Surround sound system give legitimate credence to the phrase “home theater system.” However, while they provide an excellent immersive experience, they also tend to take up a lot of room.
Additionally, each speaker is either wired, meaning cords will be strewn across the living room, or wireless, meaning they’ll need frequent charging or battery changes. Needless to say, it probably won’t be long before you start wondering if there’s another option that offers the same excellent sound quality without all the mess.
And, thankfully, there is: the sound bar. Sound bars fit conveniently in front of the TV. There’s only one unit to keep up. There are no cords to hide and no batteries to change. It’s just one unit that frequently matches the immersion of a multi-speaker home theater system.
Here’s our guide to finding the best soundbar for the money.
Note: if you see any terms that you don’t yet understand in our soundbar reviews, be sure to check the buyer’s guide below!
Which Is the Best Soundbar for the Money?
1. Sonos PLAYBAR TV Soundbar – Best Soundbar for the Money
The Sonos Playbar is as crisp and clear as it is easy to set up. Rather than a hopeless entanglement of wires, it simply uses two cords: one that connects to the outlet, and the other to your HDTV.
It can be configured to be controlled by whatever remote control you’re already using. Or, for an even simpler interface, you can also sync it with the Sonos smartphone app.
If you’re using the app, the PLAYBAR can even sync with your smartphone’s playlist. This allows you to quickly alternate between whatever physical sources your soundbar is connected to and your favorite music streaming wirelessly.
It’s also compatible with the most popular streaming music apps.
The soundbar is comprised of 9 small, but amplified, premium speakers. Despite their size, the PLAYBAR’s speakers provide nearly as much bass as you’d expect from a dedicated subwoofer.
The sound quality easily exceeds even the most sophisticated offerings from HDTVs. It’ll sound and feel as if you’re a part of the movie. Of course, if you still prefer a more immersive experience, the PLAYBAR can also be connected with a pair of Play:1 speakers and a dedicated subwoofer for a truly 5.1 surround sound experience.
- Wireless connection via WiFi
- Ethernet port
- Smartphone app for control and syncing
- Configurations allowing you to customize different sound types
2. Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 45" Sound Bar - Best 7.1 Channel Soundbar
The Nakamichi Shockwafe is a comprehensive home theater system that combines one of the industry’s leading soundbar with 2 premium satellite speakers and a powerful subwoofer. The result is the unique experience of a 7.1 channel home theater system with a grand total of only 4 components.
The soundbar itself offers an impressive 400 watts of power. It’s distributed across a 45” bar featuring its own chambered speakers, digital drivers, amplifiers, and tweeters. In fact, two of its integrated speakers are devoted solely to sound effects.
In addition to providing greater audio quality, it also mimics the functionality of 3D sound systems by intuitively bouncing sound waves across the room. It can, on its own, remix audio content to match the immersion of a 5.1 system without sacrificing even the most minute audio quality signals.
In addition to the soundbar, Shockwafe also includes two premium satellite speakers and a robust subwoofer. The SUB reaches as low as 35 Hz, providing a truly realistic audio experience.
The rear speakers deliver the final touch of bringing the full 7.1 touch to the virtual 5.1 system. Even better, the acoustics can be fully customized on each component using a few simple configuration settings.
- Ports available for a variety of cable types
- Remote control with its own lit display
- Satellite speakers
- DSP EQ modes
- 104 dB of total sound
3. Yamaha YAS-203 Sound Bar - Best Budget Soundbar
For years, Yamaha has set itself apart as a leader in home electronics. This legacy remains quite evident in their YAS-203 200-watt sound bar, a unique audio system that achieves elegance through simplicity.
At first, the YAS-203 doesn’t look like much: a relatively standard bar with an equally standard subwoofer. Throw in the remote, and that’s pretty much all that’s included in this system. At least, on the surface.
This 35-inch bar produces an impressive 7.1 channels of crisp audio that’s perfect for big screen HDTVs. And it’s all complimented by a 6.5” wireless subwoofer featuring powerful audio output that you can actually feel.
For input, it features ports for optical and even coaxial inputs. The latter is nearly unheard these days, but it may still prove useful if you still use an older media device, such as a VCR or gaming console. Of course, if you’re given a choice between the 2, we absolutely recommend the Optical input.
- 7.1 channel output
- Optical and coaxial ports
- Bluetooth connectivity
- Small special footprint
- Use the included remote or your HDTV’s
4. Bose Solo 5 Soundbar – Best Soundbar Under $300
Bose has built such a powerful name for itself in virtually everything relating to acoustics that its higher price tag just seems to be part of the equation. So, it’s a little peculiar to see one of their home entertainment offerings undercut so many of its competitors – especially in a niche that it started.
Yet, that’s exactly what we see with the Solo 5.
The Bose Solo 5 is, in fact, a single solo sound bar with a remote as its only companion. However, despite the seeming lack of flair and peripherals, it delivers an acoustic punch. The integrated speakers make intuitive distinctions between each sound type and deliver them with refined perfection.
