How to Set Up and Get the Most From a Sound Bar

Yamaha Sound Bar Lifestyle Image
Yamaha Sound Bar Lifestyle Image. Image by Yamaha Electronics Corp

When it comes to getting better sound for TV viewing, the sound bar option is the current favorite. Sound Bars save space, reduce speaker and wire clutter, and are definitely less hassle to set up than a full-on home theater audio system.

However, sound bars aren't just for TV viewing, depending brand/model, you can connect additional devices and tap into features that can expand your entertainment experience.

If you are considering a sound bar, the following tips will guide you through installation, setup, and use of all the possible features.

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Sound Bar Placement

Wall Mounted vs Shelf Placed Sound Bar - ZVOX SB400
Wall Mounted vs Shelf Placed Sound Bar - ZVOX SB400. Images by ZVOX Audio

If your TV is on a larger stand, table, shelf, or cabinet, you can often place the sound bar just below the TV. Obviously you'll need to measure the height of the sound bar versus the height of bottom of the TV to make sure the sound bar doesn't block the screen, but it's an ideal placement since the sound will come from where you're already looking.

If putting a sound bar on a shelf inside a cabinet, place it as forward as possible so that sound directed to the sides is not obstructed. Keep in mind, if the sound bar features Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio capability, placing within a cabinet shelf is not desirable as the sound bar needs to project sound vertically for overhead surround sound effects.

If your TV is on a wall, most sound bars can also be wall mounted. The sound bar can be placed either below or above the TV. However, it is best to mount it below the TV, if possible—not only is the sound better directed to the primary seated listening position, it also looks better (although you may feel differently).

To make wall mounting easier, many sound bars come with the needed hardware and/or a paper wall template that allows you to find the best spot and mark the screw point for provided wall mounts. If your sound bar is not packaged with wall mounting hardware or a template, consult your user guide for more details on what you need, and if the manufacturer offers these items as optional purchases.

NOTE: Unlike the photo examples shown, it's less than optimal to obstruct the front or sides of the sound bar with decorative items.

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Basic Sound Bar Connections

Basic Sound Bar Connections: Yamaha YAS-203 Used As Example
Basic Sound Bar Connections: Yamaha YAS-203 Used As Example. Images by Yamaha Electronics Corp and Robert Silva

Once you have decided how to place the sound bar, you need to connect your TV and other components. In the case of wall mounting, make your connections before you permanently mount the sound bar on the wall.

Shown above are connections you may find on a basic sound bar. Of course, the position and labeling may vary, depending on brand and model, but this is a fair representation of what you'll find.

From left to right, are Digital Optical, Digital Coaxial, and Analog Stereo connections, with their corresponding cable types.

The digital optical connection is best used to send audio from your TV to the sound bar. If you find that your TV does not have this connection, you can use the analog stereo connections if your TV provides that option. If your TV has both, it is your choice.

Once you have your TV connected, you need to make sure it can send audio signals to the sound bar.

This can be done by going into the TV's audio or speaker settings menu and turning off the TVs internal speakers (don't get this confused with the MUTE function which would also affect your sound bar) and/or turning on the TV's external speaker or audio output option. You may also have the choice of choosing digital optical or analog (although this may be detected automatically dependent on which is actually physically connected). 

Ordinarily, you only need to make the external speaker setting once. However, if you decide not to use the sound bar for watching certain content, you will need to turn the TV's internal speakers back on, then back off when using the sound bar again.

The digital coaxial connection can be used to connect a Blu-ray Disc, DVD player, or other audio source that has this option available. If your source devices do not have this option, they will most likely have a digital optical or analog option.

One other connection option that you may find on a basic sound bar, that is not shown in the photo, is a 3.5mm (1/8-inch) mini-jack analog stereo input, either in addition to, or replacement of, the analog stereo jacks shown. A 3.5mm input jack makes it convenient to connect portable music players or similar audio sources. However, you can still connect standard audio sources via an RCA-to-mini-jack adapter that you can purchase.

NOTE: If you are using a digital optical or digital coaxial connection, and your sound bar does not support Dolby Digital or DTS audio decoding, set your TV or other source device (DVD, Blu-ray, Cable/Satellite, Media Streamer) to PCM output or use the analog audio connection option.

