This week we look at sound bars, which are compact all-in-one speaker systems that are typically paired with a television. This is a product that mystifies me. Who better to ask for advice than Chris Heinonen, the AV staff writer at The Wirecutter, a website owned by The New York Times that evaluates and recommends products?
Sound bars can cost more than a TV. Why would I need one?
“Need” is a strong word, but sound bars have become very popular because they solve two major problems with the way we watch TV and listen to music. Unlike the old tube-style TV sets, which had lots of space to put speakers, these thin flat-panel displays leave very little room for speakers. Since speakers work by moving air, smaller speakers don’t sound nearly as good.
There is no space on the front of the TV for speakers, so they got pushed to the bottom or the back of the panel.
At the same time, people moved from playing all their music on CDs to playing it on their computers and phones. The sleek, small sound bars don’t require any additional cables or equipment and have Bluetooth built in (or AirPlay) so you can easily play music wirelessly.
So when I think of these things, I shouldn’t think of them just for TVs, but as my new sound system?
Right. They won’t sound as good as a big pair of speakers, but they sound much better than your TV.
Can we talk about price?
People can spend around $200 and expect to get something surprisingly good for that price. We did try a $100 model just to see what it was like. It was truly awful — no better than the TV’s built-in speakers. So there is a minimum price that you should spend, but for $200 it can sound very good.
And if I am getting hard of hearing?
Lots of sound bars offer a few different things there. There is dynamic range compression, called TruVolume on Vizio sound bars, which actively adjusts and normalizes volume levels. This way you can make out when someone is whispering, without getting your eardrums obliterated by an explosion in the next scene.
Many have an option to increase the level of vocals, or the center channel level on sound bars with a center channel speaker, since voices are what are most often harder to understand. The Sonos Playbar we currently recommend in our guide to the best sound bars has an effective version of this called Speech Enhancement.
Can it do anything to diminish the sound of commercials?
This does reduce the impact of commercials that are much louder than the shows.
How do you figure out what is the best sound bar?
I set up with a three-way switch box in my house, so we can test three of them from the same source at the same time with the volume matched. We also rotated their positions to make sure height was not a factor.
I invited over a couple of writers from audio publications, and we did blind testing of them to see which sounds best. We’d listen to music and movies to get a variety of content, since we found some bars are great at one and worse at the other.
You have quite the setup in your living room, since testing audio is your life. But what do you recommend for the rest of us?
I’d have a Sonos Playbar. It’s great because it only uses your TV remote so you don’t have to learn anything. You connect everything to the TV, connect the TV to the sound bar, and that handles it. But it doesn’t have HDMI.
Some sound bars have multiple HDMI inputs, so devices connect to it and not the TV, and that allows better sound quality, but it means you need a different remote to switch inputs.
It’s $700. But it sounds as if it may be one of the easier installations?
Yeah, the living room system is pretty simple, but I think that’s probably average for people. I use a Harmony Elite universal remote to control all my devices since I have a receiver and separate speakers. But with a Playbar, I would be fine with keeping the remote that came with my TV.
The New York Times