RS Recommends: Short on Space? These Soundbars Deliver Surround Sound From Smaller Units
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Putting together a surround sound system for your home theater used to require a set of big, boxy speakers, stereo receiver, and intricately connected cables. That’s still an option, but you can save a lot of space by getting a soundbar system that supports surround sound instead.
These systems are typically smarter than traditional home theater equipment and take up significantly less space. The trade off is that home theater soundbar systems that support surround sound can’t create as immersive an experience because the front right, front left, and center channel are all built into the bar. This eliminates the ability to space every speaker in your home theater system equidistant from one another, and point them directly at a “sweet spot.”
That said, we’ve found a couple of soundbar systems that support surround sound, and they perform really well. Your experience depend heavily on the size and shape of your room, and the surround sound mix of the album, TV show, or movie you put on. Under the right circumstances, a surround sound home theater based around a soundbar will produce excellent results, especially compared to a pair of stereo speakers.
What Are the Best Surround Sound Home Theater Soundbars?
There are many factors to consider when choosing the best surround sound home theater soundbars for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Speaker Style: There are two types of surround sound home theater systems based around a soundbar.
The first uses the bar in place of a center, front right, and front left speaker, a pair of wireless satellite speakers for the back left and back right, and a subwoofer.
The second type supports Dolby Atmos, a next-generation surround sound standard that relies on speakers pointed both forward and upward, so you hear audio from multiple angles. This guide includes soundbars in both styles.
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.
Smart Home Integration: Some soundbars can be connected to a smart-home platform from Amazon and Google that allow them to do a lot more than just play music. These soundbars allow you to control accessories like smart lightbulbs, so you can change the mood lighting in your home theater system to add ambiance to your movie night or gaming session.
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.
1. JBL Bar 5.1
JBL’s Bar 5.1 offers a more streamlined take on the surround sound soundbar system.
It comes with four components: the soundbar, two wireless satellite speakers, and a wireless soundbar. JBL differentiated this system by making the two satellite speakers totally wireless. They run on rechargeable batteries that run for 10 hours. To charge them, snap the speakers onto either side of the soundbar.
The soundbar has three HDMI inputs, one optical input, one analog input, a USB port, and support for Bluetooth. This wide array of ports means you can connect multiple gadgets to the bar at once, and Bluetooth support allows you to use this soundbar as a wireless speaker for your phone, tablet, or computer.
It’s a little disappointing that JBL spent time making the physical design of this system sleek, but didn’t build any smart features into it. JBL’s Bar 5.1 is the right pick if you want a more traditional surround sound experience in a package that can get more compact when you need it to be.
2. VIZIO SB3651ns-H6
If you want a surround sound soundbar on a budget, your best bet is Vizio’s SB3651ns-H6, which brings high end features to a system under $250.
The system has four components: A 36-inch soundbar, a wireless subwoofer for enhanced bass, and a pair of wireless satellite speakers. It also supports Dolby’s DTS Virtual: X, a new, innovative surround sound technology that makes movies, TV shows, and video games sound better.
The SB3651ns-H6 has an HDMI, optical audio, and coaxial audio port, plus support for Bluetooth. These connectivity options cover all the right bases — you should have no problem connecting this soundbar to your TV. This soundbar doesn’t have any smart home integration, but that’s more of a fun extra than an essential feature.
Vizio’s SB3651ns-H6 is a huge improvement over the speakers built into your TV, and an audio upgrade you’ll wish you made sooner.
3. Polk Audio MagniFi Max SR
Polk’s MagniFi SR is a traditional 5.1 surround sound soundbar system with a built-in Chromecast. It comes in four pieces: the soundbar, a pair of wireless satellite speakers, and a wireless subwoofer. The satellite speakers aren’t totally wireless, and must be plugged into outlets to work.
This system supports Polk’s SDAaudio technology, which the company developed to help better recreate the experience of being in a movie theater. Its “Voice Adjust” technology allows you to control the volume of the center speaker without interrupting the others, so you can hear dialogue more clearly. Finally, Polk programmed this soundbar system with multiple EQ (equalization) modes that optimizes its sound for movies, music, and sports.
The MagniFi Max SR has a generous amount of ports: three HDMI, one optical audio, one 3.5mm aux, and an Ethernet input. Polk was equally generous when it comes to wireless technology, the MagniFi Max SR supports both Bluetooth and has a Chromecast built inside, so you can stream music to the bar from virtually any app.
If you want a smarter take on the traditional surround sound soundbar, Polk’s MagniFi Max SR gets our recommendation.
Buy Polk Audio MagniFi Max SR $899.00
4. Klipsch Cinema 600 5.1 Sound Bar Surround Sound System
Klipsch’s Cinema 600 5.1 Soundbar is a premium choice from one of the most trusted names in audio.
The four-piece system includes the soundbar itself, a wireless subwoofer, and two satellite speakers for a richer, more immersive experience. This soundbar will literally surround you with sound, and won’t require any additional components or upgrades down the road.
You can connect the Klipsch Cinema 600 to your TV with an HDMI or optical audio cable (in our experience HDMI works better). It doesn’t support Bluetooth, or have any smart home features, but that’s by design. This sound bar is all about audio quality.
The subwoofer has a 10-inch driver (the part of a speaker that creates sound) for deep, rich bass. It uses custom components for the speakers inside the sound bar, and a larger-than-average 3-inch driver in the surround speakers.
While you should be pleased with the Cinema 600’s audio quality out of the box, Klipsch lets you customize the EQ (equalization) in its app (iOS and Android). You can switch between a handful of pre-set EQ modes by pushing buttons on the system’s remote. There’s a “night mode” that reduces dynamic range to make the system quieter, and three dialogue modes, so you can hear people speaking more clearly.
If you don’t mind sacrificing some smart features for sound quality, Klipsch’s Cinema 600 is your best choice.
Buy Klipsch Cinema 600 5.1 Sounbar $848
5. Sonos Arc
The Arc is Sonos’ latest soundbar, and it’s full of the latest audio and smart home technology. You can use it on its own, or pair it with a Sonos Sub and two Sonos One speakers to create a cutting-edge surround sound system.
On its own, the Arc is capable of decoding Dolby Atmos, a new surround sound format that’s far more sophisticated than previous versions of surround sound. The drivers (the part of a speaker that creates sound) in the Arc are pointed forward and upward, so when you play a movie, TV show, or album that supports Dolby Atmos, different sounds will be routed through the different drivers. The result (under the right circumstances) is that you’ll hear sounds coming from in front, from behind, and above you. For the best experience with non-Atmos surround sound, you’ll want to pick up the other components I mentioned to create a multi-speaker system.
Sonos pioneered the connected speaker, so it’s no surprise the Arc is very smart. It supports both Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. If you choose to set these features up, you can control the soundbar’s basic functions (play, pause, volume up, volume down) using only your voice. These assistants can also be used to control your smart home accessories, and answer questions like, “What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” The Arc doesn’t support Siri, but it does support AirPlay 2, an Apple-developed standard that lets you wirelessly stream high resolution audio and video.
This reliance on wireless connectivity and smart features is good because the Sonos Arc only has one HDMI input. You’ll need to connect all of your home theater gear to your TV or projector, and then connect the Beam to its HDMI ARC (audio return channel) port. If that’s something you’re willing to do for the sake of having a cutting-edge piece of home theater gear, the Sonos Arc will serve you well.
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