What Is A Soundbar And How Does It Work?

Written by Jonah Matthes
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If you’re not familiar with soundbars, you’re not alone. They've become increasingly popular over the last few years due to how advanced speaker systems have become. At one point, a speaker system was a cumbersome assembly that required a lot of space, many wires, and a dedicated installation by someone who really knew what they're doing. We've come a long way since then. So what exactly is a soundbar anyway?

Soundbars, essentially, are easy-to-install speaker systems that are typically placed right underneath a TV. They work by replacing a TV's built-in speaker system with a better external speaker. Make sure you do your research first to make sure they're right for you.

A lot of users question whether a simple soundbar, like the Sonos Playbar (on Amazon), for instance, is enough to replace a surround speaker system, in fact, we've already explored that question before. While a soundbar is a great way to drastically improve your home theater without a lot of work, a dedicated surround sound system is still a lot better. Regardless, there's a lot to learn about soundbars and whether they're right for you.

What Is The Purpose Of Soundbars

Bose Solo 5 TV Soundbar Sound System with Universal Remote Control, Black

Soundbars such as the Yamaha YAS-109 (also on Amazon) were designed as a replacement for the globally popular surround systems. First impressions weren’t favorable. It’s hard to imagine how seven (or more) small, internal, speakers can produce similar high-quality audio produced by a surround system. Over the years this has changed, and soundbars are a popular component in many home entertainment setups.

Along with giving listeners a surround sound experience, the small audio components are easier to connect to other devices. Most TVs are not built for sound. The thin design makes it difficult to add robust sound so the only option is to wire in external speakers. Not only is this time-consuming but you’re also adding cables to your setup. With a soundbar, you eliminate the need for extra cables.

Until soundbars entered the market, your only options for audio were the onboard speakers that came with the components or wiring in external speakers. Complete surround sound systems are expensive, especially if you want to hear immersive audio. Soundbars are the middle ground between tiny speakers and a pricey sound system.

Soundbars Are the Middle Ground Between Cheap and Expensive Speakers

SAMSUNG HW-T450 2.1ch Soundbar with Dolby Audio (2020)

Soundbars were invented to solve the problem consumers had choosing between poor audio quality and a costly surround sound system. The components produce better sound quality than built-in speakers and some external ones. It’s also less expensive and easier to install than a surround system.

As a consequence of filling this underserved niche, soundbars have rapidly rose in popularity. The audio components are replacing surround sound systems in many homes and are often the first option consumers chose when they’re looking to boost sound quality. The growing consumer interest in soundbars has led to advances in the components’ technology. It also has a downside for external speaker fans.

Some surround speaker manufacturers have begun decreasing the quality of their products. The internal components are often not as robust as previous models. The reason for the decrease in speaker quality is manufacturers presume customers are going to purchase a soundbar and not a surround system.

How Soundbars Can Replace Surround Speakers

Klipsch Cinema 400 Sound Bar + 8Inch Wireless Subwoofer with HDMIARC

A soundbar is a long, thin component that houses multiple speakers and a lot of technical magic. It’s the technology that makes it possible for a small soundbar to replace the large speakers that typically come with a surround system. In a surround system, the speakers are strategically placed around the room.

It ensures all of the sound waves reach every corner which makes you feel like you’re enveloped in sound. Soundbars have their speakers placed in a single row and where they point depends on where you place or mount the soundbar. A soundbar can replace your surround speakers with its internal technology, especially if there are multiple parts to the soundbar which are easy to install with our guide.

It fools the senses into believing the sound is coming from everywhere, including from behind, and while it isn’t exactly surround sound, your senses, especially your ears, tend to think that it is. Put simply, a soundbar is a less expensive way of imitating the benefits of a surround sound system, and because they're inexpensive and easy to install, they've grown in popularity to the point where they've almost outshined surround systems.

How Soundbars Work

Soundbars come with a lot of technology that does more than drive the internal speakers. The component works by sending different waves or beams of sound that bounce off of walls, also referred to as virtual sound. Some soundbars have technology that presumes the room is a standard size and shape so the audio waves bounce accordingly.

