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Home theater systems & soundbars

Home theater system & soundbar buying guide

Last updated: December 2014

Getting started

A sound bar is an enclosure that contains several speakers--front right and left and sometimes center--in one thin module that you connect directly to your TV, with no need for a receiver. Some also include a separate subwoofer, usually wireless, and a few have rear speakers as well. Many sound bars sell for $200 to $600 or so, with a handful priced as low as $100 and other models costing up to $1,000 or more. A prepackaged HTIB system combines a receiver with a set of matched speakers, wiring, and often a DVD or Blu-ray player. You'll see some home-theater-in-a-box systems starting at about $200; systems that include an integrated Blu-ray player generally cost $300 or more. Again, the priciest models cost considerably more.

Many consumers will probably find the sound quality of a sound bar or HTIB system to be just fine, and better than what you'd get using just the TV's speakers. Note that these systems typically have less power and fewer features than a full-fledged audio system assembled from separate components, so they're not the best choice for a very large room, or for those who will need to connect a larger number of devices. A component system would better suit those settings and appeal to a serious audiophile listening to music critically or a movie fan craving theater-like excitement.

Types

Sound bars


A sound bar is a great solution if you have a small space or want a simple way to enhance your TV's sound without going to the trouble of assembling a full surround-sound system. These are thin bars, about 40 inches or longer, that are mounted on the wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Some pedestal-style sound bars, called sound bases, can serve as a base for a TV. (Check the weight of your set to make sure the stand can support it.) Most bars house two to five speakers (some might have more) in a single enclosure, and some come with a separate subwoofer (often a wireless model). Some models simulate surround sound, but don't expect it to be as good as true surround sound. A few sound bars do have rear speakers, which can add to the surround-sound effect. Some models may have a Blu-ray or DVD player built into the system. You can connect a sound bar directly to your TV, without using a receiver, and you'll have few wires to deal with. Among the new features becoming more common: Wi-Fi capability for accessing streaming services and other content, as well as Bluetooth connections that let you stream music from compatible mobile devices.

HTIB systems

A typical 5.1-channel home-theater package includes a receiver that can decode multichannel digital-audio soundtracks and five compact speakers--two front, one center channel, and two surround speakers for the rear, plus a subwoofer for deeper bass sounds. A 6.1-channel system adds one more rear speaker, and a 7.1 system adds two more rear speakers. A 2.1-channel system has only the two front speakers and a subwoofer, but it might use special processing to simulate multi-channel sound. The receivers in HTIB systems tend to be more basic than standalone receivers. They usually include Dolby Digital and DTS decoders for handling surround-sound tracks when playing a DVD or Blu-ray disc. A few models offer newer Dolby and DTS surround formats that process 6.1 or 7.1 channels, which support an additional one or two rear-surround speakers, respectively. Some may support higher-resolution audio formats, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTD-HD Master Audio, which are used on most Blu-ray discs. Many of the newer HTIB systems are 3D enabled and can send signals from a 3D Blu-ray player to a 3D TV. Some can also pass through 4K UHD video to an Ultra HD TV set. These prepackaged home-theater systems usually come with all the cables and wiring you need to connect the speakers, typically color-coded or labeled for easy setup. You generally can't add or replace speakers.

Features


Sound bars range from comparatively simple devices without a lot of features to pricier, more sophisticated models with more features. Whether you need those features depends on what you want to do and whether your TV or another device connected to it has the capabilities you want. Some sound bars have one or more HDMI inputs, and may include an HDMI output to the TV, allowing you to use the sound bar to switch between source components. (Some sound bars can pass through video signals from a cable box or Blu-ray player to the TV.) Most have at least one digital audio input (optical or coaxial) as well as stereo RCA inputs, and perhaps a 3.5mm minijack for connecting a wired portable device. Some models now include wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth or NFC (Near Field Communication), for pairing with smart phones and tablets. Other increasingly popular features are built-in Wi-Fi, so the speaker can directly stream from online music services, or a USB port for playing music stored on a flash drive, or connecting an iPod or other Apple device. (Some USB ports can be used to charge a phone or tablet.) Most models still come with a remote control, but more now offer free downloadable apps that let you use a phone or tablet as the remote control. Many offer decoding of Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound, plus some kind of virtual surround-sound processing to create a simulated surround-sound effect, to varying degrees of success.

