Your TV is probably the centerpiece of your living room, and if you bought it in the past few years, chances are it’s an insanely thin slab of glass that would make a time-traveler from the ’50s accuse you of sorcery. Video quality has drastically improved and TVs have slimmed down over the years. While that’s great for saving space in your living room, it’s not good for how your movies sound. Less space for speaker drivers means that whatever you’re watching isn’t going to get as loud or be nearly as immersive as surround sound audio. But what if you don’t have space for an entire surround sound setup? Then check out the best soundbars on the market, starting with the Sennheiser Ambeo 3D.
This list was updated on December 24, 2019, to include information regarding DSP.
The best soundbar is the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar
The best all-around soundbar you can get is the new Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar. Sennheiser has been moving into the realm of 3D audio for a while now, and the company has taken what it has learned along with its legacy in sound and stuffed it all into one soundbar. While the Ambeo is expensive, it also has all of the newest technologies built inside to help you get the best experience possible. In fact, most of the “What you should know” section below was written specifically to help you better understand everything this soundbar has to offer.
Physically, it features 13 drivers all angled in different directions to help bounce sound around the space, placing you in the center of it. It weighs approximately 18.5kg and the dimensions are roughly 126.5 x 13.5 x 17.1 cm. It has three HDMI 2.0 inputs, one HDMI eARC output, an optical input, stereo RCA input, Ethernet input, a subwoofer pre-out, 2.5mm microphone input, Bluetooth, and Google Chromecast built-in. Yeah, it’s a lot ports, but that doesn’t even include the most exciting bits of tech in here which is support for any audio format you can throw at it. It’s compatible with basically all of the Dolby and DTS offerings including Atmos and DTS:X, the immersive codecs that allow for 3D audio which are all the rage right now. With the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar, you’re paying for the best and you’re getting it.
If you just want a smart soundbar then go with the Sonos Beam
Sonos is the go-to for people getting into home audio because of the pain-free setup; the company makes some of the best soundbars and smart speakers around. All Sonos speakers work together seamlessly and can be controlled wirelessly via the app. The company has also been pushing to release products more frequently than before, resulting in a smart soundbar called Sonos Beam. What is a smart soundbar? It’s just like a smart speaker, but in soundbar form. Tiny microphones built-into it pick up your voice when you speak the keyword and access a virtual assistant like Alexa or the Google Assistant to get things done. Luckily, the Sonos Beam supports both so you don’t have to choose. If you have an HDMI ARC input on a TV that supports consumer electronics control (CEC), you can even turn the TV on and off with just your voice.
The Sonos beam is 68.5 x 651 x 100 mm in dimensions and weighs only 2.8kg, so mounting it is definitely a possibility. On the back, you’ll find the ports which include an HDMI and an Ethernet port. It also operates via Wi-Fi if you prefer to go wireless. As far as audio format support you’ll only get Dolby Digital here, which is good news if you want to build out your setup eventually (especially since Sonos speakers play nicely together) but bad news if you want the latest 3D audio codec support like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. If the Sonos Beam is a bit too expensive for your best soundbars budget, there are a ton of Sonos speaker alternatives out there.
For a sleek, feature-packed, gorgeous soundbar check out the LG SK10Y
The LG SKY10Y is another premium soundbar that, while isn’t as feature-packed as the top pick from Sennheiser, still has a lot to offer. It has a sleek modern design that looks great without attracting too much attention, even if it is almost 147cm long and weighs 19.5kg. It isn’t small, but LG packed some decently sized drivers in here. It simulates a 5.1.2 Atmos setup thanks to five different driver channels, a separate subwoofer, and two upward-firing speakers to bounce sound off the ceiling.
The LGSK10Y features support for almost all of the Dolby formats including Dolby Digital and Dolby Atmos, though as we mentioned it only has two upward-firing speakers and the maximum possible is four. Of course, you also get a number of other useful features like Bluetooth support for streaming music, 4K passthrough, Chromcast Built-in, and a night mode that auto-adjusts the volume so that explosions and dialogue are both easily heard without disturbing the neighbors just to name a few. While $1099 was just too much for us to include it on our last update of this list, it’s since dropped to around $569 which makes it one of the best soundbars LG has to offer.
If you want versatility, get the JBL Link Bar
JBL teamed up with Google to create the much anticipated Link Bar. This is one of the best soundbars because it’s a jack of all trades, a collection of devices wrapped into one thin package. Although the $400 price tag is steep, the Link Bar has the ability to transform your outdated TV into a smart TV thanks to Android TV integration. All you need is an internet connection, Wi-Fi or ethernet, to download as many Android TV apps as the 4GB storage allows.
