Review : 9 affordable soundbars

The best sound in the living room

A soundbar is by far the simplest sound upgrade that you can make to your TV. But how good of a sound do you get in the mid to lower price range?

You can’t change the laws of physics. A flat TV always provides flat sound! It can be argued that the sound is half the experience, so we strongly recommend that you upgrade to external audio. Although Disney has acquired the Star Wars franchise, you don’t want Darth Vader to sound like Mickey Mouse…
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be expensive. Or unattractive. You don’t necessarily need a full blown surround system to get a touch of home theatre feel in your living room. Except for connoisseurs, a good quality soundbar will go a long way.

Subwoofer

In this test, we want to find out exactly how good sound can get from a soundbar in the mid to lower price range. As a requirement, an external subwoofer must be included in the price, since experience suggests that there is not enough cabinet volume in a soundbar to provide enough bass on its own. This excludes popular soundbars from brands such as Sonos, HEOS, Bluesound and Bose, all become too expensive if you add a subwoofer.

No network streaming

This time we have had no requirements for multi-room features or music streaming over the network, but simply want the best sound in the TV room. That’s why all the soundbars in this test, except one (LG SJ8), have scrapped network connectivity and have banked on Bluetooth as the only way to stream music wirelessly.

Who is the soundbar for?

A soundbar is perfect for those who want better sound quality than the lightweight speakers built into the TV. However, it is not necessarily the optimal choice if you are primarily going to use it for music. A traditional stereo system will give you more bang for the buck. A few small, well-sounding stand speakers provide a better stereo perspective and a better resolution of the music, but when watching a movie, you will miss the bass effects you get from a soundbar with an accompanying subwoofer.

9 soundbars

We’ve found nine soundbars in the mid to lower price range. The size also varies, but they all decode movie sound digitally either using HDMI or optical digital input, and they have wireless Bluetooth connectivity for music listening.

This is how we tested

All the soundbars were tested at our listening room, connected to a Sony TV. The source was an Xbox One S, which was used for both a film (Alien: Covenant) and games (Forza Horizon 3). The music listening was done on Tidal, via Bluetooth on an iPhone X, and if this didn’t sound good, we double-checked with CD.

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Nine soundbars, ready for testing. All with subwoofer. Photo: Geir Gråbein Nordby
Klipsch RSB-6

Does not follow up

A masculine expression and rugged sound does not have the power to follow up, and Klipsch lands at the bottom.

Our verdict

If you like the PA sound you know from concert halls and nightlife venues, you'll nod approvingly.
The soundbar does not have the power to keep up with the “tough” soundscape. It all sounds fairly flat, and Bluetooth sounds discouragingly bad.
Matches screen size: 46” and up
HDMI: 1 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Website: mono.no

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Price 5995 £

The look is rough and masculine, with a length that best matches TVs at 46 inches and up. The soundbar has an HDMI input that supports HDCP 2.2 and hence all the latest video resolutions. However, it lacks a display, so you need to get close in order to see the input and sound modes. The small and disappointing remote control doesn’t help.

Sound quality

The dialogue on movies is not as clear as with Samsung and LG, and the RSB-6 is not as good at simulating surround sound. The actual timbre in the soundscape reminds you a lot of what we are used to from the cinema. Rough and tough, with a hint of brutality. Therefore, it is somewhat disappointing to note that the soundbar is unable to keep up when the sound is cranked up. It sounds fairly flat, and explosions and gunfire in the otherwise intriguing Alien: Covenant do not burst out from the soundscape. Nevertheless, we think it is still acceptable. Barely.

Music via wireless Bluetooth is another story. As with the Panasonic SC-HTB250, it sounds totally lifeless and unengaging, where there should be transients pumping against a roof. None of the other soundbars in the test have this problem.
It sounds far better with CD. The music sounds rhythmic enough, and works fine. But Klipsch does not threaten the best. The bass sounds coloured and everything gets a very PA sound, but it is not followed by dynamics and force. Klipsch are miles away from JBL Bar 3.1 in this respect.

Conclusion

With such a tough exterior and a sound character reminiscent of PA sound, it’s a bit disappointing to note that Klipsch RSB-6 is a rather disappointing story. It sounds fairly flat, action scenes are rendered without any major contrast, and we are never fooled into believing that there is surround sound here. The sound from Bluetooth is the worst, which is virtually useless. Flat as the pulse of a stuffed sloth.
It also lacks a display, and the remote control is of poor quality.