Speakers

Sound bars usually have an array of speakers--anywhere from two to five or more--located in the main enclosure. Some have drivers that angle outward toward the sides of the room to create a broader soundfield. Most now come with a wireless subwoofer, which can be placed almost anywhere in a room, even out of sight. Sound bases, which sit underneath and support a TV, also have speaker arrays, but most have built-in subwoofers rather than separate ones. A few sound bars come with wireless rear speakers to create a true surround-sound experience. Often these speakers connect via wires to a wireless subwoofer or amplifier, so they aren't completely wireless, but they don't require wires running from the soundbar to the back of a room. HTIB surround-sound systems come with five to seven speakers and a subwoofer. All have been matched for sound, eliminating the need for you to do that. Some systems use small satellite speakers for the front and rear, though others might have floor-standing models for the front. A number of systems have surround speakers powered by wireless amplifiers that eliminate the need to run cables from the receiver to the rear of the room; these generally communicate with the receiver by radio frequency. You will have to plug the wireless amplifier into a wall outlet and connect it to the rear speakers, though, so they're not completely cordless. Some subwoofers can also connect wirelessly, further reducing cable runs. The speakers included may use proprietary connections, so you can't add more speakers or use these speakers with other receivers. Most, but not all, subwoofers are powered, with their own built-in amps; these models must be plugged into an electrical outlet. A powered subwoofer often provides more control over bass.

Online access

Some sound bars also offer access to streaming movies or TV shows from services such as Amazon.com, CinemaNow, Hulu.com, Netflix or Vudu; Internet radio stations such as Napster/Rhapsody, Pandora or Slacker; and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This is a plus if your TV doesn't have this capability built-in and you don't own a media player such as a Roku or Apple TV.

A/V connections


Many HDMI connections now support the audio return channel (ARC) feature, which lets a TV send audio back to the HTIB receiver or sound bar via its HDMI connection This allows a single cnnection from the sound bar to the TV if your copurce component, such as a cable box, is connected directly to the TV.

A digital-audio input (either optical or coaxial) can accept digital audio from your disc player, digital-cable box, or satellite receiver. Make sure the input on the sound bar or home-theater system matches the output on the other device. In recent years, optical digital-audio outputs have become the more common of the two audio connections. But increasingly, newer equipment, such as cable boxes or a Blu-ray player, send digital audio signals over the HDMI cable.

Switched AC outlets let you plug in other components and turn on the whole system with one button. These are less common with sound bars and HTIB systems than on component receivers.

Controls

Some sound bars and HTIBs have a front display panel; look for one that can be easily seen, with controls grouped by function and labeled clearly. Some models let you set up and adjust functions using the TV screen rather than the small display on the console. Remote controls are most useful when they have clear labels and different-shaped, color-coded buttons grouped by function. A backlit remote will be easier to use in a dark room. A universal remote can control a number of devices from different brands. More sound bars and HTIBs can be controlled by an Apple or Android smart phone or tablet loaded with an app, which is typically offered for free by the manufacturer.

Other connections

Some sound bars and HTIBs have built-in Wi-Fi, which can provide access to online content. This will make connecting the system to your home network or Internet connection easier if a wired Ethernet jack isn't nearby. Some mofels still may offer iPod/iPhone/iPad connectivity through a dock or a cable, although physical docks are now less commonthans to Bluetooth. An 3.5mm mini-jack lets you plug a portable music player into the system. A USB port lets you connect a player or a flash drive to hear music or view digital photos, and can sometimes be used to charge a portable device. An SD card slot allows you to insert photos or video for viewing directly on your TV. Bluetooth capability allows audio to be sent wirelessly to a sound bar or HTIB system from a Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a smartphone or portable media player, or from the system to Bluetooth-enabled speakers or headphones. Some newer models may include NFC for touch pairing with smart phones and tablets.

Audio and other features

Many systems have presets or custom equalizers (EQ) and/or bass/treble adjustments. DSP (for digital-signal processor) modes use digital circuitry to duplicate the sound quality of, say, a concert hall. Each mode represents a different listening environment. A bass-boost switch amplifies the deepest sounds. Models with a built-in sleep timer will turn the system off at a preset time.

Brands

Bose arrow  |  Boston Acoustics arrow  |  Coby arrow  |  Denon arrow  |  Funai arrow  |  Harmon Kardon arrow  |  Insignia arrow  |  Klipsch arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Onkyo arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Philips arrow  |  Pioneer arrow  |  Polk Audio arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sharp arrow  |  Sonos arrow  |  Sony arrow  |  Toshiba arrow  |  Vizio arrow  |  Yamaha arrow  |  ZVOX arrow

Most of the major electronics companies make home-theater-in-a-box systems. Some offer systems across all categories while others concentrate on a specific price range. You can use this alphabetized guide to compare home-theater-in-a-box systems by brand.

