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Most TVs these days deliver decent sound quality, but if you want that true cinema experience from your home entertainment system, you’ll want to invest in a soundbar. The speakers built into your television set are designed for everyday viewing (I.e. watching the news or streaming a talk show), but they’re often a secondary consideration for manufacturers, losing cache next to picture size and sharpness of images. If you’re watching a movie or music program, or even a show with quick, frenetic dialogue, a soundbar will help amplify the audio for bold, bracing, room-filling sound.
After all, you could always stream Black Panther on your computer, but it wouldn’t be the same as seeing it displayed on a crisp and dynamic 4K TV. Wouldn’t you want to give the film’s pulsating soundtrack and booming sound effects the same boost as well? Gamers also like adding a soundbar to pick up little details and to enhance the special effects of the game they’re playing, while sports fans know there’s no better way to feel like you’re part of the action than by having the big game blaring through a set of portable and powerful drivers.
Whether you’re adding to your home entertainment setup, decking out your workspace or upgrading your gaming console, here are five soundbars to add to your list.
What You Need to Know Before Buying a Soundbar
There are many factors to think about when choosing the right soundbar for you; 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. 5.1: 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. This doesn’t offer the same level of immersion as a 5.1 surround sound system, but the space savings may be worth it to you.
That said, we’re recommending some 2.1 soundbars that can be augmented with additional speakers to create a 5.1 surround sound system. We prioritized these options because they allow you to build up an audio system over time, so you can adapt as your home theater situation changes. We also focused on systems that had as few wires as possible, so you don’t have to choose between a great audio system and a messy room.
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. TCL Alto 7
TCL’s Alto 7 soundbar offers a quick and simple solution for people who want to ditch their TV’s internal speakers. It has an HDMI, optical, and auxiliary input, which gives you a lot of options for connectivity, and an IR pass-through cable, so you can control the soundbar with your TV remote. It comes with its own remote if you don’t want to set that up.
The Alto 7 is 36 inches long, which TCL says makes it a good choice for TVs 55 inches and larger; if you have a smaller set, its Alto 5 may be a better way to go. This is a stereo soundbar, but TCL also offers the Alto 7+, which comes with a wireless subwoofer if you want extra bass.
This soundbar doesn’t have any smart features, but it does support Bluetooth, so you can connect to it wirelessly to stream music. It may not have a lot of bells and whistles, but TCL’s Alto 7 is the perfect option for beginners.
Pros: A wide array of ports, Bluetooth support.
Cons: No smart-home integration.
2. JBL Bar
JBL’s Bar has some impressive audio features that make it a great option for people who care about surround sound, but don’t have enough space.
The 2.1 audio system comes with a 42-inch soundbar, and 6.5-inch wireless subwoofer for additional bass. JBL designed the subwoofer to be tall and slim instead of going with the traditional box shape, which makes it look more modern.
The bar has a HDMI and optical inputs, and supports Bluetooth, so you can stream audio to it wirelessly. While the JBL Bar can’t match a true 5.1 system, the company built a Dolby decoder into this soundbar, which mixes the audio between its speakers to simulate surround sound. JBL also threw 300 watts of total system power at this soundbar, so if you’re looking for a real room-filling experience, you’ll find it here.
The JBL Bar doesn’t have any smart home support, but the company’s commitment to impressive audio features more than makes up for this minor downside.
Pros: Dolby decoder simulates surround sound, 300 watts of power, wireless subwoofer.
Cons: No smart-home integration
3. Sonos Beam Smart TV Sound Bar with Amazon Alexa
Sonos has built its reputation on having smart, easy to use speakers, and its latest soundbar, The Beam, doesn’t disappoint. The 2.0 soundbar is packed with features inside its slim, 25.6 inch frame, which I got to experience during my year of using it in my home theater system.
Sonos did a good job coaxing a lot of sound out of the Beam, and I was impressed at how it sounded right out of the box. Dialogue, background effects, and loud noises (think explosions in an action movie) were always crystal clear, even at high volumes. Sonos built in an optional “speech enhancement mode,” which boosts voices, but I rarely found it necessary to use.
Unlike the other soundbars in this guide, the Beam only has a single HDMI port for connectivity. Sonos also includes an HDMI to optical audio adapter, which offers an additional option.
The reason to get the Sonos Beam — beyond its ultra compact size, which is a big asset — is its smart slew of smart features. You can set the Beam up to work with Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant, which allows you to use it for smart-home tasks like controlling accessories. You can also get answers to your questions, set timers, or ask the Beam to stream music from a variety of sources.
Apple has locked Siri support to its devices, but the Sonos Beam does support AirPlay 2, which lets you set it up as a smart speaker within Apple’s “Home” app. Once you’ve done that, you can ask Siri to play music on the Beam via your phone.
The Beam is a 3.0 audio system out of the box (Sonos says the speaker array inside the soundbar offer distinct right, left, and center channels), but you can turn it into a 3.1 system by adding a Sonos Sub to your system. You can take things further by adding a pair of Sonos One speakers to the system to create a 5.1 surround sound system. All of these speakers connect to one another wirelessly, so you won’t need to string speaker cables around your room.
Pros: Supports Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and AirPlay 2, compact size.
Cons: Limited port selection.
4. Sony Z9F Soundbar
If you have a high-end TV, and want to pair it with a luxe soundbar, we recommend Sony’s Z9F.
The 44.5-inch 3.1 audio system — like Sonos, Sony spaces the drivers in its soundbar far enough away it considers them separate right, left, and center channels — comes with a wireless subwoofer, and delivers on features typically found in a larger, more traditional home theater system.
The Z9F handles the basics just fine: it has two HDMI ports, one optical input, and support for Bluetooth. From there, Sony went the extra mile to put this soundbar into a whole other league.
It supports Dolby Atmos, 3D surround, and DTS-X, which are the highest-end surround sound audio standards. The ability to decode these signals allows the Z9F to offer a detailed, immersive experience to hardcore audio fans. These features are especially welcome because you can expand this soundbar with a pair of wireless Sony speakers to create a full 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system.
The Z9F supports high resolution audio streaming through a Sony-created technology called DSEE HX (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) for audiophiles who want to connect an SACD player, or digital high resolution audio streamer.
On the smart-home side, the Z9F doesn’t have Alexa built in, but it can be connected to an Echo device to gain voice control. Additionally, it has a Chromecast built in, so you can stream video to the soundbar directly from apps like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, wirelessly. If you’re looking for a home theater in a small package without many compromises, this is it.
Pros: An exceptional amount of audio features, a wide array of ports, can be upgraded over time.
Cons: Limited built in smart features.