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It’s more affordable than ever before to take your home media viewing experience to new heights thanks to streaming services, smart TVs, and soundbars. With this increased availability of content enriched by new surround sound audio formats, a whole new world of entertainment possibilities come to light. One of the easiest, most space-efficient ways to make a drastic improvement to the quality of your home theater’s audio is by upgrading your soundbar to give you sound as vivid as the 4K video you’re probably enjoying. The best soundbar is compact, quick to install, and an unbeatable way to present your movies, music, and video games with elevated volume, clarity, and immersion. Unlike a traditional speaker system, a soundbar usually requires only a single connection to your television to switch between sources. These systems are often Bluetooth-compatible from the get-go—so you can sync your tablet, phone, and other streaming devices too. If you’re looking for a quick and cost-effective way to upgrade your home theater system, we’ll help you find the best soundbars to get the job done.
- Best compact: Yamaha SR-C20A Compact Sound Bar
- Best Samsung: Samsung BW-H550/ZA 2.1ch Soundbar
- Best 5.1: JBL Bar 5.1
- Best for music: Bose Soundbar 700
- Best budget: Majority Bowfell Small Sound Bar
How we picked the best soundbars
We’re nerds about everything here at PopSci, but audio is especially special to us. The PopSci writers and editors have a few certified audiophiles onboard. And while nothing on this list fits the audiophile category, we know a solid speaker when we see it. We used a mixture of online research and hands-on experience to survey dozens of different models on the market. We were looking for the right mix of fidelity and features as well as price.
Most of the items on this list are relatively affordable, and that’s by design. There are some ultra-high-end Dolby Atmos and wireless surround options, but they’re specific to very demanding users. If you’re looking to get into the soundbar world, these are great models to get started and bring a serious upgrade to your TV’s puny audio performance.
Best compact: Yamaha SR-C20A Compact Sound Bar
Why it made the cut: When you don’t want something complicated and huge, this compact bar has a full sound and surprising featureset packed into a small housing.
- Dimensions: 25.98 x 5.98 x 5.98 inches
- Surround sound: Simulated
- Subwoofer: Built-in
- Compact size
- Selectable sound modes
- Voice enhancement
- Built-in bass enhancements
- Not super powerful
- No option for external subwoofer
This Yamaha soundbar is just 26 inches long and 2.5 inches high, but it packs a powerful bass response and Bluetooth streaming inside its small frame. A clear voice mode allows for enhanced enjoyment of dialogue, and the unit includes compatibility for HDMI, optical, and AUX inputs. Built-in keyholes allow for optional wall-mounting as well.
Yamaha’s built-in Clear Voice technology puts the focus on dialog when you’re watching content so the words don’t get lost under other noise that may be going on in the movie. A built-in subwoofer and passive radiators crank the bass levels up a surprising amount for a speaker this small.
Yamaha has custom sound modes you can select depending on the kind of content you’re watching and it does simulated surround sound.
Best Samsung: Samsung BW-H550/ZA 2.1ch Soundbar
Why it made the cut: This straight-ahead system doesn’t get bogged down with tons of features you won’t use and, instead, focuses on performance.
- Dimensions: 33.9 x 3 x 2.3 inches
- Surround Sound: Dolby Audio and DTS: Virtual X
- Subwoofer: External
- Great sound
- Included subwoofer
- AI-driven sound adjustments
- Lacks Dolby Atmos
This Samsung soundbar sports three-channel audio and includes a dedicated center speaker and a satellite subwoofer for powerful, enhanced bass and 3D surround sound effects. It offers superior multi-connectivity via Bluetooth, allowing two smart devices to remain paired at once, and the HDMI ARC interface allows for single-cable audio connections to and from a TV with a compatible port.
Regarding surround, this bar supports DTS: Virtual X to simulate a system with many more speakers installed around the room. Samsung’s Smart Sound technology analyzes the content you’re watching and automatically adjusts its performance to match it best. That also helps keep subtle sounds like ambient horror sounds or important dialog from getting lost. But, if needed, you can manually trigger a Voice Enhancement mode. Want more rumble? A bass boost is available at the push of a button. Need less bass? There’s also a Night Mode.
