So you’ve bought a new 4K TV for its sensational picture quality, but are you happy with the sound quality? If you think it’s a little thin, and could benefit from being partnered with a soundbar, then you’ve come to the right place.
The laws of physics make it difficult to get substantial sound from a flatscreen TV. Manufacturers have tried, with varying degrees of success, to enhance the audio coming out of their televisions, but if you want to truly improve TV audio, you need a separate box designed for that purpose.
You could go down the route of creating your own dedicated surround sound system, but this just isn’t practical or desirable for a lot of households, which is why soundbars exist. The market has boomed in recent years and owning fewer boxes but still getting a jump in audio performance is a tempting proposition.
This is why we’ve created this helpful guide to not only picking the best soundbar for your needs but also to setting it up correctly. Follow our simple steps, and you should be able to reap all the benefits of that new bar, and enjoy better sound with your TV.
Do your research, set a budget
If you’ve already bought your new soundbar and just want some guidance and a few tips and tricks with regards to setting it up, you can skip straight to that part below. But if you’re still in the process of deciding which soundbar deserves your hard-earned cash, allow us to offer a few pointers.
As with any new purchase, it pays to do your research. First, settle on a budget. Then, obviously, your next port of call should be our guide to the best soundbars, or best Dolby Atmos soundbars, if support for this audio format is top of your list.
Visit various manufacturer websites to get a feel for the products you’re interested in and search out a local retailer if it's possible to see and hear the soundbar before you buy.
Location, location, location
A big, if not the biggest part of your buying decision will be dictated by where you want to place the soundbar. If you’re looking to place it on a TV stand or rack, will it fit? Ideally, you don’t want the soundbar hanging over the edge because its feet might not make contact with the surface. This means the bar won’t be properly supported and the sound could suffer.
If you want to wall-mount, check the soundbar comes with a wall-mounting kit or make sure there’s an optional one available.
Don’t forget the soundbar might come with its own subwoofer. A sub can make or break a system and, in our experience, they sound better if you position the sub as close as possible to the actual soundbar. Too far away and integration will suffer and it can sound as though the low frequencies are coming from a different postcode.
One way around this is to opt for a soundbar with big enough drivers, such as the Dali Kubik One, or high-end Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar, both of which don't really require a separate subwoofer. They're not cheap, though.
Take into account your TV
Another thing to take note of is the width of your TV. If the soundbar is too narrow, your TV will dwarf it, but if you’re using a 49in TV with a soundbar more suited to a 65in 4K TV, you’ll have the opposite problem. Obviously, there’s some room for manoeuvre, though. The Sonos Beam is one of our top picks, and at 65cm wide it should be a good fit for any TV between 49 and 55 inches.
It’s not just the width of your TV you’ll want to note, but it’s height too. Is there a chance a soundbar placed in front will block part of your TV’s picture? Is there a big enough gap between the screen and the top of your TV stand or kit rack to accommodate it? If not, does the soundbar have an IR repeater which will allow signals meant for your TV to pass through to it unhindered.
Sometimes a TV manufacturer will design its own soundbar range to compliment the design of its TVs, ensuring they sit just below the bezels and don’t obstruct the picture. This might be an option if you’re struggling for space, but it might not be the best-sounding option.
Some soundbars are shape-shifting and include detachable speakers that work as surround channels. One such soundbar is the JBL Bar 9.1, but you’ll need to make sure you’ve got enough spare space to tuck away those extra channels.
If your TV sits low, leaving little space between it and your stand, can your soundbar fit on the shelf below? This brings its own set of challenges as you won’t want to restrict the sound especially from any upfiring speakers that might be required for Dolby Atmos. If you can get the front edge of the soundbar as close to the leading edge of your stand this will be enough for most front-firing soundbars.
Ideally, though, you want to have as much free space around the bar as possible, especially something like the hugely impressive Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar. You might not be able to recreate the immersive audio of a dedicated Dolby Atmos surround-sound system, with height channels firing down over you from above, but you need to at least give the soundbar a chance to perform at its best.
Which sources do you want to connect?
To help with your decision, think about what you’re going to plug into it and which connections you’ll need. In all likelihood, it’ll be HDMI inputs you’re most interested in. You’ll need these for any 4K Blu-ray player, 4K games console or 4K set-top-box.
Alternatively, you might want to plug everything into your 4K TV and feed the sound out to your soundbar via HDMI ARC or eARC, or an optical digital connection. You just need to be aware of the pros and cons.
Your optical digital connection is restricted in bandwidth, so you might not be making the most of the audio decoding built into your soundbar. When it comes to ARC, you need to make sure your TV has a compatible ARC HDMI socket and then make sure it supports all the audio formats being sent into your TV. Read our guide to HDMI ARC and HDMI eARC for the full lowdown on this connection.
Enabling HDMI control means your soundbar will be turned on and off by your TV too.
Update your soundbar
So, you’ve finally taken delivery of your new soundbar, but what next? Once you’ve unboxed it and worked out where you want to put it, your first task should be to perform a software update. Once the soundbar is on your wi-fi network there’s a chance you’ll be prompted to do just that. Otherwise, head into the menus.
Getting the soundbar up to date from the off will make sure all the features it’s supposed to have are onboard. It should also iron out any issues that might have arisen since the soundbar originally launched.
Wire everything up
Your next job is to get all your sources wired up to the relevant inputs and outputs. Don’t forget your wireless sources too.
Most soundbars feature Bluetooth audio streaming and in many cases multi-room audio, so you’ll need to go into the settings and switch on Bluetooth where relevant or get the soundbar hooked up to the rest of the speakers on your home network. This also means you’ll be able to use any virtual voice assistants such as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa which might be built into the bar.
Sort your sound settings
It also makes sense to jump into the audio settings and get the soundbar ready for its first outing. Depending on the model of soundbar, you might have access to an on-screen display which should make it easier to get to all the different settings at your disposal.
If it comes with its own automatic calibration software then make sure you run it so the soundbar’s audio output is matched to your room’s layout and characteristics. The Sonos Beam, for example, uses Sonos's own Trueplay software in conjunction with your smartphone's microphone to tailor its sound.
Once complete, you could always reach for a sound pressure level meter (there are a number of smartphone apps that can do this) to make sure levels are balanced.
Or you could do it by ear. Take a movie that you know well or a scene from a streamed TV series and play it through your soundbar. Does it sound balanced? Is the dialogue easy to hear? Does the subwoofer need turning down a notch? How cohesive and convincing is the soundfield? At this stage, you might want to go into those sound settings and tweak the audio levels or processing modes.
It’s also worth playing music through the soundbar. Many models give you the option of switching between a movie and music mode. With music mode, the soundbars tend to prioritise a more cohesive stereo presentation (perhaps not using all its drive units) rather than on creating a broader, more effects-based soundfield.
If you’re still with us, then congratulations! You’re well on the way to getting an improved audio experience. To get any soundbar set-up correctly you need to follow a few extra steps, but the end results will make it worth the effort.
There isn’t as much to navigate here as there is with a full-blown surround sound system, but this doesn’t mean you should cut corners. Otherwise, you won’t be doing your soundbar justice.
Now relax, sit back and let your new soundbar do the work.