A soundbar is an excellent way to improve your movie nights without the expense and logistical considerations of an AV receiver and full home cinema speaker package.
There are seemingly hundreds to choose from, though, and, while it's easy for us to tell you which we we think are the best soundbars, finding the one that's right for your needs takes consideration. Which soundbar will fit into your space? And what are the features and functions that you need from it?
Dimensions and features and the first things to think about when you do your research. It seems obvious but make sure you've measured the piece of wall or surface where you're planning on putting your soundbar; height, width, depth, the lot. You may already find that limits your choice a little.
Don't make it too tight a fit either or you might not give the drive units the space they need to get the sound out into your room.
It's also worth thinking about soundbars which come with satellite speakers or separate subwoofers if you can accommodate them. They're not necessarily any worse or better but they may offer that bass boost that you're looking for or add to the surround sound effect. That said, the majority of our favourite soundbars at the moment are bar-only devices, without any other additional speakers.
Features to look out for
There was a day when the only job of a soundbar was to get the audio from your TV to your ears but they're something of an audio Swiss Army Knife these days.
Take the recently announced Denon Home Sound Bar 550, for example. Its suite of wireless connectivity options include Apple AirPlay 2, the HEOS multiroom platform and wireless Bluetooth, which brings a whole host of extra functionality above improving your TV's sound.
It supports lossy and lossless music files types, including hi-res streams of up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD at 2.8MHz and 5.6MHz. The HEOS app allows direct playback from Tidal, Spotify, Deezer, Amazon Music HD and internet radio stations. You can even voice control the volume, inputs and audio levels thanks to the Amazon Alexa functionality that comes built-in.
Other considerations include support for 3D codecs such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, and how many, what type and what size of drivers it has. It's also worth looking to see whether there are any speakers angled upwards or to the side to help increase the spread of the sound.
The type and range of wired connections on offer are also key. Most will be fitted with at least one HDMI port but some support ARC and, even better, like the Denon Home Sound Bar 550, eARC for the best possible audio experience. You may want more than one HDMI input if you're looking to use your soundbar as something of a media hub for all your other TV inputs.
As we say, though, the soundbar that's right for you doesn't need to have all of these features. Just make sure it has what it takes to fit into your room, your life and maybe even the aspirations for your next TV.
Now that you've bought and unboxed a soundbar, let's work out how you can get the very best sound from it.
The design of your soundbar itself will offer some clues of how best to position it and, with any luck, the set-up instructions included will offer a good starting point too.
Ideally, you want to allow your soundbar some space to do its job, particularly if it has upward or side-firing drivers. If you tuck it too far inside a TV cabinet or shelf, then it's not going to be able to project the audio out to your sofa in the way it's designed to.
Pay attention to whether your soundbar is rear ported or if it has rear speakers which are designed to bounce sound off your back wall. Again, you'll generally find reference to this in the instructions which should tell you how close you need to position it to your wall for the best effect.
Most soundbars allow for both wallmounting and surface placement. It's worth having a play around with positioning before you do the drilling work. If the audio is too bottom heavy, trying bring your bar further into your space and away from the walls.
Keep it steady
All speakers need a nice solid footing to do their job properly. If they're on unsteady ground, then the action of the drivers moving backwards and forwards is likely to cause it to move and spoil the audio production. Fortunately, most soundbars come with some kind of rubber feet to stand them on.
Generally, it's best to use whatever wall fixings or feet come in the box. If you're placing your soundbar on a shelf or cabinet of some kind, then do ensure that all of the feet are in contact with the same solid surface. If, for whatever reason, there are no feet included, then you can use Blu Tack instead.
Keep it clear of the TV screen
The aim for many people is to place the soundbar at the feet of their TV and that's certainly a good idea. The closer your soundbar is to your screen, the more it feels like the sound and the picture are connected.
That falls apart slightly if your soundbar is quite tall and your TV screen comes down very low and the speaker obscures some of the display.
Before you go searching for a new home for your soundbar, check to see if your TV's feet or stand can be used in a different position. Many, particularly the larger ones, have two-position or even three-position stands which could help.
You may also find that your soundbar fits under your screen but it blocks the IR sensor on your TV from receiving signals from your remote control. Look to see if your soundbar has a IR repeater feature to pass on the message before you make the move to reposition the bar altogether.
