Modern HDTVs may look stylish and offer superb picture quality but their audio performance usually fails to impress.
As TVs get thinner, there’s less space in their skinny frames for speakers capable of delivering decent audio. Even worse, on most TVs the speakers either point down or away from you, which results in muffled, tinny sound that delivers a poor listening experience.
You can install a home cinema or surround sound system, but they’re expensive and involve a tangle of wires. The simplest way to boost your TV’s audio is to connect a TV soundbar instead.
What is a soundbar?
A soundbar consists of several speakers in a streamlined bar.
When connected to your TV, audio bypasses the TV’s internal speakers and plays instead through the soundbar’s speakers.
Soundbars can hang on the wall next to a wall-mounted flat-panel TV, but most people sit their soundbar on their TV stand directly in front of the TV.
They're cheaper and easier to install than a cable-heavy, multi-speaker surround sound or a home cinema system – and the best soundbars deliver rich, well-balanced audio that make watching films and TV shows a pleasure.
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Soundbar buyer's guide
Now you've answered the question 'what is a soundbar?' you might still find yourself a little in the dark when it comes to choosing one for your home.
We've rounded up a few things you might like to think about before you go shopping for your soundbar that will make your purchase perfect.
Soundbars range in price from £100 to over £1,000 and as with a lot of things, you typically get what you pay for.
Budget models typically have basic connections while premium soundbars come with various ports and advanced speakers.
Design and size
Soundbars come in different sizes and shapes. The majority have a long bar-shaped design, while others – known as soundbases – come as a shallow box that sits directly under the TV.
Soundbars can be hung on a wall along with your TV or positioned in front of it on a TV stand.
Measure the space where your soundbar will sit before you buy. If it sticks out beyond the TV bevel, it may look odd, and tall soundbars can cause problems by blocking the TV's remote-control sensor.
You can buy a soundbar to match your TV in looks but this may not offer the best audio performance.
A subwoofer is a speaker dedicated to playing low frequency audio – known as bass – which gives that cinematic rumbling sensation when watching films.
Many soundbars have a built-in subwoofer, but with the drive towards ever slimmer and small soundbars, most now come with a small external subwoofer speaker.
This is connected to the soundbar either by cable or wirelessly via a Bluetooth connection.
A wireless subwoofer can be positioned anywhere in a room, even tucked behind furniture, although it will need to be close to a mains socket for power.
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Best soundbar features to look for
A wireless connectivity feature that uses low-power radio frequencies to connect devices together. Modern soundbars often use Bluetooth to play audio from the TV without the hassle of wires.
A small, box-like speaker that provides the bass range of the audio. It often connects wirelessly to the soundbar to ensure sound is synchronised.
A high-definition cable that can transmit audio and video. Soundbars can connect to TVs using HDMI, which ensures audio is always output via the soundbar.
Short for Audio Return Channel, it allows the audio of all connected devices to the TV to play audio through the soundbar.
Short for Consumer Electronics Control, a HDMI CEC connection lets you use a single remote control to operate all connected CEC devices, such as the TV and soundbar, and change volume or switch all devices on and off.
Allows headphones to be connected directly to the soundbar, so you can listen to audio in private.
TOSLink or Digital Optical
A digital audio connection between the TV and the soundbar that carries surround sound and stereo and provides high-quality audio.
This connection port that allows devices such as music players and laptops to connect and output audio to the soundbar.
Virtual surround sound
Unlike home cinema systems which have speakers physically placed around you, soundbars project audio directly at you. To compensate for this, they create a ‘fake’ surround sound designed to provide a sense of immersive audio.
A small display on the front of the soundbar that shows you the audio input it is receiving, such as TV or Blu-ray, as well as the volume level.
The ability to adjust the soundbar audio settings. Some soundbars offer switchable audio modes, such as movie or natural, so you can set it to match your preferences.
Relates to the number of speakers in a soundbar system – in this case, two stereo speakers and one subwoofer.