Best Google Assistant smart speakers
Streaming via Android TV or over Chromecast looks gorgeous; it automatically displays at a 4K resolution assuming your TV supports it. There is a drawback to Chromecast streaming, though: egregious lag. This makes it difficult to watch videos without noticing the three-second audio-visual lag. The same lag occurs if you try and cast from a mobile music application like Tidal, YouTube Music Premium, or Google Play Music. What’s more, users aren’t yet able to add the Link Bar to a Google Home speaker group. It’s currently not recognized as a speaker by other should-be compatible speakers. This should be updated in a firmware update though.
Drawbacks aside, the Link Bar is still an outstanding jack of all trades. It sounds great and reproduces clear dialogue while accurately representing sounds despite lacking any 3D audio features. What’s more, it does integrate Google Assistant meaning you can make hands-free commands by saying, “Ok Google.” The included remote features a built-in microphone, too; all you have to do is click the Google Assistant button to initiate voice command recognition. If you want one of the best soundbars that’s truly smart, the Link Bar is a great pick with drawbacks that can be fixed via firmware updates.
If you’re on a budget then just play it safe and get the Vizio SB3821-C6
Regardless of your whatever frugal rationale led you to look at budget soundbars, you’ve come to the right place. The Vizio SB3621 C6 has gotten a lot of attention for the insane value that it brings to the among the best soundbars. This is a 2.1 soundbar system that automatically pairs with an included wireless subwoofer. Built-in Bluetooth makes streaming audio a thoughtless process and the design, albeit uninspiring, is likely to blend into most settings.
Vizio SB3621 C6
As many movie-goers know, Dolby Digital is a popular standard when it comes to surround sound. Dolby Digital adds a layer of spatial dimension to your audio for a more immersive listening experience, and it’s supported by the Vizio SB3621 C6 soundbar. While it’s not quite as 3D as the newest Dolby Atmos format, it gets the job done nicely. Additionally, DTS TruSurround and TruVolume are supported for a more realistic and consistent auditory experience. The complete package includes the 38”, 2.1 soundbar; a wireless subwoofer; an optical cable; and a remote control. Unfortunately, you can’t expand the system with other speakers to make it a 5.1 system, but again, for the price, few other options come close. Vizio has really struck a harmonious balance between price, sound quality, and user experience, just another reason it’s among the best soundbars available.
What you should know about the best soundbars
What is the difference between 2.1 and 5.1?
If you’ve been looking around long enough, you’ve probably come across a few options that have 2.1 or 5.1 in their name, but what does that even mean? This just refers to the number of speakers that is in the setup. The first number refers to the number of speakers that are being used, while the second number refers to a channel dedicated to a subwoofer. A 2.1 setup has two speaker channels (a left and a right) as well as a subwoofer, while a 5.1 setup means that there are those same two speaker channels and a subwoofer.
When you start looking at Atmos compatibility (which we’ll get into later), additional speakers are added to the end of this number. If you have a 5.1 setup with four Atmos compatible speakers, the correct way to describe it would be a 5.1.4 setup.
Are soundbars as good as surround sound?
The short answer is no, but like everything else in life, there are exceptions. A true 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system is going to make a bigger difference in your viewing experience mainly because of the physical placement of the speakers around whatever particular room you’re in. You can have one speaker behind you, one in front of you, one off to the side, and all together they will make you feel like you’re right in the middle of the action. With most standalone soundbars there’s only one place that the audio is coming from, and that’s right in front of you.
Of course, you can always add a soundbar to your surround sound setup, but if you’re not doing that and just putting a soundbar head-on against a full surround sound system, chances are you’ll be more impressed by the surround sound. That said, there are plenty of tricks that some soundbars can pull off that makes the experience significantly better. For example, packing a bunch of small drivers angled in different directions to help bounce sound around the room that you’re in to simulate sounds coming from multiple directions. Plus, unless you have an abnormally large living room or are looking to make a true home theater room in your house, most soundbars will get the job done just fine.
Do you need a subwoofer?
If you’re looking into how to start building up your home audio setup and are questioning whether or not you need to actually invest in a subwoofer, the answer is no. If you hook up one of the best soundbars, your audio will play just fine without an added sub. The problem is that most soundbars are following the trend of TVs and getting thinner and thinner, and because of how sound works that means that the smaller physical space is going to result in weakened bass response.
So if you really want to feel the explosions in action movies or be drawn into the gravel drawl of your favorite classic western, then a subwoofer is worth considering as it is going to really bring that extra layer of depth. One thing to keep in mind if you’re looking to get a subwoofer is that you’re going to need space on the floor for it, and they’re usually fairly large. So if maintaining a clean and minimal look is important to you, then know that start thinking now about where you can place it so that it’s still effective but stays out of the way.
What is a DSP and why does it matter?
Our very own Robert Triggs penned an excellent in-depth feature explaining the ins and outs of digital signal processors (DSP), but if you’re short for time we’ve got the skinny too. A DSP is responsible for number crunching digital signals, like audio, with great efficiency. There’s a DSP in your smartphone that’s used to decode MP3 files, recognize voice commands for your virtual assistant, and convert Bluetooth codecs into analog signals.