Bose

Bose offers a variety of home-theater systems, including sound bars, sound bases, and 2.1- and 5.1- channel systems. Bose products tend to be higher priced.

Boston Acoustics

Boston Acoustics is a midpriced audio brand best known for its speakers. The company, part of D&M Group—which also includes Denon & Marantz—now sells sound bars and a sound base to complement flat-screen TVs.

Coby

Gordon Brothers purchased the Coby brand and all of its assets—but not its liabilities—in 2013. To date, there have been no new Coby-branded sound bars or sound bases. Per its agreement, Gordon Brothers is not honoring warranty claims for any Coby products sold before its purchase.

Denon

Denon—part of D&M Group, which also includes Boston Acoustics and Marantz—is well known for its products in all home-theater categories, including sound bars and 2.1- and 5.1-channel home theater systems. The products tend to be mid-to-high priced.

Funai

Funai controls the Emerson, Funai, and Magnavox brands in the U.S. Its products are typically sold at mass-market stores and warehouse clubs. A Funai subsidiary, P&F Holdings, is the exclusive licensee for Philips consumer televisions and home theater products, and acts as the exclusive distributor in North America for Philips lifestyle entertainment, which includes home and portable audio, headphones, portable DVD and accessories.

Harmon Kardon

Harman Kardon—part of Harman International, which also owns the AKG, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson, and Revel brands—is a well-known home-theater brand. Its products, which include sound bars and 2.1- and 5.1-channel systems, tend to be mid-to-high priced.

Insignia

Insignia is Best Buy’s house brand, sold exclusively by the retailer. Insignia’s products are positioned as a value line offering a decent number of features at a relatively modest price.

Klipsch

Klipsch is part of Voxx International, formerly known as Audiovox, which also owns the Jamo and Energy speaker brands. Klipsch is well known for it speakers, sound bars, and sound base systems.

LG

LG Electronics is a major consumer electronics brand that manufactures a wide range of products under the LG and Zenith brands in the United States. Its products include sound bar and sound base systems, and 5.1- and 7.1-channel home-theater systems. Prices are typically in the lower-to-midprice ranges.

Onkyo

Onkyo, which recently bought a major stake in Pioneer’s audio/video business, offers 5.1-, 5.2-, and 7.1-channel home theater systems. Its products typically carry midrange prices, though they can escalate as the number of features increases.

Panasonic

Panasonic is a major consumer-electronics brand in several audio and video categories. It manufactures sound bars, sound bases, and 5.1-channel home theater systems. The products are competitively priced and widely available.

Philips

Philips licenses its North American consumer electronics business to Funai as part of a deal that has been renewed through 2015. A new company, P&F, was formed to market those products, which include televisions and home-theater products. The company also acts as the exclusive distributor in North America for Philips lifestyle entertainment, which includes home and portable audio. The Philips brand sells sound bars and 5.1-channel systems that are typically priced in the low-to-mid price ranges.

Pioneer

Pioneer is a well-known consumer electronics company whose products include sound bars, sound bases, and 5.1-channel home theater systems. Its products tend to be midpriced. The company recently sold a major stake in its audio/video business to Onkyo.

Polk Audio

Polk Audio is a well-known speaker company that has a full line of sound bars with and without separate subwoofers. Its products are typically in the mid-to-higher price ranges.

Samsung

Samsung is a major electronics brand in multiple product categories, including home theater systems. It sells sound bars, sound bases, and 5.1- and 7.1- channel home theater systems. Prices vary widely, though they are typically moderate to somewhat expensive.

Sharp

Sharp, perhaps best known for its Aquos LCD TVs, also sells sound bar speaker systems to complement its TV line. Its products tend to be midpriced.

Sonos

Sonos has helped pioneer the multiroom wireless speaker category. It now offers several different styles of Wi-Fi speakers at varying price points, and a sound bar that can be used either independently, as part of a multichannel sound system, or as a speaker in a multiroom system.

Sony

Sony, a major consumer electronics brand, sells home theater products across a wide range of categories, including sound bar and sound base systems, and 5.1-channel home theater systems. Sony products cover all price ranges.

Toshiba

Toshiba offers sound bars and a sound bases to complement its TV products. Its audio products are typically value priced.

Vizio

A major TV brand, Vizio has also entered several audio and video categories. The company offers 2.0-, 2.1-, and 5.1-channel sound bar speaker systems—some with wireless rear speakers—and a speaker base that complements its TV line. Vizio’s products are typically value priced.

