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The easiest way to set up or upgrade your existing home theater system is replacing your TV or projector’s integrated speakers with a sound bar. The reason why is simple: TVs have gotten thinner and lighter, which is great for screen technology, but doesn’t leave a lot of room for speakers. Sound bars are an all-in-one audio system (speakers with a built-in amp) that can offer excellent sound without taking up very much space.
Size and style (stereo or surround sound) are the two of the main characteristics you need to think about when getting a sound bar, but this guide is focused on value — I.e. the best cheap sound bars. The picks below all stand out in a particular way, like offering highly advanced virtual surround sound, or having a smart assistant built into it, but all cost less than $300.
Despite this price ceiling, the sound bars below don’t have any real compromises, and all of them will likely be an upgrade over the speakers in your TV.
What Are the Best Cheap Sound Bars?
There are many factors to think about when choosing the best affordable sound bar; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Ports: A soundbar’s inputs (otherwise known as ports) are what allow you to connect it to your TV. The most common ports found on soundbars are HDMI and Optical inputs, which are both found on all TVs released in the past ten years.
2.0 vs. 2.1: One of the biggest reasons to get a soundbar rather than a multi-speaker audio system is its compact size, which means most of them are stereo (2.0) or stereo + subwoofer (2.1) audio systems. The recommendations in our guide are a mix of 2.0, and integrated 2.1 sound bars, which means there’s an extra bass speaker built into the main bar.
Bluetooth support: Your soundbar will always be connected to your TV with a cable, but many of the options on this list support Bluetooth. This lets you connect your phone, tablet, or computer to the soundbar and stream music to it wirelessly, which is nice if your home theater setup is in a living room or common area and you want to play DJ for yourself or guests.
BEST OVERALL: Sony HTX8500
Sonys HTX8500 tops our list because it supports Dolby Atmos, an advanced audio technology that’s basically the next major update to surround sound.
Full-sized Dolby Atmos home theater systems require you to place seven or more speakers equidistant from one another and pointing at the place you’ll be sitting in order to get the best results. This sound bar uses a “virtual sound engine” to achieve a similar effect by pointing speakers forward, leftward, rightward, and upward. It relies on sound waves reflecting off the walls and ceiling toward you for the surround sound effect. If you don’t care for surround sound, the HTX8500 is a solid 2.1 sound bar, with two subwoofers that Sony says provides deep bass.
This sound bar has seven pre-set EQ modes for common uses like gaming, watching movies, the news, and sports. There’s a separate “voice enhancement” feature, which decreases background noises, so you can hear people speaking more clearly. These modes are pretty standard, but definitely welcome.
In terms of ports, Sony’s sound bar has one HDMI input, one optical audio input, one HDMI output, and a USB port. If you plan on using the sound bar’s Dolby Atmos features, you need to connect it to your TV’s HDMI ARC (audio return channel) port. No special HDMI cable is required. It may not have too many ports, but the HTX8500 supports Bluetooth, so you can stream audio from your wireless devices — phones, tablets, laptops — when you’re not watching TV. You can also use Bluetooth to wirelessly stream audio from some Sony TVs.
If you’d like a surround sound experience but don’t have too much space, Sony’s HTX8500 is the right choice.
BEST VALUE: TCL Alto 5
TCL’s Alto 5 is a great entry-level choice that has many must-have features, and will sound better than the speakers that are inside your TV.
This is a stereo sound bar, which means it doesn’t support surround sound (simulated or otherwise) or come with a subwoofer. TCL says the sound bar was designed to deliver deep bass, though, and you can get the Alto 5 in a bundle with a wireless subwoofer if you’d prefer a true 2.1 system. The sound bar has built-in “sound modes” that changes its EQ (equalization) based on the content you’re listening to.
The Alto 5 has an optical audio input and 3.5mm audio input, both of which can be used to connect the sound bar to your TV. It also supports Bluetooth, so you can wirelessly stream audio to it from your mobile devices. If you’re looking for a simple stereo sound bar to improve your home theater setup, the Alto 5 has you covered.
MOST RELIABLE: Bose TV Speaker
Bose’s TV Speaker is a sound bar that delivers on features, but comes in a very small size.
The sound bar is only 23.4-inches long, so it’s a great choice if you’re space-constrained. Despite its size, the sound bar doesn’t have any major shortcomings. It’s a 2.0 stereo sound bar, so it doesn’t have a subwoofer, or support surround sound. Bose says the TV Speaker has a pair of full-sized drivers (the part of a speaker or headphone responsible for producing sound), which produce higher quality audio. It has two custom modes: enhanced speech, to emphasize vocal tracks, and bass boost to add more low frequencies.
This sound bar has an HDMI input, optical audio input, and 3.5mm AUX input, so you have a handful of connectivity options. It also supports Bluetooth, so you can wirelessly stream audio to it from your devices. This port selection is pretty generous compared to our other sound bar picks, which is surprising given the TV Speaker’s smaller size.
If you don’t want to have a big, bulky audio system, but want better sound while you’re watching movies and TV shows, or listening to music, Bose’s TV Speaker is a good pick up.
SMARTEST PICK: Yamaha YAS-109
Yamaha’s YAS-109 is a 2.1 sound bar that has Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant built into it.
The sound bar has a pair of speakers plus two subwoofers, which should provide balanced sound with a fairly significant amount of bass. The YAS-109 also supports simulated surround sound through Dolby’s DTS Virtual technology, and can natively play high resolution (better than CD-quality) audio files without compression. The sound bar has a Clear Voice mode, which boosts the volume of dialogue to make it easier to hear.
The YAS-109 has an HDMI input, one HDMI output, an ethernet jack, a subwoofer out, an optical audio input, and a USB port, so you should have no problem connecting the sound bar to your TV. It also supports Bluetooth, so you can stream music to it wirelessly from all of your mobile devices.
What really sets this subwoofer apart is that it has a microphone, and supports Amazon Alexa. Once it’s set up, you can use Alexa to adjust settings like volume, control smart-home accessories, and stream music directly from select music streaming services without touching any of your other gadgets.
If you’d like a sound bar that improves your home theater system, and expands your smart home into your living room without a separate devices, you should seriously consider the YAS-109.
MOST COMPACT: Roku Streambar
The best portable sound bar on our list is a new entry from Roku, who combine TV streaming and full-range audio in one, compact device. The Roku Streambar is the ultimate two-in-one entertainment upgrade with the ability to stream your favorite channels in 4K HDR quality, while experiencing full, rich, Dolby Audio sound. At just 16 x 7 inches, it’s the smallest sound bar on our list. Pair it with your phone for easy Bluetooth streaming, and take the Streambar with you to a party or tailgate.
Setup is simple with everything in the box, including a remote that works manually, or with your voice. Ask the Streambar to search for content, turn captions on, adjust volume and more, all without having to leave your spot on the couch to pick up the remote.
The Streambar is a great option for dorm rooms, bedrooms and family rooms alike, with the versatility of a media streamer combined with the big, boosted audio of a sound bar. What we like: Roku says you can even optimize the sound for night listening so you don’t wake the rest of the house when you’ve got the TV or music on.