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Consumer Reports: Great Soundbars at Every Price

Soundbars from Bose, Onn, Sonos, Vizio, and other brands can provide better audio quality for your TV
Bose
/ Source: Consumer Reports

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When you’re shopping for a new TV, you might treat sound quality as an afterthought. That’s understandable—picture quality comes first, along with pricing. But sound is critical, too. Of the more than 250 sets in Consumer Reports’ TV ratings, most earn no more than a decent score for sound. That’s probably fine for routine sitcoms, talk shows, and the like. But for movies and TV dramas, you might want a bit more sonic oomph.

To buy a TV with a top score for sound quality, you may have to pay more, and perhaps invest in a TV that’s larger than you really want.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: adding a soundbar to the TV of your choice. Below, we’ve listed several great options from our soundbar ratings, which are available to CR digital members.

Here are some soundbar basics. Most models tuck several speakers into a thin enclosure that can be mounted on a wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Pedestal-style sound bases are sturdy enough to support a set.

Soundbars are often sold with a wireless subwoofer to help with bass, and a few have rear speakers for a true surround-sound experience. A growing number support Dolby Atmos and DTS:X “immersive” 3D audio formats, which add an element of height to the surround-sound experience.

Many models also have Bluetooth, letting you stream music wirelessly from a phone or tablet. Those with two-way Bluetooth let you also send sound from the soundbar to Bluetooth headphones for private listening.

Some advanced models offer access to streaming video and music services right from the soundbar itself.

More companies are getting into the act. In addition to options from long-established names, you’ll find models from newer soundbar brands—including Walmart’s Onn house brand, along with Razer, Roku, and TCL—in our ratings. Many of these are lower-priced models.

Soundbar Shopping Tips

Here are a few tips to consider when you’re shopping.

• Make sure you can return or exchange the soundbar, even if you get to listen to it in a store before buying it. Speakers may sound very different in your home.

• Determine how many channels of sound you want. To simply enhance your TV sound, an inexpensive soundbar with 2.1 channels (two front channels and a separate subwoofer) will do nicely. But if you want true surround sound, choose a 5.1-channel system, which will have rear speakers.

• Decide whether to spring for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. These newer immersive surround-sound technologies can give movies with specially encoded soundtracks a more dramatic, lifelike effect. This is usually accomplished by using speakers that include upfiring drivers to add a sense of height to the sound.

“When done well, especially with models that have front and rear height-enabled speakers, listeners can really get a three-dimensional sound experience,” says Rich Fisco, who leads electronics testing at CR. Some sounds, such as a helicopter flying overhead, can appear to be coming from above the listener.

Here are a few top picks for soundbars at various prices. Members can get detailed test results for all of the 50-plus tested models in our soundbar ratings.

Best Bargain Soundbar: Creative Stage 2.1

It’s hard to find a decent-sounding soundbar for less than $100, but you have at least one solid option: the Creative Stage 2.1.

This budget-priced 2.1-channel system delivers good overall sound, so more casual listeners should find that it works well for both music and movie soundtrack playback. It lacks some features usually found in pricier models, however. It’s not compatible with voice-enabled digital assistants, and you can’t use it to stream tunes directly from online music services.

But this soundbar does have built-in Bluetooth for streaming music from a portable device, as well as a wired subwoofer. Note that this model is getting harder to find. It’s being replaced by the Creative Stage V2 2.1. We’ll be getting one into the labs to test.

Alternative Pick

The Onn Roku Smart Soundbar is a low-priced model with good overall sound quality. It’s a bit more expensive than the Creative Stage, but it also has a few more features, including a built-in 4K HDR Roku streaming media player, so you can access streaming services right from the soundbar. You can also add an optional Onn Roku wireless-powered subwoofer for extra bass.

Creative Stage 2.1

Onn Roku Smart Soundbar (unavailable)

Best Midpriced Soundbar: Sonos Beam (Gen 2)

Despite its relatively small size, the Sonos Beam (Gen 2) delivers very good sound quality.

The model has a lot of features but is priced several hundred dollars below the company’s Arc soundbar, which is also highly recommended. (See below for info on the Arc.) Compared with the first-gen model it replaces, the new Sonos Beam has more processing power, plus support for HDMI eArc—which provides a big boost in bandwidth and speed. It supports Dolby Atmos immersive audio, though it lacks upfiring drivers. Like the earlier model, it has both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant built in, so you can control the Beam, other Sonos speakers, and additional Alexa- or Google Assistant-powered devices using voice commands. It also supports Apple AirPlay 2 for streaming from Apple devices. It comes in a choice of black or white.

Alternative Picks

The Polk Audio Command Bar, a 2.1-channel system, also has very good sound, for a bit less money. It has Amazon Alexa built in, so you can control volume and switch between inputs using voice commands. For people willing to spend just a bit more, the Samsung HW-Q65T/ZA is a complete 5.1-channel system that comes with two wireless rear surround speakers and a wireless subwoofer. It, too, has very good overall sound.

Sonos Beam (Gen 2)

Polk Audio Command Bar (unavailable)

Samsung HW-Q65T/ZA

Best Premium Soundbar: Sonos Arc

The Sonos Arc is our top-rated soundbar, an all-in-one Dolby Atmos model that has a built-in subwoofer. It delivers very good overall sound quality, and with the addition of optional rear speakers, it expands into a full-blown surround-sound system.

The main enclosure has 11 drivers, including side-firing and upfiring speakers, which creates a sense of height when you’re playing content with Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks.

Like the Sonos Beam, the Sonos Arc has both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant built in, and it supports AirPlay 2 for streaming audio from Apple devices. The speaker has built-in WiFi for music streaming from several services, as well as Bluetooth for beaming music from smartphones and other compatible devices.

Alternative Picks

Two other great choices can do justice to both music and movie soundtracks: the Bose Soundbar 700 and the Vizio Elevate P514a-H6.

Like the Sonos Arc, the Bose Soundbar 700 is an all-in-one model that can be expanded into a surround-sound system when paired with optional Bose rear speakers and a wireless subwoofer. The soundbar has Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant built in, and comes with a universal remote control that can be set to operate a TV, a cable box, and other audio/video devices.

The Vizio Elevate P514a-H6 is a pricier 5.1.4-channel soundbar system that comes with rear satellite speakers and a large wireless subwoofer. Among its unique features are motorized speakers at either end of the enclosure that rotate upward to operate as height channels when the system detects a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X signal.

Sonos Arc Soundbar

Bose Soundbar 700

Vizio Elevate - P514a-H6

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