Foto: Klipsch
JBL Bar 3.1

Powerhouse

No one in the class provide this sense of home cinema. JBL crushes everyone on sheer force, and the sound quality is good enough for it to take the lead.

Our verdict

No one in this class come close to this level of power. The subwoofer at 10 inches is especially impressive. In addition, it sounds good, and the soundbar is user-friendly.
There are those with higher resolution and even better cohesion in the tones. Does not support DTS
Matches screen size: 46” and up
HDMI: 3 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Website: no.jbl.com

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Price 6000 £

With its 10 inch down-firing subwoofer, clearly the biggest in this test and in its price range, the JBL Bar 3.1 is not to be overlooked.
The soundbar not only has one but three HDMI inputs, which all support HDCP 2.2 and thereby 4K-video from Blu-Ray. It has a large and clear display in the front, and the remote control feels good to handle.

Sound quality

In Movie sound mode, the soundscape is rendered large enough giving a certain impression of surround sound. But more importantly, movie sound is very powerful and doesn’t compromise the rendition of dialogue and film music. However, it does not have the sophisticated overtones as the Samsung HW-N660, but it more than makes up for that with bass power, which no other soundbar is able to match. This also benefits the music. Rhythmic music especially is rendered with dynamics that no other soundbar can beat. This is the most powerful soundbar we’ve heard in its price range. It also sounds pretty good, if you ignore the slightly grainy overtone area which does not do delicate music any favors. In brief, this is what Klipsch RSB-6 wants to be. Does it help with the gaming experience? You bet!

Conclusion

The bass in the JBL Bar 3.1 is in a league of its own, and it provides an additional thrill to movies and games. You can play music loudly, and it also sounds rather good. When usability also is top notch, there is no other soundbar we would recommend if you are looking for something like a home cinema from a soundbar. With Bar 3.1, JBL fulfills so many of the items on the checklist, that it is quite unique in its price range.

There are those with a little more sophistication, but none that comes close to this kind of power.

Foto: JBL
LG SJ8

Let the sound flow

The soundbar from LG is one of the most affordable with built-in network features and streaming of music services. It also sounds good.

Our verdict

The sound is crisp, with a clear dialogue on movies. The soundscape is huge, and we give a thumbs up for the network and streaming services.
It lacks power, and it can sound a little slim.
Matches screen size: 55” and up
HDMI: 1 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical
Network: Wi-Fi, Ethernet
Wireless: Bluetooth, Spotify Connect, Chromecast
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Subwoofer: Wireless
W x H x D: 122 x 3.8 x 10.5 cm
Colour: Silver Grey
Website: lg.com/no

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Price 5995 £

LG SJ8 is the widest of the test and looks great with big TVs. It is sleek and elegant and is user-friendly with a clear and straightforward display in the front.
Besides the HDMI input that supports all video formats, SJ8 has both wireless and wired network functionality. Spotify customers can enjoy direct streaming with the Connect feature, and the built-in Chromecast provides access to several other music services, including Deezer.
High-resolution music files are also supported, although we don’t see quite the point of high-resolution sound from a soundbar, which will always be a compromise regarding sound compared to an actual stereo system.

Sound quality

The dialogue in the film sounds loud and clear. Perhaps a bit slimmed down in the mid range, but not too much. Simulated surround sound also works fine. Although LG does not attempt to make sound in the height dimension, the soundscape feels almost as huge as with Samsung and Sony. However, it does not quite reach Yamaha in this respect.
One criticism is that LG’s volume is not as loud as the most powerful soundbars. It can seem slightly lightweight in action movies, although the soundbar works fine for daily use.
Music in stereo works, but midrange is somewhat reticent. Lady Gaga’s voice in the acoustic Joanne has nice fullness down in the range, which not all soundbars can bring forth. At the same time, it lacks air at the very top. Compared with Samsung and JBL, the sound isn’t as clear, and the subwoofer is also slightly flimsy.

Conclusion

The LG SJ8 is a wide soundbar, and therefore looks best with somewhat larger TVs. It has built-in network features and streaming, which makes music more accessible with better quality than if you use Bluetooth. It also sounds quite good and sounds best for movies with clear and open sound. It’s no powerhouse, but it does the trick.

