The Argument Against Buying a Soundbar

Soundbars are easy. But if it's surround sound you're after, you'll want to take your money elsewhere.

illustration of a man on a tv screen with plants, a soundbar, and a lamp
Kailah Ogawa

Haven't you heard? Your TV’s built-in audio is awful. Speakers need to be big to sound big, and TVs these days are paper thin.

The simplest solution may seem like a soundbar — one speaker, one wire, no trouble. But the soundbar’s dirty secret is that it doesn’t sound great, either. Here’s why you should treat your ears to a better setup.

No surround sound

Soundbars are a single speaker, directly in front of your face. They only trick your ears into thinking that sound is coming from anywhere other than underneath the TV. Home theater systems can use as many as a half-dozen speakers to do the real thing, but even a stereo pair is objectively superior at surround.

Big space, tiny sound

Soundbars are serviceable when you’re right on top of them, but larger rooms demand and elevate a multi-speaker system. Some flagship soundbars have extra drivers (including upward-firing ones) to better fill space, but these higher-end soundbars tend to cost as much or more than a multi-speaker setup.

Specs are set in stone

A soundbar’s specs are permanent. If you want to improve it, you’ll have to replace it. A speaker-and-receiver system gives you room to grow and experiment. You can start with a modest stereo speaker pair and add a center channel, rears or a subwoofer. Or not! The choice is yours.

One-brand pony

Some soundbars will play nice with additional speakers … if they’re from the same brand. An AV-and-speaker solution lets you mix and match manufacturers — not only to fine-tune your system's sound but also to snag a deal or make use of speakers you already have.

No headroom

An AV receiver, the heart of a non-soundbar system, is an extremely versatile device. Receivers that support Bluetooth or Wi-Fi let you beam music from your phone to your living room and beyond while sporting analog ports for CD players, turntables and more. Some soundbars do support wireless, but they can’t match a receiver’s flexibility.

The Real Deal

In the market for a traditional system? An entry-level setup will set you back about $2,000.

Elac Debut 2.0 5.1 Home Theater System

ELAC Debut 2.0 5.1 Home Theater Speaker System

This is an excellent 5.1 home theater package that delivers clear and dynamic sound at a relatively reasonable price. Plus, you can upgrade it by adding Dolby Atmos modules that fit on top of the front and surround speakers.

Yamaha RX-V6A

Yamaha RX-V6A

The Yamaha RX-V6A is a perfect new-age AV receiver. It supports up to a 7.2-channel Dolby Atmos system, which gives you some room to upgrade. It has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for easy streaming. And, well, it's gorgeous.

A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today
Matthew Stacey

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