Atmos or not Atmos? That is the question. Five soundbars at different prices show what they can do.
Geir Nordby 2021-06-25 - 10:00 am
Home entertainment has changed dramatically in recent years. Instead of having a lot of black boxes in the living room, you basically just need a TV with internet connection to stream the latest movie titles at home in the living room. But then you will miss at least half of the experience: Great sound!
Fortunately, it can be solved very easily. All you need is an HDMI cable – and a soundbar.
Also for music, it is actually enough with a soundbar that can stream music wirelessly from the mobile. But with an increasing supply of high-resolution music plus Dolby Atmos on movies and TV series from i.a. Netflix and Disney +, it’s smart to choose a soundbar that supports better sound – and at the same time sounds better.
Therefore, if you are using a music streaming service with high definition music, it is wise to use the smart TV app instead of the mobile, so you can get better sound through the HDMI cable to the soundbar.
A good soundbar can easily give a believable feeling of surround sound. It takes some tricks to simulate sound around the viewers when all the sound is actually coming from the front, but here many soundbars do an impressive job. However, there are some prerequisites.
The more the merrier
Soundbars with a dedicated center speaker have a clear advantage over those with only two speaker channels. With that you get clearer dialogues with more dynamics and life.
If the soundbar is to reproduce surround sound, it is an advantage if it also has separate speakers for the rear channels. By separating these and using digital signal processing (DSP) to manipulate the sound with delay and advanced tone control, you get the illusion of surround sound without compromising the speaker units that have to reproduce the sound from the front.
That said, it is usually here that costs are cut in the lower price ranges. Often the soundbar is equipped with fewer speaker units, so you do not have to go too much into the quality of the individual components.
Atmos or not Atmos
The considerations about price and the number of speakers will also apply when the soundbar has to reproduce 3D soundtracks such as. Dolby Atmos. It is our experience that if a soundbar is to be able to give a proper impression of height in the soundscape, then it must have separate speakers for the purpose.
These are mounted on top of the soundbar and point up towards the ceiling, from where the sound is then reflected down towards the listeners in the sofa. Thus, it is not an illusion that the sound comes from above. It actually does comes from above.
Soundbars that try to create the effect using only DSP, without dedicated Atmos speakers, usually fall through. And often reducing the overall sound quality in the process.
We therefore like that a soundbar has Atmos, but in that case with actual speaker units on top. In this test, only two soundbars support Dolby Atmos, but in return, they both have physical speakers on top for the purpose.
What about music?
There are many who enjoy both their TV content and music from the same sound system. This means that a soundbar must be able to play music with a tolerable result. Here there is a big difference between the best and the worst, but you can find a soundbar for less than £600 that does a distinguished job with the music.
Recently we have seen the rise of music with Dolby Atmos, and services like Apple Music and Tidal have an increasing selection of music in that format. But even music with regular stereo sound can sound good from a soundbar. Admittedly, one has to lower the expectations a notch compared to traditional stereo systems with large speakers, but it can still sound good.
To get the best movie and music experiences for the money, we have only included soundbars in this test, where a separate subwoofer is included in the box. Bass is important, and if you have to buy a sub next door, the total price quickly rises above £800.
£250 to £600
In this test, we look at a selection of new soundbars, which for the sake of diversity vary somewhat in price. The cheapest, Panasonic SC-HTB490, costs only around £250, while the just slightly more expensive TCL TS8132 has been able to fit a pair of Atmos speakers on top. Yamaha ATS-2090 does not have Atmos, but will convince us with 3D surround effect and planty of power.
The Samsung HW-Q610A has Atmos, and also the option of a pair of wireless rear speakers if you want full surround sound. The same goes for the most expensive one, the Klipsch Cinema 600, which has one of the largest subwoofers we’ve seen for a soundbar. However, it does not come with Atmos.