Sound controls

How to choose the right soundbar (2022): size, price, surround sound and subwoofers

You do not have buying a new TV to improve the sound of your current TV. In fact, most new televisions still have tiny, awful sounding speakers. But it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to upgrading your home theater sound system. Fear not, intrepid buyer: the easiest and most affordable solution is to simply get yourself a soundbar. Modern soundbars come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here, we’ve put together a checklist to consider before you hit the buy button on your next soundbar.

Check out our guides on Best soundbars, our advice on buying a TV and upgrading your home audio system. Our guide to the best TVs will also help you get started on the perfect screen.

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Video 5.1.2

Photography: Vizio

Soundbars are a great first step into home theater audio because they’re compact, easy to install, and sound much better than most built-in TV speakers. Seriously, the TV speakers are bad. The spectrum of quality you can get from a soundbar ranges from basic bass and overall soundstage improvements to the kind of room-filling sound you might expect from a more traditional home theater sound system (a system with wired speakers and a dedicated receiver). Regardless of what you’re watching, a soundbar is a simple way to get the most out of your viewing experience.

React to Polk Audio

Photography: B&H

Soundbars are named based on the amount of built-in treble, bass, and height channels. You can think of channels as the place that emits audio on a soundbar. A “2.1” system, for example, has two speakers and a dedicated subwoofer. A 5.1 system has five speakers (one center, one left, one right and two surround) and a subwoofer. Typically, soundbars have at least three channels in the front (left, center, and right) and are equipped with a subwoofer. It’s a 3.1 system. In my opinion, the most important channel is the central channel, because that’s where TV and movie mixers put the dialogue. Having trouble hearing dialogue in movies and shows? Get at least a 3 channel bar.

Sometimes you’ll see an extra number at the end, like a 5.1.2 system. This means that there are two height channels. These are upward or side-firing speakers that bounce sound off walls, simulating side and ceiling speakers for content mixed in Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Basically, these soundbars attempt to recreate a surround sound experience without requiring you to plug in a bunch of speakers in your living room. More expensive soundbar setups will actually come with additional dedicated rear surround and height speakers for even more immersion.

The more channels, the bigger your soundbar will be. The most important step is to make sure that whatever you buy will fit your media console (ideally it will also fit between the feet of your TV).

React to Polk Audio

Photography: Polk Audio

I highly recommend getting a soundbar with a dedicated subwoofer. If those are too expensive, there are several systems that allow you to add a subwoofer later, including models from Roku, Sonos, and Polk. You’ll have to make room for it (they’re big boxes with big speakers inside to pump out powerful bass, after all). Fortunately, since the bass is omnidirectional, you can place a subwoofer anywhere in your living room, but the exact location will depend on the length of the cable that connects it to the soundbar or power outlet.

Amazon Basic HDMI Cable

Photography: Amazon

Most modern soundbars use what’s called the HDMI ARC (“Audio Return Channel”) standard, allowing you to easily connect them to a TV via a single HDMI cable. That’s it! (You’ll also need to plug it into a power outlet.) Soundbars often have an optical audio output, but it’s important to make sure, especially if you plan to connect one to older TVs or other types of readers. We recommend sticking with a soundbar with ARC support, though. It gives your TV remote the ability to control the volume of the soundbar (including mute functionality), so you won’t have to use two remotes or search for the bar’s remote of her when she’s stuck somewhere on the couch.

Some soundbars also have Bluetooth connectivity and HDMI inputs, meaning you can use them as a traditional home theater receiver. What you need depends entirely on your own use case, but for most people a simple HDMI connection for ARC will suffice. These cables are usually also included in the box.

What about surround sound?

Samsung HW-Q950A Surround Speakers

Photo: Samsung

Surround sound is exactly what it means: you surround yourself with sound via dedicated speakers placed in the room. It’s not necessary, but it can feel more immersive, especially if you watch tons of movies, play video games on TV, or watch lots of sports up close. Soundbars often offer digital surround sound, but don’t put too much faith in immersion unless they have dedicated rear surround speakers (not the built-in side speakers that bounce sound off the walls).