Yamaha

Yamaha sells products in all categories of home theater, including sound bars and 5.1-channel home theater systems. Its products are typically in the mid-to-higher price ranges.

ZVOX

Zvox helped to pioneer the sound base speaker category. It now offers sound base speakers in several sizes, typically in the lower-to-midpriced ranges.

Shopping tips

With sound quality, your opinion is the one that matters most. Even speakers that get similar scores for sound quality will likely sound different because of the way they handle various frequencies and how they interact with the acoustics in your room. Audition systems in the store and ask about a return or exchange if the one you buy doesn't suit you once you get it home.

Match the size of the sound bar to the TV, especially if you'll be wall-mounting it.

For larger TVs, consider a wider sound bar. It will look better aesthetically and can provide a wider stereo image (the spatial location of the sound) that will work better with the TV. For smaller-screen TVs, consider a narrower sound bar that's no wider than the screen. Decide how many channels you want. If you simply want to enhance your TV sound, a sound bar with 2.1 channels (containing two speakers, with a separate subwoofer) might give you the improvement you're seeking. If you want true surround sound, buy a sound bar with a subwoofer and rear speakers--preferably wireless--for multichannel sound.

Consider placement before you buy.

If you'll be placing the sound bar on the TV stand, make sure there's enough room in front of the set, and check to see that the sound bar isn't so tall it will block the remote-control beam to the TV. (Some models come with an IR blaster that will allow the TV to receive signals even if the sound bar blocks the TVs sensor.) If space is tight, consider a soundbase that will sit on the stand under the TV. You don't have to deal with wall-mounting or worry about placement. Just make sure the sound base can support the weight of your set. Also be sure it sits fully on your TV stand and is wide and deep enough for the TV's base or legs.

Don't overbuy.

If you'll be using the sound bar only for listening to your TV, you can go for a low-priced, no-frills model that has at least good sound quality. It should be a big step up from almost any TV's built-in sound. However, if you want to use the sound bar for music as well as TV, we recommend a model with very good sound quality. Don't overpay to get features that your mobile devices already have. Some higher-priced soundbars can stream online music services such as Pandora and Spotify and play Internet radio. You can get that same capability on a lower-priced model by connecting a smartphone, tablet, or computer that can access those services.

Compare warranties

Most manufacturers provide 12 months of coverage, but others offer either more or less coveragers. Check the warranty before you buy.

Check the connections.

You'll need a variety of inputs for connecting audio sources, so make sure that the inputs on the sound bar ot HTIB match the outputs on the source components. Look for analog inputs if you'll be connected older gear to the system, and one or more HDMI inputs if you'll be connecting newer gear. Look for a sound bar that supports Bluetooth if you want to connect to mobile devices (a tablet, phone, or computer, e.g.) directly so you can listen to music or play videos without having to route them through your TV. Look for one with Wi-Fi if you want to be able to access online content directly through the sound bar or HTIB.

Speakers

A long-term investment, speakers can last for years

Sound bars are not for everyone. A passionate audiophile might spend well into five figures for component speakers, but you don't have to pay a fortune for decent sound. Any money you spend for good speakers is an investment, because they generally last a long time and are less likely to become outmoded than other home-theater gear. You can start with a pair of speakers and add others--such as a center-channel speaker, rear surrounds, or a subwoofer--as your need dictates and your budget allows.

What's available

Among the hundreds of speaker brands available, the major names are B&W, Bose, Boston Acoustics, Infinity, JBL, Klipsch, and Polk Audio. There are also lower-priced models from some well-regarded "audiophile" brands, such as Definitive Technology, Monitor, Paradigm, and PSB. Speakers are sold through mass merchandisers, audio/video stores, and "boutique" retailers. You can also buy speakers online, but shipping costs can be high if the speakers are heavy.

Speakers are sold as pairs for traditional stereo setups, and singly or in sets of three to eight for equipping a home theater. In order to keep a system balanced, buy the front left and right speakers in pairs rather than individually. The center-channel speaker should be acoustically matched to the front speakers. Rear speakers should also sound similar to front speakers.

Each type of speaker serves a different purpose. The front speakers are used for stereo music playback; in a home-theater setup, they provide front left and right sounds. A center-channel speaker delivers dialog and is usually placed atop or beneath the TV in a home theater. Rear speakers, sometimes called surround speakers, deliver rear ambient effects such as crowd noise or special effects. A bass unit--colloquially known as a subwoofer--reproduces the lowest frequencies, such as those from bass instruments and action-movie explosions.

