While TV manufacturers have been making their TVs slimmer and sleeker, creating speakers small enough to fit in them has meant sound quality has actually got worse compared with older sets. Enter the soundbar, a speaker or speaker set designed to improve the sound quality of your TV, without the need to shell out for a full surround sound system.
But many of the best soundbars on the market will often cost more than you spent on the TV in the first place. There are few product areas where the level of quality available – and the price – varies as much as it does with speakers. Bargains are not easy to find or identify but it is still possible to improve your TV’s sound quality without doubling its price.
What to look for in a soundbar
Power: Like the megapixel number quoted on a digital camera, the wattage of a speaker is no guarantee of quality, but it will give you a guide as to how loud it can get at top volume.
Depending on your listening habits, the size of your room and the distance of your neighbours, it’s very unlikely you’re going to need a mega-wattage soundbar. We would even question if the vast majority would need anywhere near 100W, although this is fast becoming the standard of entry-level soundbars.
Number of speakers: When it comes to this end of the market you will effectively be looking at 2.1 or a 2.0 system, meaning your soundbar will either have 2 tweeters and a woofer or just 2 tweeters. 2.1 systems will have a lot more bass thanks to the woofer and this will generally give the sound a bit more oomph as well as hopefully rounding out the sound.
In an ideal world, we’d always suggest going for a 2.1 system, although if you don’t watch a lot of films or particularly dramatic entertainment skipping the sub-woofer could be an easy way of shaving some pounds off the price tag.
Size: This is a very important consideration and not just to make sure it will fit on your TV stand or look ridiculous compared with the size of the screen. The size of the soundbar will also go some way to dictating the size of the soundstage (or where the sound is effectively projected) changing the size of the area where you will get the best results. As a general rule we would suggest getting a soundbar of a similar width of your TV, but remember that the advertised screen size of your TV is the diagonal measurement of the screen so you’d want a soundbar a bit shorter than the listed screen size.
Design: While it might not be a major consideration at first this is something that will sit front and centre of your TV so aesthetics need to be considered. Thankfully most manufacturers recognise that a soundbar is to be heard and not seen and the vast majority are slim black boxes designed to disappear under a TV. Still, it is worth measuring to ensure the box isn’t so tall as it might either block a part of the screen or the remote control receiver – leaving you having to stand up for a better angle every time you want to change the channel.
Price: Then there’s price to consider. As all our picks are, or have been, available for £200 or less they are all very much in the budget category but even so there is a lot of variation and it is often the case that just a little bit more goes a long way. While a bit of a saving here might seem sensible at first, if you could have paid a little bit more for a soundbar with a sub-woofer it may save money on resorting to a more expensive model later down the line.
Best Budget Soundbars
Yamaha YAS-93 Front Surround Soundbar System
The Yamaha YAS-93 is an excellent budget soundbar, offering a significant step up in sound quality over the average built-in TV speakers. The dual front speakers and dual built-in sub-woofers provide good clarity and depth of sound although, as with any but the most expensive soundbars, don’t expect a true surround sound effect.
The bar is attractively designed and easy to set up, but it is worth noting that this model doesn’t include Bluetooth, so it will need to be wired to your TV.
Panasonic SC-SB1EB-K Soundbar
This compact soundbar provides an excellent improvement on the sound of the average TV, especially considering it is just 43cm wide.
The unit packs in a 2.1 channel system including an upward-facing subwoofer. This won’t be able to recreate the same depth of bass that a separate subwoofer unit would likely manage, but it is surprisingly effective.
It is easy to set up as it is very much a plug and play device, which is lucky as the provided documentation doesn’t help much when it comes to installation.
Bluetooth functionality means you can use it to stream audio from your phone or tablet, plus it also can learn the power on/off and volume controls from your TV remote so you don’t need to use yet another remote.
Originally close to the top of our spending limit, the 100W version of HT-CT180 can now be picked up for around £140 with some retailers. A two piece unit including a wireless sub-woofer, this soundbar offers a decent quality of sound. While it may not be as refined or powerful as more expensive units (the sub-woofer in particular is a little under-powered), it will dramatically improve on standard TV speakers.
Bluetooth connectivity is included so you can use the speaker to stream music wirelessly from a mobile phone and you can also quickly connect to NFC enabled devices. Its simple, clean design means it will match pretty much any TV and the sub-woofer is mercifully plain so you can subtly tuck it away in a corner.
The wireless sub-woofer means it is easy to set-up without having to trail wires all around the room and everyday use is simple – although having to use its own dedicated remote for volume is a pain as it’s yet another remote cluttering up the coffee table.
For its price it is an excellent option, although as with everything at this price range it’s not without its gripes.
Samsung HW-J250 2.2 Sound Bar
The Samsung HW-J250 is a good choice if you’re looking for a cheap soundbar for a smaller TV. Perfectly sized for a 32-inch TV the HW-J250 includes a pair of speakers and sub-woofers built into its neat case.
Bluetooth allows you to connect to your TV without the need for wires, although if you do prefer to connect with wires it’s worth noting that it doesn’t come with a digital optical cable and it doesn’t have an HDMI socket.
The HW-J250 comes with a dedicated remote control and wall brackets.
This soundbar is at the very bottom of LG’s range but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it immediately. There are areas where corners have been cut in the name of price – the lack of sub-woofer most obviously – but this 2 channel system isn’t entirely without merit and it does provide a clear improvement on in-built TV speakers.
It provides fantastic sound quality for its price. Our only real complaint is that bass sounds weak thanks to the lack of sub-woofer and this leaves the whole experience feeling a little subdued.
It includes Bluetooth allowing you to stream music from your phone and even control it from a remote control app.
It is nicely designed, although the exposed speakers may be a concern for those with kids running around the house. One thing it is worth noting with setup is that you do not get an optical cable included in the box so you may need to buy one separately.
This super cheap soundbar from Dell is a good option if you’re looking for something to improve the sound of your PC. While the AC511 can’t provide the same levels of sound quality as the more expensive units, it does a surprisingly good job for something so cheap and it is a good alternative to buying PC speakers.
It can be a little tricky to set up, but does a good job once you get it running. It is possible to connect to a TV with a digital optical cable, although if you are watching in a large room you would probably need a bigger soundbar.