Regardless of which soundbar you choose, it’ll be a major improvement over the internal speakers of just about any television. Still, there are decisions to be made, and the first one is extra important: Should you get a soundbar with a subwoofer, or without one?
Subwoofers are speaker drivers dedicated to the reproduction of low-frequency audio — think rumbling bass, exploding bombs, the whump-whump of a helicopter’s blades. A soundbar with a subwoofer will add punch and rumble to TV shows and movies, creating a fuller sound and more effectively projecting audio throughout the room. If you plan on watching lots of action movies or movies with epic music, you’ll likely want a subwoofer.
Some soundbars come with dedicated subwoofers (most connect wirelessly, though some require a direct-wired connection), but in some cases, you’re better off purchasing them separately. Make sure to do some research — our Best Subwoofers guide is one resource. If you decide to buy a third-party dedicated subwoofer, make sure your soundbar supports it — not all soundbars have a dedicated sub-woofer output.
For the most part, you’ll need just one cable to connect a soundbar with your TV. Some soundbars rely on optical cables, which work fine, but HDMI is preferred: The HDMI interface supports more audio formats than does optical, which effectively means you’ll get higher quality sound that’s more immersive with HDMI.
Additionally, HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) is a protocol that appears on most newer soundbars with HDMI connection. This allows the television and soundbar to more easily exchange information, including the ability to route video to the TV, and route sound from the TV, all over a single connection. It also often allows you to control the volume and power with a single remote. Some soundbars can even act as entertainment hubs for your home, where you can plug in all your components for simple, easy control.
When shopping for soundbars, you’ll probably come across some confusing numbers. Labels like “2.0,” “3.1,” or “5.1” are there to let you know A) how many channels a soundbar has, and B) whether or not it has a subwoofer. The first number (before the period) refers to the number of channels, and the number after the period tells you whether there’s a subwoofer (1) or not (0). If a soundbar has only two channels, that means a left and a right channel. If it has three channels, the third is a center channel, which improves dialog clarity. Five adds channels for rear or surround sound speakers.
Often, a soundbar will come with a wireless subwoofer and, in some cases, even wireless satellite speakers. These don’t need to connect physically with the soundbar itself, but they’ll need a power source, so you’ll have to position them near wall outlets (or get creative).
If there’s a third number — i.e. 5.1.4 — that means the soundbar supports Dolby Atmos surround sound and/or DTS:X. The final number refers to the number of dedicated drivers that fire upwards at the ceiling, bouncing sound down to create an enveloping effect. Early Dolby Atmos models were reasonably effective at simulating dedicated height-channel speakers, but the newest Atmos soundbars are incredible. Atmos is currently the most popular surround sound technology, capable of processing 128 distinct objects in a given scene.
Soundbars are increasingly being used for listening to music as much as for listening to your TV. This is especially true in smaller houses or condos. A majority of new soundbars support Bluetooth streaming from your smartphone, tablet, or computer, making for a quick and easy to hear your Spotify or other music on a bigger speaker. However, more sophisticated options exist. Sonos, Denon HEOS, Bluesound, Bose, Yamaha, and many others offer soundbars that can be linked to whole-home wireless music systems over Wi-Fi. If you think you may want to expand into a larger wireless music system in the future (or if you already own other Wi-Fi audio components from these brands) it makes sense to consider one of these models before you buy.
Assuming you want to be able to control your TV (you do), you’ll need to be careful with where you place a soundbar. Typically, soundbars sit directly below your TV — even mounted on the wall, if that’s where the TV is. But if you’re using an entertainment stand, you don’t want the soundbar sitting on it in front of your TV’s infrared (IR) sensor, which is where the remote control sends its signal.
Some soundbars come with IR repeaters; these pass the signal through the soundbar itself to the TV’s sensor. If yours has one, awesome — just make sure the soundbar isn’t obscuring the screen. Generally speaking, you want a soundbar that’s approximately the same width as your TV; soundbar proportions are mostly an aesthetic factor, though, and shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.