What Is a Sound Bar?

Get better sound for your TV

A TV's built-in speaker system doesn't always sound as good as you want it to sound. You can add a home theater receiver and lots of speakers, but hooking up and placing all that hardware around your room might create unwanted clutter. The best solution for you may be to get a sound bar.

Yamaha YAS-706 Sound Bar/Subwoofer System


What Is a Sound Bar?

A sound bar is a product that creates a wider sound field from a single speaker cabinet. Minimally, a sound bar will house speakers for left and right channels, or may also include a dedicated center channel. Some also include woofers, side, or vertically firing speakers.

Sound bars complement LCD, Plasma, and OLED TVs. You can mount it on a shelf or table just below the TV, although you'll usually see them placed just in front of the screen. Some models are wall-mounted.

Two types of sound bars are available: self-powered and passive. Although both provide a similar listening result, the way they integrate into the audio portion of your home theater or home entertainment setup is different.

Self-Powered or Self-Amplified Sound Bars

Self-powered sound bars are independent audio systems. All you need to do is connect the audio outputs of your TV to the sound bar, and it will amplify and reproduce the audio without an external amplifier or home theater receiver.

Most self-powered sound bars also have ports for connecting additional source devices, such as a Blu-ray disc player, DVR, or cable box. Some also use wireless Bluetooth to pull audio content from compatible portable devices, and a limited number can connect your home network and stream music from local or internet sources.

Non-Powered (Passive) Sound Bars

A passive sound bar does not house its own amplifiers; it needs a connection to an amplifier or home theater receiver to produce sound. You might also hear references to "2-in-1" or "3-in-1" speaker systems. In these setups, the left, center, and right-channel speakers sit in a single cabinet with speaker terminals the only provided connections.

Although not as self-sufficient as a self-powered sound bar, this option is still desirable for decreasing "speaker clutter" by combining the three main speakers into one cabinet that goes above or below a flat-panel television. The quality of these systems vary, but the concept is appealing, in terms of style and saving space.

Sound Bars and Surround Sound

Sound bars may have surround sound capability. A self-powered setup can produce a surround sound effect with one or more audio processing modes. This feature is usually called "Virtual Surround Sound."

In a passive sound bar, the placement of speakers within the cabinet can provide a modest or wide surround sound effect depending on the internal speaker configuration (for powered and passive units), and audio processing (for powered units) used.

Digital Sound Projectors

Another type of product similar to a sound bar is a digital sound projector, which is a product category marketed by Yamaha.

A digital sound projector uses a series of small speakers (beam drivers) that you can assign to specific channels. They can also project sound to different points in a room, all originating within a single cabinet.

Each beam driver has a dedicated amplifier with surround-sound audio decoders and processors. Some digital sound projectors also include built-in AM/FM radios, iPod connectivity, internet streaming, and inputs for multiple audio and video components. A digital sound projector combines the functions of a home theater receiver, amplifier, and speakers all in one cabinet.

The Under-TV Sound System Option

Another variation of the sound bar concept includes all of the elements normally associated with sound bars and places them in an "under TV" unit. You'll find these devices under several names, depending on the manufacturer, including "sound base," "audio console," "sound platform," "pedestal," "sound plate," and "TV speaker base", What makes under-TV systems a convenient option is that they perform double duty as an audio system for your TV, and as a platform or stand to set your TV on top of.

Dolby Atmos and DTS:X

Some sound bars incorporate vertically firing speakers to take advantage of overhead surround effects available via the Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X immersive surround sound formats.

Sound bars and other systems that include this feature push sound not only outward and to the sides, but upward as well, providing both a fuller sound and the perception of audio coming from above the listening area.

The results mostly depend on how well the manufacturer made and designed the device. But the size and shape of your room can also have an impact. If the space is too large, or your ceiling is too high, the intended overhead effect may not work as well.

Just as with comparing a traditional sound bar with a true 5.1 or 7.1 channel home theater setup, a sound bar with Dolby Atmos/DTS:X capability will not provide the same experience as a system that includes dedicated detached speakers for both height and surround effects.

Sound Bars and Home Theater Receivers

When looking for a sound bar, first decide what you want out of it. For example, are you looking for a a way to get better sound for TV viewing without the need for a separate home theater receiver setup with lots of speakers? Or, do you want to lower the number of speakers your existing setup uses?. If you're looking for the former, go with a self-amplified sound bar or digital sound projector. For the latter, go with a passive sound bar, such as an LCR or 3-in-1 speaker system.

You May Still Need a Subwoofer

One of the drawbacks of sound bars and digital sound projectors is that while they may provide good mid-range and high-frequency response, they're usually less good at the bass response. In other words, you may need to add a subwoofer to get a true theater-level experience. In some cases, a wired or wireless subwoofer may come with the sound bar. A wireless subwoofer makes placement easier, as you can put it farther away if necessary.

Hybrid Sound Bar/Home Theater-in-a-Box Systems

Another option, which aims to bridge the gap between the surround-sound limitations of sound bars and multi-speaker home theater systems, has a sound bar unit that takes care of the front left, center, and right channels, a separate subwoofer, and compact surround sound speakers - one for the left surround channel, and another for the right surround channel.

To limit cable clutter in these units, the amplifiers that power the surround speakers sit in the subwoofer, which connects via wire to each surround speaker.

The Bottom Line

A sound bar alone isn't a replacement for a true 5.1/7.1 multi-channel home theater system in a large room. It can, however, be a great option for a basic, uncluttered speaker system that is easy to set up. Sound bars and digital sound projectors can also be a great solution for complementing a bedroom, office, or secondary family room TV.

If you're considering a sound bar purchase, the most important thing to do, in addition to reading reviews, is to listen to several and see what looks and sounds good to you and what fits your setup. If you already have a TV and home theater receiver, consider a non-powered sound bar. If you just have a TV, then consider a self-powered sound bar or digital sound projector.

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