The technology is being used more frequently now for on-device EQs. Take the Apple AirPods Pro, these adjust sound on the fly thanks to a multitude of sensors that take live readings of ambient external noise and echoes within the ear canal. As DSPs advance, we’ll see them used more like how Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Creative’s SXFI processing, both of which require a map of your ear to adjust the signal for a more immersive effect.
If you’re a dedicated audiophile, you may even invest in an after-market DSP box to calibrate your surround sound system for optimal audio reproduction.
What is Dolby Vision and DTS and Dolby Digital and Dolby Atmos?
If you can’t tell, Dolby and DTS do a lot of things. You’ll likely find these technologies in everything from DVD players to the best soundbars, but what do all the different letters and words mean? Dolby and DTS (Digital Theater Systems) are the names of two competing companies, each with their own way of doing things and each really good at what they do. We’re not here to tell you which one is better, that’s for you to decide (if you can hear a difference). We’re here to explain what they are.
As you may have guessed by the name, this one actually has nothing to do with how everything is going to sound. Dolby Vision is just a video format made by the company that allows for higher dynamic range in the image on your screen, making everything look brighter and increasing contrast on the screen. Obviously, it isn’t a big factor when it comes to soundbars.
DTS and Dolby Digital
This is where we get to the good stuff. Dolby Digital and DTS has to do with how audio is packaged and delivered digitally. They’re audio codecs, but what makes them different than the codecs we usually talk about when discussing Bluetooth options is that DTS and Dolby Digital are specifically for surround sound. So they’re able to compress down data meant for surround sound systems (up to 7.1) in a way that tries to remove some data that is imperceptible to the human ear while minimizing the important data lost in the process. The way that this is achieved is different between the two and has to do with how they encode the audio and the bitrate, but the debate between which one sounds better is best left to the forums. The only thing that you need to know is that both of these provide great audio experiences with a surround sound setup.
Dolby Atmos vs. DTS:X
The newest codecs in home audio are Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and these are all the rage. The biggest difference between these two is going to be the speaker placement. Atmos benefits from additional speakers to be added above you in a surround sound setup. This allows the audio engineers to add another layer of directionality to the audio, so if you’re watching a movie where a plane flies overhead you’d hear it coming out of the speakers above you instead of the speakers directly in front of you. Of course, not everyone’s setup is going to include additional speakers built into your ceiling, which is why some soundbars (like the LG SKY10) use upward-firing drivers to bounce sound off of the ceiling in order to replicate this. When done correctly, this emulates a 3D representation of space, making for more engaging media playback.
On the other hand, DTS:X does not require your speakers to be in a certain configuration. Instead, you’ll likely need a compatible receiver or, in our case, soundbar to decide which channel to output a particular sound through based on your unique setup.
What is HDMI eARC and do you need it?
If you read our piece on audio connections, you may remember HDMI ARC being brought up as a means to transfer audio data along with the video from a device to your TV. This means with just one cable you can have a one-stop-shop for all of your audio/visual needs. So then what is HDMI eARC? The letters ARC stand for audio return channel, and the “e” at the beginning stands for “enhanced,” which is at least better than extreme or some other overused adjective. If your TV is compatible, it will convert more A/V data quicker. This is important because object-based surround sound codecs, like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, have more information that needs to be transferred. eARC enables compatible gear is like a bigger pipe that allows more water to flow. At the very least the best soundbars support HDMI inputs.
What’s a 4K soundbar?
It’s a bit of marketing, but if you have a 4K TV and you want to use a soundbar with it, you’re going to want a 4K soundbar. If you’re only planning to use the soundbar for music and not as a home theater setup for movies, no, 4K compatibility wouldn’t make a difference for your audio quality.
However, to maintain a 4K viewing experience with a soundbar, you’re going to want a soundbar with a 4K pass-through. Simply put, this just means that the 4K signal is transferred directly from the receiver to the TV. For instance, the Bose SoundTouch 300 has a built-in 4K pass-through for lossless viewing.
- Sonos Playbar: One of the most recognizable brands in the audio arena is Sonos. The company has a wide range of speakers available and the Playbar is no exception. It works well within the Sonos ecosystem and only requires two cables: one for power and an optical cable.
- Klipsch R-20B Bluetooth soundbar: This soundbar is a refreshed version of a model that was previously on this list, and seeing as it’s roughly $200 cheaper than that older model was when it first came this is a pretty solid deal.
- Polk Audio Signa S2: The Polk Audio Signa S1 is neck-in-neck with the Vizio SB3621 C6 for the best soundbars for listeners on a budget. It comes with a subwoofer and is perfect for an apartment living space.
- Yamaha YAS-207BL: This soundbar is an excellent value and is priced around $250. The HDMI ARC, 4K pass-through, and CEC compatibility all give the soundbar some extra features that enable it to punch above its weight class
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