How to choose
This is part of a regular series of articles designed to guide you through the process of buying a particular device or type of product. Read them all here.
Soundbars are the simplest, smartest upgrade you can make to TV sound. Originally introduced to combat the weedy audio that was endemic to early flatscreen TVs, they’ve evolved into powerful and sophisticated sound systems that can act as a full blown home cinema, be part of multi-room music system or simply offer better than average stereo sound.
You can pick some of the best soundbars up for a song (under £200/US$200), or dig deep for a cutting edge model with immersive sound (for considerably more). In this guide, we’ll outline the sheer variety of soundbars available, throw a spotlight on the features you should crave and maybe those you really don’t need.
We'll also spotlight five soundbars that are fantastic companions for the best TVs but at different price points, including the more budget-friendly $150 / £150 / AU$150 mark to the premium $8,000 / £8,000 / AU$8,000 range.
What to look for
In truth, built-in TV audio has improved considerably since the early days of LCD. Manufacturers now have a wide variety of solutions they can call on, often designed by audio specialists like Onkyo and Bowers & Wilkins.
But more often than not, they still involve compromise. If you can’t spot a speaker on a TV with a fashionably thin bezel, that’s probably because they’re on the under side of the panel, pointing downwards. The result is invariably a muffled noise. Small wonder so many viewers complain they can’t follow dialogue in movies and TV dramas.
Adding an external soundbar is an easy solution. The soundbar will replace those carpet caressing drivers with something altogether more direct. Even the cheapest of soundbars will have forward-facing drivers, so vocal clarity is immediately improved.
If the sole reason you want to buy a ‘bar is better dialogue and greater volume, you probably don’t need to spend much at all. For example, the Sony HT-SF200 is a compact all-in-one, with two forward facing speakers and an integrated woofer, and 80W power output. It sells for just £149. In the US, its cheaper stablemate, the HT-SF100, without integrated subwoofer, is just $129.
If you want more blast for your buck, there are plenty of features to shop for, including Dolby Atmos cinema-style sound and advanced connectivity, including multiple HDMI inputs.
The simplest soundbars comprise a speaker bar, which sits under the TV, and come with a wireless subwoofer. These 2.1 systems are a doddle to install, requiring just a single HDMI connection to your TV.
If you have an older set, without HDMI, you can also use an optical digital audio cable, to connect your TV the bar (although if you don’t have a TV with HDMI we would seriously suggest you look at upgrading your flatscreen before you invest in a soundbar).
A wireless subwoofer handles mid and lower bass sounds, and will usually pair automatically when you first power up your system. Be sure to keep the sub relatively close to the main bar. Deep bass is very localisable, so you’ll want to mesh with your soundbar.
Pretty much every soundbar offers Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you can also use them as a wireless speaker to listen to the best music streaming services from your smartphone.
What specs do you need?
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
These are a given. Most soundbars will also offer the option of an Ethernet connection, for those that prefer a wired network connection, useful if you have a Wi-Fi not-spot in the house. If your soundbar doesn’t have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth onboard, you’re probably staring at a broom handle.
It’s standard to have just one HDMI connection on a soundbar. This will support the ARC/eARC audio return channel from the TV, so any audio emanating from the set, be it from its tuner, streaming app or connected device, like a TV set top box or games console, will be delivered by the soundbar.
Mid-range and higher soundbars may well come with an additional HDMI input, or even multiple HDMI inputs. This allows you to connect devices direct (handy if you've used all the HDMI inputs on your TV up), allowing it to function as a more sophisticated system hub.
It’s common for soundbars to be partnered by a wireless subwoofer, to handle deep bass. However not every soundbar does, either because they’re either a budget option or the soundbar is a high-end design with built-in woofers.
Dolby Atmos compatibility hints at a more cinematic audio presentation than regular stereo bars, but Atmos can manifest in a variety of ways. Ideally, a soundbar should have dedicated upward firing speakers for the height channel, as they tend to deliver a wider, higher soundstage.
There are models which understand a Dolby Atmos bitstream, but present it virtually, via signal processing. These models lack up-firing drivers, so the soundstage is a little different (basically, more confined), and results can vary dramatically between models.
DTS:X and 360 Reality Audio
Dolby Atmos isn’t the only 3D audio game in town, although finding support for rival immersive technologies on soundbars requires a little effort. Few TVs are able to pass a DTS:X bitstream out over eARC, consequently there’s not much demand for soundbars to offer codec support.
That’s because DTS:X is not currently used by the best streaming services. The caveat here is that Disney+ has been talking up IMAX Enhanced audio, which is built upon DTS:X, and as a consequence some TV brands have now started to build in support.
'360 Reality Audio' is a Sony technology and is increasingly available on Sony soundbars and audio systems. It’s used principally as a post processing technology, perhaps for upscaling material that’s natively in stereo.
