Media systems, especially dedicated home theaters, get expensive quickly. Even if you don’t have a home theater per se, just getting a nice Television can quickly make you realize how easy it is to accidentally end up over budget on home media equipment. After purchasing a nice TV with a sticker price to match, you may worry that adding a soundbar is a luxury or even a waste of money.
Soundbars are a great way to add quality to your media system at a reasonable price. Whether the soundbar is simply adding left and right channels, or powering a full surround sound system, soundbars are a great tool to enhance your experience.
But in the wide world of home theater electronics, there are so many options and so many details to get right...what are the features of a soundbar you really need to get right? Let’s look at how soundbars add value to your system, and then build up from there to explore what you need and what you don’t. That will help give you the confidence you’re picking the right soundbar for you.
When building a home theater system, it becomes clear really quickly that there’s more in play than just the screen. Sure, getting a big, nice screen or even a projector is the first big step most people make, but there are two main components to you home theater experience: video and audio. While TVs almost always come with serviceable speakers, and higher end TVs may even have good quality stereo speakers, projectors won’t have any audio components you want to use.
As the quality of your video goes up, you need to keep your audio on par, and a soundbar is a very cost-effective way to do that. Even for those that want to do a full stereo surround sound system, a soundbar can be the best way to start, since products like the Sonos Arc (on Amazon) are designed to add speakers after the fact. And more advanced units like the Nakamichi Showkwafe Ultra 9.2.4 system (also on Amazon) come with a whole stereo system of wireless speakers all run off the soundbar.
If you’re interested in that Nakamichi unit, be sure to check out our review, but the point is that buying a soundbar isn’t a step backward or away-from have a full stereo surround system. In many cases, it’s a step toward it that gives you more options and a better user experience.
But in this world of soundbars, the price points start at below $100 for some of the most bare-bones systems that will give you two-channel stereo sound, and on the other end the sky’s the limit. If you clicked either of those Amazon links above, you know the prices can get very serious very quick. So let’s talk about what features you really need in a soundbar, and which ones you can save for a later upgrade, if at all.
There are some creature comforts you’re really going to want in your soundbar, while others are nice-to-have and frankly, unnecessary. A great example here is a voice assistant. Some soundbars will come with a voice assistant built right in. Whether it’s Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, it can be nice to have your soundbar powered by these futuristic services. That said, there are other more obvious features you need. First, let’s talk about the most important feature you’ll have to decide on: how many channels.
Your TV is most likely going to have stereo sound, so two channels. Where the conversion gets a little more interesting is when we talk about the quality of those drivers on the TV. They’re going to be low quality because the TV manufacturer is just checking the box when they design the speakers in. The TV has to have them, but they know that most of the cost needs to be dedicated to a high-quality panel.
Manufacturers also know that someone purchasing a high end TV isn’t going to be relying on the internal speakers. They’re kind of expecting serious people to add a soundbar. For this reason, replacing the TV’s stereo, two-channel system with a simple budget soundbar that only has two channels really is an upgrade! If you’re looking to keep costs down, then start out with a simple stereo soundbar! You can always upgrade in the future.
If you want to make the next big step up, then you should look at a 2.1 channel system with a wireless subwoofer. The Subwoofer is never built into the Television, it’s actually an external speaker, and it adds a whole extra dimension to the soundscape. If you’re looking to keep costs down but you want a nice upgrade, get yourself a soundbar with two channels and a wireless subwoofer!
There are 3.1 channel systems based around soundbars too, but, for your money, the next big leap won’t be from 2.1 to 3.1. It will be from 2.1 up to 5.1. The surround sound is really starting to be a real thing here, especially if you get a 5.1 channel soundbar system that adds wireless satellite speakers behind you. For most people, a 5.1 channel system is going to be the best option if you’re both budget-minded but want really noticeable upgrade to your system.
Past that, the sky’s the limit. There are plenty of 7.1 channel systems, and 7.1.2 systems that add vertical dimensions for Dolby Atmos support. There are 9.2.4 systems like the Shockwafe that will really start to get close to theater quality. But you should consider the number of channels that the soundbar or soundbar system has the most important feature that you need to look for and understand. This is what you need to measure your needs against first and foremost.
There are plenty of other features that soundbar manufacturers include or, in some cases, fabricate with a little bit of marketing-speak. “Virtual surround sound” is one that gets thrown around a lot, presumably because it’s easy to include a 4th and 5th tweeter and claim that it creates “virtual” 5.1 sound. But let’s review some of the features that are important.
Bluetooth is going to be something that you want to consider. Do you want to be able to connect to the soundbar wirelessly from your phone or some other Bluetooth device? For some people, they really need this feature. For others, if you just want your TV to use the soundbar bot don’t envision using it in other circumstances (requiring Bluetooth), then you can skip this one. But it’s one of those things that if you decide you want it and don’t have it, you’ll end up kicking yourself.
HDMI ARC is another feature that you need to be aware of ahead of time. We have a whole separate guide on this feature and how to use it with soundbars, but the long and short of it is that HDMI ARC allows your soundbar to communicate back and forth with your TV and, in some cases, act as the full-on receiver taking your other HDMI channels in before connecting to the TV. This enables you to control the soundbar and other equipment with your stock TV remote, which is a really neat trick.
WiFi Support and Expandability are other extremely important features to know about. Like Bluetooth, you may not be in a situation where you want these features, but you should consider them ahead of time so that you can start building the system you really want. If the soundbar isn’t able to connect to WiFi and expand with other networked speakers, that limits your ability to build a larger system over time. The Sonos Arc, for example, can pair with new Sonos speakers whenever you’d like to add them, but you have to plan ahead of time.
In the end, whether or not you need a soundbar, or if it’s worth the money, is a really personal decision. If you have a nice TV and you don’t have a problem with the built-in speakers, that’s great! Maybe for you, a soundbar would be a waste of money because you’re happy with what you have. And maybe that’s even a good thing, because once you start expanding into surround sound, you’ll likely never be able to go back.
But ask yourself how you use your Television. Are you just watchin local news and the odd sports game, or do you really enjoy cutting the lights and putting on a great movie. If you want to enhance the experience of using your home theater system, nothing can do that quite like upping the sound game.
Just think through how much you use your system, and what you use it for. That will help you figure out if a soundbar is right for you. But there hasn’t ever been a better time to be asking this question now, as more and more impressive soundbars are competing for the space below your screen!