Review

9 affordable soundbars

Review9 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

Products in this test
Klipsch RSB-6

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

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

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

Pris: 5995 kr
PositiveIf you like the PA sound you know from concert halls and nightlife venues, you'll nod approvingly.
NegativeThe soundbar does not have the power to keep up with the “tough” soundscape. It all sounds fairly flat, and Bluetooth sounds discouragingly bad.
LG SJ8

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

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.

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

Pris: 5995 kr
PositiveThe 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.
NegativeIt lacks power, and it can sound a little slim.

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

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.

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

Pris: 5995 kr
PositiveThe soundscape is great, and it works extraordinarily well on film and games. The soundbar has a very well adjusted timbre balance.
NegativeWe would like more power, and the narrow display can hold way too little text, which is why it appears in a rolling manner.
Panasonic SC-HTB250

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

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.

Matches screen size: 20” and up
HDMI: 1 out (ARC)
Digital in: Optical, USB-A
Wireless: Bluetooth
Analogue in: No
Website: panasonic.com

Pris: 2495 kr
PositiveThe sound is powerful, with more oomph than we had anticipated. Quite a huge soundscape on film.
NegativeBluetooth sounds miserable, and with the absent analogue input, you can therefore not enjoy music from a mobile phone.
Sony HT-XF9000

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

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

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

Pris: 4999 kr
PositiveThe soundscape is huge on film, and the dialogue is crystal clear. The subwoofer has also tolerable power.
NegativeIt 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.
JBL Bar 3.1

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.

Creative Sound BlasterX Katana

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.

Yamaha YAS-207

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

Philips Fidelio B1/12

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

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