Best Sound Bar
Sound bars are by far the easiest way to add volume and clarity to any TV or home theater system. Most TVs come with small downward or rear firing speakers that have especially poor bass response, and often unsatisfactory volume. This generally makes for terrible sound quality, and most don’t reach below 300 Hz or above 10,000; human hearing extends between 20-20,000 Hz, meaning that over half the spectrum is missing!
The output from built-in speakers is certainly usable, especially in smaller rooms, but let’s face it: everyone wants their TV to sound more like a movie theater. The good news is that it's possible to move closer to this ideal with a minimal investment. Around $100-200 will net you a unit that can drastically improve sound quality over built-in speakers, lowering bass response down past 100hz to put some good thump in your music and movies, and offering a much more spacious, realistic presentation that will leave you wondering how you ever got by with the bare minimum.
Yamaha YAS-108 Sound Bar
Vizio SB3821-C6 2.1 Channel Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer
Sonos Playbar Sound Bar
The basic concept behind a sound bar is to provide a noticeable upgrade to your HDTV's sound without the hassle or inconvenience of setting up a receiver box and a cluster of satellite speakers. Yamaha's YAS-108 fits this description perfectly, packaging ample sound quality into a compact, user-friendly case designed to be easy on the eyes. The cloth-covered front face houses the woofers, tweeters, and built-in subwoofers, eliminating the need to install a separate box for full functionality. There's a small glossy panel for status and volume lights; these can be set to dim or turn off completely if you find them too distracting in a dark room. Yamaha states the YAS-108 includes a built-in gyroscope to support both flat-laying and wall-mounted installation options, and the YAS-108 sounds great either way.
Easily the best aspect of the YAS-108 is its sound quality - overall performance belies its small size and integrated subwoofers. Midrange and treble performance is strong without getting shrill, and the relatively small 3-inch ported subwoofers are capable of adding a decent amount of punch in a way built-in TV speakers simply can't. The YAS-108 offers multiple listening modes designed to accommodate various content: Stereo is designed to work best with audio tracks while Surround pairs better with multimedia content. 3D Surround is best suited for watching movies, and allows the YAS-108 to project frequencies throughout the room to create a more distinct movie theater-style sound stage. Further customization is available via the "Clear Voice" and "Bass Extension" functions; the former boosts higher frequencies to make spoken dialogue easier to understand, while the latter fills out lower frequencies to add more of an impact to action scenes. While it won't challenge a dedicated audio system, the YAS-108 performs admirably and will have most listeners second-guessing the expense and complexity of a multi-speaker system. If you're still not convinced, the YAS-108 offers a coaxial subwoofer output to use with any number of powered external subwoofers.
Aside from the mandatory digital optical audio input and 3.5mm audio jack, the Yamaha YAS-108 is one of the few budget-friendly sound bars to offer an HDMI input and output. Both HDMI CEC and ARC are supported and can simplify installation with HDTVs that support these features, and allow your TV's remote to control the sound bar directly. The cable cutout for the ports can get somewhat crowded if every single connector is utilized, but most users will find that the YAS-108 works best when the HDMI ports are prioritized in order to keep things simple. Bluetooth connectivity on the YAS-108 is capable of supporting two devices at the same time, and pairing is as simple as putting the unit in discoverable mode and linking to it from the desired device.
All things considered, it's astounding that the YAS-108 can typically be found for well under $200. At that price, it's practically a no-brainer and is an easy way to expand your home theater setup with very little commitment. Even if your future plans involve further expansion, the subwoofer output port found on the YAS-108 makes it extremely easy to boost bass levels without spending thousands on a dedicated setup. We recommend it without reservation; the Yamaha YAS-108 is just that good as an all-around package.
Note: The Yamaha YAS-108 is also sold as the Yamaha ATS-1080 at several warehouse/outlet stores.
HDTVs are Vizio's mainstay product, so it's easy to forget that they also offer quality soundbars to fit any budget. We've narrowed our selection down to the SB3821-C6 - a 2.1-channel soundbar that comes with a separate (wireless) subwoofer. Yes, we cheated a little and broke our self-imposed limit on selecting only true 1-piece soundbars, but this affordable soundbar justifies this rule-bending simply because it performs so well.
The SB3821-C6 sticks with Vizio's tried-and-true design, with logo-embossed end caps surrounding the flat cloth panels and flush controls. While it doesn't break new ground on the design front, Vizio clearly saw no need to deviate from an effective formula. It's a little on the tall side and may therefore block your TV remote's line-of-sight to the IR receiver; the alternative is to wall-mount it instead. The wireless subwoofer shares the same aesthetic as the soundbar itself, and the only physical connection present is the embedded power cable. This allows added flexibility with placement, since the only limiting factor is having a wall outlet nearby. If you have experience with any of Vizio's soundbars from the past few years, the SB3821-C6 will feel entirely familiar - in a good way, of course.
