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Shopping Guide: Soundbars
Remember back in the day when you’d visit your friend’s house and they had the best sound system? If you looked hard enough, you’d find tiny speaker cubes installed high in each corner. The bass hit so hard that you’d get goosebumps when John McClane jumps out of an exploding helicopter.
It was always impressive to see how much work someone would put into the ideal movie sound quality. To get just the right sound, you had to surround yourself with speakers, connect every piece to the TV, and then finagle some way to plug everything in without wires covering your room.
Thanks to the introduction of soundbars, you can eliminate those complicated multi-piece sound systems in lieu of a single source of audio. Perfect for small spaces, convenient installations, and no-hassle setups, soundbars give you the sound quality that will make you feel tucked away in your own home theater.
Even with the best models of TV, where the actors look like they’re essentially standing in your living room, you can find subpar sound output. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a new movie and missing half the quotes due to poor sound quality. By pairing your new, high-def TV with a soundbar, you’re improving your movie-going experience tenfold.
What to Look for When Shopping for a New Soundbar
Even though all that sound equipment is compacted into one streamlined unit, there are still plenty of specs and features to consider when doling out your hard-earned money. For anyone just dipping their toes into the sound industry, or someone who just wants a simple choice without hours of research, a few key term breakdowns can help you wade through your options.
Soundbar Frequency and Subwoofer Connectivity
One big deficit that a soundbar faces is its limited frequency output compared to more complex sound systems. A frequency of a soundbar refers to the different types of sounds that a unit can translate for your ears, so if a soundbar has a limited frequency range, some of those fancy sound effects might be lost in the fray.
Slim, low-profile soundbars especially have a harder time with lower frequencies, which describe “rumbling” sounds with a lot of bass to them. These are the rumbling thunder or chopper blades that add that extra effect to every movie.
To counteract this, most soundbars can easily connect to a subwoofer, which can reach these lower frequencies and give you a more authentic movie-theatre experience.
You can tell which soundbar connects to a subwoofer by the number, punctuated with a decimal point, that comes after the model name of the soundbar.
For example, take the Vizio 2.1 soundbar. The number “2.1” isn’t random, in fact, it’s the best indicator of two different specs in the soundbar. The first number indicates the number of sound channels that are in the soundbar itself, or in layman's terms, how many places the sound will be coming out of the unit. For this model, it has 2 channels, which directly relates to the right and left side, two places where sound will be coming through. You’ll also see 3, which relates to left, right, and middle, all the way up to 5, which adds rear and surround sound to the equation.
The number after the decimal point, in this case 1, specifies whether or not the soundbar has a separate subwoofer. For the most convenience, you can look for models that connect to a subwoofer via Bluetooth, avoiding the hassle of wires and a labyrinth of cords leading you to your subwoofer.
As a reminder, the subwoofer will be beneficial to pair up with your soundbar thanks to its capability to emit low frequencies. Due to the soundbar’s typically sleek, slim look, there’s not enough depth to include a deep subwoofer within the speaker’s construction.
By connecting your soundbar to a subwoofer, your ears will be listening to a larger range of sounds that were intentionally designed for you to hear.
HDMI, Optical Cables, and Everything in Between
One of the most frustrating things about having a separate sound system is the amount of remotes you need and getting every machine to talk to each other. As online streaming becomes more and more popular, you’ll find that you’ll want to stream movies and shows directly from your computer or phone with the same sound quality you’d expect from a DVD.
Ensuring that your soundbar can connect with your TV, computer, or other devices is crucial to movie-viewing in the Netflix and Hulu eras. Look for a soundbar with multiple inputs that match the devices you’ll be using.
You’ll ideally want a soundbar with inputs for both HDMI (content streaming from your computer) and optical cables (connecting your DVD player). Being the basic connections, you’ll find a soundbar that can handle these capabilities on the lower end of the price range, usually around $200.
If you’re willing to spend a little more for a soundbar that can connect more easily to other sources, consider looking for a soundbar that has built-in Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi. These two connection options make it convenient to seamlessly connect your phone’s favorite Spotify playlist and share YouTube audio. You’ll see the price jump up to $300 and can easily extend well into the $700-and-up budget.
For just a simple soundbar that amplifies the sound on your TV, you can overlook Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, since these benefits will add to the price of your system. Make sure that the soundbar you choose has an input and output source that matches that of your TV, otherwise you’ll be unable to connect the two devices.
Along the same vein of add-ons and bonus features, you’ll also see that many soundbars include smart assistance like Google or Amazon Alexa. If you want to really delve into the world of smart electronics, and you just want to ask your soundbar to start playing Mozart, these can be cool options to explore. Once again, this is taking you to the heavier side of the budget, and can cost you upwards of $800.
Wall Mountable Units
In order for a soundbar to truly work at its highest potential, it needs to be near the TV. This can be a pain for a couple of reasons.
First, you have to make sure that the soundbar doesn’t physically block the infrared sensor between your TV and the remote. You’ve probably dealt with having to reach high in the air, aiming the remote at the television, just to change the channel or turn the volume up or down.
After buying a brand-new soundbar, it seems silly and unnecessary to have to deal with such an old-school problem. Some soundbars have a workaround solution to this by incorporating an IR repeater. This allows the signal to pass through the soundbar unit and to the television without interfering, even if the soundbar is placed right in front of the sensor. If your soundbar has an IR repeater, you don’t even have to worry about this issue.
Secondly, you have to worry about the space of your entertainment center. For those that have their TV mounted on the walls, it’s not feasible to have the soundbar sitting 4 feet below it on the floor.
That’s where wall-mountable units come in. You’ll note that some models have the tools needed to mount the soundbar onto the wall, making it easy to avoid blocking the TV’s infrared sensor.
If you have an entertainment center large enough to share space between both the TV and soundbar, then you don’t have to consider this while purchasing your new soundbar. However, for most people who are tight for space and wanting to keep their TV stand looking nice, a mounting unit is something to keep your eye out for.
User Reviews Make a Difference
Soundbars are a sleek solution to the bulky, complicated sound systems that became popular in the ‘90s. They allow everyday home owners the ability to upgrade their movie nights thanks to an affordable budget and compact equipment. That said, even with all the knowledge in the world about the specs of each unit, it’s always valuable to see what other real users are saying as they use these units.
While the sound quality might be angelic in a room with great acoustics, maybe it’s a different story in a room with strange angles and open ceilings. Perhaps your taste in music with heavy bass brings a whole different sound experience than someone watching high-pitched cartoons with their kids.
Luckily, we’ve compared and reviewed soundbars that rank high in quality, user feedback, and overall value. We took a look at user input as well as the specs of each unit to give you an easy-to-digest list of our top picks.
Now that you have the knowledge to find a soundbar that perfectly suits your entertainment needs, you can dive into the highly ranked soundbars that we recommend. There’s a whole world of sounds out there, go listen to it!
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