Disappointed that your TV doesn't sound quite as good as the picture looks? A soundbar is a simple, and often relatively inexpensive, way to vastly improve the audio emanating from your TV. To find the best model in every price range we bought 9 of the most well-regarded soundbars, then spent 3 weeks listening to them side-by-side, connecting them to various TVs, mobile devices, and smart home hubs, and using all of the different sound modes. Our picks cover everything, from high end models that rival (and can be converted into) full surround sound systems, to budget models that offer a good step-up from built-in TV speakers without breaking the bank.
The Best Soundbars of 2018
this month we tested the brand new Sonos Beam. For its relatively mid-range price of $400 this Alexa enabled bar pumps out impressive sound, and acts as the perfect starting point for those wanting to build a multi-speaker Sonos system.
Best Overall Soundbar
For those seeking the best, hair-bristling sound they can get from their TV, the Sonos Playbar is a clear choice. Its incredible clarity and relatively deep, rumbling bass allow it to add poignancy to movie dialogue and add punch to blockbuster action sequences. The Sonos ecosystem makes it easy to add things like subwoofers and satelite speakers to create a fully fledged surround sound system down the road. This is great for those that are on the fence between getting a soundbar or investing in a big surround system.The clear drawback to the Playbar is its price. At $700 it is quite steep, but well worth it if you're looking for the best possible sound. Some people also don't like the Sonos music management system, which forgoes a simple Bluetooth connection for an app that controls WiFi streaming directly to the speaker. This works great for streaming music from places like Pandora and Spotify, but YouTube still isn't compatible with the Sonos app.
Read review: Sonos Playbar
Best Bang for the Buck
Good bass goes a long way towards creating full, immersive sound, and the Yamaha YAS-108 offers the most bass-punch-per-dollar of all the models we tested. In fact, its bass quality is about even with that of the top scoring Sonos Playbar. This adds considerable depth to movie watching, and will certainly make your next movie night more memorable. The simple Bluetooth connection also makes it easy to stream music from any mobile device without dealing with cables. All this for $200 adds up to an incredible deal.The only real complaint you can levy against the YAS-108 is that its clarity is a bit lacking when compared to that of higher priced models. However, the clarity is still a huge step up from that of built-in TV speakers, and that small sacrifice will be well worth the cost savings for all but the pickiest of audiophiles.
Read review: Yamaha YAS-108
Best Buy on a Tight Budget
AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel
If the thin, tinny sound of your TV's speakers is driving you nuts, but you really don't want to spend a lot to fix it, the AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel is for you. This soundbar offers sound that is orders of magnitude better than what is likely emanating from your TV's built-in speakers for a relatively low investment of $100. Bluetooth capability also makes it a nice speaker for streaming music, and it can be set up in a flash.
Sure, this bar can't really compare to the sound quality of the more expensive speakers. In fact, if you can spare a little more cash the $200 YAS-108 offers a significant step up in sound quality. But if you're just looking for a shoestring budget solution to lousy TV speakers, you can't go wrong with the AmazonBasics
Read review: AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel
Top Pick: Mid-Range Budget
For those that are willing to spend more for better sound quality, but $700 still sounds like a bit too much, the Sonos Beam is the perfect midpoint. In fact, it is probably the best value per dollar of all the models we tested. For $400 you get sound quality that is only a notch or two below that of teh top scoring Playbar. You also get Alexa built right into the bar, allowing you to control your music and even many TVs with your voice. The Beam is also Airplay compatible, so Apple users can stream any audio content from their devices directly to the Beam.
Other than being just slightly less melodious than the most expensive models, the only real shortcoming of the Sonos Beam is the fact that it lacks a Bluetooth connection. This won't matter to many users, but if you like to stream music from YouTubeyou'll have to jump through some hoops with 3rd party apps (unless you have an Apple device or a smart TV).
Read review: Sonos Beam
Analysis and Test Results
Soundbars provide a simple, effective, and when compared to the cost of surround sound systems, relatively inexpensive way to take your home theater rig to the next level. Obviously, these gadgets need to sound good to be worthy of the coveted shelf space below your TV, but there are a number of different attributes that differentiate one model from another. Our scores are based on 10 hands-on tests that range from sound quality to ease of use and installation, all the way through the design and style.
