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Best soundbars to improve your TV's audio

TV speakers suck, but not everyone has the room—or the budget—for an A/V receiver and six or more loudspeakers. A soundbar can fit under or in front of your TV, and a good one will knock your socks off.

soundbar hero Rob Schultz

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Dolby Atmos and DTS:X: Some of today’s top-of-the-line soundbars will let you take advantage of the latest object-oriented audio technologies, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.  Soundbars that feature object-oriented audio, are typically limited to 5.1.2 or 7.1.2 configuration, where they only reproduce the front two height effects channels. (A 5.1.2-channel system has front left, center, front right, left surround, right surround, subwoofer, left height, and right height. A 7.1.2-channel is the same configuration plus left rear surround and right rear surround.)

EQ: Some soundbars have onboard EQ (equalization) to help tune the soundbar for a particular placement, such as on the wall or in a cabinet. The EQ adjusts certain sonic characteristics that happen to the speaker in a typical scenario, but don’t confuse EQ with room correction. Room correction far more sophisticated.

HDMI 2.0a If you don’t already have a 4K UHD TV that supports HDR (high dynamic range), the next set you buy probably will. You can learn more about HDR in this story, but it basically pumps up the contrast to reveal more detail and produce vibrant color. You’ll need a soundbar that supports HDMI 2.0a to ensure HDR information is passed through the soundbar from the source (e.g., an Ultra HD Blu-ray player) to your television.

sb450 hdmi inputs Theo Nicolakis / IDG

The JBL SB450 has multiple HDMI inputs.

Lossless audio: Do you have a growing collection of high-resolution music files in FLAC or ALAC formats? If you want to listen to them through your soundbar, you’ll want to make sure it can decode those files.

Multi-room audio: Some soundbars can be components in a multi-room audio system, but this usually entails choosing one platform and sticking with it all over your home (speakers that support DTS Play-Fi are an exception to that rule). The more typical proprietary systems include Denon’s Heos, Yamaha’s MusicCast, and—one of the most popular systems—Sonos. Sonos even allows you to pair its Playbar or Playbase with its wireless subwoofer and wireless satellite speakers (the Play:1, Play:3, or the second-generation Play:5) as surround channels to create a true 5.1-channel surround-sound setup. But you can’t go beyond that to add rear surrounds or height channels with a Sonos system.

Music streaming: Many of today’s soundbars can stream music over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but only a handful support Bluetooth with aptX for near CD-quality streaming. Apple’s AirPlay is an important feature for Apple enthusiasts with iPhones and iPods. Audio enthusiasts will want to know if the soundbar can decode lossless codecs such as FLAC and ALAC.

The HomeCinema sound bar ties in seamlessly with Denon’s Heos streaming ecosystem. Denon

The HomeCinema sound bar ties in seamlessly with Denon’s Heos streaming ecosystem.

Room correction: Your room plays a critical part in how your soundbar will sound. Some manufacturers, such as Paradigm, build sophisticated and highly effective room-correction technology into their soundbars. The sonic benefits of a good soundbar with well-implemented room correction can be jaw-dropping, but that feature is usually expensive. You’ll typically won’t find room correction in soundbars priced less than $1,000.

Subwoofer support: If you love good, deep bass, then you’ll want to scope out a soundbar that can connect to a subwoofer. Some soundbars come pre-packaged with a sub (in many cases, a wireless model), while others provide a subwoofer output so you can use a cable to hook up your model of choice. The pre-packaged route might look attractive, but it typically means you can’t upgrade either component without junking them both. 

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