Soundbar vs home theater system: Which audio setup to buy?
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Soundbar vs home theater system: Which audio setup to buy?

Jun 23, 2023

What's the best solution for you?

s a soundbar or home theater system right for you?

It can be hard to parse the huge variety of audio hardware out there, from all-in-one soundbars to fleshed-out surround-sound systems cluttering up your entire living room. But for anyone looking to upgrade the performance of their TV's speakers, there are plenty of good options to check out.

In this guide we’ll run you through the different options available when it comes to soundbars and home theater systems, and why shoppers may be moved to buy one over the other.

In general, ‘soundbar’ refers to a single, all-in-one audio unit with a limited speaker system, while ‘home theater system’ refers to a 5.1 system or above with multiple, separate pieces of hardware.

The term ‘5.1’ refers to the variety and quantity of drivers in an audio system. ‘5.1’ means there are five full-bandwidth drivers, and one subwoofer to help out with lower frequencies (bass). The ‘2’ in 5.1.2 means there are also two ‘tweeters’ to help with higher frequencies and pitches. These numbers can vary, with smaller systems making do with 2.1 or 2.1.2 speaker arrays, and some high-end models packing in 7.1.2.

The difficulty is that a single full-bandwidth driver simply can't cover every conceivable frequency – it's crucial to have dedicated subwoofers and tweeters to experience the full range of audio detail in a soundtrack, voiceover, or any SFX. For true cinephiles, this is the way to go.

While all-in-one soundbars can often pack in a sufficient number of drivers to be a match for them, it's hard to match the volume, impact, and dynamism of a home theater system. That's because these separate pieces of hardware can contain far larger drivers, and emit a far higher wattage of sound than a single unit would allow – leading to higher quality, and quantity of sound.

It's worth noting that some TVs are home theater systems in their own right: Panasonic makes high-end OLED TVs that pack in up to 140W of speaker volume, including upward-firing and side-firing drivers to send sound across the room. But most TVs make do with far less on that front, making a soundbar or home theater system a good idea to get better sound.

So, how much does a soundbar cost? A budget model can cost as little as £30-40 – though there's little reason to opt for one that cheap. It's unlikely to add much benefit compared to a TV's speakers (and may sound even worse), unless it's simply the overall volume you’re looking to increase.

The £50-100 range should get you a decent step-up from a cheap TV, though be warned – some of these cheaper models only use an Optical connection instead of the more modern HDMI standard, and may not be supported by your screen. Quality all-in-one soundbars like the Sonos Arc can cost up to £800, while top-end models sell for £2,000, and the AV market has countless options spanning all those price points.

Multi-part systems can vary from very simple (soundbar and one rear speaker or subwoofer) to very complicated (subwoofers, tweeters, the works). So the price can be as little as a cheap soundbar, or several times a premium one, given how many units are in play.

A multi-unit home theater system doesn't necessarily cost more, then – in fact, a cheap surround-sound setup can cost a lot less than a high-end soundbar. So your consideration may have less to do with price and more to do with how much room you have in your home.

It's worth considering how much space each option takes up. A huge benefit of the all-in-one soundbar is that it contains every driver in one hardware unit, with only one cable snaking its way into the television. A multi-part system can quickly take over a living space, with subwoofers in each corner and wires trailing between devices.

Anyone with a dedicated home cinema room (I’m happy for you!) will likely have the space to cater for a variety of different units. Soundbars are better picks for those in small homes, or if you have a low tolerance for scattered pieces of cable, metal and plastic around your living space.

It's worth noting that some soundbars are built specifically to fit underneath a TV screen, between the feet, so we recommend checking out the dimensions of your incoming device compared to the counter space you have available.

Outside of price, the key metric to compare is what each audio solution actually sounds like.

This differs hugely between brands and models. With soundbars, Sonos is usually a byword for audio quality, though plenty of other brands (JBL, Sony, Bose) have models ranging from cheap and middling to explosively good. When it comes to home theater systems, you want more specialist brands such as Bowers & Wilkins or Denon to ensure you’re getting something worthwhile.

The real metric here is surround sound. A proper home theater system, with loudspeakers and subwoofers galore, can surround you with audio sources on all sides, so you feel immersed in the action. However, soundbars are often designed to recreate this sensation digitally with ‘virtual’ surround sound – a digital solution that can help bridge the gap a little.

