Improved TV technology keeps bringing us panels that are brighter, more vibrant, and of course thinner. But as TVs get thinner, manufacturers have to cut hardware somewhere, and sadly it's often in the speakers.
Don't get me wrong, many TVs sound good. But the days of booming sound with clear bass on large CRT models have come and gone. There are some innovative approaches to improving sound, like putting speakers behind the panel or using "down-firing" speakers that push the sound out the bottom of the TV. But many consumers are choosing sound bars.
A sound bar is traditionally a long, thin rectangular speaker, with a few tweeters and maybe a woofer built in, that is hung below or placed in front of a TV to improve audio. Some are stand-alone units, and other sound bars are packaged with a moderate-sized bass unit. Depending on the technology in place, like Dolby Atmos or other audio standards, a sound bar can do a pretty good job of filling an entire room.
While sound bars are cheaper than a full surround system, they shouldn't lack too much in terms of sound quality. I've been testing several models from Bose, Sony, Samsung and Vizio over the past few weeks. All of these do an excellent job of improving the basic TV experience and many of them pair an easy setup with added features.
One last piece of housekeeping: Here's how I tested. We picked an array of high-quality content ranging from movies to TV shows and of course concert films. With each sound bar or system being tested, I listened several times over and mixed it up with different sound modes. Rest assured, there were several hours spent with each, and with the highest quality sources to limit the amount of compression.
Let's walk through my top picks
AirPlay, Alexa and Google Assistant mixed with good sound in a small package: Sonos Beam ($399; sonos.com)
- Sonos Beam ($399; sonos.com)
You can't do a roundup of sound bars without mentioning the Sonos Beam. It's a surprisingly small device that's placed on a table underneath your TV or hung under it, and delivers robust sound. Like the Bose Soundbar 500 and 700, it has a proprietary and custom-built speaker setup inside to deliver room-filling sound that is clear and smooth. In addition to improving the TV-watching experience, Sonos also packs in a speech enhancement mode to make dialogue clearer. You'll also find support for AirPlay, which allows you to stream music from an iOS device easily. Sonos is also one of the first to offer both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa on its smart speakers.
Simple, smart and balanced: Bose Soundbar 500 & 700
Bose is a big name in the home entertainment and personal entertainment space with plenty of headphones, earbuds, Bluetooth speakers, surround systems and, yes, sound bars. The 500 and 700 represent a sound bar that aims to deliver a lot for the price point. Besides sounding great and well-balanced, these are Alexa-enabled devices.
The 500 and 700 have proprietary drivers inside that were custom-designed for Bose. The end goal is, of course, to have the best sound experience, even in a slim design, and the good news is that Bose did that. Either of these performs really well, with a noticeable bass improvement on the 700.
The real game changer is AdaptIQ. This is a headset you'll wear during setup to calibrate the system. As you move around the room, the sound bar sends out sound signals. Essentially the headset can pick up these tones (high, low and in between) to customize the experience. It's a calibration system that won't disappoint. Whether it was a movie, cable news or even a concert, the 500 and 700 did an excellent job. Both of these can get very loud, and via the companion app, you can control treble, bass and the center channel.
Booming sound and smart features: Samsung HW-N450 with subwoofer
- Samsung HW-N450 with subwoofer ($279.99; samsung.com)
While Bose handles bass, low, and mid tones in one package, the Samsung HW-N450 is a combination sound bar and woofer (aka dedicated bass unit). At less than $300, it's significantly more affordable and pairs well with any Samsung TV. The included remote is modeled on the high-end ergonomic one that comes with most Samsung TVs.
It can connect via optical or HDMI arc to the TV, plus the HW-N450 is a Bluetooth bar as well. This means it allows you to stream music to the sound bar. Both optical and HDMI arc performed well, so either way, you should be set for a solid listening experience.
In terms of setup, it's plugging the sound bar and woofer in with power. There's no physical connection between the bar and the woofer; that's done through a dedicated Wi-Fi connection. Then connect the sound bar with either an optical or HDMI arc to the TV. It did a great job with balancing the sound, and you get dedicated volume and woofer control. Moreover, you can switch between standard and surround audio experiences. The surround mode performs well and does replicate a full room experience.
For the price, this is a great entry-level sound bar that pairs exceptionally well with Samsung TVs.
Room-filling sound and Dolby Atmos certified: Sony HT-X9000F
- Sony HT-X9000F 2.1-Channel Sound Bar with Dolby Atmos and Subwoofer ($598; amazon.com)
If you want a full 2.1-channel sound bar with Dolby Atmos certification, then Sony's HT-X9000F is worth looking at. It's a bit more expensive, but with several sound modes and an impressive sound radius, it makes an impression. Unlike some other sound bars that might blast to the front, the HT-X9000F also blasts upward and a bit toward the back.
In my testing, I found that in smaller rooms, this Sony setup helped to fill the room, especially with concert audio and Dolby Atmos mastered sound. You can choose from several modes and get dedicated volume control for the main bar and woofer.
The HT-X9000F supports HDMI arc and optical for connecting to a TV, but Sony also packed in Bluetooth for music streaming. You can even connect a USB-A drive to play downloaded music. Overall, Sony's mid-level sound bar and woofer performs really well and gets loud. Through Dolby Atmos and with a vertical sound engine, it's very clear and balanced.
A full surround setup with Dolby Atmos: Vizio 46" 5.1.4 Home Theater Sound System
- Vizio SB46514-F6 46-inch 5.1.4 channel Home Theater Sound System ($999.99; amazon.com)
Vizio's SB46514-F6 is a full surround sound system setup that pairs a sound bar with a woofer and two hi-hat speakers, one for the left and one for the right. With any surround setup, you'll feel immersed in the audio. Vizio met the core specs that any audiophile would want. It's a Dolby Atmos system, and it's a full 5.1.4 system.
When it's set up, you'll have the 46-inch sound bar in the front, the wireless subwoofer off to the side, and the two-channel speakers behind you on the left and right. Those rear speakers will need to be connected to the subwoofer. Vizio gives you plenty of cord length to make this connection. You'll need power for the woofer and the sound bar.
As with the Bose, Samsung, and Sony sound bars above, you can connect with HDMI arc or optical for the core TV connection. It's also a Google Assistant-capable device and offers Bluetooth connectivity for music streaming. The sound quality is really great and the bass is powerful.
13 speakers and a 5.1.4 experience: Sennheiser's AMBEO Sound Bar
- Sennheiser AMBEO Sound bar ($2,499.95; sennheiser.com)
Sennheiser is not a newcomer to the audio industry, and its Ambeo sound bar, available starting June 12, promises to be a pretty stellar device. It won't be cheap, at $2,499.95, but if you want a 5.1.4 channel experience, this might be the option for a one-and-done setup. The Ambeo packs in 13 speakers that will work to deliver a whole-room audio experience. Essentially, it promises a surround experience with one sound bar that has a 3-D spatial quality, kind of like the technology used in Apple's HomePod.
Additionally, Sennheiser has a companion app for iOS and Android for precise control and for a handy calibration trick. This way the sound bar performs best for your specific setup. You can also cast content to the Ambeo through Google's Chromecast standard.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.