The relatively basic black design is refreshing compared to more complex devices. It melts into the room and you hear it, but you don’t necessarily see it.
Best 5.1: JBL Bar 5.1
Why it made the cut: It can simulate surround sound, but you can also take the battery-powered speakers off of the bar and place them behind you for a truly authentic 5.1 surround experience.
- Dimensions: 14.93 x 17.91 x 39.69 inches
- Surround sound: Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS
- Subwoofer: External
- Detachable speakers make it very flexible
- Plenty of power
- Included subwoofer
- Lacks Dolby Atmos
A true 5.1 home theater entertainment setup is well within reach thanks to the JBL Bar soundbar system. This set includes two battery-powered wireless satellite speakers that can attach to the main bar, a 10-inch wireless subwoofer, and three HDMI ports for extended connectivity. Wireless speakers allow this system to flourish in any theater environment thanks to the ease of setup and maintenance, making this a no-brainer first step into the surround sound market.
Despite its ease of use, it’s still a fairly powerful system. It has a total combined power of 510 watts. The subwoofer adds plenty of boom and the satellite speakers add extra oomph, especially when positioned behind the listener. It’s a truly versatile system that can adapt to pretty much any room, even if you change it along the way.
Best for music: Bose Soundbar 700
Why it made the cut: Bose has a long history of making great-sounding speakers, and this soundbar is no exception.
- Dimensions: 4.25 x 38.5 x 2.25 inches
- Surround sound: None
- Subwoofer: Sold separately
- Great sound for music
- Ties into whole-home audio setups
- Excellent connectivity
- Lacks surround sound chops
Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility make the Bose Soundbar 700 an ideal choice for users looking to maximize their space and get the most out of their media center. The unit sports Bluetooth and WiFi compatibility for wireless streaming from your devices. A custom eight-microphone array ensures that your voice is heard even while the soundbar is playing. It’s designed to be low profile and finished with a stylish glass top, making it the way to go if you have aesthetics on your mind.
Because it’s tied into the Bose system, you can make this part of a whole-house audio system, which can sync your songs throughout your home. Bose has a long reputation for great musical sound quality, and that absolutely hasn’t changed here. This has been an excellent choice since it debuted.
Best budget: Majority Bowfell Small Sound Bar
Why it made the cut: While it definitely won’t give you theater-quality sound, it’s a solid audio upgrade that costs less than a couple movie tickets.
- Dimensions: 15.28 x 2.13 x 2.83 inches
- Surround sound: None
- Subwoofer: None
- Extremely cheap
- Very compact
- Included remote
- Plastic construction
- Cheap sound
For less than it costs for three people to go to the movies, you can get this add-on soundbar to augment a TV’s audio capabilities. The 15-inch bar connects to sources via Bluetooth, optical audio, or RCA ports. It has a built-in subwoofer, which gives it surprising bass when you consider its sound and price. The included remote lets you control the output from afar.
This model is clearly meant for smaller TVs, so don’t expect it to look at home under your 75-inch OLED TV, but it’s a great option for a guest room where it can double as a wireless speaker when it’s not boosting the signal from a smaller TV.
Things to consider when buying the best soundbars
How big or small should your soundbar be?
One of the most convenient features of most soundbar systems is the understated form that helps them blend in with your existing entertainment center. It’s generally recommended that you choose a soundbar that doesn’t exceed the length of your television for aesthetic reasons. The length and size of the soundbar doesn’t always translate to volume and power, so you won’t be making too many compromises by going with a smaller soundbar.
The most important consideration when choosing a soundbar for its size is that it retains flexibility and versatility despite having an understated appearance. Many miniature soundbars pack Bluetooth connectivity, subwoofers, and other special features into their cases without a hitch, so you don’t have to worry about sacrificing essential features to ensure that your smaller rooms don’t get cluttered. After all, you’re buying a soundbar for its major improvements over your television’s speaker system.
What kind of surround sound are you looking for?
