Soundbar vs. Surround

From the Crutchfield site (the image is your link), a look at an Artisan soundbar mounted just below a Samsung flat screen TV set. Although visually appealing, inexpensive and easy to install, soundbars don’t always play well with TV sets. What’s more their sound quality is outdistanced by even a modest surround sound system.

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.


  1. Hi HB, I agree with you that sound bar technologies and usability are far from perfect now, but they have come a long way in the past few years. Most of sound bars below $200 are still not worth buying though. On higher price range, they are pretty good now, especially for rooms that rear speakers are not feasible. Brands like JBL, Goldenear have a pretty solid solution for this kind of rooms with their fabulous sound bars.

  2. Once you’ve housed your components, the next most important choice involves your seating.
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  1. […] the fidelity that should be commensurate with the picture experience. (For more about this, see my previous blog post about audio systems for big screens–some of the specific products may no longer be current, but it’s easy enough to […]

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