All audiophiles dream of owning a 7.1 channel surround system, with speakers optimally positioned for perfect acoustics. But many of us are trapped in small apartments and can’t install wall mounted speakers or even a receiver. If you still want an immersive listening experience, then a soundbar might be your best option. At the very least they offer a huge upgrade over TV speakers.
A soundbar is a thin bar with multiple drivers. They point the speakers directly at your couch, with different tweeters and woofers replicating highs and lows. Newer soundbars include wireless connectivity options, making them hassle free compared to a full surround sound system. No soundbar will ever compete with the fidelity of traditional speakers, the drivers are just not large enough, but they can fill a small room with lush noise. These are the best soundbars available right now.
Best Overall Soundbar of 2016: Samsung HW-K950
The Samsung HW-K950 is the biggest leap forward in soundbar technology of the year. Released in summer 2016, the soundbar boasts Dolby Atmos, 4k/HDR, and 5.1.4 channel surround sound. One big drawback: it does not offer DTS-HD. So if you want the best possible sound quality out of a soundbar and don’t plan on playing Blu-rays on an older player, this is the soundbar for you.
Most soundbars simply can’t replicate the immersive multi-directional sound of a proper home theater system. Samsung shortens the gap with one of two soundbars released this year that features Dolby Atmos (the other is the Yamaha YSP-5600, which has DTS:X support but suffers from poor design). For those who don’t know, Dolby Atmos is an audio format designed to deliver three-dimensional sound. It’s what makes makes you think a helicopter is actually whirling overhead, or what clues you in to the sound of footsteps approaching from a distance.
The HW-K950 delivers Atmos sound from 15 built-in speakers. Most of those drivers come from the main soundbar itself, a minimalist 47 inch unit with metal grills and brushed metal dim plates. It has 3 forward firing channels, with twin mid-range drivers and a wide-range tweeter engineered just for the soundbar. Atop the wide bar are two upward firing full-range drivers that provide front overhead effects. The rest of the sound comes from two wireless rear speakers with front and upward firing speakers and a wireless 160W sub-woofer. All drivers come with their own amplifier.
The sound is extremely crisp and expansive on Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital 5.1 compatible files. It is extremely clean and captures everything from dialogue to bass-heavy music in a way you thought a soundbar could not. The set up is easy and, unlike many previous-generation high end soundbars, it comes with 2 HDMI plugs. So unlike the popular SONOS soundbar, your audio isn’t rerouted through a optical port.
There are two big drawbacks to this soundbar. The first is the price. It’s an expensive package, but it includes the sub-woofer and rear speakers. You can definitely find better quality used home theater equipment for the same price range, but you lose all the convenience and connectivity the soundbar offers. So it depends on your needs. If you’re building a home theater, look elsewhere. If you want three-dimensional Dolby Atmos sound in your apartment without a receiver and a bunch of speakers, this wireless setup can’t be beat.
The main drawback, and this is a huge one, is that it does not support DTS-HD Master Audio, the most common format for many Blu-Ray movies. Newer Blu-Ray players do support Atmos, so you will have to check your player.
Best Value Soundbar: Vizio SB3851-C0
If you don’t want to spend a grand on a soundbar but still want a powerful upgrade from your TV speakers, check out Vizio’s SB3851-C0. For less than $300 you get 5.1 sound with a wireless sub-woofer and 2 rear satellite speakers.
This model captures engrossing Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, faithfully replicating highs and lows. The 6″ driver on the sub delivers a serviceable bass, definitely the best you will experience at this price range. It has an impress 100dB sound with less than 1% total harmonic distortion. Connect music directly with a Bluetooth. The setup is easy, and the 38 inch aluminum accented soundbar looks nice in the living room.
Unfortunately the unit lacks an HDMI connection. It also lacks EQ options to satisfy an audiophile.