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WTF is a Soundbar?

Soundbars have become the second most popular loudspeaker category behind wireless loudspeakers. Are they all the same?

Klipsch Cinema 600 Soundbar

Soundbars are loudspeaker systems that are designed that to replace a TV’s built-in speakers. Most soundbars can be placed underneath a TV or wall-mounted below or above a TV. 

Tip: Soundbars can also be used as sound systems for video projectors and desktop gaming setups.

A soundbar incorporates two or more speakers housed in a single cabinet. Depending on the specific brand/model TVs, connect to a soundbar via HDMI-ARC/eARC, Digital Optical, or analog stereo audio connection options.   

Soundbar Audio Connections Example

Tip: Soundbars come in various widths (aka length) from ones that visually complement larger screen TVs and also very compact units for those that have a smaller screen size TV or just want to same space. 

Types of Soundbar Systems

A soundbar is a horizontal speaker bar, but often comes with a wired/wireless subwoofer and/or optional surround speakers. Typically there is an on-screen TV menu or mobile app to guide you through the setup.

Almost every soundbar nowadays calls itself a Dolby Atmos soundbar. That doesn’t mean all Dolby Atmos soundbars sound the same. It’s a bit of a misnomer, because what it really means is that a soundbar can decode (playback) a Dolby Atmos signal. So you’ll hear something as opposed to nothing. What you hear and how immersive it sounds varies by soundbar.

Dolby Atmos Home Theater Speaker Systems require a minimum of 7 speakers placed around you and overhead, and truly can can provide an immersive 360-degree sound field. The more expensive Dolby Atmos sound bar systems attempt to approximate that experience by using acoustic tricks that bounce sound off the walls and ceiling to achieve immersive-like effects.

Soundbar Only

Speakers are housed within a single cabinet as per soundbar definition. It’s typically the lowest performing type of soundbar but should do a good job improving dialogue. It works best in smaller rooms and is generally the easiest to setup and use.

Sonos Beam Gen 2 Soundbar
Sonos Beam (Gen 2) is $449 at Amazon

Soundbar with Subwoofer

Many soundbars come with a separate subwoofer (usually wireless). Some soundbars have subwoofers built-in, but if you find them lacking, you may be able to add an optional wired or wireless subwoofer. Check your soundbar user guide for details. 

Soundbar with Subwoofer and Surround Speakers

In this option, the soundbar incorporates the front left, center, and right channels, and an external subwoofer (usually wireless) and compact surround sound speakers may also be provided. The amplifiers for the surround speakers are sometimes housed in the subwoofer. If this is the case, the surround speakers connect to the subwoofer via wire. Read the user guide for your soundbar or surround speakers for details.

Sony HT-A7000 with SA-SW5 Subwoofer and SA-RS3S Rear Speakers
Sony HT-A7000 with SA-SW5 Subwoofer and SA-RS3S Rear Speakers ($1,994 at Amazon)

Tip: Surround speakers may be included or require an optional purchase. 

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Soundbar with Digital Sound Projection

A Digital Sound Projector is a type of soundbar made primarily by Yamaha. Their current model (YSP-5600, $1,599 at Amazon) incorporates an array of small speakers (referred to as beam drivers) across the front of the bar. The beam drivers are grouped in clusters that can be assigned to specific channels so they can project sound to different points in a room.

Each beam driver is paired with a dedicated amplifier, and the entire beam driver assembly is supported by audio decoders and processors. For best results, a digital sound projector requires a closed room so that sound can be reflected off the walls. A digital sound projector may or may not come with a subwoofer, but one can be added.

Soundbase

ZVOX SoundBase 440
ZVOX SoundBase 440 ($249 at Amazon)

Instead of a “bar”, speakers are placed in a cabinet that is designed to double as a platform for setting a TV on top of it. A sound base works best with a TV with a center stand. If a TV has end feet, they may be too far apart as the sound base may be narrower than the distance between the TV’s end feet.

Passive Sound Bars

Klipsch RP-440D-SB Passive Soundbar
Klipsch RP-440D-SB Passive Soundbar ($969 at Amazon)

In addition to the soundbar/soundbase types discussed above, there are also passive sound bars.

Unlike most soundbars a passive soundbar does not incorporate amplifiers; it needs to be connected to an amplifier or home theater receiver via standard speaker connections in order to produce sound. Some passive sound bars are referred “2-in-1”, “3-in-1”, or LCR speaker systems. The left/right or left, center, and right-channel speakers are in a single cabinet.

Tip: Some passive soundbars are freestanding and some are designed for on-wall or in-wall installation. 

Additional Soundbar Features 

Tip: The following does not apply to passive soundbars. 

  • Dolby Atmos: A recent addition to select soundbars is the inclusion of Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X for a more immersive sound listening experience. This capability may be implemented by the inclusion of upfiring speakers in the soundbar and/or surround speakers, or via audio processing that employs algorithms to enable the needed height channel effects. Upfiring speakers are more effective. 
Sony HT-A7000 Dolby Atmos Soundbar Reflected Sound
Sony HT-A7000 Dolby Atmos Soundbar (Reflected Sound Visualization)

Although the main purpose of the soundbar is to improve the TV listening experience, depending on the brand/model, a soundbar may provide more extensive features such as:

  • Bluetooth: Most soundbars play music via wireless Bluetooth connection from smartphones and tablets. 
  • Wi-Fi: Select soundbars provide built-in Wi-Fi for network connectivity that supports one or more of the features listed below. 
  • Wireless Whole House Audio: In addition to soundbar functionality, select brands offer whole-home music integration like Sonos, which controls audio throughout the home from a smartphone app. Competing solutions include Yamaha MusicCast and Denon HEOS. Another technology called DTS PlayFi allows such integration to work between products from different brands.
  • Voice Control: Select soundbars can work with Alexa and/or Google Assistant to provide easier operation, and, in some cases, allows the soundbar to control other smart home devices similar to what Amazon Echo and Google Home/Nest devices do. 
  • HDMI Video Pass-Through: Select soundbars may have one or two extra HDMI inputs. This allows the connection of additional devices, such as DVD/Blu-ray Disc player, external media streamer, or game console. The soundbar extracts and processes the audio, and sends the video via the soundbar’s HDMI output to the TV for viewing. 

Tip: Soundbars and Soundbar Systems come in a wide range of prices from less than $200 to over $2,500.

Sonos Arc Soundbar with Sub and rear speakers
The Sonos ARC 5.1.2 system (pictured here in white) provides immersive sound without drawing too much attention to itself.
2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Doug

    December 17, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    Okay why do you have to start each article with “WTF”?
    For me it’s a turn off every time I see this.
    Just an opinion.

    • Ian White

      December 17, 2022 at 9:06 pm

      Doug,

      It was actually an experiment, aside from providing readers with some valuable information about specific topics. We wanted to see if “WTF” versus “What is…” would attract more attention and rank higher on Google? We are clearly not the only tech publication to write these types of primers but we wanted to see if we could be smarter from an SEO perspective and make these articles more visible.

      It worked. In a big way.

      We totally understand why using “WTF” would annoy some people but sometimes you need to annoy a few to educate many.

      Merry Christmas & Happy Chanukah

      Ian White

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