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Audio Files: Getting Serious About Soundbars

New models with immersive sound are replacing home theaters—and maybe a few stereos too

Vizio’s Elevate comes to life when it plays Dolby Atmos or DTS:X audio.
Vizio’s Elevate comes to life when it plays Dolby Atmos or DTS:X audio.

For the last decade, soundbars—simple, elongated speakers designed to fit elegantly under a TV screen—were considered a poor man’s home theater. But thanks to technological innovations and improving designs, today’s soundbars have become viable replacements for home theater systems. And some are even good enough to replace a modest stereo system.

The appeal of soundbars is undeniable. They take up very little space, and they can be surprisingly affordable—prices start at less than $100, and good ones are readily available from the mid-$200 range. Hookup is often as simple as a single cable connected to a TV set, and adjusting the systems for the best sound takes only a few seconds. If the soundbar is connected to the TV through an HDMI cable, it works like part of the TV: If you turn on the TV, the soundbar comes on too, and the TV’s remote will control the volume.

All this convenience has historically come at a cost, though. From the late 2000s (when they first emerged) through the 2010s (when they became a staple in the A/V departments of Walmart and Target), most soundbars didn’t sound good. They tended to rely on tiny speaker drivers mounted in thin, flimsy plastic cabinets, and they were often mated with subwoofers that could barely handle the lowest notes of a cello, much less a double bass or kick drum. Soundbars of more recent vintage are still slim—after all, that’s the point—but acoustical engineers have gradually discovered how to get satisfying sound out of them.

Giant Steps

In fact, soundbars enjoy two inherent advantages over many of today’s music systems: 1) They’re wide, so the left and right channels are better separated than with all-in-one wireless speakers, which means music recorded in stereo is rendered more convincingly. 2) Most of the better ones come with wireless subwoofers, so you’ll get more deep-bass response than you would with a typical set of small desktop speakers. Some even include wireless rear surround speakers. And because almost all soundbars now have Bluetooth, even the little under-$100 models can make a great substitute for a Bluetooth speaker—with TV sound thrown in to boot.

Soundbars took a huge leap in quality when they started to add Dolby Atmos, the immersive sound technology used in state-of-the-art home theater and commercial cinema systems. Atmos (and DTS’ competing technology, DTS:X) adds height information to audio processing data. Ideally, that information comes from speakers mounted in the ceiling, but Dolby also gave manufacturers the option of using upward-firing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling to give the impression of having ceiling speakers. Many of the latest soundbars have such speakers built into the top of the ’bar.

Despite some fairly advanced sonic trickery, these upward-firing speakers rarely give a convincing simulation of ceiling-mounted speakers, but they can make small audio systems sound much bigger. The latest and best Atmos-equipped soundbars can approach the kind of colossal sound and realistic ambience that the best home theaters provide, even if they can’t play as loud and don’t sound as refined.

The Vizio SB46514
The Vizio SB46514

Atmos and DTS:X aren’t necessarily going to make Miles’ studio sides sound live, though. Many soundbars activate these speakers only when they’re fed Atmos or DTS:X material—movie soundtracks, for the most part, although Atmos music mixes have been created by Blue Note and some other labels.

But some Atmos-equipped soundbars, such as the Vizio SB46514, can pump a portion of the stereo sound of music recordings into their upward-firing height speakers. In the case of the SB46514, which also has height speakers built into its rear surround speakers, the improvement is dramatic. With them on, good jazz recordings start to take on more of the natural ambience of a midsize jazz club. With the height speakers off, it’s much more obvious that you’re hearing a slim, bar-shaped speaker.

The JBL Bar 9.1 (with snap-on surround speakers)
The JBL Bar 9.1 (with snap-on surround speakers)

As I write this in mid-June, Atmos-equipped soundbars remain rare, but new models from JBL, Klipsch, LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sonos, and others are on the way. Two of the most interesting models are the JBL Bar 9.1, which has magnetically attached, battery-powered surround speakers that snap onto the soundbar when you want a broader front soundstage; and the Vizio Elevate, which features motorized height speakers that automatically swivel upward when Atmos or DTS:X material is played.

A couple of notes if you’re shopping for a soundbar: First, many soundbars labeled as having Atmos or DTS:X don’t actually have height speakers; they merely simulate the effect using digital processing in a conventional soundbar. They may sound pretty good, but having dedicated height speakers is better. Second, get a soundbar with an HDMI connection, which will allow it to work seamlessly with your TV. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll have an affordable system that sounds great for movies and music videos, and surprisingly good with stereo. And perhaps best of all, it’ll work like (and almost look like) part of your TV.

Immersive Technologies Help Music Hit the High Notes

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.