A soundbar is a great way to minimize the footprint of your home theater system. They are a sleek sound solution that greatly reduces the number of cables you need. If you're switching from a speaker system to a soundbar, you might be wondering if your soundbar needs an amplifier or receiver like surround speakers do.
In most cases, you do not need an amplifier or receiver for your soundbar. The exception is the case of a passive soundbar. However, most soundbars are active and therefore do not need the extra amplification provided by an amplifier or receiver.
Switching to a soundbar from a speaker system or from your TV’s internal speaker can be an a little bit of a headache, but by ensuring you have the proper equipment you'll be back up and running in no time (more on soundbars and their configurations in our guide).
Most soundbars including 4K models (our guide) available on the market today are active. This means they use an external power source to amplify their input. If you use an amplifier or receiver with an active soundbar, you may possibly damage your soundbar. This is true for both high price-range models like the Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra (on Amazon), as well as many budget solutions like the VIZIO SB2920 (also on Amazon).
If you're not sure, have a look at the soundbar you have, or are interested in, and see if it has an external power source or "brick" that hooks up to it. If it does, that'll be the "external power source" we're referring to that makes it active.
But what about if you have an amplifier that you'd like to try anyways? Well, since the soundbar isn't designed for that purpose, you may run into some issues.
Even if you do have an amplifier or receiver lying around, hooking the soundbar up to it won't increase the sound quality which is one of the reasons why we say to skip receivers for music as well. Connecting soundbars to either amplifiers or receivers via digital connections will yield no results. Digital connections are designed to be received by a device and decoded to be transmitted as an analog electrical audio signal to a speaker.
Soundbars, receivers, and amplifiers are designed to be the intermediary between the digital signal and the speaker. As such, they will not output any signal over their digital channels. Thus, just because you can connect HDMI or digital optical ports doesn’t mean that anything will travel between them.
Analog connections are an entirely different story when it comes to the purposes of soundbars, receivers, and amplifiers. In all three cases, the device may have an analog input such as RCA. Like with digital inputs, connecting two analog inputs will yield you no results.
However, unlike most soundbars, amplifiers and receivers may also have analog outputs designed for speakers. There may even be an equivalent number of analog inputs on your soundbar.
There are two kinds of analog electrical audio signals: powered and line-level. Line-level signals are designed to transmit audio signals between devices. These are low-wattage signals designed to reduce electrical power use.
Powered signals are designed to be transmitted directly to a speaker. These are high-wattage signals sufficient to power a speaker. If your soundbar has an analog input, it is designed to receive a line-level signal. Typically, if your amplifier or receiver has an analog audio output, it will be a powered signal. However, typically the cables that connect and power speakers is a speaker wire connector and not an RCA cable like in a soundbar.
If you try to connect these two channels you will likely damage the speakers of your soundbar. Because it is only designed to receive line-level signals, your soundbar will attempt to amplify any signal it receives for its speakers. The problem is that powered signals are already amplified, and this will cause your soundbar to add too much power to the signal, overdriving your speakers and probably damaging them.
Unless you deliberately go out of your to find a passive soundbar, there should be no reason for you to connect a soundbar to an amplifier or a receiver. The one exception to this is if you get a passive soundbar, which we have some more discussion on in another article.
A passive soundbar has roughly the same function as a set of speakers. Like passive speakers, a passive soundbar does not have an external power source. Therefore, it requires a powered signal in order to drive the speakers. Thus, if you do have a passive soundbar, you will need an amplifier or receiver to power it.
You may be interested in a passive soundbar if you already have a receiver or amplifier you are particularly happy with. You may also be interested if you are more of an audiophile when it comes to sound quality. Amplifiers and receivers typically come with sound conditioning features that most soundbars do not.
However, just because you have more control over the sound settings does not make a passive soundbar a solution for audiophiles. At the end of the day, soundbars attempt to replicate the immersive effect of multiple speakers throughout the room by offsetting the angles of the left and right channels to reflect off walls. It’s a lightweight and inexpensive alternative to a full set of speakers, but it is by no means a substitute.
A soundbar is a compromise on having a full sound system. Soundbars are appealing because they are easy to set up and can mimic the immersive experience of a multi-channel, multi-speaker sound system.
That said, a soundbar can't replace a sound system with speakers placed all around you. Even if you want to use your soundbar as a center speaker in a larger system there can be problems unless the soundbar is designed specifically for that purpose.
A soundbar is a great option if you want a simple audio solution that punches above its weight class that you can also set up quickly then forget about. If used with care, a high-quality soundbar can be a part of your system for years, and it's hard to beat the simplicity they offer.