Bookshelf speakers

These are among the smaller speakers, but the largest of them can be 20 or so inches tall, too big for some shelves, despite their name. A pair can serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front or rear duo in a home theater. Small speakers like these have become better at handling bass without buzzing or distortion and are likely to satisfy many listeners. Any bass-handling limitations would be less of a concern in a multi-speaker system that uses a subwoofer to reproduce deep bass.

Floor-standing speakers

Typically about 3 to 4 feet tall, these large speakers can also serve as the sole speakers in a stereo system or as the front pair in a home-theater system. Their big cabinets have the potential to do more justice to deep bass than smaller speakers--and some may contain built-in powered subwoofers--but they take up more space and might not be the best choice for aesthetic reasons.

Center-channel speaker

In a multichannel setup, the center-channel speaker is typically placed above or beneath the TV, as its job is to anchor sound to the onscreen action. Because it primarily handles dialog, its frequency range doesn't have to be as full as that of the front pair, but its sound should be similar, so that all three blend well. Many center-channel speakers are wider than they are tall.

Rear-surround speakers

Rear speakers in a multichannel setup carry ambient sounds, such as crowd noise, and directional effects, such as a car racing by or a plane flying past. Multichannel formats such as Dolby Digital, Digital Theater System (DTS), and the high-resolution lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master soundtracks found on many Blu-ray movies make fuller use of these speakers than earlier formats, so many models now have a wider frequency response. Rear speakers tend to be small and light (often 5 to 10 inches high and 3 to 6 pounds), so they can be wall-mounted or placed on a shelf.

Three-piece sets

Meant as a standalone system or for use with other speakers, these so-called 2.1-channel sets combine two bookshelf or small satellite speakers for midrange and higher tones with a subwoofer for bass. Some may include a center-channel speaker rather than a subwoofer.

Six-to-eight-piece sets

An easy route to a full surround-sound system, these matched sets typically have small bookshelf or satellite speakers for front and rear pairs (though some sets have floor-standing speakers for the front), a center-channel speaker, and a subwoofer. Six- or eight-piece sets take the guesswork out of matching speakers. They differ from a home-theater system in that you have to add a receiver.

Price: $300 to more than $1,000.

Subwoofers

Subwoofers reproduce the bass or low frequencies. In a stereo or multichannel setup, the bass unit might sit apart from the other speakers, in a location that delivers the most consistent bass or that's more convenient--even hidden out of sight. But you can't just stick a subwoofer anywhere. If you put one in a corner, for example, the unit might make your system sound boomy. Most subwoofers are "active" or "powered," meaning that they have built-in amplification. Some are now wireless, so you don't have to run a cable to a receiver.

How to choose

Consider size. Speakers come in all shapes and sizes, so see how they'll fit in your room. Floorstanding speakers might overwhelm smaller spaces. Bookshelf speakers are often a better fit, though some are quite large. Make sure the model you choose will fit the shelf or niche you've earmarked for it. Most can also be placed on stands.

And don't worry that you're giving up quality for compactness. Many small speakers do a fine job, especially in the relatively modest environs of typical rooms. In addition to standard bookshelf speakers, there are now flat speaker systems, designed to complement flat-panel TVs, that can be mounted on a wall. There are also in-wall speakers that can virtually disappear in a room. Both types have gotten better, and can provide satifying sound, though you may pay a bit more to get comparable sound quality.

Focus on sound, not price

While more expensive speakers can sound better, not all do. We've found that many lower-priced speakers can deliver a very full, satisfying sound. Also, ads often tout two-way or three-way designs and the size of the cone inside a speaker, but you can't judge sound quality by those attributes.

Listen for the differences

Even speakers with similar scores can sound very different. There's no substitute for hearing speakers, so try auditioning the speakers with music you're already familiar with. Speakers will sound different at home because of your room size, shape, and furnishings, so see if the retailer will allow a home trial. If you're torn between two choices, buy the less expensive one. Stores might be more open to a return if you want to trade up to a more expensive set. And if you're ordering from an Internet retailer, check its return policies so that you can exchange the speakers if you're unhappy with the sound once they're set up in your home.

Check impedance

If you like to play music loudly, make sure that your receiver is rated to handle the impedance (generally from 4 to 8 ohms) of the front speaker pair. If the receiver has a higher impedance rating than the speakers, its amplifiers will have to work hard to drive the speakers when they are played at high volume, and the receiver may overheat and shut down. Power range refers to the power-handling capability of a speaker, expressed in RMS (average power) and peak power (maximum surge power).

   

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