It’s no secret that the audio quality on most TVs isn’t all that great. With the push for ever slimmer televisions more and more manufacturers are sacrificing the audio quality of their speakers. After all, if there’s no space for large speaker drivers you’re going to get some weak sound.
But not only are the speaker drivers vastly underpowered, they face in the wrong direction. They either point directly down into the floor or pump the audio out into the wall behind the screen.
It’s a bit like going to see Beyoncé perform at Wembley stadium and finding her standing on stage with her back to you, singing into a megaphone.
Buying the best soundbar is the easiest way of giving your TV some much-need sonic steroids as virtually all screens have the option of being used with an external speaker.
What’s the best soundbar?
Soundbars come in many shapes and sizes, and range in price from under £100/$100 to over £1,000/$1,500. Cheaper models have basic connections (including a digital optical socket, which is essential), more expensive ones add superior HDMI inputs, wireless audio streaming (e.g. Bluetooth and AirPlay), better power, more refined speaker drivers, and decoding of Blu-ray sound formats.
Design is also important, with some models able to sit in front of your TV on a stand, others may need a separate shelf or to be wall mounted. Whatever your budget though there are some cracking good acoustic upgrades to be had that can give your TV the sound it deserves.
1. Philips Fidelio B5
Surround sound or portable Bluetooth – the choice is yours
The Philips Fidelio B5 is an impressive bit of kit, and it’s almost the perfect soundbar for someone who appreciates good cinema sound but has no interest in tearing up their living room to install a 5.1 surround sound system which they’ll only use every now and then.
The B5 enables you to pick and choose your movie moments, and do it on a whim. And it creates a pretty decent surround sound experience too, using both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Digital Surround decoding.
The combination of convenience and good audio – the raison d’etre of the soundbar – with its transformative surround sound capabilities makes the Fidelio B5 a great option for the movie fan who can’t face all the aggravation of a proper 5.1 installation.
2. Focal Dimension
An impressive-sounding soundbar with a few setup faux-pas
Focal, most known for its excellent sounding speakers (and the recently released Focal Listen headphones), is late to the soundbar space but its Focal Dimension was worth the wait. The Dimension soundbar is simply gorgeous with its piano black accents and aluminum unibody construction.
At $1,399 (£799, AU$1,699), it’s not exactly cheap but you’re paying for excellent build quality, sound and design.
3. Yamaha YSP-2500
Home cinema enthusiasts look no further for versatility and sublime sounds
If hard core home cinema sound is more your thing the Yamaha YSP-2500 certainly trumps the Q Acoustics Media 4. Festooned with cutting-edge tech (its HDMIs are 4K compatible), the YSP-2500 uses 16 tiny beam drivers (and a separate wireless subwoofer) to deliver convincing surround sound from Blu-ray DTS HD MA and Dolby True HD bitstreams. There are multiple sound modes to experiment with (do try the excellent iOS/Android app). It sounds first rate with all sources, even ropey old repeats on Dave.
4. Sonos Playbar
Turns your multi-room audio system into wireless surround sound
Like the Q Acoustics Media 4, the Sonos Playbar is a non-HDMI device that uses optical to hook up to a TV. Used simply on its own it delivers a massive sonic boost to your TV listening but operating it requires use of a smartphone or tablet app. The benefit though is that it can seamlessly segue in to a Sonos wireless system, and can even act as the front three speakers in a 5.1 setup with two Play:1s acting as rears.
5. Canton DM 50
A soundbase that combines ease of use with great sonics
Aside from a pointless pseudo-surround mode, the Canton DM 50 stands out among all soundbases thanks to its neat design, top notch build quality and exceptional sound quality, both with regular daytime TV, complex movie soundtracks and music streamed by Bluetooth from a phone. Its scrolling display appears through the front grille when powered up and the base is a pleasure to operate thanks to a logically designed, slick looking menu and a willingness to accept volume commands from your TV’s remote.
6. Samsung HW-H750
Excellent connectivity, valve amplification and audio streaming
The HW-H750 is a compelling combination of the cutting-edge with the traditional. Its valve amplifier (which can be seen glowing behind a window) gives sound a pleasing warmth without losing clarity, while its wireless sub handles low-end rumble with aplomb. It’s a highly versatile model with HDMI and Bluetooth plus it can hook on to a Samsung multi-room system and/or successfully play numerous hi-res audio files streamed over a home network.
7. Monitor Audio ASB-2
One for Apple AirPlay fans. No lack of audio quality either.
It isn’t pretty, and the Monitor Audio ASB-2 so unapologetically tall that it will require a dedicated shelf or wall mount. That said, it has some top drawer acoustic tech under the hood and betters the Samsung HW-H750 with DLNA, AirPlay and AirStream Direct (no router required) but lacks the more commonly used Bluetooth. You can hook up a separate subwoofer but the ASB-2 alone is capable of filling smaller rooms with a pleasingly resonant and meaty soundfield.
8. Sony HT-NT5
Sony has refined the Hi-Res Audio-ready HT-NT5 for extreme musicality
With the HT-NT5, Sony has produced a soundbar with audiophile aspirations and an unapologetic upmarket design. Disarmingly versatile, it works equally well on furniture as on-wall, and generously offers a trio of 4K ready HDMI inputs, plus compatibility with FLAC and DSD audio files. It may be a TV soundbar, but this Hi-Res Audio-ready soundbar also doubles as a fine-sounding, audiophile-grade component in its own right.
9. Toshiba SBM1W
Compact yet highly capable, and a low price tag to boot
The SBM1W earns a place in our top 10 courtesy of a mightily impressive performance, despite its shoe-box dimensions and ultra-low price tag. Connectivity isn’t too bad, with two types of digital input – optical and coaxial – plus analogue in and Bluetooth. It has a switch to compensate for off-axis placement and although the soundfield isn’t the broadest around its sonics, aided ably by the tethered subwoofer, are immeasurably superior to regular built-in TV speakers.
10. Razer Leviathan
Razer’s first soundbar is all about that bass
For $199 (£159, AU$279), the Razer Leviathan is a great sound bar, and is easily recommended for gamers who just aren’t ready to dive into a full 5.1 system yet. It’s a bit bass-heavy, thanks to the standalone subwoofer – but even so, movies and games come through clear.
The bar is relatively versatile, too. It’s plenty powerful for a PC, but it works out of the box with any console or TV through optical audio out. Not to mention that built-in Bluetooth lets you connect your mobile device when you aren’t directly in front of your entertainment setup. A few tweaks, like a more stable subwoofer connector and a remote would’ve been nice. But, in spite of its diminutive size, the Leviathan far outgrew my expectations.
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