The primary home audio product today is the soundbar, in its various incarnations. They offer superior sound to the sound built into your TV at a relatively low price, with low complexity and a high convenience and aestheic factor. The problem with soundbars is one of compromise. At every turn, audio quality is compromised for price, convenience, simplicity and size. With any design, something has to give, there are no perfect solutions, and when it comes to budget soundbar, the compromise is audio quality. Lets take a look at some of the benefits of a soundbar, and examine how they affect audio quality. From there, we’ll look at some alternatives to soundbars depending on what you’re looking for. If, after reading this, you still want a soundbar, I’ve provided a set of recommendations.
Size: One of the nice things about a soundbar is its size. They pretty much all sit nicely in front of a modern flatscreen without any other considerations for fitting them into an existing space. However, it turns out one of the most important factors in the bass response of a particular speaker is its size; the diameter of the driver (the generally circular part the sound comes from), and the volume of the box it is in. Take a look at my Micca Covo-S Review as an example of what happens with speakers which are too small. Those speakers are pretty close to what you would get in a good soundbar in terms of audio quality. They don’t provide any bass and have serious issues in the treble range. Like the Covo-S, a soundbar simply doesn’t have the vertical space for drivers bigger than three inches, and this is the ultimate root of its audio quality problems. An array of 3″ speakers is often used in higher priced soundbars to offset this issue, but this creates directional effects, where being off center degrades the sound quality.
The size constraints of a soundbar do not only affect its performance as a speaker, a soundbar’s performance as a stereo system is limited by its size. A stereophonic sound system is defined by having two channels of audio, one for a speaker placed in front of and to the left of the listener and another placed in front of and to the right of the speaker. The notion is, with this setup, a sound emanating from any point along the line connecting the two speakers can be simulated with the correct sound playing from each speaker. To achieve the best stereo experience, you ought to be as far away from each speaker as they are from each other, forming an equilateral triangle. So if you’re sitting 10 feet away from your TV, and your speakers are next to your TV, they should go 5.75 feet to either side of the TV. This creates a large area for sound to come from, and really brings a theatrical quality to the sound. A soundbar, on the other hand, is about three feet long. This means the soundstage, the sound equivalent to your TV’s size, is limited to three feet wide. With the wider spacing, it sounds like a full stage right in front of you. Furthermore, the stereo effects create instruments, speakers, and general action that sound like they are coming from a particular direction. A large soundstage will make these more obvious and apparent when listening. A small soundstage makes the sound seems more and more like monophonic.
So together, the size of the soundbar means that the speakers used are smaller than what is desirable for a good speaker, and they are closer together then they ought to be for good stereo effects. A more niche item, the “sound pedestal” or “speaker base” alleviates the size of the speaker problem by extending the soundbar back so that it fits underneath your TV. This allows large drivers to be placed underneath, allows for a larger interior volume, and allows for the addition of ports, all of which improve speaker performance. It does not fix the stereo imaging problem, or the ones listed below.
Price: Soundbars are built to fit a nice market segment in terms of price. Lots of people are willing to spend $100-$250 to improve the sound on their TV and just want to make a trip to Best Buy and be done with it. Alternatively plenty of people buy these types of systems to serve as conspicuous consumption on the cheap; “Oh I have SURROUND SOUND at my house” or “Oh I have a sound system with a SUBWOOFER“ whilst not caring or knowing about the quality of their purchase. Ultimately, this means the use of cheap materials and parts that detract from the experience in order to get to a particular price point.
High quality speaker cases are almost exclusively made from medium density fiberboard. Lower quality speakers use particle board. Most soundbars are made from plastic. In any product which makes sound, look for the right materials. All the speakers I review are made out of some sort of wood composite. Likewise, the materials used to make the drivers suffer. Poorer magnets, heavier cone material, and inferior suspension, are hallmarks of lower quality drivers and will cause distortion and lackluster performance.
Inside the speaker, there are a set of electronics known as crossovers which split the sound going to each driver. In a soundbar, you actually do not need those and they can be done inside the processing computer because of the monolithic nature of the soundbar. They can be done cheaply and effectively this way. This is actually a point in the soundbar’s favor, in my book. But I am a digital signal processor by training and career, so I could just be biased towards this solution.
Of course, my inexpensive stereo build outperforms almost any soundbar you can buy at a lower price than the cheapest models.
Simplicity of Use: I always hear of soundbars as a solution to something they want to get for their parents. Something that plugs into a wall, plugs into the TV, requires at most one minute of setup and works seamlessly from there. There really is something to this.
For the sake of comparison, let’s compare setting up a soundbar, to my simple stereo build. In both cases you plug the soundbar or amplifier into a power outlet and to the TV or music source. The same setup is required to get the soundbar talking to the TV as it is with the amp. Now the soundbar has to be placed our mounted. Same with the speakers, and while they might be more complicated to place or hang, that’s totally at the discretion of the user. There’s one more step to do with the stereo that isn’t done with the soundbar. The speakers need to be connected to the amplifier. One that’s done, they operate the same. So while a soundbar is simple, a superior experience is only marginally more complicated. The tough part about the stereo build is picking the parts, which is something I try to accomplish in my builds
One downside to the monolithic nature of the soundbar is upgrading. Suppose you have $200 to spend on sound for your TV and get a soundbar. Two years later, you decide you want something better. Because everything is integrated on a sound bar, you have to throw everything out and start fresh. If you had bought a simple stereo setup, you can keep any parts you like. So you might upgrade the amp to a surround receiver but keep using your speakers. Then you can add more and better speakers at your discretion, without changing receivers. With a soundbar, you have to start fresh with every upgrade, that’s the price of simplicity.
