Step 1: How Much do You Want to Spend?
Almost every soundbar on the market is going to provide a significant increase in sound quality when compared to a TV's built-in speakers. Generally speaking, the more you spend the better sound quality you will get (there are some exceptions, check out our sound quality scores before you buy). A $250 sound bar will be a big improvement in sound compared to a TV's speakers, and $800 will get you a top of the line soundbar that will bring you close to what a surround sound system would deliver.
Step 2: Are You All About That Bass?
There are many people out there that feel a strong and powerful low end is what really makes audio systems sound better. If you're one of those people you may want to consider a soundbar with an external subwoofer. These models tend to produce much boomier bass than completely self contained soundbars. Just remember, you'll have to plan where you want to put that subwoofer. Our favorite model for deep bass is the Klipsch R-20B.
Step 3: On the Fence About Surround Sound?
If you're not sure whether you'd be satisfied with a soundbar or should just go full out with a surround sound system, you might want to start with a soundbar that can be paired with other speakers to create a complete surround sound system later on down the road. Sonos and Bose both allow you to easily connect multiple speakers via your wifi network, so you can expand your sound system if the soundbar alone isn't cutting it for you.
Step 4: Big Fan of Bluetooth?
Most soundbars allow you to simply pair your phone or tablet using a Bluetooth connection. The one big exception is the Sonos Playbar. All of Sonos's products instead create an 'ecosystem' using your wifi network, that you can then access via the Sonos App. This has some big advantages, like the fact that your music won't be interrupted by your phone alerts, and it makes it very easy to control multiple speakers if you've upgraded to a multi-piece Sonos system. However, you have to play all of your music through the Sonos App, which adds an additional step if your visitors want to play music from their phones.
Step 5: Consider Style
Remember that your soundbar will most likely be displayed as prominently as your TV, so you'll want something that will fit in with the rest of your living room. We rated the style of each of the models we tested, but style can be quite subjective, so make sure you check out all of the product photos before you buy.
Alternatives to Soundbars
Soundbars are generally the simplest way to get better sound out of your TV. However, there are other options you might want to consider.
Soundbases are very similar to sound bars, except they are much broader and you are meant to place your TV directly on top of them. In fact, many of them are rated for how large of a TV they can support. Thicker soundbases tend to sound a bit better than soundbars because they can fit larger drivers. However, thicker soundbases also raise your TV higher. Since most TV stands are designed to be the perfect height, adding a thick soundbase may throw things off a bit. Because of this most new soundbases are designed to be skinnier, and thus don't have larger drivers. Also, soundbases cannot be mounted on a wall, whereas soundbars excel in that orientation.
Surround Sound Systems
Surround sound systems are more complicated and can add more effects than both soundbars and soundbases. Namely, they can provide true surround sound due to their multiple speakers (more on that in a second). Some soundbars and soundbases can add some directionality to sound, but nothing compared to literally having speakers all around you. A decent surround sound system takes up much more space, and costs a decent bit more, than a soundbar or soundbase.
What do These Channels Mean?
You may have noticed that many soundbars are advertised as 2.1 channel, or something similar. The first number refers to the number of discrete speakers within the soundbar, in this case 2. That means the soundbar can make sound come just out of its left side, or just out of its right side. This adds some surround sound type effects to your movie watching experience. Other soundbars have three channels, so the sound can somewhat flow from left to right as a car screeches across the screen.
The second number refers to the number of external subwoofers a sound bar has. In the case of a 2.1 channel model, it would have one external subwoofer (it would be very uncommon to see more than one subwoofer unless you're looking at a top of the line surround sound system).
True surround sound is generally considered 5.1 and up (you've probably seen 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround splashed across the covers of DVDs and Blu-rays). Most surround sound systems have 3 speakers in front (center, right, and left), 2 behind you, and a subwoofer. This can truly make it feel like sounds are coming from all around you, something a stand alone soundbar just can't do.
Connecting Your Soundbar
Most soundbars can be connected to via a multitude of connections, so as long as your TV is less than 10 years old, chances are it will be compatible with your soundbar. The most common connection is via an HDMI cable. Most TVs have an HDMI out port, allowing for a single cable connection. If your TV doesn't have an HDMI out, most soundbars have both an in and out, so you can plug your cable box directly to the soundbar, and then the soundbar to the TV. If HDMI isn't your thing, most soundbars also have classic RCA, optical, coaxial, and mini-jack inputs. Finally, almost all soundbars can be connected to wirelessly, via either wifi or bluetooth, or sometimes both.