Perfect balance

The soundbar from Samsung has a beautiful coherence in the tones, which makes both movies and music a pleasant experience.

Our verdict

The soundscape is great, and it works extraordinarily well on film and games. The soundbar has a very well adjusted timbre balance.
We would like more power, and the narrow display can hold way too little text, which is why it appears in a rolling manner.
Matches screen size: 49” and up
HDMI: 1 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Website: samsung.no

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Price 5995 £

HW-N660 supports 4K-video from Blu-ray through the HDMI input, and it also extends the sound in height in order to give an additional dimension. Unlike Sony there is no decoding of 360 audio formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Instead, Samsung scales the volume in height from regular two-dimensional audio formats. The usability is good, but the display is narrow and can accommodate few characters. This means that the text must scroll sideways in order for us to read it.

Sound quality

The sound is more well-balanced than the rest in its class. The dialogue in Alien: Covenant sounds open and natural, without any humps or colouring anywhere. The subwoofer integrates well and the bass is rendered very good tonally. This adds a good foundation to the soundscape, and explosions also work quite well within certain limits.
The soundscape is large and open and even when we play Forza Horizon 3 on Xbox One S, we do so with a surprisingly large amount of immersion. There is room, and there is dynamics. Samsung cannot work wonders in terms of power, and we feel it perhaps gives up a little early.
Music in stereo never sounds harsh or problematic. The voice of David Gilmour on Pink Floyd’s Hey You is clear as day, and it sounds natural and well balanced in the timbre. Samsung sounds more resolved in overtones than the others in the test and is the best for music if you do not have to play loudly.

Conclusion

Samsung has gradually become very good at making well-sounding soundbars, and the HW-N660 is no exception. It is very well balanced in the timbre and sounds resolved and natural for movies, games and music. It could, admittedly, be a little more powerful, but the total package is so good that it deserves our full recommendation.
The display could have had more room for text, otherwise it’s usability is also very good.

Panasonic SC-HTB250

Small and half-hearted

The small soundbar from Panasonic sounds bigger and more powerful than you might think. But it has a few issues.

Our verdict

The sound is powerful, with more oomph than we had anticipated. Quite a huge soundscape on film.
Bluetooth sounds miserable, and with the absent analogue input, you can therefore not enjoy music from a mobile phone.
Matches screen size: 20” and up
HDMI: 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical, USB-A
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: No
Website: panasonic.com

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Price 2495 £

The Panasonic SC-HTB250 is a narrow soundbar, which fits with small TVs. The wireless slim subwoofer fits under the couch, and you can hear and feel the bass even at low volume. Good for neighbourly relationships among flat residents!

As for connections, there is an optical digital input and an HDMI output with audio return channel. No pure HDMI inputs, which means that all video sources must be connected to the TV, which then leads the audio to the soundbar up through the HDMI output. We also miss the display.

Sound quality

Film sound is quite impressive, as the soundbar in movie mode delivers a far greater and more open soundscape than its physical dimensions would dictate. The sound is still a bit rough around the edges, but with better oomph in dialogues and in the soundscape compared with Philips B1. But it’s not as good as Sony HT-MT500, which we’ve tested before.
Wireless Bluetooth works poorly. Music from a mobile phone sounds particularly flat and lifeless, and never reaches its full potential. It gets better if you turn down the sound on the mobile phone, but then it won’t be loud enough, even with the soundbar at max. There is no analogue audio input, and for all practical purposes you can’t really listen to music from the mobile phone.

However, the sound was a lot better with a CD in our Blu-ray player. Suddenly, the music feels lively, with well defined rhythms. It lacks a bit of finesse in the overtones. It can sound a little wooly and trapped compared to the best.

Conclusion

The Panasonic SC-HTB250 is a small soundbar with a sleek, cordless subwoofer that fits under the sofa. Despite its small size, it has a large enough soundscape in the film, and the audio is more powerful than you might think.
The Bluetooth transfer is far too poor for enjoying music from your mobile phone. Listening to music must take place from sources that can be connected with optical input or via the TV. Or you can play music files from a memory stick.

Creative Sound BlasterX Katana

For gamers

Creative’s soundbar is for gamers and the only one in the test with USB inputs that replaces the sound card in PCs and Macs.

