soundbarTV’s are getting thinner and thinner……as is the quality of the speakers built into those TVs.   In fact,  we stopped listening to sound through the TV about 10 years ago.  It’s horrible!   Because TV’s have gotten sleeker (and less expensive), home electronics manufacturers have cut back on the quality of the  sound system built into the TVs.   Plus, manufacturers are making some additional money on the separate sound systems (spelled “surround sound”) that they sell, so they have no incentive of building good sound into the TV set itself. Basically, if you buy a TV, you’ve got to budget for an accompanying sound system.  

We think a  soundbar speaker is an easier and less expensive fix than purchasing a complete add-on component system (with one exception discussed below). A sound bar has several speakers and the electronics to power them in one thin module that you connect to your TV—no need for a receiver. Some have a separate subwoofer, usually wireless, and a few have rear speakers.   We recommend the separate subwoofers, at the current time. Cheaper models have basic connections, more expensive ones add superior HDMI inputs (including 4K/HDR passthrough), wireless audio streaming (e.g. Bluetooth and AirPlay), better power, more refined speaker drivers, and decoding of Blu-ray sound formats.    Here are some useful tips in buying TV soundbars and, in one case, NOT buying a soundbar:

Listen to Them:  Soundbars will likely sound different from each other because of the way they handle various frequencies and how they interact with the acoustics in your room.   It is worth inquiring about returns and exchanges and perhaps buying two or more soundbars just to try them out. Or, better yet, get one that you’ve heard at a friend’s house.   They don’t all sound the same!

Channels Count:  Do you need 2.1 channels, 3.1 channels, 5.1 channels or 57 channels with nothing on?    Here’s the deal; if you simply want to enhance your TV sound, a sound bar with 2.1 channels (has two front channels and a separate subwoofer) is fine.  The more channels you get, the closer you’ll be to replicating  surround sound.   But whatever you do, we strongly recommend sound bars that come with a separate subwoofer .

WiFi and Streaming rock: Models with built-in WiFi lets you access online music services such as Pandora or Spotify directly from the sound bar. Some models may include an Ethernet jack for a wired connection to your home network. Some sound bars offer access to streaming movies or TV shows from services such as Amazon.com, Googlecast, Hulu.com, or Netflix; internet radio stations such as Napster/Rhapsody, Pandora or Slacker; and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Go for the streaming options — there’s more and more you can do with them now that personal assistants like Echo and Google Home are becoming affordable.   You can even turn your soundbar into a living room music speaker that takes voice commands from your assistants!

Insist Upon Bluetooth:   Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your smartphone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app (think Pandora), plus it’s platform-agnostic — nearly all iOS, Android, and Windows 10 phones and tablets have built-in Bluetooth. If your music experience these days revolves around your phone, you really want Bluetooth: More sound bars now support Bluetooth, which allows you to send music from mobile devices (tablets, phones, or computers) wirelessly to the sound bar speaker. If a sound bar lacks built-in Bluetooth, it’s possible to add it later with an adapter (like Belkin’s or Logitech’s), but that’s not a great solution since inputs are typically limited on sound bars. The adapters are also more cumbersome if you use your TV as a switcher — you need to connect it to an analog input and have your TV on a blank screen when you want to stream music.

Low Priced Soundbars Are Fine:   Soundbars are sounding better and better.   In the past, if you’re using the sound bar only for listening to your TV, you might opt for th elow-priced, no-frills models, but nowadays, even the lower cost models like our recommended VIZIO SB3821-D6 SmartCast38” 2.1 Sound Bar System  (only $118 at Costco and Amazon) sound just fine when we use the speakers for music.

The Back-End:   For most people using your TV or an app as a switcher is the way to go. So when you’re buying a sound bar, you don’t need to worry about how many inputs it has, as long as there’s an optical audio output on the back.

Two Channel Stereo Systems:  Another option to soundbars are basic two-channel stereo systems that can be purchased for a song…..especially used ones that you find on Craigslist.  If you find a stereo system with an optical input,  you can take advantage of your TV’s capability as a switcher, just like sound bars do. The only hassle is running speaker wire from the amp to the speakers, but it’s not that tough to do for two front speakers.  A simple 2.0 (left/right stereo speakers) or 2.1 (left/right plus subwoofer) setup is a better idea than going for a full 5.1 surround system (five speakers plus subwoofer). Surround sound is great, but there’s a lot more hassle and bulk involved. 5.1-channel speaker systems also ask you to spread out your home audio budget over five speakers, instead of investing in two great speakers up front, where most of the sound comes from anyway. Sound bars are still going to be the go-to option for most buyers, but a good used stereo system with an optical input is a seriously underrated, better-sounding alternative. The components cost a little more upfront, but they’ll likely last far longer and sound appreciably better than your sound bar.