How to chooseJuly 14, 2011 No Comments
So you’ve decided you Want to add fuller, more dynamic sound to your TV, without the potential clutter of a conventional surround sound system. A “sound bar” is the right choice for you. These single-speaker systems require minimal space and wiring, and offer an easy way to get better sound from your TV shows, movies, and video games.
Sound bars can be a particularly good match for flat-panel TVs — they provide much better sound than the tiny speakers built into those sets, and their sleek designs perfectly complement the styling of the latest plasma and LCD displays. And though sound bars generally can’t deliver the same kind of sonic realism as a full surround sound system, their small size makes them a great option for a smaller viewing room, like a bedroom or den.
Below, you’ll find some key questions to ask yourself when you’re shopping for a sound bar, as well as additional considerations to keep in mind.
Do you want stereo or surround sound?
Some sound bars simply provide good stereo sound — a nice, broad soundstage, with clearer, more defined audio than you get with a TV’s built-in stereo speakers. These models generally have built-in amplification, so you won’t need a separate receiver or amp. You’ll get the benefits of better sound, plus a nice, streamlined setup.
Other sound bars can deliver engaging surround effects that put you in the middle of the on-screen action, whether it’s your favorite movie or video game. If you want surround effects from a sound bar you’ve got two choices:
Sound bars with virtual surround sound
Surround sound usually means at least five speakers placed strategically around the listening area, plus a subwoofer for deep, dramatic bass. But for a lot of folks, positioning speakers in the back of the room and running wire to them isn’t practical. That’s where sound bars that offer virtual surround sound can be especially handy. Of course, you won’t get the level of precision you’d get with a conventional multi-speaker setup, but these sound bars can be surprisingly effective.
Sound bars that work as part of a full surround sound system
These models let you combine sleek sound bar looks with the greater detail and accuracy of a conventional surround sound system. They’re sometimes called “LCRs” because they provide left, center, and right channel audio from one cabinet. Note that you’ll still need between two and four surround sound speakers, plus a powered subwoofer, to complete your surround sound system. You’ll also need a separate home theater receiver to power the sound bar and your other speakers.
Do you want a sound bar with built-in amplification?
Most models fall in this camp. They don’t require a separate home theater receiver — just connect audio components, and you’re all set.
Some virtual surround and LCR sound bars don’t have built-in amplification. Instead, these passive models connect to a separate home theater receiver. Passive sound bars are a good option for folks who already have a home theater receiver they’d like to use. Plus, a separate receiver can provide cleaner power and more sophisticated audio processing, so you might enjoy higher-quality sound.
What kind of room are you putting it in?
Most sound bars work well in a small-to-medium sized room. Just as with conventional speakers, you’ll want to consider larger and more powerful sound bars for larger rooms.
The shape of your room can also be a factor when it comes to virtual surround sound models. If you’re adding sound to a square or rectangular room with four walls — like a bedroom or den — you might like sound bars that work by “beaming” sound around your room and bouncing it off the walls. Models that use this technology won’t be as effective in an open floor plan.
Some sound bars, such as Yamaha’s Digital Sound Projectors, create surround sound by bouncing “beams” of sound off your walls.
If you have an open floor plan, check out sound bars that use sophisticated processing to fool your ears into thinking the sound is coming from behind you. These models use technology based on the study of how our ears perceive sound (or “psychoacoustics”). By making small adjustments in timing and volume, these sound bars can make sound effects sound like they’re coming from a different direction.
Does the sound bar have all the audio inputs you need?
If you’re looking at a sound bar with built-in amplification, make sure the sound bar you choose has enough audio inputs to connect your cable box, DVD player, video game console, and other audio/video gear. (This isn’t an issue for passive sound bars, since you’ll be connecting your audio gear to a receiver instead.) Keep in mind that you’ll get higher-quality sound when you use digital audio connections like HDMI, as well as optical and coaxial digital audio — this is especially important for virtual surround sound models.
A few sound bars also offer video connections that let you switch between video components. See the section on video switching for more info.
A subwoofer can give your music and movies real punch and power. (Mirage OMNI S8 shown)
Does the sound bar come with a subwoofer?
While they’re sleek, compact, and deliver much better sound than the average television speakers, sound bars by themselves cannot deliver full-range sound. Their cabinets and drivers are simply too small to produce deep bass. So if your sound bar doesn’t come with one, you’ll also want to get a powered subwoofer for maximum impact. All sound bars let you connect a sub, and some systems include one. A few even give you a wireless subwoofer that you can easily stash in a corner or under an end table. (Though of course, you’ll still need to plug it into a wall.)
Additional features to keep in mind
Some sound bars with built-in amplification offer some of the same features you find on receivers:
Video switching — This is a great feature if your TV doesn’t have enough of a certain type of video input. Just plug all your audio/video components into your sound bar and then switch between them from there. Some sound bars also offer video conversion. For example, they can accept video signals via composite video and output component video. This can make for easier system operation, since you’ll only have to switch inputs on your sound bar, and not on your TV. And a handful of sound bars can upconvert non-HD video sources to better match the resolution of your HDTV. Watch our video on HDMI conversion and upconversion or check our article on choosing home a theater receiver for more info.
A few sound bars offer video switching — the one pictured above includes component video (red, green and blue) and composite video (yellow) connections.
DVD playback — A few sound bars include a DVD player, either built into the sound bar itself, or as a separate unit.
XM readiness — A few sound bars give you access to XM Satellite Radio. Just add the XM Mini-Tuner package to a compatible sound bar to enjoy more than 170 channels of music, sports, talk, and entertainment.
iPod® compatibility — Some sound bars are compatible with optional iPod docks, which makes it really easy to enjoy all the music on your iPod. Simply connect the dock to the sound bar, and you can select songs and playlists using the sound bar’s remote. (Of course, if you don’t have a compatible iPod dock, you can simply plug your iPod in to a spare set of stereo RCA jacks using a stereo miniplug-to-RCA cable.)
Multibrand remote — If you don’t want another remote control on your coffee table, consider a sound bar with a multibrand remote. This will let you control your other audio/video gear, such as your TV, DVD player, and satellite receiver. Some sound bars take the opposite approach — they don’t include a remote, but can learn the commands of your television’s remote control.Choosing your soundbar, Guides