The problem: You just bought a 4K TV and it works and looks great, but the sound quality of its built-in speakers is trash. You can’t hear the dialogue. The bass is terrible. And the sound is just too quiet, even when you crank it. You want to improve your TV’s sound but you don’t want to deal with all the moving pieces of a surround sound system and you don’t want to spend a ton — what should you do?
The answer: Lucky for you, there are two that are pretty easy. First, you can buy a soundbar. Or two, you can buy an AV receiver and a pair of loudspeakers. Both can be done affordably and with very little setup hassles. But which should you choose?
Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages to either. How much space do you have in and around your TV? Is your TV wall mounted or it sitting on a media console? How easily does installation have to be? Do you want to deal with a ton of wires? Do you value ease of setup or sound quality? Do you eventually see yourself expanding your system in the future?
Those are all very important questions to answer before setting out on your journey.
Option A: The Soundbar
A soundbar is definitely the easier of the two options, as it’s just one speaker and it’s essentially just a plug-and-play operation. It’s (probably) the more affordable option, too. There are many different soundbars out there by a lot of well-respected TV and audio companies, like Samsung, Sony and Klipsch, but before buying one there a few things you should know.
Buy an active soundbar. It’s not so much a big deal anymore as the popularity of passive soundbars isn’t what it used to be. Passive soundbars require external amplification (from most likely an AV receiver) which adds an extra layer of hassle to an option you picked primarily because you thought it was dead simple. Active soundbars are easier to install and they don’t require a separate receiver or amplifier to work — they can plug right into your TV.
Buy at least a three-channel (3.0) soundbar. This means that the soundbar will three separate drivers in it — for left, right and center — and sound significantly better and more immersive than just your TV. A lot of these three-channel soundbars can be bought with a wireless subwoofer, too, making it a 3.1-channel system.
Buy a soundbar that supports HDMI ARC. This means that the soundbar plugs directly into your TV through the HDMI ARC port, allowing you to change the volume of the soundbar (and TV) with one remote. It simplifies things.
The last thing to consider is what brand you buy. It’s a key detail because the main disadvantage of buying a soundbar instead of an AV receiver and speaker pair is it’s more difficult to build out your system later on if you want to. Generally, soundbars don’t play well with other speakers. That is, unless, they are made by the same brand. For example, if you buy a soundbar by Sonos or Bose, you can potentially add more surrounds or rear-channel speakers later on that are made by the same brand. So it’s worth thinking about your long-term plan ahead of time.
Pros: Easy installation, affordable
Cons: Less flexiblity to eventually built-out your system
Option B: Loudspeakers
A great pair of passive bookshelf speakers can also make great TV speakers, but you’ll need an AV receiver to hook them up to. You can buy a great pair of loudspeakers for right around $300. ELAC, Q Acoustics, Fluance, Kanto and Wharfedale are just a few audio companies that make speakers in this price range. You’ll also want an entry-level AV receiver, which will likely cost around the same as the speakers. Yamaha, Denon, Onkyo and Sony all make affordable options.
This is usually the more expensive option (compared to buying a soundbar) as you’re buying both speakers and an AV receiver, but it does have some distinct advantages. It gives you more flexibility to add to your system later on down the road, say if you want to add a center channel speaker or a wireless subwoofer. And you’re not nearly as tied into a brand’s ecosystem — you can mix and max future speakers by different brands together because they all can talk to each other through the AV receiver.
Maybe the biggest advantage of a dual speaker system is that the audio quality is going to be better. The positioning of the speakers — one on either side of the TV — will naturally make the system sound more immersive. And the speakers will support surround sound technologies, like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, so long as the AV receiver supports them.
Pros: Better audio quality, more flexibility to build out your system the way you want
Cons: Requires more room, more expensive, installation is more complicated
Option C: None of the Above
While a soundbar or loudspeakers are the two go-to choices, there are extenuating circumstances where some less standard options make a lot of sense.
A soundbase is essentially the same thing as a soundbar, except it’s flat so that the TV can rest on top of it. A good example of a soundbase is Sonos’s Playbase ($699), which costs the same and is very similar to the company’s soundbar, the Playbar ($699). The main reason why anybody would choose a soundbase over a soundbar really comes down to shape. If they don’t have space to rest or mount a soundbar underneath the TV, that’s when a soundbase makes sense. The two have very similar sound qualities, although a soundbase tends to have more bass.
If you don’t want to go the passive speakers and AV receiver route, a good alternative is to get a pair of powered active bookshelf speakers, like the Klipsch R-15PM ($344), KEF LSX ($1,100) or the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo ($4,000). These speakers have built-in amplification and digital outputs, meaning they don’t require a receiver and can be connected directly to your TV. They also tend to support Bluetooth and wi-fi streaming, so you can play music straight from your smartphone or computer. The downside to active powered speakers is price — they tend to be expensive.