Better sound, less space
August 20, 2013 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Are TV sound bars a good solution?

We have a surround-sound system that was cheap, sounds cheap, doesn't work reliably (it's almost 10 years old) and that we subsequently never use. We were thinking of replacing it but then as we talked about it, we realized we could easily live without surround sound, but we like good-quality sound.

Our TV is a Samsung plasma, about 7 years old and in great shape. My questions:

1. Would a sound bar be an upgrade from the TV sound, which is...fine I guess but a little flat and not very customizable?
2. What sorts of things should I be looking for in a sound bar?
3. How customizable is sound bar sound - do sound bars have their own EQ/adjustment software/processing or does it run through the TV's sound processing?
4. Obviously there are brand differences, but what are some of the better brands (looking for recommendations from your experience, not necessarily from a list of brands with 5-star Amazon reviews)?
posted by pdb to Technology (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have a Panasonic sound bar. The TV I got it with had much better built in speakers than my current one does but in both cases it represents a significant improvement in sound quality. Mine does not have any controls beyond the basics: power, volume, and input. The sub-woofer has its own volume but I actually didn't even bother to connect it after I moved and haven't really missed it so I am not convinced it's necessary.

You want both video and audio to run through the sound bar so that it's synchronized correctly. I messed this up and wired them using separate HDMI connections and it took me about a week of "why does this look so subtly wrong?" before I figured it out. This may be an issue on an older TV so make sure you've verified you have the connectors you need.
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:20 PM on August 20, 2013

1. yes

2. something from a reputable speaker manufacturer, not just samsung or something. Brands like polk audio. And regrettably, the ones i've seen that actually sound properly good are $300+. You're absolutely paying for miniaturization here the same way you still do with laptops

3. Some do, some don't. This will depend very much on the model. Generally they seem to do some amount of DSP stuff to the incoming sound and apply their own EQ curve to get the best sound they can(or proper sounding audio from the size and design of speakers they have which probably don't have a very flat response) with the available size and complement of drivers, and to apply some voodoo to attempt to create a "surround" effect if it's a unit marketed as such.

4. Polk and sony seem to get high marks, and i personally have had great experience with everything the harman group makes(infinity/polk/etc). Klipsch also makes soundbars and i'd buy something from them or polk before most of the other brands on the market. This is simply because i trust their engineering over someone like say, samsung who probably just takes a reference design from a chinese OEM and throws their badge on it. I'd have a similar opinion about most "we make everything" or primarily electronics companies besides sony who has an established rep with this sort of thing, although not for being as high quality as the speaker brands.

My one comment on this is beyond that is you will probably want a unit that includes a subwoofer(which a lot of the klipsch models seem to do, for example) and that i'd avoid a wireless sub. If the one you purchase offers the option of adding a subwoofer to the system, you'll probably want to include the price of that in your calculus.

Small speakers don't do well with actual low bass no matter how many passive radiators or what kind of clever tuned ports and enclosure design they throw at it. If you want quality low frequency response at lower volumes, you really just need a larger driver in your system somewhere to push that out. Anything that manages to cheat this rule is usually a lot larger than a soundbar.

My solution was to skip the soundbar thing, and spend a similar but a bit less amount of money on a set of quality speakers that had enough oomph to not need a sub(an earlier revision of these, if you're curious, used for $150) and a basic, but quality receiver. Craigslist should be able to set you up with a receiver and speakers that would be significantly better than anything but an extremely high end soundbar for a price that is very competitive to the lower-midrange soundbar models.
posted by emptythought at 2:24 PM on August 20, 2013

I have a Polk soundbar. It's a significant upgrade over the TV sound, which is awful (it projects backwards out of the TV and sounds flat and tinny).

However, it's not the greatest purchase I've ever made. It just does this one thing well, and it accepts a 2.5mm plug so you can also play off your mp3 player or whatever.

You're definitely going to get better value with a receiver and speakers given your want to play with EQ, but a soundbar does have the advantage of being easy, mostly wireless, and more portable.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 2:37 PM on August 20, 2013

This is the soundbar that I ended up picking over a receiver setup, with the review that won me over:Sony HT-CT260.

Here's The Wirecutter's recommendation for best over-all soundbar: MartinLogan Motion Vision

1. My soundbar is definitely a substantial step up from my TV. It's probably not as good as a great surround setup, but it's a fraction of the cost with ~90% of the quality, the setup is much easier, I don't have cords spread across my room...

2. Depends on what you want to use it for. I didn't think I'd use the Bluetooth in mine, but I've turned out to love it. You'll want one that comes with a wireless subwoofer, which settles the low-frequency issue nicely.

Something in particular you'll want to note is the height of the soundbar. If it's too tall, you might need to elevate the TV to match, for your remote.

3. I think so long as you get an otherwise good one, it'll have good customization.
posted by CrystalDave at 3:15 PM on August 20, 2013

I have a Samsung plasma that is about 5 years old. I have a Sony Soundbar. It is definitely a huge improvement. You have to mess around with the right distance and height to get the best effect, but it is SO much better than the TV sound. There is a decent amount of customization available, which my husband messed around with, but I'm not super familiar with it so I can't be more specific on that count.

For the Sony one we have, it was around $200 maybe 4 years ago, which is what the newer model is going for now.

It is great in conjunction with a Harmony remote for easy of use (there are cheaper ones available than the one linked, but we have a lot of devices).
posted by melissasaurus at 3:45 PM on August 20, 2013

After posting a similar question recently, I ended up with a Panasonic HTB-770, which i'm liking so far. It's important for these things to ensure that your TV has a HDMI port that is ARC (Audio Return Capable). Without that, you will have to use optical outputs which are of slightly lesser audio quality.
posted by softlord at 5:39 PM on August 20, 2013

I have a Sony soundbar (subwoofer included) that sounds WAY, WAY better than the TV sounds. It's not great by any means, but it's good enough. I would recommend this as a budget option when compared to a TV, as long as you get a subwoofer.
posted by cnc at 2:45 PM on August 21, 2013

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