Our verdict

The soundscape gets an okay feel of surround on film and games, and the subwoofer hangs well together with the sound from the soundbar. A straightforward display simplifies its use.
The overtones are rather taciturn, the dialogues in film sound somewhat woolly, and the music lacks a little spark. The subwoofer is not wireless, HDMI is missing as is support for DTS.
Matches screen size: 26” and up
HDMI: 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical, USB-A, USB-B
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX, microphone input
Website: creative.com

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Price 2895 £

Creative is best known as the inventor of the Sound Blaster soundcard, which dominated the PC market in the 90’s. Fittingly, the soundbar Katana can also work as a PC sound card via USB. A straightforward display makes the soundbar easy to use. Unfortunately, it lacks an HDMI input. You can solve this by connecting the TV to the optical digital input, and hope that the sound is synchronised with the image, so the dialogue is synced with lip movement (lip sync). This works OK with the Sony TV that we tested it with. The sound has a tiny delay, bu we think it’s acceptable.

Sound quality

The soundbar sounds really good when your driving skills are put to the test with the driving game Forza Horizon 3 on the Xbox One S. The sub-woofer slams really well when you crash, and the engine sounds solid enough. Somewhat rounder than the Panasonic, but Creative still feels more powerful.
We are not so sure the blue light on the underside of the bar during Gaming sound mode is a good thing, or that the entire underside lights up in the colours of the rainbow when the music is on Concert mode.
Film engages well and the subwoofer follows. It is wired and thus less placement-friendly. Nevertheless, we think that the Creative soundbar works quite well.
Music on the other hand is a rather tame experience with woolly vocals due to low energy on the treble, which is where the overtones and music clarity lie. But Bluetooth actually works here, much better than with Panasonic.

Conclusion

The Creative Sound BlasterX Katana is an OK attempt at a soundbar. It is by no means a powerhouse, but it has enough muscles to be used for gaming, and it also works well for movies and TV.
There is lack of resolution in the treble, which makes the music experience less tempting. Without an HDMI input, we have to turn to an optical input from the TV, in which case perfect lip sync is not guaranteed.

Yamaha YAS-207

Surprisingly huge sound

Yamaha was first on the market with active soundbars. This is their first with DTS Virtual:X surround sound.

Our verdict

The soundscape is folded outward and upward. This soundbar does an excellent job in simulating true surround sound.
We miss a display, since LEDs provide limited visibility from a distance. The overtone area could be more airy.
Matches screen size: 40” and up
HDMI: 1 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Website: no.yamaha.com

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Price 3695 £

Yamaha has a long history of creating soundbars that simulate real surround sound and some of their creations have impressed us immensely. With the YAS-207, Yamaha use DTS Virtual:X for the first time as a surround simulator, which attempts to convince us that the soundscape also has a height dimension.
The HDMI input fully supports 4K image signals, but a straightforward display is lacking. Instead, Yamaha uses small LEDs that highlight selected input and audio mode.

Sound quality

The subwoofer is more powerful than what Philips, Panasonic, and Creative deliver. You get a more powerful and bass heavy sound, despite this a double bass does not sound very musical. It lacks the refinement in the bass for that. But it’s not wrong, as we think music in stereo works pretty well. With wireless Bluetooth as well. A little air is missing on the top, and cymbals and string instruments do not sound quite airy and supple enough. It sounds a little “grey”. The Music mode gives you a little more treble and you can also use Clear Voice to reveal details. The downside is that it sounds harder.

The Yamaha shines when watching movies, since the soundscape in Movie mode is larger in dimension than some of the other soundboards – including Samsung, Sony and LG. You get the sense of height, and on film we prefer to enable the Bass Extension, which provides a deeper and more forceful bass. This works poorly with music, as it sounds too coloured and limp. But film and especially games work brilliantly.

Conclusion

Yamaha YSP-207 shines with a large soundscape on film, which by far provides a sense of surround and also opens up the soundscape in height. The soundbar is among the most powerful in its class, which makes it awesome on movies and games. Music can sometimes sound somewhat crackly in the top, but overall works well.
Except for the lack of display, this is a successful soundbar and a good buy.

Philips Fidelio B1/12

Better on TV than music

This is one of the smallest soundbars on the market. It sounds bigger than it looks, but has its shortcomings.

