Roughly 4 out of 5 American households now watch television on a flat screen. A smaller number have made their new TV sets part of a full-scale home theater with a proper surround sound audio system. If you haven’t yet taken the plunge (many people do not, mostly because of the wiring and additional equipment required), consider a soundbar.
What’s a soundbar? It’s a long, slender box that’s meant to be placed, or mounted, several inches above or below your flat screen TV. Inside the box, you’ll find at least three loudspeakers: one on the left, one on the right, and one in the center. These easy-to-install setup effectively replaces the older idea of three standalone boxes (one for the left stereo channel, one for the right, one for the center audio channel used in a surround sound setup). Packaged as a single unit, the soundbar is less cumbersome, requires less space, and fits into any flat screen setup.
A typical setup is best enjoyed with at least three additional loudspeakers: a sub-woofer (to emphasize the sounds heard in the lowest portion of the audible spectrum), and a pair of rear speakers (to provide the same 3-D effect that you hear in movie theaters).
Polk Audio’s SurroundBar (several hundred dollars) is not typical. Patented technology provides the 3-D effect without the addition of rear speakers. Yamaha’s more costly (nearly $2,000) solution, the YSP-5100, does the job with more sophisticated technology to provide even better sound.
Many soundbars offer a wireless connection to a nearby sub-woofer. (Personally, I prefer wires because they’re easily hidden and more reliable).
It’s all a fine idea, at least in theory. In practice, the concept is new and often tricky in a real world setup. Most TV sets are not yet designed to work with a soundbar so there are conflicts and problems associated with volume adjustments and the visual feedback that a typical on-screen volume control provides. CNET reports other issues that should be familiar to you before your purchase a soundbar.
Seems to me, the soundbar falls into the category of “good idea, but it needs work.” Personally, I prefer the superior sound and slightly more complicated setup of a small surround sound setup. One small loudspeaker left and right, one in the center, and you’ve spent about $300 comparable to a typical soundbar, but the stereo separation will be far better, and the hassles will be fewer. You can buy a decent stereo surround sound receiver for under $200. (If these prices are high, you can buy good stuff used at Audiogon or from similar sources. A subwoofer can be purchased at reasonable prices, too, and used gear in this category is often a safe bet.