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Sound Bar Buying Guide

With the proliferation of streaming devices like Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Apple TV, we’re in an age where it’s easy to upgrade our TVs by simply buying add-on gadgets.

You probably already have the full streaming experience. Now all you need is great sound. Today’s modern TVs keep getting thinner and are forcing their speaker counterparts to follow suit. So if you seek significantly better audio than your TV can deliver on its own, then it’s time for a sound bar.

What is a sound bar?

Sound bars are compact, slim speaker systems that sit in front of or beneath your TV, rather than surrounding it with lots of satellite bits and pieces. There are two main types:

The traditional sound bar is shaped like its name suggests — a rectangular bar that’s 2 or 3 inches high and nearly the same width as your TV. It can be wall-mounted or placed on your TV table in front of your set. It commonly comes with a wireless bass speaker or subwoofer.

Sound bases are sleekly designed to go underneath your TV like a stand. The advantage here is the high-quality sound with such a small footprint. Unlike the traditional design, sound bases generally do not come with a separate subwoofer; however, certain models like LG’s slim SoundPlate come complete with built-in dual subwoofers.

Both designs offer significant upgrades to most built-in TV speakers. In general, however, a traditional sound bar with a subwoofer will be better at delivering that powerful, deep bass that really takes sound up a notch.

More boom for your buck

With many models retailing under $100, such as the Ematic ESB210Philips HTL2101A and iLive ITB382B, a sound bar is the most affordable upgrade to your TV’s existing sound.

By paying just a little more, you’ll gain additional connectivity options and better control of tone and sound that rivals large home-theater systems. For this, consider the 50-watt Pioneer SP-SB23W or the Toshiba 2.1 Wireless Speaker System, which is designed for a 50-inch screen. 

Easy setup

One of the big selling points of sound bars, relative to their home-theater siblings, is that they’re super easy to set up. A traditional sound system will have several speakers and a pre-amp to wire, whereas sound bars usually require just a single optical or analog cable to connect to your TV.

Some sound bars allow you to manually adjust the sound coming from it, and some may also offer noise reduction. Keep in mind, however, that your TV also has tone controls like these built in, so having them on your sound bar is more of a nice-to-have rather than a necessity.

Another big bonus of sound bars? You only need one remote: the one that controls your TV.

The power of Bluetooth

Some sound bars offer additional wireless connectivity. In most cases, you still connect the main speaker unit to your TV using wires. Other devices, however, can connect to the sound bar via Bluetooth, so you can stream music from your phone, tablet or digital music player.

Bluetooth is also how a sound bar is paired with its wireless subwoofer.

Ace of bass

Speaking of which, you might be thinking, "Do I really need that subwoofer?" It ultimately depends on your preferences. Sound bars are almost always an improvement on the relatively thin sound of a modern TV, and that might be enough for some. But they’re also built to be compact, so the lower-end models might lack a little oomph for some tastes. If you crave bass, get a model with a separate subwoofer. It’s becoming more common to include them, even with the most affordable systems.

Also, some sound bar units say they produce surround sound. But keep in mind that to get true surround sound, you need to actually surround your setup with speakers, something that is unachievable with a single sound bar.

Passive vs. active

Most sound bar systems are active, which means they have built-in amplification. Passive sound bars need an external pre-amp to power them and are usually more expensive. They’re a great choice for home-theater fans looking to build a system piece by piece, but active is the best choice for most sound bar shoppers. It’s a simple, all-in-one unit that will deliver a rich stereo experience.

 

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