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AVS Forum's Top 10 Powered Soundbars

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.

 

 

Sony HT-CT260H (MSRP $300)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Vizio S4251W (MSRP $330)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Pioneer SP-SB23W (MSRP $400)

 

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 SoundBase 580 (MSRP $500)

 

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 SurroundBar 9000 IHT (MSRP $800)

 

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 PB-235 (MSRP $899)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Sonos PlayBar & Sub (MSRP $1398)

 

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 Motion Vision (MSRP $1500)

 

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.

 

 

 

Yamaha YSP-4300 (MSRP $1900)

 

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 SoloCinema XTR (MSRP $1999)

 

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.

Comments (16)

You left one out, Don't matter to me,I like real deal.
My comment to this article is probably going to be vicious to some; apologies if it does.

Normally I wouldn't even read an article like this: just some old fashioned common sense should be enough to know that sound bars is all about some clever commercial thinking and nothing about good sound.

Having heard the Sony (for the price it is ok, but nothing more) and the Pioneer (which hurts my ears) I can do nothing but hold my breath about the others. In any case my acoustic needs are higher than these 'things' and I am sure I can do a lot better than any of these for say 400,-…

Only the Yamaha sounds right, but at almost 2000,- it's way too expensive.

And please: can anyone explain what Sonos does in a top ten of powered sound bars. Has anyone ever had a serious listen to it? You get the sound of 'about' the Sony at about 5 times the price?

While I am at it: everyone ever heard of the Audio Pro Air One?
My comment to your comment is probably going to be vicious to some, apologies if it does.

First of all "good sound" is relative. It is not an absolute concrete term which can be measured by science. Sounds bars to a great many people provide fantastic sound and fit a very real consumer need of "doesn't piss off the wife".

Furthermore, you already have an established opinion of what "good sound". They key is opinion. Therefore saying "okay" and "hurt my ears" are subjective statements.

Furthermore, $2000 is not expensive, not for trying to pack a ton of other things in (including receiver functionality). To one person, the system is clean and discrete. To the other, it provides something to plug all their other things (consoles, Blu-ray, etc).

As for the Sonos, until you have a Sonos system in your house, you probably will not understand the other aspects. I do not think it is possible. It is possible the best compromise I have ever made with my wife in terms of whole house audio and dare I say electronics in general. Sonos will never win an award for "damn that sounds amazing"; but that isn't the point. However, in terms of integration, I haven't found anything that comes close (please don't mention airplay)

I guess my biggest issue is you are only look at sound bars for "acoustic quality" based upon your definition of good. Furthermore, you seem to be expecting it to be exhaustive. If you want it to be exhaustive, you get all these products (from our own pocket book) and write your own review. The writers of AVS are trying to provide a service of getting through at least a large percentage of the products out there which are easily available and giving what is their opinion. To get angry about somebodies opinion is not good for your health; especially when that opinion is based something that will change in less than 6 months when the new batch of widgets come out.

With articles like this, it is generally more productive to provide other alternatives (like the audio Pro Air One) than trying to tear it apart. Because by time I got to the end of it, I could only take your statement as extremely colored and just a bit pretentious; which I don't think was your intention.

I guess my biggest point is pretty much any sound bar will sound better than the crap that came inside your TV. To the person reading the article, this list is a good place to start for your own search. Use it as a tool.
I agree that sound quality is relative, and I agree even more that almost any sound bar will sound better than 'the crap that came inside your TV' (SIC.) I can even see that you think my comment may sound pretentious. The only point I wanted to make is that I still have to hear the first sound bar that sounds more than ok (to my ears, that is.) When it comes to sound quality I think that almost anyone will have some sort of minimal level he or she wants. My thinking is (ok, this may sound pretentious too) that it is wrong to think that a simple sound bar will provide that, more over if you can get a Denon M39 for about the price of the Sony HT-CT260H listed here.

For anyone looking to upgrade the sound of their television, I would advice looking at a good micro chain (like the Denon) as a starting point. This may be well out of the WAF, although from the moment you connect a DVB-C, BD player or Paystation to your television, you will also have to provide a place for that, and then it will be well worth going into discussion with the mrs…

For anyone still looking for a sound bar I would advice the Audio Pro Air One. Sounds incredible for the volume, and even has a USB socket, line in and wifi (DLNA, Airplay) to boot. Ok, at 800,- the price is hefty (although in Europe it is cheaper than the Sonos), but very reasonable for the possibilities it has. If you take the Sonos as a reference you even have change to get a good subwoofer (although I don't miss it with mine) and you have all possibilities of the Sonos (minus surround) and is more pleasing to the eye (talking about WAF.)
I just picked up the Sony HT-CT260H on Black Friday for use in a large master bedroom. Although it doesn't match the sound quality and performance of my home theater, it works well for its intended usage on a secondary TV. Setup was simple, sound quality is a massive improvement over the standard TV speakers, and my wife approves.

Soundbars have their place...just not in my home theater.
SoundBar benefit is mostly "ease of setup" + "good enough" sound quality. $2000 in that case is not that much, because even if the component cost of AVR + 5.1 speaker might be less than $2000, you need to add the setup cost and installation cost and research cost and that could be a few weeks to a few months worth of your time (and if you hire someone, that cost as well).
I am a hardcore 7.1, but I can see the $2000 Yamaha would be a good fit for my sister and parents to save the hazzle and just "plug it in" with "good enough" audio performance.
Of course most people that buy soundbars do it because they don't have the space (or $) for an AVR or enough space for a heard or surround sound speakers.
In our 900 sq. ft. (second home) condo unit - we have a 60" Panny plasma - but anything more than a very basic speaker system would rattle neighboring units. A "low" priced soundbar is more than adequate. We first got a Yamaha open box but returned it right away because it didn't have BlueTooth (Cost was about $210). We wanted BT to listen to Pandora and other music. Then got a JBL 200 - $200. It has no real settings and the bass is so overwhelming that not only does it shake the next door unit, it often is hard to understand dialog.
Just ordered a Panny soundbar direct from Panny cut from $200 to $100. Specs show it has lots of settings, which most soundbars do let you do. Should be here in a week.
I'm partial to the Atlantic Technology FS-5000-GLB, with the bass response that extends down to 70 Hz for a full-bodied sound--even without a sub woofer. It also has 89dB sensitivity. Not to mention it is super easy to set up!
anyone hear the Bose soundbar? Thoughts?
Bose Solo sounds great for the price. We have full 7.2 surround in the basement theater and use the Solo for the living room TV.
PSB, Paradigm and Goldenear soundbars?
davidylau, those are all passive soundbars that require an outboard amplifier; this buying guide is limited to powered soundbars with their own built-in amps.
How is the Yamaha YSP2200? most places are selling it for under $700.
richardyc, I expect the YSP-2200 to sound very good with its wireless subwoofer. Probably not quite as good as the YSP-4300, but a lot better than most comparably priced soundbars with subs. As I said in the article, Yamaha's beam-steered surround is the best I've heard, as long as you have a rectangular room.
The klipsch icon sb-1 rocks!
Kind of wish that the category of sound bars was divided into two - passive and active (built in amp). I see no mention of the venerable Goldenear which consistently got rave reviews.
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