Now to be clear, a full-fledged surround-sound system with five separate speakers (or more) and a subwoofer is the best way to get the highest audio performance out of a TV. But the reality is, for a lot of people, that just isn’t a practical option. The system and its mess of wires running between the units can take up a lot of space and stand out in a room. And if they’re wireless, it can require a lot of patience to get them setup and synced. While a sound bar might not be able to give you quite the same theater-like experience, it does present a more compact and unobtrusive way to significantly upgrade from your TV’s built-in speakers.
Sound bars can vary considerably in audio quality, however, and some will be better suited for a small apartment or bedroom than a large living room or dedicated home theater. Similarly, they can also vary widely in features, with some acting solely as speakers and others all-in-one units complete with built-in streaming. All of which can make choosing the right one for your needs a difficult task.
Check out quick info below on the five top-rated sound bars, then scroll deeper for more buying advice and full reviews of those models plus other high-ranking options.
Number of Channels
One of the first things to consider in a sound bar is the number of channels—the individual sources of sound or speakers within the entire unit—you’ll want. The most basic models will just have two channels (referred to as 2.0) like your TV, or two channels and a separate subwoofer, indicated with a 2.1. If you want a more immersive, surround-sound experience, you’ll want more channels. A three-channel sound bar means you’ll have left, right, and center speakers all contained within the main bar, while a five-channel unit adds rear left and rear right speakers to the mix—usually in the form of wireless speakers that give you plenty of flexibility in their placement. Some sound bars, especially those that support Dolby Atmos, can add even more speakers to the main unit, including ones pointed upward that bounce sound off the ceiling for a fully immersive effect.
Active vs. Passive
There are also two main types of sound bars: active and passive, though the active variety is by far the most popular. An active sound bar is an entirely self-powered and self-contained unit that includes a built-in amplifier—all you need to do is plug it into the wall and connect it to your TV (either with a single HDMI ARC cable or an HDMI cable for video and an optical cable for audio).
A passive sound bar, on the other hand, is more akin to traditional surround sound speakers. It doesn’t have a built-in amplifier, so you need to connect it to a separate receiver instead and run individual speaker wires for each channel in the sound bar. That also means they don’t offer any additional connectivity or features of their own—you’ll need to rely on your receiver for that. That makes them less convenient for most people, but they can allow for a higher-end setup and better sound if you’re willing to invest in (and make room for) the additional gear required.
As with any piece of audio/video gear, you’ll want to consider the connectivity options on a sound bar before you settle on one. Outside of the aforementioned HDMI and optical audio connections for your TV, some also have standard 3.5mm, RCA audio, or USB inputs to accommodate everything from a turntable to a smartphone. Wireless connectivity is also common, and can come via both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the latter of which can allow some sound bars to function as standalone smart speakers with support for Alexa or Google Assistant and as part of a multi-room audio system.
How We Rated These Sound Bars
We consulted reviews from trusted expert sources—including CNET, Wirecutter, and What Hi-Fi—as well as researched thousands of consumer reviews on online retailers like Amazon and Best Buy to select the best sound bars. We then used those customer reviews to calculate our Consumer Score, which indicates the percentage of people who have bought each sound bar and given it a rating of at least four out of five stars.
Consumer Score: 88% gave it 4 stars or more
A space- and wallet-saving setup
Connectivity: Bluetooth | Channels: 2.1 | Dimensions: 36 x 2.1 x 5.2 in.
If you are looking for a budget-friendly option that’s sleek and not too big, consider this Vizio. While it doesn’t have the most incredible sound, it is loud, immersive, and surround-sound-like—certainly better than anything coming from your TV. Since it’s only a bit more than two inches high, it can fit comfortably under most TVs, and also includes brackets if your TV is mounted. This one doesn’t come with a subwoofer though, so you may want to get one to fill out the bass. For under $100, your dollar goes a long way, and while it may not have all the bells and whistles some high-end sets include, it does its basic job well.
—FOR MEDIA STREAMING—
Consumer Score: 93% gave it 4 stars or more
Works equally well with the TV or on its own
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, HDMI, optical audio, USB | Channels: 2.0 | Dimensions: 32.2 x 2.8 x 3.9 in.
It might not be ideal depending on your current setup, but if you’re looking to add both a standalone media streamer and a sound bar to a TV, Roku’s Smart is a great, affordable, all-in-one option. Naturally, it has a full-fledged Roku media streamer built into it, which will let you easily watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, and countless other streaming services, and CNET found it to be a great-sounding bar for the price. What’s more, a recent software update now lets you pair the Smart with Roku’s inexpensive wireless speakers (in addition to the subwoofer it already worked with), meaning you can build out a full surround-sound system for about $300.
