The Best Soundbars

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For many people, the experience of watching movies and TV shows at home is changing—fast. New smartphones and tablets are letting us access our favorite programs in ways we’ve never imagined before, and project them onto big-screen HDTVs from the devices themselves. The urge to go wireless—or, at least, minimize the number of wires—has never been greater.

Enter the home theater soundbar, a long, thin speaker enclosure that either sits underneath or is mounted above your HDTV. Initially a poor-sounding, cheaply constructed substitute for a full-blown multi-channel, surround-sound system, the soundbar has evolved tremendously over the past several years. Maybe it’s thanks to the success of iPod speaker docks, many of which have also managed high-quality audio despite being single-piece speakers with little or no room for stereo separation. Either way, consumer electronics manufacturers have learned how to get high-quality audio output from the soundbar form factor. Think about it: You know it’s a viable idea when traditionally high-end, boutique audio manufacturers like Bowers & Wilkins, Paradigm, and Martin Logan are getting into the game.

Today’s soundbars come with plenty of additional features. Some are capable of streaming music wirelessly over Bluetooth. Others come with a companion wireless subwoofer for more powerful and extended bass response. And subwoofers come with a complement of inputs and outputs; some work over an HDMI connection, while others connect directly to your TV’s coaxial digital output with a special cable that’s usually included in the box. Many soundbar systems also offer various surround-sound modes that attempt to emulate, or at least convey an illusion, that there are actual surround sound speakers behind your seating position, even though there aren’t any.

Purist audiophiles will still prefer separate components, with traditional 5.1 (or 7.1) speaker arrays—assuming they have the room, and the tolerance for wiring, that is. Even the best soundbars don’t measure up to the incredible stereo separation, high volume levels, and the thundering bass you can get from a good 5.1 speaker system and a powerful multi-channel receiver or integrated amplifier. Those systems include actual left, center, right, and stereo surround speakers that sit behind you (hence the 5.1 designation). But as a compact and effective way to turn your HDTV into a real home theater, using as little space as possible, soundbars can’t be beat.

Here’s a look at the top-rated soundbars we’ve tested. One of them is bound to fit your needs and budget, and all of them will sound worlds better than the anemic speakers built into your HDTV.

FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP

Sony HT-CT260 Sound Bar

Sony HT-CT260 Home Theater Soundbar

$299.99

The Sony HT-CT260 is the best all-around budget soundbar we’ve tested. It puts out plenty of clean level, and its subwoofer is powerful and full-sounding. The HT-CT260 also features built-in Bluetooth, so you can stream music to it wirelessly from any Android or iOS device.
Read the full review ››


Harman Kardon SB 30

Harman Kardon SB 30

$799.95

If your budget stretches further, you’ll be more than pleased with the diminutive Harman Kardon SB 30. It sounds transparent, full, and rich—more so than it has a right to, considering how slim and unobtrusive its main speaker bar is. The glossy subwoofer looks nice in a corner or under an end table, and generates tight, smooth, low-end bass extension.
Read the full review ››


Panasonic SC-HTB70

Panasonic SC-HTB70

$199.99

If you’re on a tight budget, but can’t bear to listen to your HDTV’s built-in speakers any longer, the Bluetooth-enabled Panasonic SC-HTB70 will surprise you. At just $200, it delivers smooth sound. Plus, it features plenty of placement options, including sitting on a media console facing up, as well as the usual front-facing and wall-mount options.
Read the full review ››


Sonos Playbar

Sonos Playbar

$699

Sonos, long a purveyor of high-end wireless audio systems, has entered the soundbar arena with the Playbar. This well-designed system delivers sound quality, with more powerful low-end bass punch than we expected given the lack of a subwoofer. It also lets you stream wireless music in a number of different ways.
Read the full review ››


Yamaha YAS-101

Yamaha YAS-101

$299.95

The Yamaha YAS-101 is the best low-cost soundbar without a subwoofer we’ve tested. While it won’t shake the foundation of a large room, it sounds natural and well-balanced, with surprising bass punch and glossy good looks. It’s especially ideal for smaller rooms.
Read the full review ››

By Jamie Lendino, PCMag


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