Our verdict

Very compact dimensions makes for a discreet soundbar, and it is also very easy to use. The sound is more powerful than you might think.
Does not sound as good on music as film, the bass is somewhat uncontrolled and the midrange could have had more energy. HDMI does not support HDCP 2.2 and thereby does not support 4K Blu-ray.
Matches screen size: 18” and up
HDMI: 1 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical, USB-A
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Website: philips.no

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Price 4490 £

With its 40 cm width, Fidelio B1 will never look obtrusive, regardless of which TV it is placed below. The subwoofer is flat enough to slip under the couch, but wide and deep enough to accommodate a fine cabinet volume. This gives you a rather awesome bass after all. And with the bass directly under your butt, the bass experience becomes more physical.
A front display provides a good overview during everyday use. However, the HDMI input does not support 4K-video from Blu-ray (missing HDCP 2.2). The player must then be connected directly to the TV and send the sound to the soundbar via HDMI output’s audio return channel.

Sound quality

The dialogue on film is clearer than with Panasonic and Creative.  Alien: Covenant has a larger soundscape than the small size would imply. However, there is no great sense of surround. The sub-woofer is somewhat uncontrolled if it is set too high and needs to be muted to get a balanced sound.
Voice audio function can be enabled for clearer dialogues, which is at the expense of the feel of the room in the soundscape. It can also sound a little crackly. This feature is likely intended for people with impaired hearing in the upper frequency range.
Otherwise, the soundbar plays powerful enough to provide a great movie experience. It also works well on games, as we could formerly feel the action in the racing game Forza Horizon 3 on Xbox One S.
For music, the bass zone is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the sound, and the subwoofer isn’t quite rhythmical enough. There is also no diction upwards. Singing voices are not quite clear enough.

Conclusion

Philips Fidelio B1 is user-friendly, and many will find its discreet appearance appealing. The sound is bigger than its physical size and it works well enough on TV and film. However, it’s not our favourite for music, and there are better soundbars at approximately the same size. For example, Sony HT-MT500.
That the HDMI input does not support 4K Blu-ray is a big minus.

Foto: Philips
Sony HT-XF9000

Extra dimension in height

Sony’s soundbar simulates both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X in height, thus giving an extra dimension to the soundscape. Yes, it works.

Our verdict

The soundscape is huge on film, and the dialogue is crystal clear. The subwoofer has also tolerable power.
It can sometimes sound a little crass in the overtones, and the subwoofer has a lot of energy in its upper range and less in the deep bass. Music in stereo is not great.
Matches screen size: 40” and up
HDMI: 1 in, 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical, USB-A
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: 3.5 mm AUX
Website: sony.no

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Price 4999 £

This is Sony’s most affordable soundbar that simulates sound in height, to provides extra size of soundscapes from movies with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtrack. The HDMI input supports all video formats, including 4K with Dolby Vision. This means you won’t risk your display going black if you play a 4K Blu-ray movie (something we experienced with Philips B1).
HT-XF9000 is designed to fit under Sony’s new TVs in the XF90 series. It does not have any kind of display in the front. Instead, the information comes up on the TV screen. Also, the remote control has its own buttons for just about everything — including one for each of the sound modes — so you don’t have to press multiple times to reach a feature.

Sound quality

The movie experience is good. We get a good impression of the surround sound in the thriller Alien: Covenant. The dialogues are clear, although somewhat crass compared with Samsung and JBL. Here things happen in height, unless you’re too far from the soundbar. A maximum distance of three metres is fine, and the room should not seem very subdued.
The sub-woofer does a good job, although there is a little too much information in the upper bass and less in the deep bass. It can seem somewhat restrained at times. You can safely crank your bass almost all the way up. Stereo music works well, but you should turn off Vertical Surround. Otherwise it just sounds strange. The music sound mode sounds the warmest and richest. The voice of Lady Gaga is clear, but appears a bit sharp. Otherwise, the rhythms sound good and you get plenty of bass.

Conclusion

With simulated surround sound as well as a good impression of height in the soundscape, Sony’s soundbar engages you quite well when you watch movies, and the dialogue is clear.
It can, at times, feel somewhat crass and grainy. Music in stereo, especially, lacks a little magic. But the bass range is solid and on we are generally rather fond of Sony’s soundbar.

Foto: Sony

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