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.
Editor’s note: this list was updated on January 4, 2021, to include the Bose Solo 5 TV sound system as a notable mention.
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.
Sennheiser Ambeo 3D soundbarFull Review
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, making it a wireless soundbar too. 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 100mm 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 is also a wireless soundbar, meaning it operates via Wi-Fi. 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.
The LG SN9YG comes with a subwoofer and has a sleek design
The LG SN9YG 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 and it comes with a wireless subwoofer. This LG SN9YG soundbar simulates a 5.1.2 Atmos setup and calibrates its sound to the specifics of your room. You can easily connect the LG SN9YG via HDMI eARC, so you don’t need a ton of cables to get the job done.
It uses Dolby Atmos and DTS:X technologies, which, again, means each sound moves independently throughout your theater space. This process better emulates realistic audio than a standard stereo system. This wireless soundbar has built-in Google Assistant and an integrated 4K pass-through which lets you enjoy high-quality audio to match the high-resolution video.
If you want versatility, get the Roku Smart Soundbar
The Roku Smart Soundbar is an absolute steal when it comes to features and functionality. Similar to the JBL Link Bar, Roku’s 2.0-channel soundbar integrates Google Assistant and Alexa support for voice-enabled access. Rather than integrating Chromecast, users benefit from the full suite channels and movies afforded by Roku player. In other words, the Roku Smart Soundbar is another way to turn your dumb TV into a smart TV.
Roku Smart Soundbar
Roku’s wireless soundbar supports HD, 4K, and HDR media and produces loud volume that you can customize with Roku’s Speech Clarity, Volume Leveling, and Night Mode options. Setup is as easy as it gets: plug the soundbar into an HDMI ARC input with the included HDMI cable. You can also stream audio from your phone to the soundbar via Bluetooth. There’s an optional subwoofer add-on available for $179.
If your remote often ends up between the couch cushions or in your cat’s favorite hiding place, you’ll be relieved to know you can use the Roku app to control your soundbar and TV through its virtual remote. The soundbar supports Dolby Audio and PCM; it’s compatible with TVs that have either an HDMI ARC or optical outputs. You can stream media via the USB 2.0 input too. For the price, the Roku Smart Soundbar is nearly impossible to beat.
If you’re on a budget then just play it safe and get the Vizio SB3821-C6
If you’re looking for a budget soundbar, you’ve come to the right place. The Vizio SB3621 C6 has gotten a lot of attention for the insane value that it brings 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’s a center channel flanked by two left channels and two right channels as well as 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 movie-watching 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 pitting 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: the Sennheiser Ambeo, for instance, is packed with drivers angled in different directions. These drivers bounce sound off of reflective surface like walls and ceilings to simulate multi-directional sound. 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 processing 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 use sensors to detect ambient external noise and echoes within the ear canal and respond by adjusting the sound on the fly to optimal quality. 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 their technologies in everything from DVD players to the best soundbars, but what do all the different technologies mean? Dolby and DTS (Digital Theater Systems) are the names of two competing companies, each with their own way of designing technology 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 actually has nothing to do with sound. Dolby Vision is a video format made by Dolby 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 the DTS Coherent Acoustics (DCA) codecs are both audio compression technologies that package and deliver audio digitally. They’re audio codecs that code and decode signals to transmit them, 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. This means they compress data meant for surround sound systems (up to 7.1) in a way that removes the data that is imperceptible to the human ear while keeping the important data. The way that this is achieved is different between Dolby Digital and DTS and has to do with their respective audio encoding processes as well as 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 codecs provide great audio experiences with a surround sound setup.
Dolby Atmos vs. DTS:X
The newest surround sound formats in home audio are Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and these are all the rage. Using overhead sound, these formats project sound into the space around them in very specific locations within the room. A single sound channel gets projected through multiple speakers to give a more enveloping experience.
The biggest difference between Dolby Atmos and DTS:X is the speaker placement. To get the most out of your Dolby Atmos setup, you should install overhead speakers. Audio engineers working with Dolby Atmos already added this overhead layer of auditory directionality to their production, so by adding the aerial or raised speakers to your hardware, you’ll benefit from the sound as it was intended to be reproduced.
When you’re watching a movie where a plane flies overhead, you’ll 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 need a DTS:X compatible receiver or soundbar. These receivers decide for you which channel to output a particular sound through based on your unique setup, and there’s no requirement for additional overhead speakers.
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 both audio data and video from a device plugged into 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”. If your TV is compatible with the eARC, it will convert more audio/video data quicker. This is important because object-based surround sound codecs, like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, have a lot of information that needs to be transferred. eARC 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. What’s a 4K TV? It just refers to the resolution of your TV screen. A 4K TV has about 8.3 million pixels and its resolution is usually shown as 3840 x 2160. If you’re only planning to use a 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 listening.
- Bose Solo 5 TV sound system: If you’re looking for a super easy setup, this Bose soundbar is user friendly for almost anyone because it only needs one connection to the TV. With dialogue mode, you’ll be able to hear speech just as well as action scenes. And, you can connect your device through Bluetooth when its time to listen to music.
- Bose Soundbar 700: This too supports Amazon Alexa Google Assistant integration with Dolby Digital and DTS support. It supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Apple AirPlay 2. If you want a more impactful sound, you can invest in the Bose bass module and surround speakers, but that will more than double the cost of this soundbar.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sony HT-S350: This soundbar is affordable and has a good frequency response. It also comes with a powerful subwoofer. It doesn’t support Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, but for this price point, that’s hard to expect.
- 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.
- Yamaha YSP-5600: This massive soundbar has 44 beam drivers and two subwoofers embedded in it, allowing it to truly sound like genuine 7.1.2 surround sound with kicking bass. It has Dolby Atmos and DTS:X support, and is compatible with Alexa. The downsides are the price, size, and fact that, to get the optimal sound experience, you have to set it up in a very particular way.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Most soundbars have proprietary connectors which make it difficult to connect a subwoofer. You can sometimes find ways around this, but we'd recommend looking for a soundbar that comes with a subwoofer.