Based on our testing, soundbars certainly provide better and better sound quality the more you spend (case in point: the Sonos Playbar). However, there are still good deals to be found. For instance, the Sonos Beam costs nearly half as much as the Playbar and only sounds slightly less amazing. The $200 Yamaha YAS-108 also delivers surprisingly good sound. At the low end of the price spectrum, the AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel offers a decent upgrade from built-in TV speakers for $100.
First and foremost a soundbar needs to add depth to an at-home cinematic experience by making soundscapes feel more immersive. Ideally, it should also be able to belt out a tune in case your party turns from movie marathon to dancing disco. Thus we weighted our sound quality metric most heavily and spent the bulk of our testing time making certain that it was accurately quantified. To do this we spent hours comparing each model side-by-side through watching special effects heavy movies, listening to Hans Zimmer soundtracks, and shamelessly dancing to embarrassing pop songs (all in the name of science, of course).
Perhaps unsurprisingly to fans of the brand, the Sonos Playbar was the top dog in our sound quality testing, earning a perfect 10 out of 10. This device produced incredibly rich and clear sound, seemingly upping the stakes of every Hollywood car chase sequence and space shuttle launch that we watched. It couldn't quite match the bass power of models with external subwoofers but had great punch when compared to other integrated subwoofer models. Though its bass wasn't the most powerful, its clarity and wide dynamic range still created a well-rounded sound with impressive depth.
The Sonos Playbar was truly in a league of its own sound wise, but the Bose SoundTouch 300 was able to come somewhat close, earning an 8 out of 10 in our sound quality testing. Living up to Bose's reputation for creating great bass, its bass was deep and crisper than any of the models we tested (excluding those that use an external subwoofer). It also had quite impressive clarity in our testing, falling just short of the Sonos Playbar in that regard.
The other Sonos model we tested, the Beam, also earned an 8 out of 10 in our sound quality testing. It has the same reasonably powerful bass as the Playbar, but with just a bit less clarity and a slightly less wide dynamic range. Honestly, listening to this soundbar in isolation it sounds great. However, the superiority of the Playbar clearly came through in side-by-side testing.
Falling just short of the top scorers was the Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 7.1 Channel, which scored a 7 out of 10. While it is advertised as a soundbar, it really is more of a surround sound system as the bar is accompanied by an external subwoofer and two rear satellite speakers. We were able to notice more surround sound type effects with this setup, but we also noticed a clear drop off in sound quality compared to the top scorers. Its bass was very powerful, but lacked clarity and often sounded muddled. The treble was noticeably more crisp than the bass but still fell short of the top scoring models.
Also earning a 7 out of 10 was the Yamaha YAS-108. This reasonably priced model has good bass, good clarity that isn't too far off from that of the high-priced models, and quite good dynamic range. All this combines to create a rich and full sound, though one that is noticeably less booming than what emanates from the likes of the Sonos Playbar.
The ZVOX SB500 was also just behind the top scorers in this metric with a score of 7 out of 10. Its bass is quite powerful and fairly crisp, though it can get a bit muddled when the volume gets high. Overall its clarity is around average, still much better than most TV speakers, but noticeably inferior to the high end models.
Coming in at just about average was the Bose Solo 5, which earned a 5 out of 10. Its bass is impressively powerful given its tiny size but tended to sound very muffled, especially at higher volumes. It also lacked some clarity in the upper register, and its dynamic range was a bit stunted compared to other models. Overall this bar will still be a big upgrade over most TVs' built-in speakers, but probably not as much of a step up as you'd expect for $250.The Q Acoustics M4 was just below average in all of our sound quality tests, earning it a score of 4 out of 10. Its bass is just slightly on the weak side, the dynamic range is slightly stunted, and the treble clarity leaves a little bit to be desired. This bar doesn't sound bad, it's just not as good as the majority of its competitors.