The other thing you lose with simplicity is customizability. Not only can you not continually mix and match parts as I mentioned above, but you have very limited control of what that system does. I’ll give you an example I ran into recently, I had a large group of people over to watch the Super Bowl this year and we watched it in my home theater. The room accommodates four people using the surround sound fantastically, but when fifteen people are over, people end up sitting right underneath my surround speakers. Most sports play crowd noise throughout the game on the surround speakers throughout the game. Not wanting to annoy any guests, I chose to use mono mode instead of surround sound. That way each speaker played the same thing and it filled the room with a consistent, non-directional sound. If listening to just music on those speakers, I also might switch off all of the speakers except my best two in front to get the best stereo experience, or I might utilize my surround speakers, it’s my choice. That’s not something you get with a soundbar, even one with surround speakers. The best metaphor I can think of is comparing an iPad to a custom built Linux computer. The Linux computer is entirely under your control, while the iPad severely limits your options in order to streamline the experience.
Lack of Wires: An aesthetic point in favor of soundbars is they require very few wires, most of which are naturally hidden by the soundbar and TV, and this leads people towards soundbars. Wires don’t look good anywhere. Hiding them costs money and requires a level of effort to accomplish. Many people would rather be rid of the issue all-together. The problems with this are ones that have been mentioned before. A monolithic, no wires solution means bad stereo imaging and a unit which isn’t upgradeable.
A Note On Soundbar Subwoofers and Surround Speakers: Many soundbars include a “subwoofer” and some surround speakers. Almost all of these subwoofers are 6.5″. This is really just an unacceptable size for something called a subwoofer, something that small cannot effectively generate the lower octaves of human hearing. Remember the Dayton B652 qualifies as a subwoofer just as much as these. To make it worse, these subwoofers are encased in plastic, which is a bad material for a speaker, but a compromising feature on a subwoofer. The surround speakers included in these sets are absolute jokes of a speaker. They are the cheapest things the manufacturers can build and still get away with calling them speakers. Also, while these are usually “wireless” systems, they are anything but. The subwoofer has to plug into a wall, and speaker wire runs from the subwoofer to the surround speakers. Product images and boxes never show that part.
Alternatives: Having just gone through a list of ways a soundbar compromises on audio quality in order to fit a market segment, a question you might be asking is “Well, what’s the alternative if these are things I care about?” The simple answer is if you need something cheap, small, and only requires five minutes of effort on your part, a soundbar is for you. Just don’t expect it to sound good. If you can bend on these, all sorts of things are possible.
If you want something small and low profile: Consider mountable speakers along with my inexpensive stereo build. Dayton B652’s and Dayton B652-AIR’s can be hung on the wall just like a picture, a mounting bracket is installed on the back. This keeps them from taking up space in the room anymore than a soundbar would. With a large budget, on-wall speakers are a good option as well.
If you just want something cheap: This website is for you. I’ll be posting more builds on increasing complexity to show affordable ways to accomplish your system goals. Start with my inexpensive stereo build for stereo sound. A subwoofer can be added to this. More work is required to go surround. Check out my guide to soundbar alternatives for more.
If you need something simple to use: My inexpensive stereo build is just as simple to operate day-to-day as a soundbar and is marginally harder to set up. With different parts, the same architecture will accommodate any budget you are looking to spend. Surround sound systems will need a home theater receiver to be as simple as possible, which if you don’t want to do any work are really just like the stereo build with more speaker wire to connect. However, they do allow you to do much more, which means you are a button press away from changing some setting accidentally. This can be remedied with an optical decoder, but requires dedicated amplifiers to work, which quickly increases the number of parts involved or the price involved. I am working on a build for this case.
If you need to hide the wires: There are a couple of ways to deal with this issue. The easiest is to buy some wire covers and blend them into the wall. Its what I do. If you want to drill holes in your wall, a Magnepull XP1000-LC Wire Pulling System is an effective way to pull wires through your walls. Fish Tape is probably the most widely used method. It requires being handy and spending a bit of money on tools, but you can make a very clean and professional looking speaker setup on your own.
If you want something small, easy to set up and simple to use: Expensive and high quality soundbars exist. You are overpaying for the quality of sound you get, but once you start spending $250+ for a unit without a subwoofer or surround speakers, a good designer can work around some of the limitations of a soundbar. A general recommendation with speakers and audio gear in general is to buy from a company for which audio is their only business. Samsung, Vizio, and LG sell soundbars, but they are there to pad the bottom line, not to drive their main revenue. However, plenty of companies offer soundbars that rely on their reputation for audio design to stay in business.
Conclusion: If you are looking for great sound quality, a soundbar presents several problems that detract from the audio experience. Generally, the reason to buy a soundbar is because audio quality doesn’t matter as long as its better than TV speakers or suffices as conspicuous consumption. If audio quality matters at all to you, it can be had with a slightly more complicated and messy setup, or a more expensive one, or one that requires some sweat equity. Stay tuned to this website for more builds, reviews and articles to help you select parts, put together a system that meets your needs, and learn about quality audio.