Soundbars are hardly the flashiest sector of the home audio market, but their sales exceed the rest of the home theater surround sound category combined, so it is easy to understand why manufacturers keep introducing new models each year. From a practical perspective, soundbars take up very little space, are a huge improvement over the sound quality of your television and are increasingly easy to install and integrate not only with your TV but also with smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home.
It’s very easy to understand why couch potatoes would want to minimize the footprint of their surround sound systems and eliminate all of the clutter that comes with multiple HDMI and digital audio cables. Fortunately, you don’t have to compromise on sound. Long gone are the days of substandard soundbar performance, with groundbreaking products like the Sennheiser Ambeo offering Dolby Atmos technology in a very innovative package, albeit at a rather steep price.
Here are a handful of the best soundbars available in 2021 that can also support that high bar of audio quality, at a variety of price points.
Best All-Around Soundbar
The Arc is Sonos’s new high-end soundbar that takes the place of the Playbar in the company’s lineup. You can think of Arc as a bigger, louder, smarter and overall better version of the Playbar, as it’s a full 5.0.2 sound system, with five horizontal surround channels (left, center, right, left surround and right surround) and two height channels, and it’s currently the only Sonos soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos. You can also pair two of the company’s smaller speakers (Play:1, One or One SL) with Arc, designate them as rear channels, and create a full Sonos surround sound system. Additionally, Arc is a smart soundbar and you can integrate it with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, and easily use your voice to adjust volume or stream music from your preferred streaming service.
Best Upgrade Soundbar
Sennheiser took its time developing the 5.1.4 Ambeo and while some may raise their eyebrows at the asking price, the proof is definitely in the listening. Featuring 13 dedicated drivers and support for UHD 4K pass-through, HDR10, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and multiple HDMI inputs/outputs, the Ambeo is a true high-end surround sound system in one enclosure. What makes this 49” wide soundbar stand out is the sheer scale of the presentation. It plays cleanly down to 35Hz without a subwoofer, delivers a warm and detailed midrange that excels with both movies and music, and it actually reproduces Atmos-encoded films with a level of immersion that will convince you that there are height and surround channels in your room.
Best Affordable Soundbar
Expecting a minimalist-looking 5.1.2 soundbar like the SB36512-F6 to compare to a dedicated Atmos system is rather unrealistic but you might be rather surprised to hear just how good this system sounds. Vizio includes both a wireless subwoofer and pair of rear surround speakers in this package. The main unit contains upward firing drivers which act as your height channels and give the SB36512-F6 high marks for excellent connectivity. The Vizio features five different types of inputs: HDMI in/out (with ARC), coaxial, optical, USB (for .WAV playback) and a 3.5mm analog input jack. Wi-Fi is supported, with Chromecast built right in, and Bluetooth connectivity is an option as well. The 36” wide soundbar is wall-mountable and blends rather well positioned below most HDTVs.
The Vizio does a very respectable job with clarity, detail, and recreating an immersive sounding soundstage with movies. Its performance with music doesn’t quite impress in the same manner, but you can’t have everything at a price point as low as $500.
The Elevate is one of the most innovative new soundbars because its side-channel speakers actually rotate up when it's playing Dolby Atmos content and then rotate back down (to face you) when playing audio that's not approved for Atmos — it's freaking cool. In addition to that, the Elevate is just a beast of soundbar. It houses 18 total speakers and comes with a wireless subwoofer. It's a complete 5.1.4 system. Vizio designed it to work perfectly with Vizio's new OLED TVs, but it's really can be paired with any new-age TV. It's available for purchase now.
The Samsung HW-Q80R is a great option for people who want a relatively affordable and simple Dolby Atmos soundbar. It’s a 5.1 system consisting of a soundbar and a powerful wireless 8-inch subwoofer. It has a number of connectivity options, including HDMI ARC, HDMI (2x) and optical, and it supports the most popular HDR formats, including Dolby Vision and HDR10+. As far as music is concerned, the HW-Q80R sounds better than most. It supports FLAC, ALAC, WAV, and ALAC file formats, and it can actually upscale to files up to UHQ 32-bit. Integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi make playing music from your smartphone or laptop super easy, too. Plain and simple, it’s one of the best Dolby Atmos systems that you can buy for under $1,000. (Additionally, Samsung sells rear channel speakers for the HW-Q80R, in case you want to upgrade down the road.)
Yamaha YSP-5600 Digital Sound Projector
Yamaha has been building audio components for 98 years and the YSP-5600 DSP was the world’s first true Dolby Atmos soundbar. This 7.1.2 wall of sound incorporates 46 powered drivers in a relatively compact enclosure that was designed for 65”+ HDTVs and installation on the wall. The YSP-5600 supports Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and MusicCast. Advanced auto-calibration is part of the package and Yamaha includes a microphone to dial in the sound of the beam drivers so they produce lifelike atmospheric effects with your specific room and exact seating position. The 12 drivers are utilized for the two height channels and the effect is surprisingly effective with Atmos-encoded films. Yamaha does not include a subwoofer with the YSP-5600 and low-end bass response is noticeably absent with films. An entry-level subwoofer from SVS or REL is necessary to make the Yamaha soundbar truly full-range.
Definitive Technology Studio 3D Mini
Definitive Technology makes some of the best soundbars you can buy. Its latest creation, the Studio 3D Mini, is beautiful and tiny soundbar and subwoofer system that supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X immersive technologies, as well as AirPlay 2. It's a great option for people looking for a great-sounding soundbar system that doesn't take up a lot of space. It'll be available January 2021.