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Sound Bars Buying Guide

BY: Editors | Nov 16, 2017

Sound is important. Be it in music, movies, shows, or sports: it can be the thing that turns entertainment into an experience. Just think of how you felt when you heard the rumbling of the T. rex's steps in Jurassic Park, or the rolling of Danny's big wheel amid the unnerving silence of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. That's why it's a bummer when you try to re-create those experiences through your living-room TV's speakers and it's nowhere near the same. Enter sound bars. With one of these sleek little numbers, you get the audio depth of a multi-speaker setup with the convenience of a single device to add to your entertainment unit. Keep reading to learn the basics of these devices, and check out our deals for some of the best sound bars on our site down at the bottom of the page.

What is a sound bar?

Think of it this way: a sound bar is a compromise between a full-fledged setup of multiple home theater speakers and the speakers that come built into your TV. You'll get deeper, richer sound than the latter in a package that won't take up nearly as much room (or be as expensive) as the former.

Sound-Bar Types: Bars vs. Platforms

Today, sound bars typically come in two physical shapes: bars and platforms. Sound bars are what you probably imagine when you think of, well, sound bars. They're long, thin bars that can be set in front of your TV or mounted to a wall. Along with their unobtrusive design, a big benefit of sound bars is that many come with a subwoofer (some are even built right into the bar's housing) to give movies, shows, and music deeper bass.

Platforms are just what they sound like, too: these little slabs sit beneath TVs, serving as sound-spewing pedestals for your home-theater setup. The one main drawback of sound platforms is that they frequently do not come with a subwoofer.


Pro Tip: Not all tech sizes are created equal: TV sizes are measured diagonally, so a 55" TV will look wider than a 55" long sound bar. 


Channels and Surround Sound

One of the first things you'll see when shopping around for a sound bar is a number like 2.1, 5.1, or 7.1 in each item's description. In short, they refer to the number of audio channels (the number to the left of the decimal) and whether or not a subwoofer is included (the number to the right). For example, a 5.1 sound bar would include five little speaker drivers—right, center, left, right rear, and left rear—and one subwoofer. Note that 5.1 and 7.1-channel setups may include separate satellite speakers for the rear/surround channels. Check out this table for a more cut-and-dry breakdown on sound-bar channels.

Channel Setup Channel Breakdown Subwoofer Included? Benefits
2.0 Right, left No Simple setup
2.1 Right, left Yes Basic reproduction of music and movie audio with richer bass
5.1 Right, center, left, right rear, left rear Yes Surround sound with better movie sound effects, such as footsteps
6.1 Right, center, left, right rear, center rear, left rear Yes Ability to pinpoint direction in sound effects, such as a plane flying overhead
7.1 Right, center, left, right rear, left rear, right surround, left surround Yes Precise placement of directional sound effects to create a near-360° soundscape

Subwoofers: Active vs. Passive

If you're buying a sound bar (or looking to add more oomph to your sound platform), you might be presented with the choice between an active or passive subwoofer. So what's the difference between these two? An active subwoofer is one that contains its own amplifier and speaker driver. This helps give it more powerful sound while also saving you the hassle of buying and connecting a separate amp source, like a receiver, to your sound bar. A passive subwoofer is just the opposite: it has no built-in amplifier and requires one to work.


Pro Tip: Active subwoofers aren't automatically better than passive ones—be sure to examine specs like wattage to determine the right model for you.


Wireless Connectivity

One advantage many sound bars have over full surround-sound setups is their ability to stream audio wirelessly from a phone or tablet, which is ideal if you want to pump a party full of tunes or listen to your favorite podcasts. This wireless technology usually comes in one of two forms: Bluetooth and WiFi. Check out the below section to get a quick idea of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Bluetooth

Benefits

  • Quick setup; typically less than a minute

  • Requires no network connection or password entry

  • Hands-free calling functions (as long as your sound bar comes with a built-in mic)

Drawbacks

  • Has roughly a 33-foot range, and things like walls can interrupt the signal

  • Not all versions support stereo audio (look for A2DP—that version does support it)

WiFi

Benefits

  • Has roughly a 150-foot range that is also more dependable throughout a house

  • Lossless audio streaming

Drawbacks

  • Setup is more complicated than Bluetooth's (but only insofar as needing a network ID and password)

  • Comes in one of two types—Apple AirPlay and DLNA—neither of which is compatible with all devices. Check to make sure your sound bar's WiFi feature will work with the devices you want to pair it with.

Our Best Sound-Bar Deals Right Now

Now that you've got the basics down, why not start shopping around? Below is just a handful of some of the best sound bars we currently have on our site. If you don't see anything you like here, check our home-audio inventory for more options.

Vizio 28" 2.0-Channel Wireless Sound Bar (Mfr. Refurbished) | $59.99

This sound bar gives you enhanced sound with no frills: two channels pump out 95dB audio, and Bluetooth lets you connect it to components with no wires needed.

Samsung 36" 2.1-Channel Wireless Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer | $199.99

A 6.5" driver in this bar's subwoofer pumps out low beats in music and gives theater-esque rumbles to your favorite movies. Along with Bluetooth, this sound bar comes outfitted with micro-USB and mini-jack ports to up its connectivity factor.

Philips 37" 3.1-Channel Wireless Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer | $224.99

Three channels of sound emanate from this super-thin bar's frame, giving you better direction-focused audio: people speaking on the left side of the screen will actually sound like they're talking on that side of the room, for example.

Pyle 2.1-Channel Platforms with Built-in Subwoofers | from $99.99

Sure, these are technically sound bars, but they have the look and feel of a platform. So if you're in the market for the latter and want the benefits (like a built-in subwoofer) of the former, each of these is a great option.

Vizio 5.1-Channel Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer (Mfr. Refurbished) | $179.99

This set's two additional satellite speakers provide more robust surround sound, making those approaching footsteps or creaky door in the horror movie you're watching that much creepier.