How to Improve Your HDTV’s Sound with a Compact, Inexpensive Sound Bar

In the race to create ever slimmer HDTVs, there’s a seldom discussed sacrifice being made: sound quality. Your TV’s built-in speakers are probably terrible, but if you want to fix their anemic sound, adding a sound bar is an easy, inexpensive, and space-saving way to do so.

How a Sound Bar Is Different Than Traditional Speaker Setups

Most TVs have speakers hidden in the back that have a tendency to project sound towards the wall behind the television set instead of out towards the viewer. Not only does this lower the overall quality of the viewing experience, muddy up the sound by bouncing it off the ceilings and walls around the set, and force you to turn the volume up higher, but it makes for particularly poor reproduction of speech (which tends to be softer than the other sounds in TV shows and movies).

If you want a true home theater experience, a high-end receiver and surround sound speakers have no equal. But a setup like that can get expensive, complex, and take up a decent amount of space in your living room. You don’t have to go to such expense and hassle. A sound bar is a great alternative: It’s basically a simple, all-in-one booster speaker with a built-in amplifier so you don’t need a receiver. It’s far easier to install, and can do wonders for your TV’s sound quality compared to the built in speakers. No wire running, drilling, fussing, speaker calibrating, or amateur AV specialist adventures required.

Sound like the solution for you? Here’s what you’ll need to consider when buying a sound bar for your TV.

Form Factor and Available Connections Set the Stage

First and foremost, you need to take a look at your TV setup and take some notes. How big is your TV? What kind of inputs and outputs does it have on back? Is it sitting on a stand of some sort, or is it wall mounted? If it is sitting on a stand, does the TV itself have a central stand or legs located on the opposite edges? Is there room behind the TV stand or somewhere in the room for a subwoofer? The answers to all these questions will have a strong effect on guiding your selection process. Consider your answers to these questions as we work through the next sections.

Form Factor: Sound Bars vs Sound Pedestals

Sound bars actually come in two different form factors: sound bars (which you’ve likely seen plenty of) and sound pedestals (which you’ve likely seen very few of). Sound bars are long and skinny, typically roughly the size of a piece of 4×4 lumber and in a variety of lengths from narrow (for smaller ~32″ sets) to wider (for larger 60″+ sets)—although it isn’t strictly necessary to match the width of the TV to the sound bar, nor does size automatically equal quality.

Sound bars are typically placed in front of the TV on the same stand, like the Bose Solo 5 seen above, or wall-mounted below the set. Placement in front of the set typically isn’t a problem, but in the case of very large sound bars and HDTVs that sit very low, it’s possible the sound bar might block the IR receiver on the TV. In such cases, where the bar gets in the way or if you don’t want to drill more holes in the wall to mount yet another thing, you can always use inexpensive sound bar brackets to piggyback your sound bar onto your TV’s VESA mounting holes, placing it above the TV and out of the way.

In addition to the bar itself, you’ll also want to consider auxiliary speakers. While many sound bars are standalone units, others come with a companion subwoofer that provider richer bass. If you’d like some of that extra oomph, look for models labeled as “2.1” (indicating the system offers two channels of sound plus a subwoofer).

There are also sound bar sets popping up in the market that even include wireless satellite speakers for a more rounded surround sound experience—but at that point we’re venturing pretty far from our mission of upgrading your simply and cheaply with a plug-and-play sound bar, and moving into a whole new territory: wireless surround sound systems.

Sound pedestals have a similar profile as sound bar brethren, at least when viewed from the front, but are much deeper, serving as an entire base for the TV to rest on, as seen below with the Bose Solo 15. You don’t see as many of these on the market due to modern TV design, but they offer better bass than subwoofer-less sound bars.

When you’re considering a sound pedestal, a sound bar, or a sound bar + subwoofer, it’s important to take into account the size of your TV, what it’s resting on (if it’s resting at all), and if you have the space for an external subwoofer—keeping in mind that the vast majority of sound bar subwoofers are wireless, and subwoofer placement is very flexible as the bass frequencies they emit are more or less directionless.

Connection Types: Optical, Analog, and HDMI, Oh My!

You can have an amazing speaker system, but if you can’t hook it up to your TV, then it doesn’t really matter. Your second concern when selecting a sound bar is examining your TV (as well as any auxiliary gear like your cable box, DVR, etc.) to determine what kind of audio connections you need.

As a general rule, the more expensive the sound bar, the more connection options you’ll have. Let’s take a peek at the back of a sound bar to walk through the various available connections.

In the manufacturer photo above, the back of a now-discounted Yamaha YSP 2220 boasts quite an array of ports. At the far left, we have an analog R/L audio input, a dock/video out port (that’s specific to the setup of this particular model), a coaxial digital audio input, two optical digital audio inputs, and a handful of HDMI ports.

Multi-port models like this one are great if you want (or need) to use your sound bar as a simple receiver for many devices: you can pipe in sound from older video game systems with the analog ports, you can pipe in sound from multiple HDMI sources like your cable box and DVR with the HDMI ports, and you can always fall back on the optical port to pipe sound from your TV or other systems into the sound bar. For the vast majority of consumers, the only ports that really matter are the HDMI ports and, potentially, the optical audio port (which are the unsung heroes of the home audio landscape).

There are two ways to hook your sound bar up to your TV. You can plug all your devices (your Blu-ray player, cable box, game console, etc.) into your sound bar and pass the video through to your TV, or plug all your devices into your TV and pass the audio out to the sound bar. Check your TV and see what kind of ports it has in the back—if it doesn’t have any optical audio out ports, you’ll need to go the first route. If it does, you can probably go either way. Just make sure you know which method you’re going to use, and make sure your sound bar has the right ports for your TV and (if going the second route) all your devices.

