A Surround-Sound System or Sound Bar: Which Is Better for Your Needs?

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The sound from most built-in TV speakers is more like something you’d hear from an old transistor radio than a movie-quality audio system. To complement your TV viewing, it’s better to have an external audio system. You have two main choices: a surround-sound system or a sound bar.

Surround Sound vs. a Sound Bar

A surround-sound system requires multiple speakers placed around the room. Sound is projected toward the seating from several directions.

A sound bar is a system in which two or more speakers are housed inside a single cabinet, resulting in sound being projected to the seating from a central point.

Just like a surround-sound system, sound bars provide inputs to plug in the audio signals coming from your TV, Blu-ray Disc/DVD player or cable/satellite box, if you desire.

Many sound bars also provide built-in Bluetooth, allowing direct audio streaming from compatible smartphones and tablets.

Go to the Bar or Take a Stand

Sound bars come in three physical types:

  • Type 1 (as mentioned above): Two or more speakers and a built-in amplifier(s) are housed in a bar that can be placed on a shelf in front of the TV or, for wall-mounted TVs, mounted above or below the TV. Also, to bring out the bass frequencies, many sound bars come with a separate subwoofer (usually wireless).

  • Type 2: This variation is not a “bar” but a low-profile cabinet that not only houses speakers (and sometimes a subwoofer) and amplifier(s), but also serves as a platform that you can set your TV on top of. This option goes by a variety of names (sound stand, sound base, sound plate, speaker base, etc.).

  • Type 3 (marketed mostly by Vizio): In this variation, the sound bar is packaged with two surround speakers. You place the sound bar in front of your listening position (under or above your TV), and then place the two surround-sound speakers to the left and right sides of your seats. Think of this as a hybrid sound bar/surround-sound system.

Room Size as a Factor

For rooms 15×20 feet or larger, a surround-sound system consisting of a home theater receiver and at least a 5.1 channel speaker system is preferable.

If you have a smaller space (13×12 feet or smaller), want to provide better sound for a bedroom TV or just don’t want the hassle of speakers and wires, then a sound bar would be a good option.

Sound Quality

A sound bar can’t deliver the full surround-sound listening experience, but many employ a number of tools and techniques (known as virtual surround sound processing) that fool your ears into perceiving sound coming from a wider left and right front stage (and sometimes somewhat to the sides). Depending on the sound bar, this can be effective, especially for a smaller space.

Pricing

Sound bars are available starting at about $79 and go up to $1,500 or more. Sound bar sizes range from about 30 inches wide to as wide as 54 inches. You should match the size of your sound bar to the size of your TV; for example, for TVs with a 50-inch screen size, a 40-to- 48-inch wide sound bar would be a better match than a 30-to-38-inch sound bar. If you own a Samsung Curved Screen TV, Samsung makes a line of curved sound bars priced from $500 to $1,800.

If you decide to take the full surround-sound system approach, an entry-level home theater receiver and a modest 5.1 channel speaker system (or a pre-packaged system known as a home theater-in-a-box) may run between $400 to about $1,200. A mid-range home theater receiver and speaker combination that will perform well in a larger setting may run anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, and if you want to pursue the really high end, you can find home theater receivers that run as high as several thousand dollars and speaker systems (depending on brand, model and number of channels) that reach the $50,000 price level.

Take a Listen

If you still aren’t sure if a surround-sound system or sound bar is what you are looking for, take a trip down to your local electronics store and hear a demo of each. Since you and your family are the ones doing the listening, you’re the ones who have to be happy with what you’re hearing.