As flat-panel televisions get thinner, so do their internal sound systems. That’s where a sound bar may be the remedy.
When it comes to great television sound, thin is definitely not in.
While the ever-decreasing depths of flat-panel, high-definition TVs are great for aesthetics, those same sets’ internal speakers are becoming anemic. Audio from most modern midprice televisions sounds thin and tremulous, unable to keep pace with the visual excitement of a high-definition basketball game or an epic adventure film.
The best way to create great sound is to use external speakers, placing them in front and behind the viewer, similar to a setup in a movie theater. A typical home-theater system includes five speakers and a subwoofer, collectively known as 5.1 audio. But for those who do not want that headache, sound bars may be the answer.
Designed as a single horizontal unit, sound bars can significantly improve a television’s audio, allowing listeners to hear music and effects that would be inaudible without them.
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Sound bars can approximate the more immersive effect of true multispeaker surround systems. They can be used on their own, and many can also work with an external subwoofer — a speaker that can enhance low frequencies, like explosions and bass notes — to add a more realistic experience.
Sound bars vary widely in price, from $100 to more than $1,000. The more expensive units tend to be heavier and use better sound-transmitting materials and electronics.
They also vary in their ability to produce a wide range of frequencies. With some units, for example, you may not be able to clearly hear deep male voices without an additional subwoofer.
Sound bars typically include Bluetooth receivers, allowing users to stream their music from a smartphone or tablet directly to the bar. They also offer a simple setup, sidestepping complex wired connections.
To keep things easy, most manufacturers recommend connecting all of one’s entertainment sources — disc player, video-game console and satellite or cable box — directly into the television. Then connect the sound bar to the HDTV, using the TV’s optical-audio output, into the corresponding optical input of the sound bar.
Once you select the Blu-ray player or satellite signal to play through the television, the appropriate audio signal will automatically be routed to the sound bar.
The disadvantage is that many TVs cannot pass a true Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround-sound signal through the optical output, sending a two-channel signal instead. Most sound bars use algorithms to create a simulated surround effect, but selective ears will hear a difference.
Some sound-bar manufacturers incorporate HDMI inputs into their products, allowing users to plug Blu-ray players and satellite or cable boxes directly into the sound bar, which then can produce a Dolby 5.1 signal.
To display the new ultrahigh-resolution image from coming 4K Blu-ray Discs and the streaming content onto 4K ultrahigh-definition TVs, check to ensure that the sound bar’s HDMI connection is compatible with the newest version, HDMI 2.0, and the HDCP 2.2 copyright standard.
If all this sounds too complicated, simply connect all your devices into the television, and then connect the audio from the TV to the sound bar, and you’re done.
A few products to consider:
Paradigm: One of the costliest sound bars, Paradigm’s $1,500 Soundscape includes four built-in low-frequency speakers for deep bass. For those who would still like to use an external subwoofer, a wireless receiver is included that attaches to any existing subwoofer unit.
At 42 inches in length, the 20-pound Soundscape offers rich bass and crisp sound. When I tested it, I heard music that I had been missing from my TV’s internal speakers.
Sonos: The company that made a name for itself with audio systems that elegantly play content streamed from devices and the Internet has created the $700 Playbar. The product can be used alone or with a physical subwoofer and several of its Play units to create multispeaker surround sound.
The Playbar is 35 inches long and almost 12 pounds, and it includes six midrange speakers and three tweeters. The recommended Sonos wireless subwoofer is a $700 option.
Setup is simple and intuitive. An existing TV remote controls the Playbar’s volume, and the Sonos app is used to stream content from the Internet and local devices.
The Playbar accepts Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. If the television cannot pass it through, the Playbar’s system will create a virtual surround-sound field.
Vizio: The company sells more sound bars than any other manufacturer, according to the market-research firm the NPD Group, with prices ranging from $80 to $399, in sizes from 29 to 54 inches long.
Depending on the model, Vizio sound bars can reproduce Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS surround-sound technologies.