Primary Features: Displays, Controls, Surround Sound, and More

You’ve measured your space, you’ve checked your ports, now it’s time to look at some the features you might want in a potential sound bar. Next, let’s look at primary features—features fundamental to the function of the device as an add-on speaker. In the next section, we’ll look at secondary features that can be considered bonuses worth paying a little extra for if you want them.

Displays: Sometimes Effective, Sometimes an Eyesore

Not all sound bars need a display, although they can be useful (and in the case of sound bars that have lots of extra functions like HDMI switching or streaming audio, they’re even necessary), but one thing is certain: nothing irritates people more about sound bars than bad displays.

When you’re shopping for a sound bar, be sure to check if a display can be dimmed or turned off (or if it turns off automatically when not in use). Of all the things we hear people complain about regarding sound bars, by far the biggest complaint is overly bright displays. On the subtle side of things, you’ll find very low-key displays like the behind-the-speaker-grill volume indicator found on the ZVOX SoundBase sound pedestal, seen below.

On the brighter side of things, you’ll find more traditional receiver-like displays with more information, typically in a semi-eye-searing to totally-eye-searing blue color. If you do end up with an otherwise perfect sound bar that has a way-too-bright display, check out our guide to dimming bright electronics—a layer of light reducing film over a bright display makes a world of difference.

Controls: On-Board and Remote Controls Make or Break the Experience

Second only to display woes in the complaint department are control woes. Ideally, your experience with the sound bar’s controls are as close to frictionless as possible. This means well placed manual controls on the sound bar itself (power button front and center, instead of hidden in an awkward location behind the bar, for example) so you’re not contorting your hand into weird positions to change settings. It seems like a trivial thing compared to other considerations, but when you’re shopping, always take a moment to look where the buttons are located and then ask yourself “After six months, exactly how irritated am I going to be by these buttons?”

In addition, consider your situation in terms of remote control (which is even more important for a comfy couch experience). Does the sound bar have a universal remote? Do you already have a universal remote you can program to use the sound bar? Does the your TV set and the sound bar support HDMI-CEC so it will turn on and off with the TV set? These are things you’ll want to keep in mind. Yes, sound quality matters too, but the reality is that most sound bars will have sound better than your TV. It isn’t a tiny difference in sound quality that will bug you in the long run, it’s ugly displays and cludgy controls.

Sound Features: Dialogue Enhancement, Volume Leveling, and Pseudo Surround Sound

Speaking of actual sound quality, there are a few worthwhile features you’ll want to keep an eye out for. As we noted in the introduction to this guide, one of the things that suffers the most with cruddy small TV speakers is dialogue. Many sound bars have a feature called “dialogue enhancement” or some variation thereof. Just switching from your TV speakers to a sound bar helps enormously in clearing up muddy voice quality, but this extra level can really make the actors and actresses voices stand out.

Additionally, a sound bar with a “volume leveling” or “output leveling” feature is great. Frustration with volume differences between actual content and commercials is common, and a good volume leveling algorithm will keep loud commercials (or action scenes in movies) from blowing out your ears.

Finally, let’s talk about surround sound. The vast majority of sound bars are simply 2.0 or 2.1 setups with a left and right speaker in the bar, plus (sometimes) a separate subwoofer. Some nicer models split that up and include 3.1 sound, with a center channel for voice tracks (if the video you’re watching supports that). Some sound bars even have multiple speakers and try to, as best they can, simulate surround sound by bouncing sound off the surrounding walls in the room at different angles—the most premium example of this would be the very high-end Dolby Atmos-enabled models.

But we’re going to be frank with you: those premium Atmos models sound good (when you’re watching Atmos-supported material), but they’re expensive—so expensive that you may end up paying more for the sound bar than you paid for your entire TV. Once you get into the realm of paying $1,000+ for a sound bar, you might as well start looking at setting up a complete multi-speaker home theater system that supports multiple types of surround sound.

Ultimately, we’re not here to find a sound bar that would do surround sound justice to a cinematic piece like Master and Commander; we’re here to highlight the features you want in a sound bar that will run circles around the tiny speakers in your HDTV—so our recommendation is to skip the ultra-premium sound bars until the prices on premium sound features like Dolby Atmos come down and the standard itself is more widely adopted.

Secondary Features: Bluetooth Pairing, Wi-Fi, and Streaming Services

With the big directly-related-to-TV-playback features out of the way, there’s a host of smaller features you might factor into your purchase. One of the most common features is Bluetooth pairing—which gives you the ability to link your phone or other Bluetooth device to the speaker for audio playback. If you’re a Pandora power user, for example, the ability to dump that audio stream from your phone to a room-filling speaker is fantastic.

Speaking of Pandora (and other streaming services), some sound bars have built-in support for Wi-Fi connectivity and clients for popular streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and so on. If you have Sonos speakers in your house, you can even get a Sonos sound bar that integrates with the rest of them. Some sound bars, albeit a smaller set, even have smart TV functionality like support for Netflix and other streaming video services.

While that’s all well and good, we can’t recommend you opt for one sound bar over another sound bar because of features like Pandora or Netflix support, for one simple reason. The same way smart TVs tend to be pretty much garbage, apps stuffed into sound bars are similarly underwhelming. Spend your money on a nicer sound bar and, if you really want streaming support, add a Chromecast to your TV or a Chromecast Audio to your sound bar via one of the auxiliary inputs.

Armed with all this knowledge—where you want to place the bar, what inputs you need, and what features you want—you’ll be more than ready to shop for, and find, the perfect sound bar for your needs.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.