What is a Sound Bar?

Get better sound for your TV

You purchased a fabulous TV, and after setting it up and turning it on you find that although it looks great, it sounds terrible. Let's face it, a TV's built-in speaker system usually sounds anemic at best and downright unintelligible at worst. You could add a home theater receiver and lots of speakers, but hooking up and placing all those speakers around your room just creates more unwanted clutter. The solution for you may be to get a Sound Bar.

Yamaha YAS-706 Sound Bar/Subwoofer System
Yamaha YAS-706 Sound Bar/Subwoofer System. Image provided by Yamaha

What a Soundbar Is

A Sound Bar (sometimes referred to as a Soundbar or Surround Bar) is a product which incorporates a design that creates a wider sound field from a single speaker cabinet. Minimally, a soundbar will house speakers for left and right channels, or may also include a dedicated center channel, and some also include additional woofers, side, or vertically firing speakers (more on this later).

Sound Bars are intended to complement LCD, Plasma, and OLED TVs. A soundbar can be mounted on a shelf or table just below the TV, and many are also able to be wall-mounted (sometimes the wall mounting hardware is provided).

Sound Bars come in two types: 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 soundbars are designed to be used as an independent audio system. This makes them very convenient as you can simply connect the audio outputs of your TV to the Sound Bar and the Sound Bar will amplify and reproduce the sound without the need for added connection to an external amplifier or home theater receiver.

Most self-powered soundbars also have provisions for connecting one or two source devices, such as DVD/Blu-ray Disc Player, or Cable/Satellite Box. Some Self-powered soundbars incorporate wireless Bluetooth to access 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 soundbar does not house its own amplifiers. It needs to be connected to an amplifier or home theater receiver in order to produce sound. Passive soundbars are often referred to as 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 speaker systems in which the left, center and right channel speakers are simply enclosed in a single cabinet with speaker terminals the only provided connections. Although not as "self-contained" as self-powered Sound Bar, this option is still desirable for some in that it decreases "speaker clutter" by combining the three main speakers into one cabinet that can be placed above or below a flat-panel television set. Quality of these systems vary, but the concept is very appealing, in terms of style and saving space.

Sound Bars and Surround Sound

Sound Bars, may, or may not, have surround sound capability. In a self-powered Sound Bar, a surround sound effect may be produced by one or more audio processing modes, usually labeled "Virtual Surround Sound". In a non-self-powered soundbar, 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 that is similar to a soundbar is a digital sound projector, which is a product category marketed by Yamaha (designated by the model prefix "YSP".

A Digital Sound Projector employs technology that utilizes a series of small speakers (referred to as beam drivers) that can be assigned to specific channels and project sound to different points in a room, all originating within a single cabinet.

Each speaker (beam driver) is powered by its own, dedicated amplifier, additionally supported by 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. Higher-end units may even include features such as video upscaling. A digital sound projector combines the functions of a home theater receiver, amplifier, and speakers all in one cabinet.

For more details on digital sound projector technology, check out a brief video explanation.

The Under-TV Sound System Option

In addition to the soundbar, or digital sound projector that can be placed above or below a TV in a shelf or wall mount configuration, another variation of the soundbar concept that includes all of the elements normally associated with soundbars, and places them in an "under TV" unit. These are referred to by several names (depending on the manufacturer), including: "sound base", "audio console", "sound platform", "pedestal", "sound plate", and "TV speaker base", What makes this a convenient option is that these "under TV" systems 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

Earlier in this article, I mentioned that some soundbars incorporate vertically firing speakers. This recent addition to select soundbars is designed to take advantage of overhead surround effects that are available via the Dolby Atmos and/or DTS:X immersive surround sound formats.

Sound Bars (and digital sound projectors) that include this feature, push sound not only outward, and to the sides, but upward as well, providing both a fuller front soundstage and the perception of sound from above the listening area.

The results depend on both on how well this feature is implemented, but also the size of your room. If your room is too large, or your ceiling is too high, the intended height/overhead sound may not be as effective.

Just as with comparing a traditional soundbar with a true 5.1 or 7.1 channel home theater setup, a soundbar/digital sound projector 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

A self-amplified soundbar (or digital sound projector, or under TV sound system) is a standalone audio system that is not designed to connect to a home theater receiver, while a passive soundbar actually requires that it be connected to an amplifier or home theater receiver.

So when looking for a soundbar, first determine whether you are considering it for use a way to get better sound for TV viewing, without the need for a separate home theater receiver set up with lots of speakers vs a desire to decrease the number of speakers connected to an existing home theater receiver setup. If you are looking for the former, go with a self-amplified soundbar or digital sound projector. If you desire the latter, go with a passive soundbar, such as those labeled as an LCR or 3-in-1 speaker system.

You May Still Need a Subwoofer

One of the drawbacks of soundbars and digital sound projectors is that while they may provide good mid-range and high-frequency response, they are usually lacking in good bass response. In other words, you may need to add a subwoofer in order to get the desired deep bass found in DVD and Blu-ray Disc soundtracks. In some cases, a wired or wireless subwoofer may come with the Sound Bar. A wireless subwoofer makes placement easier as it eliminates the need for a cable connection between it and the Sound Bar.

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

To bridge the gap between the surround sound limitations of soundbars, and multi-speaker home theater systems, there is an in-between category with no formal name, but, for all practical purposes, can be labeled as "hybrid soundbar/home theater system".

This option consists of a soundbar unit that takes care of the front left, center, and right channels, a separate subwoofer (usually wireless), and compact surround sound speakers - one for the left surround channel, and another for the right surround channel.

To limit cable connection clutter, the amplifiers need to power the surround speakers are housed in the subwoofer, which connects via wire to each surround speaker.

The Bottom Line

A Sound Bar, or Digital Sound Projector, alone is not a replacement for a true 5.1/7.1 multi-channel home theater system in a large room, but it can be a great option for a basic, uncluttered, audio and speaker system that can enhance your TV viewing enjoyment that is easy to set up. Sound Bars and Digital Sound Projectors can also be a great speaker solution for complementing a bedroom, office, or secondary family room TV.

If 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 soundbar. On the other hand, if you just have a TV, then consider a self-powered soundbar or digital sound projector.

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