The television manufacturers are working diligently to improve their products, and continue to launch better products from year to year. Except for one point: the sound quality. In a world where flatter is better, there is no room to incorporate good quality speakers.
The simplest and most elegant solution to issues regarding audio is a soundbar. A separate speaker, in which all speaker drivers, amplification and processing of the digital audio signal from the film or music are built into a single chassis.
Bar or base?
A regular soundbar is fairly thin and long, and is designed to fit under a wall mounted TV. If, on the other hand, you have your TV on a table, you may prefer to select a sound base. This is deeper and narrower than a soundbar, and has the advantage of allowing you to have the TV placed on top of it, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the TV’s bottom edge, like a soundbar can do, if you place this on the table in front of the TV. Because of the larger chassis volume of the base, it often has more bass than a soundbar and manages fine without an additional subwoofer next to it. The soundbar does not have as deep bass of its own, and may often require a subwoofer to work optimally.
The sound base market has never completely taken off, so many manufacturers have stopped making them. For the same reason, we initially considered having soundbars in this test, but suddenly Sonos (the market leader within multi-room speakers) launched its first sound base, so we decided to include it. Other than that, the rest of the test subjects are soundbars.
What are we looking for?
A soundbar’s job is primarily to improve TV audio, while music becomes a bonus. More powerful sound is an important keyword, but we have learned that some producers have fallen for the temptation to provide a round and rich sound experience at the expense of openness and clarity in the dialogue. This is not acceptable. The soundbar must always be better than the TV. It shouldn’t be the case that when you watch the news, you use the TV’s built-in speakers because they render clearer speech than the soundbar. The soundbar should ALWAYS be the preferred choice. That means first and foremost that dialogue is in order.
Of course, we also want a rich and hefty sound rendition and also viable music experiences in stereo. The best soundbars can handle everything.
This is how we tested
All products have been tested by our hi-fi bench. For movies, we have connected the 4K Blu-ray player Panasonic DMP-UB900 with HDMI as this has been available. In other cases, the audio has been transmitted via the optical digital input. Where products have external subwoofers, they are positioned where it sounds best (usually somewhere on the floor by the wall, not far from the soundbar).
Music in stereo has been played over the wireless network. We have used Tidal with CD quality where this has been available, otherwise we have used Spotify.
We have tested with the movie Deadpool on 4K Blu-ray, while music in stereo has been an assorted selection.
The biggest problem with this soundbar is a huge hole in the soundscape.
The most accomplished
Bluesound’s soundbar costs a bit more, but pays off in the form of a much better experiences on both film and music.
The TV's resting pad
Sonos’ new sound base PlayBase acts as a base for the TV. But did it arrive too late?
This is designed to lie flat and point towards the ceiling, but nevertheless sounds good facing forward. It works pretty good.
Samsung’s soundbar sounds just as well on music as it does for movies.
If you are looking for an affordable option with multi-room, and do not want an extra bass crate, then this one is good.
The Philips soundbar does its job, with crystal clear dialogue and a fairly balanced sound.
Not good enough
Bose has banked on user-friendliness, but has unfortunately forgotten about the sound quality.
A lot of sound pressure, little else
Klipsch has the highest sound pressure in the test. But the soundbar disappoints on sound quality.
User-friendly and tough
Heos has endowed this with user-friendliness, and here one also gets tough, rich sound for one’s money.