How to... buy the best soundbar for you
If you’re looking to improve the sound from your TV but don’t have the space for a proper 5.1 surround sound system, you might well be in the market for a soundbar.
The soundbar market has boomed in recent years. As TVs have got thinner, so sound has got worse, and that just won’t do – particularly when it comes to watching those explosion-heavy blockbusters.
But not everyone has the room, or budget, for an amp and speaker system, and so adding a soundbar to your TV has become one of the most popular solutions. They come in all shapes and sizes though, so there are a few thing that you need to consider before making your decision.
If you’re really short on space and want a soundbar to sit in front of your TV, you’re going to have to go for something really slim and low profile, like the LG 3530a, which will slot right underneath without blocking your TV's picture or infrared sensor.
If it does sit any higher than this, make sure it features an IR repeater, which will pass through your remote control's signal to your TV. Because of their slim stature, a lot of soundbars like this will come with a wired or wireless sub.
You can experiment with placement but we’d always suggest keeping it as close to the rack as possible for the most cohesive sound – something to consider as the subs can vary in size too.
On the other hand, if you have room for a bigger soundbar, then consider something like the Monitor Audio ASB-2. Combine bigger drivers with its bigger cabinet and you may not find the need for a separate sub at all, though you will need to check your rack is wide enough to fit it, or consider wall mounting it instead. Still want more low end? The ASB-2 does have a sub out for adding one if you wish, but doesn't come with one included.
Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye out for shape-shifting soundbars like the Philips HTL9100.
With this one, you can have it set up as a normal soundbar, but it also has the flexibility to remove the ends and make them into rear speakers if your room will allow. Clever stuff.
Another great thing about soundbars is that many also double up as a wireless speaker for your living room, with features such as AirPlay or Bluetooth built in. Even the more budget options are starting to include Bluetooth, so there’s really no excuse to settle for one without.
Also worth considering is a front-panel display, as more soundbars than you might think go without one. This means you're often left relying on coloured LED patterns to know what input you’re using or what volume you’re on. Keep this is mind when looking at soundbars if simplicity of use is important to you.
The inputs you’ll need is a big consideration, and those available will vary widely across soundbars. Some, particularly at the cheaper price points, will have more limited options – the LG 3530a, for example, offers just optical inputs, while something like the Monitor Audio ASB-2 offers multiple HDMIs, optical, aux in and even coaxial for older devices too.
Our advice? If you have HDMI ports available on the soundbar, use them. HDMI is capable of handling high-res sound from Blu-rays, which can mean better sound if your soundbar is able to decode it.
HDMI control also means that your soundbar will handily be turned on and off with your TV – the only difference is you’ll use your soundbar to control what source you’re watching – so your Blu- ray player or set top box for example - rather than your TV remote.
Optical is the other popular option, and keeps things simple as it allows you to keep your TV setup as you’re used to, with all your sources going into your TV, then using just one optical cable to connect your TV to your soundbar. Whatever you’re watching will then have its audio automatically pushed to the soundbar.
You might also find this option works for you if you have more sources than HDMI inputs on your soundbar, as most modern TVs will have at least three to play with. It is worth checking your TV includes an optical out first though, as not all sets have one.
No matter which way you choose, don’t forget to go into your TV’s settings and turn off your TV speakers, as they will still output sound.
With any kit, there's always the question of how much should you look to pay? And as with a lot of things, you do get what you pay for when it comes to soundbars.
Make the step up from something like the LG 3530a at £250, to the Philips HTL9100 at £600, and the Monitor Audio ASB-2 at £1000 and you will hear a difference, with bigger, wider and more detailed sound thanks to improved circuitry, drivers and amplification.
You’re also likely to get more features and better connectivity, plus the finish will improve too.
What should I expect?
Whatever price you pay, we’re still not convinced at any soundbar’s ability to recreate surround sound to rival even the cheapest separates system (the Yamaha YSP-2200 comes the creates the widest sound we've heard) but you will make an immediate improvement to your TVs sound in one compact solution.
In particular, bass will be weightier and have more impact, dialogue will sound clearer and more direct, and you’ll be able to pick out stacks more detail across the frequency range. You’ll never go back to thin TV sound again.
by Verity Burns