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Advanced Sound Bar Connections

Hi-End Sound Bar Connections: Yamaha YAS-706 Used As Example
Hi-End Sound Bar Connections: Yamaha YAS-706 Used As Example. Images by Yamaha Electronics Corp and Robert Silva

In addition to the digital optical, digital coaxial, and analog stereo audio options shown in the previous page, a higher-end sound bar may provide additional connections, as shown in the above photo.


HDMI connections enable you to route your DVD, Blu-ray, HD-cable/satellite box, or media streamer through the sound bar to the TV. In this arrangement, the video signals are passed-through untouched, while the audio can be extracted and decoded/processed by the sound bar.

HDMI reduces clutter between the sound bar and the TV as you do not have to connect separate cables to the TV for video and the sound bar for audio from external source devices.

In addition, HDMI Audio Return Channel may be supported. This allows the TV to send audio to the sound bar using the same HDMI cable that the sound bar uses to pass video through to the TV. This means that you don't have to make a separate audio cable connection from the TV to the sound bar.

If you want to take advantage of this feature, you need to go into the TV's HDMI setup menu and activate it. Consult your TV and sound bar user guide if needed, as accessing the setup menus for this feature may vary from brand-to-brand.

Subwoofer Output

Many sound bars include a subwoofer output. If your sound bar has one, you can physically connect an external subwoofer to the sound bar. Sound bars typically need a subwoofer to produce the added bass for a movie listening experience.

Although many sound bars come with a subwoofer, there are some that don't, but may still provide you with the option of adding one later. Also, many sound bars, even if they provide a physical subwoofer output connection, come with a wireless subwoofer, which definitely reduces cable clutter further (more on subwoofer installation in the next section).

Ethernet Port

Another connection included on some sound bars is an Ethernet (Network) port. This option supports connection to a home network that may allow access to internet-based music streaming services, and, in some cases, integration of the sound bar into a multi-room music system (more on this later).

Sound bars that include an Ethernet port may also provide built-in Wi-Fi, which, once again, reduces cable clutter. Use the network/internet connection option that works best for you

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Sound Bars with Subwoofer Setup

Sound Bar With Subwoofer - Klipsch RSB-14
Sound Bar With Subwoofer - Klipsch RSB-14. Image provided by Klipsch Group

If your sound bar comes with a subwoofer, or you add one, you need to find a place to put it. You want to make sure that you place the sub where it is both convenient (you need to be near an AC power outlet) and sounds best.

After you place the subwoofer and are satisfied with its bass response, you need to balance it with your sound bar so that is not too loud or too soft.

If your sound bar provides subwoofer support, check your remote control to see if it has separate volume level controls for both the sound bar and the subwoofer. If it does, it makes it a lot easier to get the right balance.

Also, check to see if your sound bar also has a master volume control. If available, the master volume control will enable you to raise and lower the volume of both at the same time, with the same ratio, so you don't have re-balance the sound bar and subwoofer every time you want to raise or lower the volume.

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Sound Bars with Surround Speakers Setup

Vizio Sound Bar System with Surround Speakers
Vizio Sound Bar System with Surround Speakers. Image provided by Vizio

There are some sound bars (mostly Vizio and Nakamichi) that include both a subwoofer and surround speakers. In these systems, the subwoofer is wireless, but the surround speakers connect to the subwoofer via speaker cables.

The sound bar produces the sound needed for the front left, center, and right channels, but sends bass and surround signals wirelessly to the subwoofer. The subwoofer then routes the surround signals to the connected speakers.

This option eliminates wire running from the front to the back of the room, but since you still need to physically connect the surround speakers to the subwoofer, placement options for the subwoofer are limited, as it needs to be placed in the back of the room, near the surround speakers.

On the other hand, select sound bars from Sonos (Playbar) and Polk Audio (SB1 Plus) allow the addition of two optional wireless surround speakers that do not have to be physically connected to a subwoofer - although you still need to plug them into AC power. This option is expensive, but more flexible.

If your sound bar provides surround speaker support, for best results, place them to the sides, about 10 to 20 degrees behind your listening position (if possible). The surround speakers should also be placed a few inches away from side walls or room corners. If your surround speakers have to physically connect to a subwoofer, place the subwoofer near the back wall in the best spot where it provides the deepest, but clear, bass output.

Once connected, you not only need to balance the subwoofer with your sound bar, but you also need to balance the surround speaker output so that doesn't overwhelm the sound bar, but also not too soft.