At the bottom of our sound quality scoresheet with a score of 2 out of 10 was the AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel. In short, it just failed to impress us in any way. When we first set it up in our testing home theater we thought we'd messed up the connection and were just listening to the TV's built-in speakers, but alas, we were in fact listening to the AmazonBasics. Without any discernable improvement over default TV speakers this soundbar has little added value.
Ease of Use
One of the major advantages that soundbars have over fully fledged surround sound systems is their simplicity, so if a soundbar is difficult to install and use it loses much of its appeal. During our testing we connected and disconnected each soundbar to our testing TV more times than we can count, so we have a very good idea of how easy they are to set up. We also played with all of their settings throughout our sound quality testing, so we likewise know how user friendly they are in day-to-day use.
After many rounds of setup, breakdown, and use, we determined the Yamaha YAS-108 to be the most user friendly model we tested. The slim body makes the bar easy to move around and installation took us only 5 minutes. Our only real complaint was that the remote is a bit small, but it lets you cycle through settings fairly easily and the LEDs on the body of the bar clearly indicate what settings have been selected. There is also a set of controls on the bar in case you've misplaced the remote. Connecting via Bluetooth was also seamless, and the bar can also be controlled via an app.
One step down from the Yamaha were both Bose models we tested, the Solo 5 and the SoundTouch 300. Both of these models earned a score of 8 out of 10. We had both of these models all set up within 5 minutes of opening the box. Both also have nice, intuitive remotes. However, neither have any sort of controls on the bar itself, you have to use the remote, which prevented them from earning a top score. Also, only the SoundTouch 300 can be used with Bose's app, the Solo 5 cannot.
The ZVOX SB500 was also just behind the leader with a score of 8 out of 10. It sets up very quickly, has a nicely designed remote, has controls on the bar itself, and easily connects to Bluetooth devices. The only thing it lacks is any sort of app that can be used as a control.
The AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel took us only 5 minutes to set up, easily paired with Bluetooth devices, and has on body controls for when you can't find the remote. However, the AmazonBasics' remote was very basic (no pun intended) with few sound customization options, and it felt a bit flimsy. These flaws bumped the ease of use score of this otherwise user friendly model to 7 out of 10.
Though high performers in most other aspects of our testing, the Sonos models we tested both received a relatively mediocre score of 6 out of 10 in our ease of use metric. These models are incredibly easy to use if you're just connecting to a TV. However, connecting wirelessly requires a wifi network and using the Sonos App to send media to the bar. This felt like an unnecessarily complicated step, we wish they just had simple Bluetooth like most of the other models (the Beam is Airplay compatible, which is functionally like Bluetooth for Apple devices). Also, they do not have remote controls, you have to use the app.
The Q Acoustics M4 also received a score of 6 out of 10. Like most models, its setup process was quick and easy, and it has both a remote control and controls on the bar itself. However, both the remote and on-device controls are limited to volume and input and don't allow for any sound customization. It also does not have a compatible app.
At the bottom of our ease of use barrel was the Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 7.1 Channel, with a score of 4 out of 10. This low score was mostly due to complications with setting up the external subwoofer and tweeters that pushed the initial setup time out to 25 minutes. Also, the LED indicators on the bar were somewhat difficult to understand and we weren't always totally sure what settings we had dialed in.
If you're looking to buy a soundbar because you're not satisfied with the quality of your TV's built-in speakers, chances are you care enough about sound to want to tinker with EQ settings. Some of the models we tested provide full sound customization options so you can dial in the exact type of audio ecosystem that you'd like. Surprisingly, some models only offer a few presets instead of endless customization. We scored each model based on the amount of sound adjustability offered by each model. We should note that you can often adjust audio settings on whatever device you're connecting to your soundbar (TV, phone, tablet) but being able to adjust the setting on the bar itself ensures you'll always get your preferred sound, regardless of what you connect it to.
The top scorers in this metric were the Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 7.1Ch and the ZVOX SB500, both of which earned a 9 out of 10. The Nakamichi's large remote lets you easily cycle through 9 surround sound modes, adjust bass, treble, and balance, and reduce the subwoofer's power to 50% or just completely shut it off in case you get any complaints from the neighbors. The ZVOX has lots of EQ adjustability, plus a number of different sound modes that boost voices, dim loud noises, and even change surround sound effects.
