The top performers in our review are the Vizio S5430W-C2, the Gold Award winner; LG NB5541, the Silver Award winner; and Samsung HW-H450, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Televisions are getting bigger and more affordable with increasingly better picture quality. One thing remains constant with almost all televisions – poor sound quality. Audio quality is every bit as important to your movie watching experience as picture quality, and bad audio can leave you underwhelmed when you are trying to enjoy movies on your big screen.
Sound bars are an inexpensive and simple solution to your sound quality woes. A sound bar is a single unit that contains an array of speakers, sometimes with a separate subwoofer to enhance the sound. Sound bars improve your audio experience significantly with virtually no setup required.
Do you have to max out your TV's volume settings in order to hear your shows sometimes? Sound bars increase the overall volume, so you don't have to continually reach for your remote to turn up the volume. A good TV sound bar also produces more consistent volume and enhances dialogue. This means you won't need to turn up the volume when characters are just talking, then get blown away when an action scene starts.
Some sound bars simulate surround sound to make it seem like you have a multi-speaker setup in your home entertainment room. Sound is dispersed at different times and toward different parts of the room. This creates the illusion of surround sound without the hassle of installing multiple speakers together.
Sound bars not only provide enhanced sound, but also convenient installation. Most sound bars connect to your TV with one cable, usually a digital optical or coaxial cable. There is no need for added equipment. Generally, when you install a full home theater speaker system, you have to purchase an additional AV receiver that connects all the speakers to the television. You also have to run multiple sets of speaker wires to the AV receiver and figure out a way to hide them so you don't have speaker wires strewn about your room.
The additional equipment needed for full surround sound can be far more costly than purchasing a sound bar. A quality AV receiver will run upwards of $300 dollars. Floor standing speakers can cost $200 or more per speaker, and that is not including the surround sound speakers or center speaker. A whole system can be well over $1,000 whereas a home theater sound bar gives you premium sound quality that is far less costly.
The amount of space you have in your home is a factor to consider when you upgrade your home entertainment center. Sound bars are good for people who are not only on a budget, but who have limited space. Sound bars can be a good audio upgrade for apartment living as they sit right in front of your television and don't take up additional space. Space restrictions, cost efficiency and overall sound quality are all reasons to consider a sound bar for your home entertainment upgrade. For more information on this topic, visit our learning center for articles on sound bars.
For our sound bar reviews, we chose speakers that are DSP, Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic certified. This means they can all handle audio that has been specifically mastered for surround sound listening. We have compared and tested the best sound bars to help you find the one that best fits your needs.
We tested by conducting a blind listening test with multiple listeners. We played the same movie section, song and video game through each sound bar and had our listeners fill out a survey noting what they liked and didn't like about the audio quality of the sound bar. The survey questions focused on the bass response, dialogue clarity and simulated surround sound. The sound bars were tested using the factory settings. We compiled all of the data to determine the best sound bar in each media category (music, movies, games) as well as the best all-around sound bar.
Our overall winner, the Vizio S5430W-C2, provided stellar sound quality in all categories. What's impressive is this sound bar beat out competitors that come with a subwoofer. It provides the low bass punch and the vocal clarity that we looked for in a quality sound bar. The SONOS PLAYBAR also impressed us with high-quality audio in all categories. It didn't quite provide the surround sound simulation as the Vizio, but the audio quality was top-notch.
For those planning on using a wireless sound bar to stream music from a mobile device, we tested the Bluetooth range on each sound bar in two different ways. We streamed Spotify from an iPhone to each sound bar and measured how far away we could get, walking down a straight hallway with no obstructions, before the signal started to break up. For the second test we measured the distance after we walked into another room. This provided two walls between the phone and the sound bar during the test. The second test helps to simulate a home environment and is more predictive of the Bluetooth range you'll experience in your home.
The Samsung HW-H450 had both the straight line of sight and partition Bluetooth range that far exceed the standard Bluetooth range of 33 feet. You can keep your phone with you as you stream music without having to worry about signal breakup. The Yamaha YAS-105 also far exceeded standard Bluetooth range and provided the farthest line-of-site range in our lineup.
Remote Control Evaluation
We evaluated each sound bar's remote. We looked for a lightweight remote that fits nicely in your hand and allows you to comfortably reach all of the buttons with one hand. Good button spacing and size are also important. We determined that the sound bar with the best and most comfortable remote control to use was the LG NB5541. The remote is comfortable in your hand and has nice button spacing as well as rounded edges that contour to your hand. You can also control every aspect of your sound bar with the remote. Although a remote control might not be the main consideration for choosing your sound bar, we made sure to evaluate all aspects of each product so you have all the information you need to make an informed purchasing decision.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained all of the units in our comparison in house, some by loans from the manufacturer and some by purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Audio quality is the factor we consider most important when selecting the best sound bar. However, there are other things to consider – such as connectivity options, a separate subwoofer and, of course, price – when making your final purchase decision. The sound bars we reviewed range from $300 to $700.
Multiple USB ports, HDMI connections and RCA (analog) inputs can be useful if you are connecting your sound bar to multiple home entertainment devices simultaneously. Many home theaters include a DVD player and a gaming console along with the television. A sound bar that doesn't connect to all of your devices at once can be an annoyance. You shouldn't have to unplug one device on the back of your sound bar to connect something else. Make sure your sound bar has adequate connectivity options for your needs.
Some sound bars come with a subwoofer. A subwoofer is a separate speaker with a large driver that boosts low-end sound quality. The subwoofer sits on the floor and reverberates low-end frequencies across the ground to help you not only hear, but also feel the bass. If you live in an apartment with people below you, you might not want to purchase a sound bar that includes an additional subwoofer as it might be too noisy. On the other hand, if you want to feel the large explosions or car crashes in your action movies, you might want to get a sound bar with a subwoofer.
The Vizio S5430W-C2 is our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner. The sound bar performed well in our blind listening tests. Our focus group participants felt that this sound bar excelled in all facets, including dialogue clarity, bass response and surround sound simulation. This sound bar is affordable compared to the rest of our lineup and also provides great bass response without the need for an external subwoofer. The Vizio was the overall best-sounding sound bar.
The LG NB5541 is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner. This sound bar has an elegant and modern design that complements its solid sound quality. This sound bar did not simulate surround sound as well as the Vizio, and it did not perform as well in our Bluetooth range tests as the Vizio. But the remote control is one of the best we evaluated and this sound bar also offers a smart phone app and Wi-Fi capabilities.
The Samsung HW-H450 is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. This sound bar provides great sound quality, though it isn't as proficient in surround sound simulation or dialogue clarity as our top two sound bars. It does boast a handful of connectivity ports, including HDMI, aux and USB. This sound bar is one of the few units under $300, and it is small enough to fit on many TV stands. It is a great option if you are limited on space.
A standout product outside of our top three is the SONOS PLAYBAR. It ranks toward the back of our lineup but was one of the top performers in our sound quality testing. Even without the need for an external subwoofer, it provides excellent bass response and great dialogue clarity. The PLAYBAR takes some time to set up before use – a Wi-Fi connection and the smartphone app are required for use. It also has fewer connectivity ports than others – HDMI, aux and analog audio inputs are all missing. However, if sound quality is your main priority, the SONOS PLAYBAR had superior test results.