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What else should I bear in mind when choosing a soundbar?
For easy set up and the best compatibility, buy a soundbar that’s the same brand as your TV, such as an LG, Samsung or Sony soundbar.
This removes any set-up hassles, and they often feature similar styling and case colour for a coordinated look.
Many soundbars from the same TV brand will automatically be able to be controlled from the TV’s remote control as well.
Premium vs cheap
The best soundbars deliver rich, well-balanced audio that make watching films and TV shows a pleasure, but quite often you get what you pay for.
Avoid little-known, cheaper soundbar brands as they can deliver poor audio quality.
Easy to use
A soundbar should be straightforward to set up and simple to use.
You can even use your TV’s remote control to adjust the soundbar’s power, volume, and other features – so long as both are connected via a HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) port, as found on the latest TVs and soundbars.
Look for a variety of connection options so you can connect your TV and other devices such as DVD players and set-top boxes. Common connections include HDMI, RCA, TOSLink and USB.
However, if you connect your TV and soundbar using HDMI, then audio from any other devices connected to the TV will automatically play through the soundbar’s speakers.
Other useful features are Bluetooth, which lets you stream audio from your phone, tablet or computer and a Wi-Fi connection so you can play online music.
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Our top four soundbars
If you fancy avoiding a tangle of cables cluttering up your living room, the LG NB3540 soundbar is a wireless wonder.
The soundbar is complemented with a wireless subwoofer, which not only helps deliver a total of 320W of audio power, but means it can be placed anywhere in the room.
Users appreciate its compact size and rate its audio – both in terms of its deep bass and excellent sound – with it delivering a sound that you’d expect from more expensive bars.
It supports Bluetooth so you can connect smartphones and tablets and stream music from your playlists, or connect up devices using its USB port.
Buy on Amazon from £180
With its 3.1 surround sound set-up complete with wireless subwoofer, the Panasonic SC-HTB680 includes a dedicated channel for speech to increase audio clarity.
It packs a weighty 350W of audio power, and you can place the wireless subwoofer anywhere in the room without fighting a spaghetti of wires.
It includes both Bluetooth and NFC wireless communications – simply tap an NFC-enabled Android smartphone to the soundbar to start streaming music from your phone.
Users like the fact the sound changes to match the TV show, and voices are clear, along with lashings of deep bass.
Buy on Amazon from £349.99
Featuring two integrated speakers and two subwoofers that deliver 80W of audio, Samsung’s HW-J250 is a great value soundbar that delivers a decent performance.
It produces Dolby Digital quality sound in a compact soundbar that fits neatly in front of your TV.
If you’ve a Samsung TV, you can connect the HW-J250 wirelessly using Bluetooth and the HW-J250 can be positioned up to ten metres away from the TV.
Users say it sounds great for such a compact unit and the built-in subwoofer is a bonus.
Buy on Amazon from £100
Sonos Playbar Soundbar
With its compact design and advanced wireless audio-streaming features, the Sonos Playbar Soundbar is a firm favourite of movie, TV and video game buffs.
The all-in-one unit gives access to nine speakers that broadcast rumbling bass, with six mid-range speakers and angled left and right tweeters for enhanced sound quality.
Its clever Night Mode setting improves audio quality at lower volume levels. It can wirelessly connect to your home Wi-Fi network to stream audio from iTunes, Spotify and other connected Sonos speakers.
Users rate its ease of set-up, clear sound and say that speech in particular is very clear.
Buy on Amazon from £699
Have your say...
'Mum's audiologist suggested she have a sound bar as her TV volume was really deafening to anyone else. And what a difference it's made to her.
'It was explained to us that modern flat screen TVs don't have room for decent speakers so a sound bar improves the sound quality without having the TV blaring out. Mum has it set to about 8 now and it's not harming our eardrums when we visit her. She's 88 next week and so has lost a lot of her hearing ability.
'We now have a sound bar ourselves and it certainly improves sound quality!' - Hazel Duke, via Facebook.
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