Should You Get a Surround Bar or Stay with Individual Speakers?

If you’re like a lot of people, you’re thinking about finally doing some updates to your home audio. You probably put in a surround system in the early 2000s and it was the last thing you thought about upgrading when the economy was poor. But, your system is now over 10 years old and there’s been a lot of change. You might want Bluetooth capability, or the ability to switch HDMI sources, or you might be ready for 4K compatibility. No matter what the reason for switching, you have two options: replace the A/V receiver you have with a new one or go for a soundbar.

Certainly you’ve seen sound bars in stores (you can get them, by the way, at Solid Signal) and wondered if they are as good as a full-on surround system. The answer is, like many things, that you get what you pay for.

A soundbar consists of a set of speakers put in a row and some sophisticated software. That software manipulates the sound before it gets to you so that you think you’re hearing stuff behind you when you’re not. It’s pretty established science so there are a lot of sound bars in the low price ranges. However, if you truly want surround-like sound you’re going to want to pay for something a little better.

A sound bar, no matter how good, is not going to give you the same immersive experience as a 7.1 (or Dolby Atmos) sound system. It will be tuned to give you surround-like sound when you’re sitting in a farily confined area. Sit at the corners of the room and you won’t get surround, although you’ll still get fairly decent audio. On the other hand, a real full-on surround system will cover an entire room, even though it will still really only deliver the “perfect” effect if you’re in the center of the speakers.

When looking for a sound bar, consider the features. If you do want high quality audio you’re going to want one with a subwoofer. Many systems come with wireless subwoofers that make it easy to hide the relatively large box required. Without a subwoofer you either need to buy a very expensive system with super-high-quality tuning or you’re just going to get tinny sound that isn’t worth even using the sound bar for (compared to the TV’s own speaker.)

Another thing to look for is HDMI input. Many low end sound bars come with only RCA or optical inputs. Feeding a soundbar with RCA means it’s not getting any real surround information and has to try to simulate what that information might be. Feeding with optical is better but many systems don’t have optical out any more. It’s best to feed a sound bar with HDMI because it’s the only way to send a full 7.1 audio signal to the sound bar and that means you’ll get the best quality simulated surround sound. Most TVs today let you feed the sound out through a system called HDMI-ARC so your TV can have multiple inputs and only one wire goes to the sound bar.