The included universal remote provides a variety of options to enhance your audio experience even further. Turn up the bass for those high-octane action films or turn it off completely to keep your sleeping family happy.
It also features a special dialogue setting that prevents speech from getting drowned out by music and sound effects.
- Dialogue mode
- Wall mountable
- Bluetooth capabilities
- Includes universal remote
5. Samsung HW-K360 Soundbar - Best Soundbar Under $200
If you really want to save on your home audio experience, Samsung’s HW-K360 is a pretty solid choice at a great price. At 35” x 2.75” x 2”, it features a pretty spacious design. Compared with conventional TV speakers, its 130-watt 2.1 configuration provides excellent stereo sound – with the “.1” referring to a wireless subwoofer also included in the package.
Overall, it meets Dolby Digital’s standards for home acoustics.
The unit only features one optical port, which is a pretty common connection among HDTVs. However, once connected, it offers several sound modes, allowing you to choose the best audio experience for your media.
And if you’d like to expand its capabilities, the HW-K is compatible with SWA-8000S speakers for true surround sound immersion. It can be controlled with the included remote control or even a smartphone app.
- Bluetooth compatible
- Wall Mountable
- Wireless subwoofer
- Preconfigured audio settings
- Batteries included
- Remote control included
- Compatible with its own smartphone app
- Energy Star certified for low power consumption
If you checked the listings for any of the items that we reviewed, you probably saw the option to have an expert set up your system for you. Which means that you’ll have to spend even more and wait longer just to use it! However, this won’t be a problem for you.
After reading our handy buyer’s guide, you’ll have the expertise to both set up your shiny new sound bar and configure its settings for optimal acoustics. You’ll also have the knowledge you need to buy the best soundbar for the money. Don’t worry; it’s much easier than you think.
If you see “dB” while browsing soundbars, it is a reference to decibels. Decibels are the units used to measure sound, just as Fahrenheit is a unit to measure temperature. There’s an entire science here complete with its own brand of categories, but we’ll just focus on the basics.
Suffice it to say that many of the soundbars we reviewed here reach upwards of 100 decibels at full volume. This is about the same amount of loudness as a lawnmower and can cause damage over time.
To maintain ear health, we recommend trying to keep it a little lower than 80 decibels, which is about as loud as food blender or garbage disposal.
These sounds may seem loud, but unfortunately, media acoustics can be harder to rate. This is because it’s easier to rate a single, continuous sound than sounds that fluctuate and stem from different sources (such as speech, sound effects, and background music).
Consider this carefully when setting the volume. Hearing loss has resulted from loud media sounds before.
Channels - Will it Produce Surround Sound?
Basically, “channels” refers to speaker placement. For example, with a full surround sound system, if a sound in the movie comes from behind the camera’s perspective and to the right, it will only play through the back-right speaker.
However, you may have noticed that we mentioned these soundbars as having multiple channels. This is because each bar has mini-speakers (among other things) integrated inside. These speakers correspond to a channel, and some systems (often through drivers and tweeters) can manipulate sound to “bounce” across a room.
While this provides a similar experience, it still cannot match the full immersion of surround sound. However, given the price differences, many would still say that it’s “close enough.”
Your soundbar connects to the HDTV, optical players, gaming console, computer, or streaming media player via ports. There are different types, but the most common right now are HDMI and optical ports.
They are pretty distinguishable from each other, so you’ll have no problem telling them apart. However, you will need to ensure that your chosen soundbar fits the same ports as your other devices. Generally, it’s safer, though often more expensive, to go with HDMI.
It’s also common for some soundbars to feature multiple ports of the same input type. This is so that you can connect several devices simultaneously. If this is the case, you’ll likely use the “input” button on its remote control to cycle through different ports.
Sound systems, whether in home theater or bar form, often feature very similar pre-configured options. These will often reflect popular genres of music or shows, such as rock, classical or sports.
Most systems will also offer some sort of “night” or “quiet” setting that tones down some of the more dynamic acoustics (especially the subwoofer).
Should it Have a Receiver?
Traditional home theater systems typically include a receiver. This is a unit that essentially acts as a hub to connect all devices and speakers in one central location. However, an important aspect of a sound bar’s appeal is its reduced footprint.
As such, the bar itself serves as the receiver. So, that’s one less component that you’ll have to worry about setting up.
Cords – As we mentioned earlier, your soundbar connects to other devices through ports. Cords are used to create these connections. Typically, soundbars will only have one cord that connects to the TV.
This is usually sufficient, since most HDTVs have both input and output ports for audio. However, additional ports may still be needed if you have several devices to connect. Also, there is an HDMI 2.0 standard that provides better sound quality while connecting to the same port.
However, the difference is probably too minimal in soundbars to merit the additional expense.
After purchasing your soundbar, you may still decide later to opt for the full immersive experience. Fortunately, many soundbars are compatible with external speakers. They will almost always connect wirelessly.