Should you wait for deals?
If your telly has good enough audio, or you're simply biding your time before an upgrade, then it makes sense to wait for promotions and deals. That’s because the soundbar market is hugely competitive, which means models are often subject to significant price cuts when Black Friday or Prime Day rolls around.
There’s also considerable churn on big brand models, often with newcomers offering only minor specification revisions. This means the previous generation soundbars are cleared out to make way for the newer bars on the block, with appropriately attractive price tags.
Our top picks
An all-in-one Dolby Atmos soundbar
Dimensions: : 1051(w) x 77(h) x 121(d)mm | Connections: : 3xHDMI - 1 HDMI V2.1, 2 x HDMI 2.0; digital optical audio and phono AV | Dolby Atmos/DTS: X:: Yes/yes | Sub included: : No (optional extra) | Rear speakers included:: No | Features: : Ambeo processing, Auto calibration setup; eARC support; Google Chromecast; USB; Bluetooth 5.0; Wi-Fi
Wide codec support
Excellent Ambeo audio upscaling
No 4K 120Hz pass-through
The Sennheiser Ambeo Plus Soundbar is a slim stablemate to the hefty Sennheiser Ambeo Max, and the titchy Ambeo Mini. Unlike its predecessor, it doesn't come bundled with a subwoofer, but an optional Ambeo Sub is available for those seeking to deepen their audio experience.
Design-wise, the soundbar is encased in black fabric with an angled, perforated top plate housing touch-sensitive controls for volume, Bluetooth pairing, and input selection.
Under the hood, the soundbar boasts two up-firing 4-inch cone woofers and seven 50mm aluminium cone full-range drivers arranged on the front, side, and top. This nine-driver package is driven by 400W of amplification.
Connectivity is generous, with three HDMI inputs, one of which supports eARC, an optical digital audio input, USB port, Ethernet, and analogue inputs. Unfortunately, it lacks HDMI v2.1 support, which may disappoint gamers seeking 4k 120Hz pass-through.
Sound quality is impressive, with a wide and high soundstage. While it excels in spatial audio, it struggles with precise rear sound placement. Codec support encompasses Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, 360 Reality Audio, and MPEG-H. The system also handles 5.1 and stereo sources. Various Ambeo processing modes are available, including Adaptive, Music, Movie, News, Neutral, and Sports.
When it comes to music, the Ambeo Plus Soundbar shines. The app supports Spotify Connect, TIDAL Connect, and Apple AirPlay 2, but streaming over Bluetooth from your preferred apps is often more convenient.
A next-gen mid-range soundbar
Dimensions: : 210(w) x 67(h) x 140(d)mm | Connections: : 2 x HDMI v2.1, Digital Optical audio output | Dolby Atmos/DTS: X:: Yes/yes | Sub included: : No (optional extra) | Rear speakers included:: No (optional extra) | Features: : Vertical Surround Engine; S-Force PRO Front Surround, DSEE Extreme; 360 Reality Audio compatible; Bravia Acoustic Center Sync
360 Spatial Sound mapping
Not suitable for smaller screens
The Sony HT-A5000 is a great home cinema option for anyone hankering after a next gen audio experience on a moderate budget. Offering three forward-facing X-balanced speakers, including a centre dialogue driver, two side-firing beam tweeters, and a pair of height speakers, powered by 450W of amplification, it delivers a convincing cinematic experience.
Codec support covers Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and 360 Reality Audio. The soundbar is also uniquely upgradable, with optional subwoofer and rear speakers, which you can add when funds allow.
At 1210mm wide, it’s suitable for 65-inch screens or larger. Build quality is excellent, its drivers projected by a stylish metallic grille. There are touch-sensitive controls for source selection, volume adjustment, and Bluetooth pairing. There’s also support for Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Airplay 2, Spotify Connect, and Chromecast built-in.
Connectivity options include two HDMI ports, one eARC, the other 4k 120Hz compatible, an S-Centre Out minijack for use as a centre speaker with compatible Bravia TVs, an optical digital audio input, USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
Perhaps the most striking audio aspect of the HT-A5000 is its expansive soundstage, thanks to those side-mounted tweeters. Even without a wireless subwoofer, it doesn't lack low-end wallop.
Sony’s Vertical Surround Engine technology is exceptional at up-mixing audio from various sources. It excels with movies and music, offering clear vocal reproduction. When you add rears, you unlock the full potential of Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound Mapping technologies; Sound Field Optimization and Monopole Synthesis transform the HT-A5000 into a system that sounds significantly larger and more immersive.
Consider the Sony HT-A5000 Soundbar a well-specified, high value soundbar, with excellent upgrade potential. It’s highly recommended.
