to the subwoofer with wires, which means you need to place the sub near them—say, in the back of the room. This is a bit more cumbersome than a conventional soundbar, but it does provide a true surround soundfield. The soundbar provides optical and coax digital-audio inputs as well as analog minijack and left/right RCA inputs, and it can play audio via Bluetooth. It has no IR repeater on the back, but it has a great remote with a status display. A CNET top choice.
If you don't want to deal with physical surround speakers, the S4221W (MSRP $250) is a 2.1 version of the same thing, and it got The Wirecutter's nod for best budget soundbar.
Scott Says: For true surround sound with a soundbar, this is the only game in town at this price—and the price is definitely right.
Designed by Andrew Jones—the same guy responsible for the incredible budget speakers from Pioneer—the 36" SP-SB23W is a 2.1 soundbar with wireless subwoofer that concentrates on superb sound quality rather than virtual surround. It provides optical-digital and L/R RCA analog inputs as well as Bluetooth capabilities, including the aptX codec for higher sound quality. (There were problems with the Bluetooth function in some early units, but these have been resolved.) It includes a Dolby Digital decoder, but not DTS, which is no big deal in my book. Also, it's quite tall, which could block the TV's remote commands, and there's no IR repeater on the back. But sonically, it's among the best you can get, which is why it has garnered CNET's Editors' Choice award.
Scott Says: If you can deal with the large cabinet, the sound quality is exemplary, well worth a much higher price tag.
Zvox's main claim to fame is its soundbases—short, squarish boxes with speakers mounted in one of the narrow faces—which are designed to have a TV placed on top of them. The 36-inch-wide SoundBase 580 is the top of the line, with virtual surround and dual subwoofer drivers built into the cabinet, so no need for a separate sub. It provides no Bluetooth connectivity, but you can use a third-party Bluetooth receiver; the connections it does provide include optical and coax digital audio, two pairs of left/right RCA jacks, and a minijack on the front for portable devices. It comes with its own remote, but the unit can also learn the codes from your remote. It provides Dolby Digital decoding and a volume leveler that helps tame loud commercials and makes it easier to hear everything at a relatively low volume setting.
For smaller TVs, Zvox offers four smaller models; the SoundBase 420 (MSRP $300) is one of CNET's top choices.
Scott Says: Great sound, no sub, no blocking the TV's IR sensor—no wonder so many AVS members swear by the Zvox 580.
Polk has been making soundbars for many years, and that experience has paid off big time. The flagship SurroundBar 9000 IHT is 45" wide, less than 4" high, and only 2" deep, so it's easy to place in front of a TV. It's virtual surround does not depend on reflective walls, which makes it better suited to odd-shaped or open rooms, and a wireless sub handles the bass duties. Inputs include two optical digital-audio and two minijack analog-audio, and it provides Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. It also learns the necessary remote codes from your main remote.
Polk makes several smaller, less-expensive versions for smaller TVs.
Scott Says: If you have an odd-shaped or open room, Polk's virtual surround will be more effective than reflective types.
Atlantic Technology's H-PAS (Hybrid Pressure Acceleration System) technology brings deep bass to surprisingly small cabinets, including this soundbar, which needs no subwoofer to reach relatively low frequencies. Not that it's small for a soundbar—43" wide and over 6" tall and deep, which means it could block the TV's IR sensor (heck, it could block part of the screen!), and it has no IR repeater on the back, so wall-mounting the soundbar or TV—or both—might be your only options. The PB-235 has two optical and one coax digital-audio inputs and a pair of left/right RCA analog inputs, and it can decode Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams and produce a virtual surround soundfield. If you want even more bass, you can connect a subwoofer to really shake the house.
Scott Says: Remarkable bass without a subwoofer puts this soundbar in a class by itself at this price, but its large size might be a limiting factor for some buyers.
What sets the Sonos PlayBar apart is that it operates just like any other Sonos wireless audio device—which means it's super-easy to set up, and it can stream audio from any source connected to your home network or the Internet. With an optical digital-audio input for the TV, this 35.5-inch-wide, 3.0 soundbar really requires the Sonos Sub to fill out the entire audio spectrum; they are sold separately for an MSRP of $699 each. The PlayBar does virtual surround, or you can also add two Play:1 powered speakers ($199 each) in the surround positions for a true 5.1 soundfield, and the entire system is completely wireless (other than AC power cords). See an AVS review of the PlayBar here and the Sub here.
Scott Says: If you've invested in a Sonos wireless sound system for your home—or you just appreciate its elegance, simplicity, and quality—this soundbar and sub are a no-brainer.
MartinLogan is perhaps best known for its electrostatic planar speakers, and its first foray into the world of soundbars upholds the company's reputation for sonic excellence. This 40-inch-wide curvaceous powerhouse is 5" tall and nearly 6" deep, making placement in front of a TV problematic. Still, the sound quality is amazing, thanks in part to its Folded Motion ribbon tweeters. Sound and Vision measured lots of output down to 40 Hz, which means you can probably get away without a subwoofer, but if you want that extra oomph, the Motion Vision has a wireless transmitter for select ML subs as well as a wired sub output. It provides two optical and one coax digital-audio input and left/right RCA analog ins, and it can decode Dolby Digital and DTS bitstreams, but it has no Bluetooth connectivity. The Wirecutter's pick for best soundbar.
Scott Says: MartinLogan quality in a soundbar is quite compelling if you've got the dough.
I've always been very impressed with Yamaha's sound-projection technology, which uses multiple small speaker drivers and DSP to steer beams of sound around the room, reflecting the surround channels from side and rear walls to create a true surround soundfield. The YSP-4300 is the exemplar of this technology, using 22 separate drivers along with a wireless subwoofer to reproduce 7.1 surround sound.
Unlike many soundbars, this one is intended as a replacement for an AV receiver, with four HDMI inputs with 3D and 4K passthrough to one HDMI output to the TV along with Dolby Digital and DTS decoding as well as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio lossless decoding; it even has an FM tuner! There's a USB port on the front, but no Bluetooth—instead, you can get an optional accessory that allows wireless streaming from Apple iDevices and computers using Yamaha's proprietary yAired system. A volume-leveling feature tames the difference between loud commercials and not-so-loud programs. At 43" wide and only 3" tall, the YSP-4300 provides an IR repeater on the back in case the soundbar blocks the TV's IR sensor.
Yamaha makes several smaller, less-expensive models in the YSP line, as well as other models that use sound-beaming for virtual surround. I can't recommend the models that don't come with a subwoofer.
Scott Says: This is the most convincing virtual surround I've ever heard from a soundbar—as long as there are side and back walls to reflect the surround channels.
Definitive Technology is another high-end speaker company that has moved into the world of soundbars—and what an impressive move it is! The 43-inch-wide SoloCinema XTR is 5 inches tall (with an IR repeater on the back) and less than 3 inches deep. Like other soundbars in this lofty price range, it's designed to replace an AV receiver with three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output as well as optical digital-audio and left/right RCA analog-audio inputs; decoding includes Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD. Also provided is Dolby Volume, which tames the differences in level between commercials and programs as well as between channels. It offers virtual surround with a wireless subwoofer, and it can learn the IR codes from just about any remote. However, it has no Bluetooth capabilities.
Scott Says: A top-notch soundbar befitting its top-notch price.