If you are on the hunt for something particularly discreet, LG's recent soundbars sit particularly flat. The Denon Home Sound Bar 550 is also very compact at just 65cm wide and 7.5cm but do check all the dimensions on the LG and Denon product site (opens in new tab) before you buy.
Better connected with HDMI
Most soundbars will offer you a choice of ports when it comes to connecting to your TV. An HDMI connection is usually the simplest and best way of achieving that. Look out for the HDMI ARC symbol on the ports of your TV and soundbar.
HDMI ARC removes the need for an optical cable and allows you to send audio ‘downstream’ from your TV to your soundbar. That way, any other source connected to your television – a Blu-ray player or games console, for example – will send its audio to your soundbar too.
With some TVs HDMI ARC might work automatically. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to grab a remote and tweak a few of your TV settings, including turning off your TV’s built-in speakers and enabling your telly to send audio out to an external speaker or amp.
It's also worth considering enabling HDMI CEC which allows you to control the volume on your soundbar using your TV's remote. It can cause some odd side effects, though.
Better than HDMI ARC is eARC, should your soundbar and TV support it. Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) is a feature usually included with an HDMI 2.1-certified port and its main benefit is to allow higher-quality audio to get from your TV to your soundbar.
You'll be able to bitstream the full-fat, high-quality codecs such as Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS-HD Master Audio or DTS:X soundtracks that exist on your 4K Blu-ray disc. It's well worth using if possible.
Fear not, even if you only have plain HDMI ARC connections you will still be able to receive Dolby Atmos audio when using streaming service content from Netflix and similar apps. The Atmos codec will embedded in a Dolby Digital Plus stream, which ARC can handle.
Finally here, make sure you're using an HDMI cable that's certified to the standard that you're trying to leverage. So, if it's eARC you're after, you'll need an HDMI 2.1-certified cable.
Most soundbars have more than one audio presets to choose from. It's important to go through them and pick the one that suits your space best. These often include ones dedicated for music, for movies, for boosting dialogue clarity or sound effects and all have their pros and cons.
Most of the time the Music setting is the one to choose when listening to music but it's a matter of suck-it-and-see when it comes to AV sound.
Some soundbars allow you to tinker with EQs. A few try to simplify the whole process with an auto-calibration feature which plays sounds into your space and then tries to choose the best EQ settings according to the acoustics its picked up through its built-in microphones.
These often make a good starting point but you may find that Movie or Surround mode or similar is the best way to go. The important part is to experiment.
Add more speakers
Need more bass? No problem. Many soundbars and TVs sport a sub-out socket where you can connect an external subwoofer to your TV sound system. Try the one on your soundbar first, if you have the choice, to minimise any synchronisation issues.
The good news is that any decent subwoofer will do. So, if you have an old one sitting around somewhere or see a good deal from a different manufacturer to your TV or soundbar, then go for it.
Better still, some soundbars will allow you to add more than a sub. The Denon Home Sound Bar 550, for example, has the Denon Home 150, 250 and 350 which you can pair to become rear speakers in your wireless TV sound set-up along with the soundbar. You can bring the bass too with the Denon DSW-1H sub.
It's a great way to add more home cinema channels without all the hassle of an AVR or cables.
Sync your sound
In a few unlucky cases you may find that the pictures on your TV and the audio coming out of your soundbar are not aligned properly and that can be incredibly frustrating. There are one or two changes you can try to fix that, though.
First is to try using a different way of connecting your soundbar with your TV. HDMI ARC and eARC-enabled ports should have auto lip sync correction built-in. So, if you're not using either of these standards, and there is the option to do so, then give them a whirl
Obviously, check that you're using the correct sockets on your TV and bar, and that you're up-to-date with your firmware and HDMI cables too. Downgrading to an optical cable connection is also worth a shot if to see if it's the HDMI connection that's playing up.
If none of that works than you'll likely find an audio delay feature on your soundbar or TV, or both. This usually comes in a steps which you can try bring audio and video back in line. It might not synchronise things perfectly but it should certainly take away the worst of any remaining issues.
Should all else fail, you can always return the soundbar to the shop or manufacturer and try a different device instead. You'll find plenty of soundbar reviews on our website to help you choose.