Some basic soundbars offer typical stereo sound, but many have adopted surround sound technology that can add an entirely new dimension to the content you watch. The most relevant thing to notice in modern soundbars is Dolby Atmos. This surround sound standard works with the most popular streaming services and provides an overall excellent experience with some consistency.
Balance tuning versus power
An oft-overlooked factor while shopping for a soundbar is its ability to adequately translate cinematic audio and dialogue in the best way for your room. For example, a soundbar with a high wattage rating and high maximum sound pressure level might appear loud on paper, but if this sound is muddy or if the device’s design renders dialogue muffled and unintelligible, it completely defeats the purpose of adding a soundbar to your system in the first place. In this way, volume and power capabilities don’t always translate to better sound for your space. Suppose you’re looking to max out your entertainment system’s volume with a soundbar. In that case, it’s important to consider a model combining high wattage and maximum volume with manufacturer-designed tuning.
The system used to tune a soundbar—or any sound system, for that matter—involves using equalization to boost certain frequencies and cut others, which can enhance the audio in home environments. Unless you’re investing in a high degree of sound treatment for your theater room, chances are that there are some undesirable resonances in your space that can exacerbate poorly tuned audio. This effect becomes even more pronounced at higher volumes, so it’s important to pick out a tuned or tunable system if you’re going to listen loud or if you’re in a smaller room. With a properly tuned soundbar, dialogue becomes clear, action sequences retain impact without being ear-piercing, and most importantly, it drastically cuts the need for constant turning up and down of your television volume. If any of these issues apply to your situation, a tuned soundbar is the only way to go.
Is your home a smart one?
Smart home systems like Alexa and Google Home are transforming the way we live and work around the house and beyond. Activities that were once interrupted by the need to pick up the phone, sit down at the computer, or fumble with a device have been made quicker and easier thanks to voice control integration across a whole gamut of home appliances. And since your entertainment center is a focal point of your time spent at home, it only makes sense to consider a soundbar system that offers voice control compatibility, whether you’re planning on expanding your current smart home system or starting from scratch.
One of the biggest perks of choosing a soundbar with smart home compatibility is its elevated ability to play high-volume music and media while still being able to hear your voice over the noise and execute your commands without turning the volume down or pressing pause. Think of a voice control-enabled soundbar as a more souped-up version of a traditional smart home speaker: you can turn the music up and down, resume and pause programming, check the status of your smart cooker, air quality, temperature, and so much more from the comfort of your seat. A system with this capability also eliminates the need for a separate smart speaker for your TV area or living room altogether, which is a plus if you’re trying to save space or retain a minimalist sense of decor.
Do you want to connect to Bluetooth?
Bluetooth is one of the most prevalent and useful interfaces for wirelessly streaming audio from your devices to your speaker systems, and most soundbars on the market do offer some form of Bluetooth connectivity. Options like this allow the soundbar to work for you and help you get more out of your system whenever you’re listening to music or podcasts around the house. Most televisions don’t come standard with a Bluetooth audio receiver, so not only does this technology open up your entertainment center as a location for streaming audio, but it’s also an incredible improvement over a traditional portable Bluetooth speaker.
HDMI is the most commonly used wired interface for soundbars when receiving audio from your TV. Some soundbar systems use this connection to receive volume information directly from your TV remote. Suppose you’ll deal with sound from numerous sources like Blu-ray players, video game consoles, and streaming services. In that case, it’s important to consider whether your soundbar has enough connectivity to support your needs, as well as how efficiently it can interface with a variety of devices. Generally speaking, more connectivity is always better due to the flexibility that it affords, as devices that play well with others make your life easier and require less tinkering. Increased connectivity options do come at a price in both cost and size, so it’s important to weigh your needs for flexibility against these factors.
The last word on shopping for the best soundbars
A soundbar is an easy choice for drastically improving the quality of your home theater, thanks to the easy setup and maintenance that these systems provide. The wide range of choices in this product category ensures that there’s an option out there for every budget and need, from compact single-bar systems to fully-fledged surround sound setups. In looking for a soundbar system, consider the size of your space and the connectivity your home theater needs to ensure that your add-on provides the best cinematic experience for you.