Dec. 11, 2013 at 6:35 PM ET
Here’s a conundrum: As HDTV displays have gotten bigger, flatter and more advanced, their built-in speakers have become smaller, less powerful and less effective. There’s a solution to the problem, though, and it doesn’t necessarily involve spending wads of cash: Add a soundbar to your HDTV. Soundbars range from fully powered standalone units with multiple speakers and built-in subs to passive versions that you have to connect to an A/V receiver. In assembling our Five Best Soundbar Bets list, we limited the choices to powered units, most of which come with an outboard wireless subwoofer for extra bass impact. And we didn’t just focus on the cheap stuff: Prices for the soundbars we’ve selected range from $300 up to around $1,100. No matter which model you select, you can fully expect it to leave the performance of your TV’s built-in speakers in the dust.
Pioneer SP-SB23W ($300)
Pioneer has garnered some rave reviews for this one — specifically from Sound &Vision magazine in its recent roundup test of budget soundbars, where it received Top Pick certification. What makes it good? For starters, the 2.1-channel Pioneer SP-SB23W has a composite wood enclosure instead of the plastic cabinet that you find in most budget soundbars. It also employs separate 28-watt amps to power each unit in its left/right driver arrays, which consist of a 1-inch tweeter and a pair of 3-inch woofers. Pioneer’s subwoofer, meanwhile, uses a 50-watt amp to power its 6.5-inch driver. Inputs include optical digital and minijack analog stereo, and it can stream music via Bluetooth.
JBL Cinema SB400 ($549)
Another Top Pick from the same Sound & Vision test, JBL’s Cinema SB400 promises more bass power courtesy of an 8-inch subwoofer driven by a hefty 200-watt amp. This 2.1-channel bar contains a 1-inch tweeter and dual 2.25-inch woofers in each of its left/right driver arrays. It has 3 HDMI inputs to connect sources and an HDMI output with ARC (Audio Return Channel), a feature that lets you stream TV sound back to the soundbar from a compatible HDTV. Like Pioneer’s SP-SB23W, it has optical digital and minijack analog stereo inputs and can also stream music via Bluetooth.
Polk SurroundBar 9000 IHT ($599)
When it comes to performance, Polk Audio soundbar systems are generally a solid bet. The Polk Audio SurroundBar 9000 IHT , which sits near the top of the company’s range, is currently being sold for $599 on Amazon—a killer price for a such a capable rig. The subwoofer has an 8-inch driver powered by a 150-watt amp, while the bar uses a total of 3 tweeters and 5 midrange drivers, each powered by its own 45-watt amp. All drivers contribute to maintaining center-channel dialogue intelligibility, and Polk’s SDA Surround technology works to create an impression of 5.1-channel surround sound without the rear-channel speakers. Inputs include 2-each minijack analog stereo and optical digital connections, and Polk tosses an optical digital cable in the box for good measure.
Sonos Playbar ($700)
Sonos has a well-deserved rep as a maker of reliable, good-sounding wireless audio systems. In 2013, the company branched out into making the Sonos Playbar, its first soundbar, and the response (plenty of positive reviews, 4.4 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com) has done nothing to diminish the company’s status. A 1-inch tweeter and dual 3-inch woofers are used for each channel in the 3-channel Playbar. Sonos doesn’t release power specs, but the unit that I heard in a demo was more than loud enough. The Playbar features proprietary surround processing (and decent enough bass), but you can also expand out to a full 5.1 system by adding Sonos Play:3 speakers for the rear channels and a Sonos SUB subwoofer. And while the Playbar can wirelessly stream audio the same as other Sonos speakers, an optical digital input is present for a direct connection to an HDTV or Blu-ray player.
Samsung HW-F850 ($1,097)
The slim, sexy Samsung HW-F850 soundbar, a model designed for 55-inch HDTVs, has one feature that no other soundbar can claim: onboard vacuum tube electronics. The company is clearly proud of this fact, not only displaying the tubes in a central window on the HW-F850, but enhancing them with orange-hued LEDs for extra warm-glow effect. The 2-channel bar has a 6-speaker driver array, with the .1 bass duties handled by a wireless subwoofer containing a 6.5-inch driver. Total power for the system is spec’d at 350 watts. Inputs include HDMI, optical digital, minijack stereo audio and USB, and there’s an HDMI output with ARC for feeding TV sound back from a compatible HDTV. It also has Bluetooth to stream music from smartphones and tablets along with a SoundShare feature to stream audio from Samsung TVs.
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