You bought a new flat TV and then you noticed that the sound quality wasn’t what you expected? The easiest solution is a soundbar.
Modern soundbars can actually replace a bulky multi-channel audio system, but be careful! This doesn’t mean that they have a sound quality comparable to that of a full 5.1 or even 7.1 system. With a soundbar you can only simulate the directional effect. Even the sound quality cannot be comparable to that of a loudspeaker. On the other hand, soundbars usually cost much less than a dedicated 5.1 system.
What is a soundbar?
The first soundbar dates back to 1998. However, they became mainstream devices just the last few years: TVs are becoming paper-thin and as a result, the size of the integrated speakers decreases as well. A smaller speaker can’t produce a powerful sound for obvious physical limitations, which is why soundbar sales have increased dramatically in recent years, representing one of the less cumbersome solutions to produce very good sound and convincing surround effect.
How does a soundbar work?
Inside the device that looks like a big single speaker, there are multiple speakers (up to seven) positioned in such a way (side and top firing) as to generate a sound that simulates the surround effect. In order to achieve this, the soundbar aims to deceive our ears by exploiting the ability of sound to bounce off obstacles. The soundbar can bounce sounds off the walls and ceiling so that they arrive at your ears from all around you.
How to choose the best soundbar
This is almost entirely subjective. Before you buy a soundbar you will have to determine your budget, the type of soundbar (yes there is more than one) you want to buy, and how many channels it should have.
Active soundbars are soundbars that have all the electronic components integrated into the speaker. Speakers, amplifiers and signal processors all reside inside the device, and all you have to do is connect the device to your TV and to the power outlet. You don’t have to buy anything else, although in some cases they come with a dedicated wireless subwoofer. Most soundbars on the market are active ones.
A passive soundbar can be “configured” according to your specific needs. Just like traditional speakers, passive soundbars house just the speaker(s). If you are an audiophile, or you like to pay attention to the smallest and seemingly insignificant details of the sound scene, passive soundbars are the ones for you since they offer more flexibility: just choose the one you like according to your taste, and combine it with the right amplifier.
Subwoofer and surround speakers
Usually, soundbars have a very small size, and therefore do not have the volume for producing a powerful bass sound. For this reason, it is possible to combine it with a separate subwoofer (most medium to high-end soundbars come with one). The subwoofer, although wireless, has to be powered separately. If your soundbar doesn’t come with a subwoofer, pay extra attention when adding one: not all wireless subwoofers are compatible with every soundbar.
Similar to a separate subwoofer, the are some soundbars that come or where you can add two more satellite speakers (back channels) for a true sound Surround. These are also wireless but need to be plugged into the wall.
When choosing a soundbar you will need to pay attention to the available connections both on your TV and soundbar. The most popular ones are HDMI (with ARC or eARC on premium models) and TosLink (optical digital), but there are also others. If you want to connect your soundbar to a Blu-Ray player, set-top box and/or gaming console at the same time, it would be ideal for your soundbar to have at least 2 HDMI inputs available. If you want to reproduce Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio then you need an HDMI connection since the older TosLink fails to support these new formats. If you also want to listen to music via your mobile device you need to buy a model that supports Bluetooth (although some use a WiFi connection and an App).