Bought a TV over the holidays? Here’s why you need to add a soundbar
Few things are sweeter than the moment you turn on a new television. Mounted on the wall, or balanced on a media unit, when the lights come on and – after a short period of logging into all your many streaming services – the images start playing.
It’s a shame, then, that the average TV – even the nice ones – often can’t compete when it comes to sound. And if you bought one of the best 4K TVs over the holiday season, you might want to consider complementing your purchase with a soundbar.
Good audio is often an afterthought for TV brands, which mainly focus on image processing and panel quality as key markers for success. Cheap TVs can come with 10W of tinny stereo sound or awkwardly applied bass, meaning a dedicated audio solution can make a huge difference to the quality of sound on offer.
Even high-spec models like the LG C2 OLED, which excel in the image department, can’t quite deliver the same experience in their speakers. The C-series OLED is rated at 40W, with 3.1.2 channel speakers, but this is still a fraction of what’s possible with a comprehensive audio setup.
Of course, some TVs are better than others in this regard. Samsung’s OTS (Object Tracking Sound) speaker arrays include multiple drivers in their high-end Neo QLED models, providing a sort of built-in surround sound tailored to the on-screen action. And in general, the nicer the TV you buy, the better the built-in audio.
But most TV buyers will find that their audio is probably on the thin side and you won’t have to dig deep into their pockets to fix it.
A world of sound
It’s hard to put into words how much of a difference good audio makes to a viewing experience. While it may not be as crucial to the 10 o’clock news, a Netflix movie or wildlife documentary can be taken to new heights with the audio detail a good soundbar is capable of: the creak of a floorboard, the clatter of raindrops on a blade, the underlying rumble of a distant explosion, or the crack in someone’s voice as they argue with their loved one.
All of these things can be missed in basic audio setups, robbing us of the complex sound design and rousing music that directors and composers intended for the content on your screen.
The added width and height of multi-channel soundbars can also help situate sound in its environment – one of Samsung’s early OTS demos showed a volley of arrows descending on a battlefield, the air around each projectile firming and closer to the target. viewer came with every moment.
But you don’t have to be an expert audiophile to take advantage of this benefit. Plug-and-play soundbars are simple additions to a home theater setup, connecting via an HDMI port and adding sonic impact to movie, TV show, documentary and news soundtracks.
Standard stereo sound actually has two channels: right and left. That’s nothing compared to the expansive driver arrays you can get in a soundbar, from smaller 3.1.2 channel setups to 7.1.2 surround sound that lets you hear all the highs, lows and mids you could possibly squeeze out of movie soundtracks.
What does 7.1.2 actually mean, you ask? That first number ‘7’ is the number of main speakers involved, while the second number ‘1’ is the number of subwoofers and the last number ‘2’ is the number of upward firing speakers. In general, you want that first number as high as possible, but a good quality speaker with fewer channels should still be worth it – as long as it actually improves what your TV’s built-in drivers are capable of.
A big advantage of a soundbar is that it’s not built directly into the television – meaning you can move it between different screens, in different rooms or homes, while also owning a piece of audio kit with the potential to turn a TV upgrade to survive. Just because you’re trading in an old LCD for a fancy new OLED doesn’t mean you have to start your audio setup from scratch.
A soundbar doesn’t have to be limited to one device either. Many models come with dedicated subwoofers, or the ability to connect several other speakers simultaneously, allowing you to experiment with surround sound setups in your home theater room. They can also be used outside of TV watching, often with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections to connect to your phone, for use as a party speaker or similar.
What you need in a soundbar
It’s critical to make sure your soundbar works in conjunction with a TV’s specs. Having a brand new Dolby Atmos soundbar is all well and good, until you realize your TV doesn’t support Atmos passthrough, meaning a movie’s Atmos-encoded soundtrack won’t be picked up by your hardware.
Most soundbars connect via HDMI – although you’ll generally want the HDMI ARC (audio return channel) specification, which allows for simple two-way communication between a TV and soundbar. HDMI eARC (enhanced audio return channel) builds on this with improved data transfer, allowing higher quality audio to be passed from one device to another.
Some models, such as the budget Sonos Ray, use an optical digital connection port instead – a common specification, but you’ll want to make sure it’s on your television before you buy it anyway. Optical connections can’t carry the same load of audio information as HDMI ARC or eARC, and don’t support immersive formats like Dolby Atmos. So if you’re planning to hear Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks, you’ll need to opt for one of the HDMI standards – specifically HDMI eARC to hear them in their best, uncompressed state.
Which sound bar should I buy?
Your budget for a soundbar will depend on how important enhanced audio is to you, as the price for a soundbar can be as high or low as almost any television on the market today.
To help you choose, we’ve rounded up a mix of the best soundbars we’ve seen for every budget below.