Soundbars are an alternative to five-, six-, seven- or more speaker home theater sound systems. One sleek bar and an optional subwoofer can deliver a full range of room-filling sound without the hassle of speaker placement and new wiring.
Soundbars are ideal for small to mid-sized rooms with four walls because they rely on sound bouncing off the walls to provide a surround sound-like effect. If you're like a reader who recently wrote asking for a soundbar recommendation for his open-plan 25-foot-by-25-foot room, you are probably better off with a system that includes rear speakers that can be strategically placed to direct sound back into the room.
However, if you're looking for an easy way to add rich sound to your HDTV in a standard-sized room, a soundbar can be an affordable and satisfying solution.
What to pay
Soundbars are usually less expensive than multi-speaker systems. Plan on spending between $200 and $400. Audiophiles may want to consider pricier units. But unless you have a dedicated home theater, ambient household noise like the dishwasher running or cars driving by may negate the nuanced sound from more expensive soundbars.
For soundbars, future-proof means 3-D sound support that is engineered to produce even more realistic sound than surround sound. Whether or not you have or plan to purchase a 3-D TV, the newer audio technology found in some soundbars can produce richer sound.
"Surround sound can give you a sense of an explosion happening at a distance, but it's not accurate," Professor Edgar Choueiri, a Princeton University physics professor who is working on a 3-D audio system for vintage music recording, said in an interview with the BBC. "With 3-D audio, I can get a fly to go around your head."
To hear the really low sounds in a music or movie track, a subwoofer can be added to a soundbar if it has a port for the connection. Alternately, some units have a wireless connection to the soundbar. Some soundbars may come with a separate subwoofer.
Wireless technology between a soundbar and its subwoofer will increase the placement options and eliminate an unsightly cable. For instance, the Samsung HW-D550 introduced at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, can be placed up to 33 feet from the soundbar.
The soundbar should have integrated volume leveler technology, so that volume remains constant when switching between channels or video inputs. It should also feature embedded Dolby Digital and DTS for compatibility with HD movies.
The Samsung HW-D550 can be considered future-proof, along with Panasonic's SC-HTB-520 and Vizio's VHT-215. This year's soundbars are about half the thickness of older models, to better align with a thin wall-mounted HDTV.
The Samsung is the priciest of the three, at $400, and is 1.8 inches thick. The Panasonic costs around $350 and is 1.72 inches deep, while Vizio is the least expensive of the three at $250 and measures 2.1 inches deep.
Consider two others
For more than 50 years, the "Iron Law" of acoustics established a fixed relationship between the cabinet size and bass response of loudspeakers. Up until recently, a good soundbar needed a separate subwoofer because its form factor couldn't accommodate an appropriate bass speaker. While an external soundbar subwoofer can deliver sounds down to around 20Hz, engineers have been able to integrate a subwoofer into a fairly slim soundbar and produce bass sounds at around 50Hz.
Atlantic Technologies and Yamaha each introduced soundbars at this month's CEDIA home theater trade show that produce comfortably deep bass sounds.
Atlantic unveiled its H-PAS PowerBar 235, a soundbar with an integrated subwoofer. Its cabinet is 5.75 inches deep.
The PowerBar has a bass response down to 47Hz. An official price has not yet been announced, but show reps expect the PowerBar to cost around $700.
Yamaha launched its YAS-101 Front Surround System. At $300, it's half the cost or less than Yamaha's previous soundbars. The new 4.25-inch deep soundbar includes a subwoofer with a 50Hz capability. Bass is funneled through two ducts, one at each end of the soundbar.
Size and set-up
Match the width of the soundbar to the HDTV. If you can't find a perfect match, opt for a smaller size, so that the bar does not protrude beyond the TV.
Most people mount or place soundbars below their TVs, but keep in mind that speakers placed at ear level or above produce the best listening experience.
If you use a separate, powered subwoofer, it will need to be plugged into an outlet. Avoid corners where the subwoofer will generate "boom" -- bass that is both too heavy and too muddy.
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