Sound Bars Suck

One of the hottest trends in audio is sound bars. These long, speaker-looking devices sit below a television with the goal of offering better sound than what’s available from the TV itself.

In that regard, they succeed. They aren’t, however, decent audio.

Lets first start with the benefits, and work our way down from there. The speakers in a TV are an infinitesimal fraction of the total TV price, and are always squeezed in wherever they can fit. With today’s sub-1″ thin TVs, this isn’t likely to be anywhere useful.

They don’t offer anything close to decent sound quality, and in most cases sound horrible. There is only so much tiny underpowered drivers can do, regardless of what electronic trickery is claimed to be driving them. Audio is an afterthought in TV design, and anyone looking for a quality experience at home would do well to think of all TVs as simply monitors (as in, not having speakers at all).

Stepping up to a sound bar is a small step in the right direction. Sound bars, for the most part, offer larger drivers than what’s in a TV, and hopefully a bit more power as well. So as I said earlier, that is an improvement.

But that’s where the positives end. Most HDTV broadcasts, and nearly all DVD and Blu-rays have surround sound. This is a big part of the experience, and one that sound bars just can’t reproduce on their own. Some sound bars do offer a fake surround sound. Yamaha’s Digital Sound Projectors do a reasonably convincing job of this. They bounce sound off the walls in your room, making it sort of seem like sound is coming from beside you or behind you. This effect is largely dependent on your room. If you have bare walls and/or lots of glass, then it will work pretty well. If you have thick carpets, drapes, even bookcases, it won’t work as well. Other sound bars don’t use electronic trickery to bounce sound, instead they just use a bunch of carefully positioned drivers to make the sound larger than one would figure possible from a small bar. While not as convincing, these models are at least a step between those without any consolations towards surround and the digital trickery models.

Some sound bars come with surround speakers, often wireless. These will at least solve the surround problem.

Stereo separation is another issue, though falls in a similar category. Because the drivers in the bar are necessarily close together, it sounds like everything is coming from one speaker. In some cases this is ok, but in others you’re losing out on the basic concept of stereo. Some bars, as I mentioned earlier, do try to make the sound seem wider just using the speaker drivers themselves. They won’t be able to mimic the sound stage of a pair of correctly positioned speakers, but these models will at least sound “larger” than the basic sound bars that don’t attempt any sort of wider sound.

Self-powered sound bars, as in the ones that don’t need a separate receiver, are going to be underpowered. You’ll probably be able to get enough volume to fill your room, but they’re not going to have the dynamic range of even a low-end receiver and some speakers. Explosions aren’t going to rock your room. Worst case, at higher volumes the bar will distort.

Then there’s the problem of bass. Stand-alone sound bars aren’t going to have the bass of even mid-range bookshelf speakers. Most sound bars have subs (often wireless) available, and if you’re going the sound bar route, you owe it to your ears to get a sub.

The stand-alone sound bars have another problem: switching. Most people have multiple HDMI sources, like a Blu-ray player, cable/satellite box, PS3, Apple TV, etc. Some sound bars will have HDMI inputs to switch these, but most don’t. For those that don’t, you’ll have to run audio cables from your TV to the sound bar. Not a huge deal, but it does make setup somewhat more difficult. It’s also not as convenient as a receiver with HDMI switching, where all the audio and video switches with just the touch of a button.

Ok, not all of them suck.

Polk SurroundBarThere are a few sound bars that aren’t that bad. Not surprisingly, these come from companies that make speakers.

Polk FXPolk makes several models that use similar technology as their “real” speakers. Take for example the SurroundBar ($480.00, 49% off) which has seven 3.5-inch drivers and three 0.75-inch tweeters. To make it a whole system you should add a sub (the PSW111 will work; $174.48, 50% off) and something like the Polk audio F/X Wireless Surround Sound ($349.89, 22% off) for surround sound.

Other solid bar options are:
Definitive Technology Mythos SSA-42 Speaker ($799.00)
Atlantic Technology FS-7.0-GLB 7-channel surround bar ($800)

Definitive Technology ProSub 800With either of these two, you’ll need to get a sub like the Definitive Technology ProSub 800 ($399) or the Atlantic Technology SB-800-BK ($300).

You don’t need to get a sub with the same brand as the sound bar, but package deals are available if you do. Then you’ll need some surround speakers. I still recommend the Polk F/X as it’s a pretty clever solution.

These aren’t self-powered models, so you’ll also need to get a receiver. You don’t need to go overboard here, but you should get something with HDMI switching.

The models below offer HDMI 1.4 switching and come from companies that have been making excellent receivers for decades. Don’t obsess about power ratings, all receivers have more than enough power to drive sound bars and/or 5-7 speakers.
Denon AVR-391 ($206.96, 17% off)
Onkyo TX-SR308 ($194.81, 35% off)
Pioneer VSX-520 ($179, 28% off)
Yamaha RX-V367BL ($165.86, 34% off)

I’ve got more recommendations for receivers below.

Onkyo HT-S6300But in reality, for similar or less money you could get a pretty decent Home Theater in a Box that would give you potential upgradeability, more features, and better sound. Onkyo makes some great HTIBs, like the HT-S6300 ($499.99, 33% off) or Denon’s DHT-391XP ($355.96, 21% off).

One thing to keep in mind with HTIBs like this, is that sometimes the receiver is specially EQed to work with the speakers, meaning you can’t really upgrade either without adversely effecting sound quality. Check out my HTIB article for more info.

Polk TL1600Or you can mix and match your own system. Here’s a great Marantz receiver with HDMI switching, Audyssy room equalization, and plenty of power for any room. Mate that with Polk’s TL1600 or Definitive Technology’s ProCinema 600 sub/sat system and you’d have a fantastic sounding home theater for movies, TV, and even music.

If I was to go out today with around $1,000 to spend, I’d buy something along these lines.

Marantz NR1601 – $599
Denon AVR1910 – $389.88 (29% off)
Polk Audio TL1600 – $399.95 (20% off)
Definitive Technology ProCinema 600 – $799.95

Marantz NR1601

—Geoff Morrison

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