A budget no-frills soundbar
Dimensions: : 450 (w) x 51 (h) x 135(d)mm | Connections: : 1 x HDMI with ARC | Dolby Atmos/DTS: X:: No/No | Sub included: : Yes | Rear speakers included:: No | Features: : Dolby True HD decoding; remote control
Solid stereo performance
No smart features
No Dolby Atmos support
This low cost 2.1 soundbar and sub combo is designed purely to improve basic TV audio. There’s no pretensions to be home cinema, it does what it needs and requires precious little space to do it.
Suitable for TVs that are 50-inches or smaller, this compact model measures just 45cm wide. You’ll barely notice it. It comes with an equally slim wireless subwoofer, which can be parked horizontally or vertically.
Connectivity is limited to a single HDMI and optical digital audio input. You do get Bluetooth for mobile streaming though.
The lack of Dolby Atmos doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans here, given the stereo driver configuration, but there’s enough clarity and volume here to make a significant difference to your TV audio listening.
If you want a cheap, no-frills soundbar, then the SC-HTB258 is a bargain well worth hunting down.
A money-no-object soundbar for audiophiles
Dimensions: : 919(w) x 1222(h) x 359(d)mm | Connections: : 4 x HDMI including, 1 HDMI eARC with pass-through 4K 120FPS | Dolby Atmos/DTS: X:: Yes/No | Sub included: : No | Rear speakers included:: No (optional) | Features: : RoomSense setup microphone; upgradable design; Proximity based UI; True Image up- / down-mixing algorithm.
No DTS:X compatibility
No remote control (app only)
The Bang & Olufsen Beosound Theatre Soundbar is a work of audio artistry that takes the concept of a soundbar to unprecedented heights. Weighing in at a substantial 18kg, it’s an uncompromising all-in-one with audiophile grade performance and an eye-catching Scandinavian design aesthetic. Available in various finishes (at escalating prices), even the entry-level version with a fabric grille exudes sophistication.
Beneath the grille, there’s a multitude of speaker drivers strategically placed to project sound forwards, sideways, and upwards. The centre channel driver, featuring a 1-inch tweeter and a 5.25-inch midrange driver, is flanked by two 6.5-inch woofers, two 3-inch mid-range drivers, four 2.5-inch drivers, and two 1-inch tweeters. The resulting soundstage is immense. There's certainly no need for a separate subwoofer.
The attention to detail in design goes further. The Theatre’s decorative aluminium endstops can be swapped out for different sizes, allowing you to maintain symmetry when upgrading your TV to larger sizes, all the way up to 77 inches.
Despite that, the soundbar doesn't come with a dedicated remote control; instead, it relies on an accompanying app. The app offers convenient presets for TV, Music, Movie, Game, and Night sound modes. Additionally, it grants access to Spotify Connect, Chromecast, and Apple Airplay support.
Total power output is rated at a stonking 800W. It offers compatibility with Dolby Atmos, TrueHD, and multichannel PCM, but snubs DTS:X. One of the four HDMI inputs supports 4k120Hz pass-through and eARC. Performance is positively symphonic, with exceptional dynamic transients, crystal clear highs, a smooth mid-range, and precise bass. Unquestionably, this is the definitive soundbar for the affluent listener who values both design and sound quality.
A premium soundbar with big sound
Dimensions: : 1210(w) x 65(h) x 140(d)mm | Connections: : 1 x HDMI eARC, Optical digital audio | Dolby Atmos/DTS: X:: Yes/No | Sub included: : No | Rear speakers included:: No | Features: : Dolby Atmos; AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect; Bluetooth v5; Amazon Alexa enabled
Authoritative AV performance
No dedicated remote control
The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 is a soundbar powerhouse, albeit one with minor caveats. The third iteration of B&W's flagship soundbar, the Panorama 3 is a big beast at 1210mm wide, making it a good match for 65-inch and larger screen sizes. It weighs 6.5kg.
Build quality is fabulous, with a forward-facing driver array concealed behind an acoustic fabric wrap. Bass is handled by two 100mm subwoofers, twin 50mm Dolby Atmos up-firing glass fibre cones, and a nine-string array consisting of three 19mm Titanium dome tweeters and six 50mm glass fibre mid-range cones. Total power output is a formidable 400W.
There’s no dedicated remote control supplied, but a capacitive touch panel in the centre of the soundbar features proximity sensors, illuminating when you approach. Connectivity is also limited to a single HDMI input for eARC. It’s supported by a digital optical audio input. Wireless support covers Bluetooth aptX Adaptive, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet options. There’s also Amazon Alexa support.
Sonic traits include deep, gutty bass, and crisp treble detail. Dialogue handling is also a notable strength. Cinematic audio is impressive, with plenty of drama and dynamics. There’s also excellent up-mixing of stereo and 5.1 when Atmos is not available. There’s no acknowledgment of DTS:X though.
In many ways, the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 is the ideal mid-ranger. There may be limitations when it comes to connectivity and control, but overall sonic performance rocks, and the price is definitely right.