Check your remote control for separate surround speaker level controls. Once set, if you also have a master volume control, you should be able to raise and lower the volume of your entire system without loosing the balance between your sound bar, surround speakers, and subwoofer.

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Sound Bars With Digital Sound Projection Setup

Yamaha Digital Sound Projector Tech - Intellibeam
Yamaha Digital Sound Projector Tech - Intellibeam. Images by Yamaha Electronics Corp

Another type of sound bar you might encounter is a Digital Sound Projector. These types of sound bars are manufactured by Yamaha and are identified with model numbers starting with the letters "YSP" (Yamaha Sound Projector).

What makes these sound bars different is that instead of housing traditional speakers, there is a continuous layout of "beam drivers" spread across the front surface.

These beam drivers can be assigned into several groups to project 2, 3, 5, or 7 channel sound.

Due to this added complexity, extra setup is required. First, you have the option of assigning the beam drivers for into specific groups to enable the number of channels you desire. Then, you plug in a special provided microphone into the sound bar to aid the sound bar setup.

The sound bar generates test tones that are projected into the room. The microphone picks up the tones and transfers them back to the sound bar. The software in the sound bar then analyzes the tones and adjusts beam driver performance to best match your room dimensions and acoustics.

Digital sound Projection technology requires a room where sound can be reflected off walls. If you have a room with one, or more, open ends, a digital sound projector may not be your best sound bar choice.

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Sound Bar vs Sound Base Setup

Yamaha SRT-1500 Sound Base
Yamaha SRT-1500 Sound Base. Image provuded by Yamaha Electronics Corporation

Another variation on the sound bar is the Sound Base. A sound base takes the speakers and connectivity of a sound bar and places it in a cabinet that can also double as platform to set a TV on top of.

However, placement with TVs is more limited as sound bases work best with TVs that come with center stands. In other words, if you have a TV with end feet, they may be too far apart to place on top of a sound base as the sound base may be narrower than the distance between the TV's end feet.

In addition, the sound base may also be higher than the vertical height of lower bezel of the TV frame. If you prefer a sound base over a sound bar, make sure you take these factors into consideration.

Depending on brand, a sound base product may be labeled as follows: "audio console", "sound platform", "sound pedestal", "sound plate", and "TV speaker base".

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Sound Bars with Bluetooth and Wireless Multi-Room Audio

Yamaha MusicCast - Lifestyle and Diagram
Yamaha MusicCast - Lifestyle and Diagram. Images provided by Yamaha

One feature that is very common, even on basic sound bars, is Bluetooth.

On most sound bars, this feature allows you to stream music directly from your smartphone and other compatible devices. However, some high-end sound bars also allow you to send audio from the sound bar to Bluetooth headsets or Bluetooth speakers.

Check your sound bar for these options and follow the pairing instructions provided in your user guide.

Wireless Multi-room Audio

The most recent inclusion in some sound bars is wireless multi-room audio. This feature allows you to use the sound bar, in conjunction with a smartphone app, to send music from connected sources or streamed from the internet to compatible wireless speakers that may be located in other rooms in the house.

So far, wireless multi-room audio systems are closed, or semi-closed systems. In other words, the sound bar brand determines which speakers it can work with.

For example, the Sonos Playbar will only work with Sonos wireless speakers, Yamaha MusicCast-equipped sound bars will only work with Yamaha-branded wireless speakers, Denon sound bars will only work with Denon HEOS-branded wireless speakers, and Vizio sound bars with SmartCast will only with SmartCast-branded speakers. However, sound bar brands that incorporate DTS Play-Fi, will work across several brands of wireless speakers, as long as they support the DTS Play-Fi platform.

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The Bottom Line

Vizio Sound Bar Lifestyle Image - Living Room
Vizio Sound Bar Lifestyle Image - Living Room. Image provided by Vizio

There's a simple (but not the only) reason sound bars are very popular: they are easy to set up and use.

Despite not being in the same league with a full-on home theater setup with powerful amps and multiple speakers, for many a sound bar can provide a thoroughly satisfying TV or music listening experience. In fact, for those that already have a large home theater setup, sound bars are a great solution for a second room TV viewing setup.

When considering a sound bar, make sure you just don't look at the price, but the installation, setup, and use options it may provide that can deliver the best possible entertainment bang for your buck.