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TV technology has come a long way in the last few years, with 4K screens becoming more the norm and 8K looming on the horizon.
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Despite these advancements in the displays, many of the TVs you can buy today lack any real oomph when it comes to sound. Many don’t have the depth in the bass department or feel flat during explosive action sequences.
While it used to be that you’d deck out your home theatre with an array of surround sound speakers, soundbars have become the de facto solution – and for good reason. They’re smaller, less complex and usually better looking.
Surround sound speakers vs soundbars: which is better?
This is an easy question to answer. For sheer sound quality, customisability and connectivity, a well-tuned surround sound system will trump a soundbar any day of the week.
But what you’ll need with, say, a 5.1 surround sound system is a whole lotta patience – and coin. These systems are terribly expensive to set up, are a chore to integrate with existing devices, and you’ll have to get to grips with the different types of cables needed. One speaker of the five not working? Get ready for lots of trial-and-error to isolate the issue.
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In comparison, a soundbar is idiot-proof. If you’re not an audiophile who enjoys tinkering with interconnects, EQ settings and speaker placements, save yourself the hassle and get a soundbar.
What to look for in the best TV soundbars?
Audio quality: The main reason you’d buy a soundbar is to improve the audio output from your TV. Whether you’re watching classic action movies, modern-day supernatural thrillers, or a rom-com with a solid soundtrack, these soundbars offer great sound.
Design and build quality: The ideal soundbar, in many ways, should be heard but not seen. You don’t want it distracting from a movie, so we’ve opted for a series of low-profile options of varying shapes and sizes.
Connectivity: Soundbars need to be plugged into your TV, yet, depending on your exact model, you may not be able to make some of these soundbars work. That said, we’ve picked options with a variety of connections. Bluetooth has become increasingly common in soundbars, but it’s not a guarantee, as is playing audio over WiFi.
Voice assistant: If you’ve run out of appliances to talk to in your home, consider a soundbar with a voice assistant built-in. Some offer Google, Alexa and even Apple’s Siri, so be sure to pick the one that fits the ecosystem you feel most comfortable in.
The best soundbars to buy in 2021
It’s tough to look past the Sonos Beam – it really does have something for everyone. It’s got HDMI and optical inputs, the ability to connect to WiFi and AirPlay 2 for streaming (and multi-room playback, if you can afford more Beams), and, perhaps most importantly, the sound is excellent.
That last point comes from the Beam’s considerable power under the hood. It has four full-range woofers and one tweeter, all driven by individual Class D amplifiers. Sonos also managed to cram in three radiators that, the company claims, moves air within the unit to reproduce warmer bass frequencies. At 65 centimetres long, this unit is better for small- to medium-sized rooms.
Besides that, the Beam supports Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, making it ideal regardless of which devices you have at home.
JBL Bar Studio 2.0
If you’re looking to pick up a soundbar on a budget, the JBL Bar Studio 2.0 is the ideal option. It’s not quite as chic as more premium options, but it does offer a hefty bass performance, a decent size (about 60 centimetres wide) and plug-and-play simplicity.
That bass boost comes from a pair of rear-firing bass ports, which sit alongside two small tweeters. While the emphasis on bass is a nice touch for the layperson, the lack of granular EQ controls – the JBL instead only offers five presets – hampers performance if you’re the type to fuss over different EQ settings for different media types.
Elsewhere, the JBL Bar Studio 2.0 has an optical input and Bluetooth connectivity for wireless playback – but there’s no WiFi option.
OK, so it’s a much smaller option than the rest of the soundbars on this list, but Roku’s Streambar is a great hybrid between a streaming box and an audio upgrade for your TV. It is, in other words, a bargain hunter’s dream.
Plug it in, and you can stream the likes of Netflix, Spotify and plenty more – in 4K, no less – with Bluetooth and AirPlay capability. And thanks to four speaker drivers and Roku’s OS that boosts volume, the Streambar delivers a much louder sound than you’d expect from a box that measures just 35.5 centimetres wide.
It unfortunately does not possess the sound quality to rival soundbars that have just one purpose, but it’s a great option for beefing up your TV’s output and adding new streaming options – especially if you want to save space and money.
If you want to be truly immersed in sound, then the Yamaha YAS-109 will drag you into a horror movie and have you ducking explosions in an action flick.
With DTS Virtual:X and a large array of speakers (two sub-woofers, two tweeters and a pair of 2.125-inch cones), the YAS-109 offers “virtual surround sound” that’s almost as good as the real thing – but with much less setting up or chunky speakers. It’s also very wide at about 90 centimetres, so you’ll want to deploy this in a large-ish living room.
Connectivity-wise, this Yamaha device supports HDMI, optical and Bluetooth – plus, it’s compatible with Alexa.
Sony’s soundbars have earned a reputation as dependable entry-level offerings, and the HT-X8500 is more of the same in that regard.
This is comparable to the Yamaha YAS-109. The Sony is about the same width, has almost identical connectivity options (still no WiFi, though), and has Dolby Virtual:X and Dolby Atmos support – the latter of which gives it a big leg up over the Yamaha. Significantly, the Sony does not support voice assistants.
Under the hood, the HT-X8500 has a dual sub-woofer and two other speaker drivers. Sony has augmented the admittedly sparse array of speakers with its Vertical Surround Engine, which simulates a 7.1.2 surround setup. Add to that five preset modes – for formats such as gaming, news and music – and you’re left with a relatively affordable and easy-to-use soundbar from a renowned brand in home entertainment.