—HIGHLY RATED PASSIVE—
Klipsch RP-440D SB
Consumer Score: 93% gave it 4 stars or more
Exceptional sound in a simple package
Connectivity: None, speaker connections only | Channels: 3.0 | Dimensions: 42 x 6 x 2.5 in.
You’ll need a receiver to power it (and a subwoofer to get the most out of it), but Klipsch’s RP-440D SB is a great passive sound bar if you’re looking to streamline your home theater setup without sacrificing sound quality. It’s a three-channel sound bar with left, center, and right channels in the single unit. And, being passive, that’s about all it offers in terms of features—any Bluetooth streaming or other connectivity will have to be handled by a separate receiver you connect it to. That means all of your money is going strictly to the speakers, and with Klipsch you can be sure you’re getting what you pay for in that department. If you’re looking to go all out with your sound bar setup, the audiophile-grade Klipsch Heritage Theater Bar is another, even pricier option.
Samsung Harman Kardon HW-Q90R
Consumer Score: 86% gave it 4 stars or more
The deepest, richest sound, (at the highest price)
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, HDMI (2), optical audio | Channels: 7.1.4 | Dimensions: 48.3 x 3.3 x 5.4 in.
A traditional multi-channel system is no longer enough if you’re looking to eke every last possible bit of audio from a home theater, be it with a sound bar or surround-sound speakers. You’ll want something that supports what’s known as “object-based” audio in the form of Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Put simply, that means the audio is automatically formatted to whatever device you’re listening through—a bar, a pair of headphones, etc.—which allows for even more immersive sound. And sound bars don’t get much more immersive than Samsung’s top-of-the-line HW-Q90R, which employs no less than 17 built-in speakers, plus two wireless rear speakers, and a subwoofer to deliver room-filling audio. Built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity also give you full streaming capabilities. You’ll have to fork over a considerable amount of money for this sound bar, so consider carefully whether you need all that. But if you do, the HW-Q90R will serve you well.
—SMART SOUND BAR—
Consumer Score: 83% gave it 4 stars or more
Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Airplay come baked in
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet | Channels: 3.0 | Dimensions: 25.6 x 2.7 x 3.9 in.
Support for streaming and voice control may be increasingly common among sound bars, but the Sonos Beam covers more bases than most when it comes to smart functionality. Apart from Sonos’s own multi-room audio capability, it supports both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, and adds Apple AirPlay 2 support for good measure. It also delivers great sound without a separate subwoofer, with What Hi-Fi saying that it’s “one of the best performance-per-pound products Sonos has produced.” And should you find yourself wanting even fuller sound down the road, you can always add a Sonos Sub or extra Sonos speakers for a more complete setup.
—A SOLID MID-RANGE OPTION—
Consumer Score: 72% gave it 4 stars or more
A compact machine with surround-sound effects
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, HDMI, optical audio | Channels: 2.1 | Dimensions: 36.6 x 2.5 x 4.3 in.
Yamaha’s YAS-209 costs a bit more than some budget bars from the likes of Vizio, but its mix of features and great sound quality make it a widely recommended choice for anyone looking to step up a bit from other, more entry-level options. CNET and Wirecutter both found that the YAS-209’s built-in Alexa functionality performed well, and they each also reported that the sound bar did a good job of simulating a full surround-sound effect thanks to its DTS Virtual:X processing. While the unit itself is nice and compact, the subwoofer that’s paired with it will require you to make some room. What you lose in space though you gain in sound and savings: The reward is deeper, richer bass than you’ll get from a smaller subwoofer without pricing the YAS-209 out of reach for many people.
JBL Bar 5.1 Surround
Consumer Score: 87% gave it 4 stars or more
A mid-tier bar with expansive sound
Connectivity: Bluetooth | Channels: 5.1 | Dimensions: 43.5 x 15 x 19.2 in.
If you were hoping for a sleek look, this certainly isn’t it. But what the JBL Bar lacks in grace, it makes up for in bass thanks to the included subwoofer. And it also excels on the higher end—with Amazon reviewers calling out its balanced sound—giving it an impressive range overall and making it a solid choice for both music and movies. Both the bar and subwoofer connect via Bluetooth and will sync automatically when powered up, so bonus points for the ease of set up.
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