The Sound Bar Option

How Sound Bars can benefit your TV viewing experience

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

You just purchased that fabulous big-screen flat panel TV, and now that you have it all set up it really does look great, but it sounds terrible. Let's face it, a TV's built-in speaker system usually sounds anemic at best and downright unintelligible at worst. Of course you can add a home theater system, but hooking-up and placing all those speakers just creates more unwanted clutter. The solution for you may just be to get a Sound Bar.

What is a Sound Bar?

A Sound Bar (sometimes referred to as a Surround Bar) is a product which incorporates a speaker design 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, and some also include additional woofers, side, or vertically firing speakers (more on this later).

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

Sound Bars come in two types of configurations: 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 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 both amplify and reproduce the sound without the need for added connection to an external amplifier or home theater receiver. In addition, most self-powered Sound Bars have provisions (such analog and digital audio inputs) for connecting one or two additional devices, such as DVD/Blu-ray Disc Player, or Cable/Satellite Box.

Some Self-powered sound bars incorporate Wireless Bluetooth to access audio content from compatible portable devices, and a limited number can even connect your home network and stream music from local or internet sources.

Examples of self-powered sound bars include:

ZVOX SB400 and SB500 - Buy From Amazon

Sonos Playbar - Buy From Amazon

Non-Powered (Passive) Sound Bars

On the other hand, a passive Sound Bar does not house its own amplifiers, and still needs to be connected to an amplifier or home theater receiver in order to produce sound. Passive sound bars are often referred to as 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 (LCR) 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.

Examples of passive sound bars include:

Atlantic Technology FS3 - Official Product Page

Paradigm Millenia Series - Official Product Page

Sound Bars and Surround Sound

Also, Sound Bars, depending on design, may, or may not, have surround sound properties. 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". The surround effect is not quite as good as a dedicated multi-speaker home theater system, but is still a viable, cost effective, and space-saving option for many consumers, especially in a smaller room or if all you desire is better sound quality for your TV without a going the full home theater system route.

In a non-self-powered Sound Bar, the actual design a placement of speakers in 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 Sound Bar 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.

A Digital Sound Projector houses all needed amplifiers (in fact, each speaker is powered by its own, dedicated amplifier), audio decoders and processors. Some digital sound projector 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.

An example of a Digital Sound Projector includes:

Yamaha YSP-2700 With 7.1 Channels - Buy From Amazon

The Under-TV Sound System Option

In addition to the sound bar, or digital sound projector, concept that can be placed above or below a TV in a shelf or wall mount configuration, another variation of the sound bar concept that includes all of the elements normally associated with sound bars, 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 make 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.

Examples of Under-TV audio systems include:

Zvox SoundBase 670 - Buy From Amazon

Pyle PSBV600BT TV Speaker Base - Buy From Amazon.

Dolby Atmos and DTS:X

Earlier in this article, I mentioned that some sound bars incorporate vertically firing speakers. This recent addition to select sound bars is designed to take advantage of overhead surround effects that are aavailable 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 full front sound stage and the perception of sound from above the listening area.

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

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

Such sound bars are on the high-end of the spectrum.

One example of a Dolby Atmos-enabled sound bar is the:

Yamaha YSP-5600 Digital Sound Projector - Buy From Amazon

Sound Bars and Home Theater Receivers

A self-amplified sound bar (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 sound bar actually requires that it be connected to an amplifier or home theater receiver.

So when looking for a sound bar, 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 setup 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 sound bar or digital sound projector. If you desire the latter, go with a passive sound bar, such as those labeled 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 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, the subwoofer may actually come with the Sound Bar. In fact, some Sound Bar systems utilize a wireless subwoofer, which makes placement easier and eliminates the need for a cable connection between the Sound Bar or external amplifier/receiver and the subwoofer.

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

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

What makes this type of sound bar product different is that they also include, in addition to a separate subwoofer, a pair of surround sound speakers.

This type of package consists of a sound bar unit that takes care of the front left, center, and right channels, a separate subwoofer (usually wireless), and a compact speaker to take care of the left surround channel, and another to take care of 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 speakers.

Examples of "hybrid" sound bar systems include:

Vizio SB4551 - Buy From Amazon

Nakamichi ShockWafe - Buy From Amazon.

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. Sound Bars and Digital Sound Projectors can also be a great speaker solution in a second system, such as in a bedroom, office, or secondary family room.

If you are considering a Sound Bar purchase, the most important thing to do, in addition to reading reviews, is to actually go a dealer and 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. On the other hand, if you just have a TV, then consider a self-powered Sound Bar or Digital Sound Projector.

For some suggestions, check out our list of Best Sound Bars For 2017

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