If the room has an odd configuration, it can lead to dead zones since the audio beams have nothing to bounce off. Some soundbars allow you to set the calibrations to accommodate the room’s dimensions which means you’ll avoid dead zones and enjoy great audio as a result. The same thing can be achieved with EQ settings as well.

What Are Soundbar Channels

There is a corresponding channel on the soundbar for each audio wave. You’ll have channels for both front and surround left and right, along with a center one. These five channels are what give you surround sound. You want your soundbar to have at least those five channels, but you can also find ones with seven. The two extra channels come from splitting rear and surround channel information into four.

It essentially gives the audio a little boost. If you want to max out your surround sound experience, the Dolby Atmos soundbar is worth taking a look at. Both the 5 and 7-channel models come with upward-firing speakers. The audio waves not only bounce off the walls, but also the ceiling. You get a three-dimensional sound effect. Dolby Atmos soundbars work best in rooms with flat ceilings and the sound can bounce up to 11-feet.

Soundbars with Surround Speakers

JBL Bar 5.1 - Channel 4K Ultra HD Soundbar with True Wireless Surround Speakers

You can enjoy both audio experiences with a soundbar that comes with external speakers. Soundbars with surround speakers give you the best of both components and you’ll get true surround sound with the installation and set-up ease soundbars are known for. A soundbar with surround speakers comes with subwoofers and satellite speakers that you can place throughout the room.

The number of subwoofers and speakers depends on the model you choose. For example, the Nikimichi Shockwave 9.2.4 comes with a soundbar housing nine internal speakers, along with two subwoofers and four satellite speakers. For many users, this is enough to imitate what a surround sound system can do.

Special Features

Not only do you get surround sound quality and an easy installation, but soundbars with surround speakers also come with a few unique features including the following:

Remote Control

You might not think about it until you realize your TV remote controls the volume on both devices. When you do, it’s a hassle to fix. Remote controls are standard with these soundbars. You can control the speakers, subs, and soundbar, without affecting the volume on your TV.

Pass-Throughs and Ports

You won’t find this option on standard soundbars, but these models come with HDMI and USB ports, along with ones for auxiliary, optical, and coaxial. However, not all soundbars with surround speakers setups come with the same number of types of ports. Some soundbars with speakers have a video pass-through. You will need to connect the two devices, but as long as there is a port you won’t have a problem.

Connectivity

Bluetooth connectivity is another great feature. You can stream audio from your compatible devices to the soundbar and speaker combo. It’s not standard on all models, but if you do choose to purchase a unit with this capability, it can come in handy in a number of ways. For example, Bluetooth connectivity saves you a lot of time, and also use it for your phone if needed.

Advanced Sound Support

All soundbars support some types of sound but models that come with surround speakers are compatible with most sources. It includes all types of Dolby sound, along with DTS-X, DTS-HD, Master-Audio, and others.

How to Set-Up a Soundbar with Surround Speakers

You know it’s simple to set up a standard soundbar, and it’s not any harder if it comes with surround speakers. Most are designed as “plug-and-play” devices so setup is a breeze, especially if your TV has an HDMI ARC port. Plug the other end of the cable connected to the soundbar into the port. On the TV’s audio menu, enable either external speakers or CSC.

If you can’t use the HDMI ARC port, connect the optical and analog cables to the corresponding ports on the TV and soundbar. From there go to the TV’s audio menu and select the speaker option to connect the two components. Place the speakers and subwoofers where you want and you’ll have surround sound.

Conclusion

JBL Bar 2.1 - Channel Soundbar with Wireless Subwoofer

Soundbars filled several gaps in various niches and do produce realistic surround sound. They are also priced lower than most surround speakers and are easier to install. As great as this is, you are still not getting true surround sound. For that, you need a soundbar with surround speakers, and if you do choose to go this route, you won’t have any problems setting it up.

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About Me

Hi! I’m Jonah. I grew up addicted to different electronics. I began working for an Audio/Video installation company years ago and realized my passion for Home Theaters! The Home Theater DIY is a place for me to share my different findings and experiences about home theaters and home electronics. For more information, check out my about me page!

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