The reason we felt compelled to select this 2.1-channel "soundbar" is the inclusion of the standalone subwoofer. 1-piece soundbars perform admirably with bass at moderate volume levels, but predictably run out of steam when asked to cover intense action sequences or bass-heavy music. In this case, the larger powered subwoofer handles the bass frequencies that overwhelm smaller drivers, leaving the soundbar portion free to accommodate the midrange and high sections that the tweeters and 2.75" drivers excel at. When properly dialed in, the SB3821-C6 maintains its composure and will provide loud and clear sound even when pushed to higher volumes. What's more impressive is this soundbar's ability to noticeably separate left and right audio streams using only sound processing, making it especially well-suited for watching movies.
The SB3821-C6 offers flexible connectivity, from the expected digital optical audio and 3.5mm aux input to digital coaxial and even stereo RCA jacks. Vizio includes cables in the box to support each of these inputs. There's a USB port present as well - Vizio states that it's compatible with .WAV files, but the awkward location of the port means you're better off plugging in that USB device elsewhere in your system. The only disappointment is the lack of HDMI ports, though this can be forgiven considering the affordable price. The remote is simple and straightforward, and it requires line-of-sight to the soundbar unit in order to function. The volume level and various playback information is conveyed through a stack of lights visible through the cloth, but it can be hard to discern at a glance, especially in bright light. Beyond the assortment of inputs on the rear of the soundbar, the SB3821-C6 includes Bluetooth connectivity for wireless playback. The SB3821-C6 is refreshingly free of any gimmicks or surprises - everything works exactly as advertised and requires minimal fuss to function.
Vizio has always been big on value for money, and the SB3821-C6 certainly carries this trait. Given its performance and straightforward setup and use, it remains reasonably priced (typically available online for less than $150) and is widely available through major retailers. If there's room in your entertainment setup to place a separate subwoofer, the SB3821-C6 is a compelling budget-friendly option with enough performance to earn its keep for years.
Sonos has become a household name in recent years, especially in the premium-yet-accessible niche that the company has carefully carved out for itself. The Playbar relies on a simple concept: instill Sonos's trademark sound quality in a reasonably-sized package, and make sure it works with the Sonos ecosystem - other speakers, subwoofers, apps and all.
The Playbar fits in with Sonos's minimalist motif, and somehow manages to simultaneously disappear into your entertainment system while standing out with its rich appearance. The buttoned-down appearance comes via making several deliberate design choices (more on that later), leaving users to focus on other aspects instead. The main draw of any Sonos speaker product is its sound quality - after all, the company makes no secret that it employs award-winning sound engineers and acoustics experts to painstakingly dial in true-to-life audio playback. The Playbar certainly lives up to Sonos's claims; compared to other soundbars with a similar format, the Playbar manages to sound "fuller" and catches small details that lesser equipment simply muddles.
While any true one-piece soundbar is inherently limited by its physical configuration, the Playbar overcomes its own speaker placement through the combination of driver aiming and particularly effective sound processing. Between its various output modes, the Playbar works well for all types of sound from casual music playback to action sequences in movies. Speech Enhancement Mode can boost the volume of dialogue when it's needed, and Night Mode reins in frequencies that are likely to carry through walls and annoy neighbors or family members who would otherwise involuntarily participate in your concert or movie.
Aside from the sound quality, the Playbar is defined by its simplicity and ease of use. Whereas other sound bars offer HDMI connectivity and Bluetooth audio, the Playbar's rear panel contains just a single optical audio input, power supply connection, and, puzzlingly, a pair of 10/100 Mbps Ethernet ports. One of those Ethernet ports can be used to hard-wire the Playbar to your network, and the other can be used to turn the Playbar into a network extender or hub. Wireless connectivity is limited to WiFi; Sonos clearly shows no interest in utilizing what they describe as dropout-prone Bluetooth. Of course, the Playbar is fully compatible with Sonos's other speakers and subwoofers. It can connect via WiFi to other Sonos speakers for true left/right separation or surround sound, and the Sonos Sub can be added if you want to augment the Playbar's bass capabilities.
Sonos famously goes to great lengths to ensure minimalism, and the Playbar is no exception. In fact, the Playbar ships without a remote control. The idea is to mute your TV's internal speakers and connect it to the Playbar using the digital audio cable (TOSLINK). During setup, the Playbar will detect your TV remote's frequencies for volume up/down/mute commands. This eliminates the clutter from adding another remote control to your system, but there's a potentially annoying drawback: many TVs display an error message when adjusting volume after changing the output settings to an external device. The Sonos App provides suggestions for getting around the messages, but we've seen mixed feedback about whether they're effective or not. A built-in sensor detects how the Playbar is oriented; it'll sound the same whether you lay the Playbar flat in front of your TV or choose to mount it to the wall.
With the Sonos design and Sonos performance, it should come as no surprise that the Playbar demands a Sonos price tag. At this price, it's certainly possible to build a home theater system with separate speakers and a subwoofer, but that's missing the point. You'd still need to add an A/V receiver to drive those speakers, and then invest hours (or pay an expert) to perform a calibration. The Playbar offers no such hassle - simply connect it to your TV and program it with the remote commands, and it's ready to fill your room with premium sound pretty much out of the box. It's the execution of streamlined simplicity paired with superb quality and performance that earns it our nomination for Best Soundbar.