The benefit to this setup is that even if the batteries die, you’ll still have great audio quality coming from the bar itself. You’ll also still avoid much of the entanglement of traditional home theater systems.
You’ll often see the term “drivers” or “speaker drivers” used concerning sound bars. This, in a very general sense, refers to the component that turns acoustical signals into the soundwaves output by speakers.
Please don’t confuse them with “computer drivers,” which really don’t relate to sound unless you’re installing a driver for a soundcard (another subject entirely). When you hear distorted audio after turning the volume up too loud, that’s frequently coming from the driver.
Ultimately, you’ll probably recognize driver types more than the term itself, the most important of which are discussed briefly below.
Yes, we know the first thing that came to your mind when you read that. And no, it’s not that kind of tweeter. In the A/V world, tweeters are, essentially, small specialized speakers. They are pretty much the opposite of subwoofers, which produce low-frequency booming sounds (more on those later).
Treble is particularly enhanced by tweeters, and many are dedicated exclusively to certain sound effects. They come in a variety of form factors, but you won’t really need to know them to purchase a soundbar. Just remember that audio quality is improved if they are included.
Subwoofers are what allow you to really feel the acoustics of your home audio – literally. When an explosion in the movie manages to shake your beverage, it’s doing so because low frequencies are driven from the subwoofer.
The higher the wattage, the more boom for your buck. Some woofers are more powerful than others, but it’s easy to tell which are better. Size and wattage play a major role in a subwoofer’s quality, though wattage more so.
So you’ve finally got a shiny new soundbar and are eager to set it up – only to find out that it can’t connect to your HDTV or media device. Don’t worry, some adapters can get the job done (though often at the expense of reduced quality).
For example, most Windows desktops and laptops feature an HDMI output. However, Apple computers feature their own output device. If you need to connect via HDMI, an adapter will be necessary.
Granted, there isn’t an adapter for every possible situation (unfortunately), but if your soundbar seems incompatible, it’s at least worth a look.
As you may have guessed, wattage directly refers to the power consumption of a sound system. However, it also directly influences the available volume, quality and dynamic nature of acoustics (especially with subwoofers).
Higher wattage means better sound, though often at the cost of increased electric bills. Fortunately, soundbars can get away with lower wattage ratings than surround sound systems.
The appeal of soundbars largely stems from their ability to take up less space than surround sound systems. However, they still come in different sizes. Larger sizes do tend to produce better audio quality, so you may need to find a balance.
However, most soundbars can also be mounted to a wall, just like most HDTVs. There are few better ways to save space, but remember that most subwoofers (if your soundbar includes one) are not mountable.
This is because they are often too heavy to reasonably fit on a wall – though some of our handier readers could probably find a way. If you do, just remember that there is the “boom” factor to consider.
At any rate, just remember that like the bar, subwoofer size also helps determine sound quality. You can then configure the soundbar, but first, check to see if it offers any preconfigured settings. For specific information, refer to the owner’s manual.
Setting it Up
The specific setup process will vary for each sound bar, but we can give you a general idea of what to expect. It’s actually very simple. Basically, unpack the bar, set it in the appropriate spot, and plug the power cord into the wall.
Then, connect it to your HDTV via HDMI or optical cable. Remember the number assigned to the port you connected it to (if there’s more than one), and select that as the input from your remote control.
Soundbars, even low-end selections, are increasingly offering wireless connections. It’s part of an overall trend, and one that’s getting easier to implement.
Although the owner’s manual will walk you through the specific process, setting up Bluetooth on a soundbar is usually just as easy as with any other device; they simply need to discover each other. Once it’s paired with your device, simply play your music as you normally would.
For sound bars that are controlled by apps, a Wi-Fi connection is essential. However, setting it up can be a little tricky. This is because bars vary in their interface for entering Wi-Fi information. Some require you to enter numbers in a particular order on the remote.
Others will provide an overlay on your HDTV guiding you through the process. Even seasoned tech-savvy users should follow the instructions included with the owner’s manual.
Additional Online Help
If the owner’s manual is too vague (as many of them are), try researching the setup process for your soundbar online. Manufacturers are increasingly uploading PDFs, infographics, and especially videos detailing the setup and features of their bars.
If you have a more specific concern, you may also want to browse through a few forums or even email the manufacturer.
Now It’s Your Turn
As technology has advanced, soundbars really have begun to rival their multi-speaker counterparts. They may never be able to reach the full immersive experience, but they certainly offer excellent quality at a lower price.
They’ve also been updated to feature compatibility with all of the most popular devices producing audio. Before purchasing, just remember to consider what you already have, what it’s compatible with, and which soundbar will match.
And if you’re not sure, remember that some soundbars can be upgraded with additional speakers; just keep this in mind before you purchase. And be sure to refer back to the information here as you consider a purchase.
This way, you’ll be able to make the most informed decision when you decide to buy the best soundbar for the money.