Sound bars are the easiest and cheapest method to get better sound from your TV. Because of these reasons, sound bars are becoming the sound system of choice for consumers who want simplicity and less cable mess.
There are hundreds of models and many types of sound bars in the market. They are grouped into 2 broad categories – Passive and Active.
Passive sound bars do not have amplifiers built in, therefore you need a separate AV receiver or amplifier. Adding a receiver amp adds to cost, plus you add more cable clutter which is something you wanted to avoid in the first place.
Active sound bars come with built in amplification and are easy to set up. They offer an all-in-one solution hence are more popular. Most sound bars you see in retail stores are “active sound bars”.
Sound Bar Design
There are 2 main types of sound bar designs. The most common one is a long speaker ‘bar’ that sits in front of the TV, hence the name ‘Sound Bar’. Most come with wall mount option. Most bar type designs come with a separate active subwoofer. Some models like the Panasonic SC-HTB770 come with a center channel speaker for 3.1 playback.
The other design is in the form of a single box pedestal, a design concept started by ZVOX. “Pedestal” refers to the fact that they sit under the TV. It is a neat option as they look more a TV stand than a speaker. If you have space constraints a pedestal unit will be a good option. The main drawback of the pedestal design is the lack of bass as they do not have a separate subwoofer and just can’t produce the same kind of deep bass that traditional sound bars with subwoofers do.
Remote controls that come with sound bars usually offer basic options like on/off, mute, and volume up/down commands.
Connectivity and Features
Most active sound bars come with limited input options, usually one digital optical input and one analog input. The higher end models come with HDMI and USB inputs. Some, like the Sonos Playbar, only has an optical input.
For sound bars with a single input you will need to use the TV as a switcher between your sources. Important thing is to make sure it has an audio input that matches one of the audio outputs on your TV.
Below is an example of a typical connection method between the TV and soundbar.
If you want to play music from your smartphone or tablet, look for a sound bar with built-in Bluetooth. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app like Pandora. And it also works for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 phones and tablets.
Some sound bars feature proprietary audio processing like dialog enhancer for clear on-screen dialog.
Another feature that the higher priced models have is Dolby Digital decoding. It is not a must have as they don’t sound much different, especially since they’re not creating a true surround-sound experience in the first place. Some attempt to create a virtual surround sound by using a combination of differences in volume level, time delay, and sound reflections with an array of speakers firing in different directions to create surround effects. Yamaha sound bars use the room’s walls to help generate an expansive sound field.
Prices range from below $100 to high end models costing well above $1000. Generally those below $100 are not worth looking into. You get dismal performance perhaps just slightly better than your TV speakers. For better performance look you need to fork out around $200 to $400 for a system with better built quality, latest features and an active subwoofer.
Do not expect concert hall realistic sound. What a sound bar can provide is a good movie experience that is playing on your flat screen TV. Without it the movie will sound anemic if you are just using the TV speakers.
If you want the sound bar to double as a system for music playback you will need to audition the higher priced models that have better speaker drivers and construction.