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What’s Actually the Difference Between a Cheap and Expensive Soundbar?

It’s an unspoken rule that when you’re shopping for a TV, you also need to shop for a soundbar.

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If you’re getting a new TV, you probably should get a soundbar. In the quest for thinness, most TVs have had to sacrifice sound quality. Not all soundbars are the same. You can find options like the Vizio SB2920 for as cheap as $78 or the Sonos Arc way up at $799.

But what are you actually paying for if you go for the upgrade?

Buy Now: $78 $70 (Vizio SB2920) Buy Now: $799 (Sonos Arc)

Better ‘bars mean better drivers and more channels.

One of the most important factors that determines the sound quality of a soundbar is its number of channels. Entry level soundbars tend to have two channels, a dedicated left and right channel for stereo sound. You can go way further than that though. A three-channel soundbar has an additional dedicated center, which helps with produce mid-range (and dialog) A five-channel soundbar is way more advanced, as it can manage to support actual surround sound. More channels, more immersive sound.

On top of that, most entry-level soundbars don’t have dedicated tweeters (for highs), midrange drivers (for midrange) and woofers (for lows), but have full-range drivers that handle everything. This results in a less accurate sound.

The Vizio SB2920 is a two-channel soundbar with a grand total of two full-range drivers. The Sonos Arc is a five-channel soundbar with a total of 11 drivers (eight woofers and three tweeters). This is the meat of what you’re paying for if you go for an upgrade pick.

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High-quality soundbars can put their drivers to better use

Immersive sound technologies like Dolby Atmos are all the rage right now, but not a lot of soundbars actually support them. The reason is that it’s difficult and expensive to get a soundbar certified for Atmos. The soundbar has to have the proper number of channels (at least five), the proper hardware, and pass certain tests by Dolby. But when it works properly, a full-on Dolby Atmos is the pinnacle of a home theater experience.

A soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos, like the Sonos Arc, has to have a specific type of surround-sound channels with upward-firing drivers. These drivers help the soundbar to create dedicated virtual height channels, enabling it to create really immersive audio experiences. Basically, it doesn’t just sound like the audio is coming out of the TV, but from above and way to the left and right of it as well.

The Vizio SB2920 does not support Dolby Atmos. No way, no how.

Expensive soundbars double as great speakers in general.

Pretty much all the newest soundbars, cheap or expensive, have built-in Bluetooth so you can stream music straight from your smartphone or laptop, just like a traditional Bluetooth speaker. The best soundbars also have built-in Wi-Fi and integrated technologies that enable it to do much more.

For example, the Sonos Arc has a four-microphone array and can function as a Google Assistant- or Alexa-enabled smart speaker. You can ask Alexa or Google (depending on which smart assistant you use) to set timers, questions about the weather, or to control your other smart home devices; additionally, you can use voice commands to adjust your TV’s volume or change channels. The Arc also supports other higher-resolution streaming methods that require Wi-Fi, such as AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect.

The Vizio SB2920 only has built-in Bluetooth. No Wi-Fi. No smart speaker capabilities. But depending on what you actually need, maybe that’s just the ticket.

Buy Now: $78 $70 (Vizio SB2920) Buy Now: $799 (Sonos Arc)

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