Closely following the top contenders with a score of 8 out of 10 was the Sonos Playbar and the Sonos Beam. In addition to preset sound modes, the Sonos app includes treble, bass, and balance EQ controls. These models also offer dialogue enhancement, which keeps dialogue loud and clear and doesn't let it get drowned out by other sounds, and night mode, which dampens the loudest noises so you late night movie watching doesn't wake anyone up.
Three different models, the Yamaha YAS-108, the Bose SoundTouch 300, and the AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel, scored 7 out of 10 in our sound customization testing. The Yamaha only offers adjustability of the bass level. This isn't a huge deal as that's most likely the first thing most people adjust, but it is limiting compared to models that offer a full EQ adjustment. The Bose SoundTouch 300, when used in conjunction with the SoundTouch App, offers a number of audio adjustments. However, we found the app hard to navigate and feel most users won't bother using it. The AmazonBasics only offers a few basic (sorry, that pun never gets old) preset sound modes.
The Bose Solo 5 has very little in the way of sound customization, so much so that it earned a low score of 4. You can adjust the bass level, and it also has a 'dialogue mode' that is supposed to boost the sound of voices. However, this mode sounds suspiciously similar to just having the bass on its lowest setting.
The Q Acoustics M4 was the worst scorer in this metric, earning a paltry 2 out of 10. It doesn't offer any kind of EQ adjustments or any programmed sound modes, outside of volume. If you want to customize their sound you'll have to hope the device you're using has some sound customization options.
The ideal soundbar placement is directly below the TV, so it will inevitably occupy a conspicuous spot in your living room. Such prominent placement necessitates pleasing aesthetics. Design and style are inherently subjective, so we awarded scores in this metric, well, subjectively. In our minds, the ideal soundbar would have a simple design, look well-constructed, but not have an overbearing visual presence. We also prefer more basic colors like black that can somewhat blend into the background. Silver accents add some visual flair, but we'd rather keep our eyes focused on the movie rather than the speaker. We judged all of our models against that ideal.
Our favorite model from a design perspective was the Editors' Choice Award winning Sonos Playbar. Its solid metal chassis and mesh speaker have a classic look that oozes a sense of quality. The sleek lines allow it to blend into any living room, whether it's sitting on top of a media stand or mounted to the wall. If we're being really nitpicky, we could do without the dark grey accent along the front of the bar, but it's subdued enough that it doesn't annoy us too much.
A slew of six models shared the second step of the podium at the end of our design and style runway. All of these models look good and we'd be happy to have any of them in our living room, but they just don't quite match the elegance of the Sonos. The ZVOX SB500 features simple right angles and an all black design. The speaker coverings are cloth and look fairly nice. The Bose Solo 5 largely benefits from its small form factor, making it the most inconspicuous of all the models we tested. Its also features an all-black body with clean lines, but again we'd prefer if its speaker coverings were cloth instead of plastic. The Bose SoundTouch 300 is possibly the most elegant of all the models we tested, with a monochrome black body and simple lines. However, its glossy finish tended to show dust and fingerprints, so may require some extra cleaning. The Sonos Beam looks great like its bigger sibling, but does use plastic in place of metal in some places.
The Yamaha YAS-108 opts for a curvier design. This looks nice and certainly would fit into some living rooms, but doesn't quite have the universal appeal of some of the more simple designs. We like the all-black design and nice cloth speaker coverings of the Q Acoustics M4. However, it is a bit bulkier and less sleek than some of the other models.
Our least favorite models in terms of style were the Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 7.1Ch and the AmazonBasics 2.1 Channel. The Nakamichi is well built, but we weren't fans of its silver accents, which could clash with some living room decor. The AmazonBasics has a plastic body that makes it look and feel a bit flimsy.
Soundbars offer a no fuss, simple way to vastly improve the sound that comes out of your TV. However, choosing the right one isn't quite as simple. We hope that our testing results have led you to a model that will fit your needs. If you're still a bit confused, take a look at our buying advice article. It offers some additional information about what to consider when upgrading your home cinema sound system.
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.