We get it — your TV’s built-in speakers aren’t that great. Today’s flat-screen TVs are light and thin, with fantastic picture quality, but those thin, flat-screen designs can’t accommodate the powerful speakers found in the square TVs of yesteryear.
Your TV’s built-in speakers might be fine for watching the Today show while you get ready for work in the morning or chilling out in front of the latest season of Married at First Sight. But when it comes to watching movies or some high-production-quality TV dramas, you need a soundbar. And it’s not hard to find a soundbar that offers good, basic sound quality — but you might want to splurge on one with extra channels, surround sound, HDMI hookups, and wireless capability, especially if you use it to listen to music as well. Here’s what you need to know about your options.
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Guide to Buying a Soundbar
Channels, Subwoofers, and Surround Sound
Most people turn to a TV soundbar buying guide to decipher the esoteric-seeming numbering that you can find on most soundbar labels. Packages might read “3.0” or “2.1” or “5.1.4”. What do these numbers mean?
Well, the first number in the sequence lets you know how many channels a soundbar has — either two (left and right), three (left, right, and center), or five (left, right, center, rear, and surround). A third channel enhances the clarity of dialogue, and five channels will enhance dialogue clarity even more.
The center number lets you know if the soundbar has a subwoofer — if it does, that number will be a 1, and if it doesn’t, that number will be a 0. A subwoofer isn’t absolutely necessary, but it can really punch up the low-frequency audio, which can make your listening experience much richer. If you listen to a lot of music or watch a lot of action movies, or really any well-scored movies, a subwoofer can really enhance the experience.
The third number, if there is one, indicates whether the soundbar offers Dolby Atmos surround sound. The higher the third number, the more dedicated drivers the soundbar has to fire surround sound towards the ceiling. The newest Atmos soundbars are excellent at creating a sound-enveloping experience.
Types of Sound Bars
There are two basic kinds of soundbars you can choose for your TV room — soundbars and sound bases. Soundbars are typically about 40 inches long and can either be hung from the wall or placed on a shelf near your TV. Sound bases are wide and flat and can go under your TV — you can set the TV on top of them. They’re a better option if you have limited space around your TV.
Increasingly, soundbars are using HDMI connections to support the audio return channel (ARC), which is the feature that allows the TV to send sound signals to the soundbar. Some soundbars will also allow you to connect to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, and these units will send picture signals to the TV as well as receiving sound signals from it. If you’re connecting your soundbar to a Blu-ray or Ultra Blu-ray player with 3D or 4K video quality, choose a soundbar with a pass-through feature that makes it compatible.
Most soundbars will also offer digital audio input as well as RCA stereo input jacks (those are the red and white jacks you’re most likely already familiar with if you’re old enough to remember the heyday of analogue TV). You can use these to connect the soundbar to music players, DVD players, cable boxes, and other gear that doesn’t have an HDMI option.
Of course, you may want to use your soundbar to listen to music as well as TV and movies. If that’s the case, look for one with wifi connectivity and/or Bluetooth. Wifi connectivity should allow you to connect to Spotify or the soundbar itself. Bluetooth will allow you to send music from a smartphone, tablet, or another wireless device, directly to your soundbar. Two-way Bluetooth lets you send music from the soundbar to your headphones or earbuds. Near-field communication (NFC) makes it easy to connect your Bluetooth-capable devices to your soundbar.
Today’s soundbars have so many different features and capabilities, that it can be hard to choose the one you want. But as long as you know what the package labels mean, you can’t really go wrong. Even a simple soundbar will probably offer better sound quality than your TV’s built-in speakers, so you can have an upgraded experience for surprisingly little money.