Models that support Dolby Atmos audio are a good place to start – though you’ll need a television that also supports that 3D audio format, as well as Atmos content to watch, in order to get it playing from your speakers.

Your buying decision will naturally come down to your own budget, and what kind of audio solution you need.

In general, a high-spec all-in-one soundbar will offer a good step up from your television's speakers, and a soundbar paired with a single subwoofer can offer the kind of bass support that's hard to deliver from a single unit. That's probably the sweet spot most shoppers should be aiming for, though there are naturally plenty of more expensive, and more expansive options, should you be attracted to a multi-part system that delivers actual surround sound from all angles.

For more information, see our guides on:

- Dolby Atmos Sound

- Eight elliptical woofers

- Adjustable EQ

- Four far field microphones

The Sonos Arc embodies the spirit behind the phrase ‘home theatre experience’. Everything about it screams drama – from its length (45 inches) to the eleven high performance drivers which deliver 3D sound.

This doesn't mean that watching TV at night will drive the neighbours to purchase ear plugs – the Night Sound feature softens loud explosions. In a similar fashion to the JBL MultiBeam, Sonos’ Trueplay tuning technology adjusts the Arc sounds to accommodate the furniture in your room.

With these impressive specs, it is no wonder that there's a hefty price tag attached to the Sonos Arc. Its heavyweight and unusually long length mean that it would be best suited to a spacious room housing a large TV.

Best for: virtual Atmos

A compact bar only 72cm wide, and without a separate subwoofer, the JBL Bar 5.0 Multibeam puts out audio that sounds like it came from something much bigger.

Unlike some bars, which pad out their width with areas of empty space, the JBL is stuffed full of speakers, with seven drivers, including two for height effects, and four passive radiators to thicken the sound out.

Round the back you’ll find optical, Ethernet, a USB port, and HDMI in and out for eARC, plus a decent list of wireless connectivity too, with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AIrPlay, Chromecast, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa all supported.

- Bose Voice4Video technology

- Compact – just over 5cm tall

- Bass Module Connection

This sleek, slim soundbar offers you the opportunity to control a whole range of things – of course, the soundbar itself, but also your TV and cable or satellite box through simple voice commands.

The built in Alexa and Google assistant can pick up your requests even if you’ve got the music blasting thanks to the Bose Voice4Video technology – smart, right? You can even use Alexa to make phone calls. If you’re concerned about your privacy, there's also a handy option to turn your microphone off to put your mind at ease.

If you’re one of those people that constantly puts on subtitles during a film because you can't hear what people are saying, the BOSE soundbar works to enhance speech over background noise. Though it comes with an optical cable, if you want to connect through HDMI you will have to purchase the connecting cable yourself.

Best for: bringing the bass

An Atmos-compatible bar with a separate wireless subwoofer, this model from Sony is less well-connected than the Sonos Beam, offering Bluetooth and an optical port alongside HDMI in and out for an eARC connection that passes the video signal back to your TV.

There's a dedicated voice mode to boost dialogue, and a music mode if you want to hook your phone up over Bluetooth and blast Spotify. Having the subwoofer increases the presence of the sound immensely, and its level can be adjusted independently of the main bar - there's also a night mode to tone it all down so as not to wake the neighbours.

- Dolby Atmos Audio Processing

- Damped Tweeter Loading Tube

- Wall mounting option

These add-on speakers, sold in a pair, deliver high-quality immersive sound at a reasonable price. They are wedged-shaped and fit on top of floor-standing or bookshelf speakers, or they can be mounted onto the wall to take it up a notch. Like most KEF speakers, the audio is impressive, and the Q50 particularly produces excellent surround sound. If you mount these on top of other KEF Q series speakers, the audio will bounce off the ceiling for an improved 360-degree experience. Speakers with this quality sound usually go for significantly more money—KEF itself has another line, R Series, which starts at a steep £1300.

- Three channels

- Play music via Bluetooth or optical/HDMI cables

- AI Sound Pro

While not completely free from cables, this LG soundbar with a wireless subwoofer comes close. Thus, it's not hindered by connectivity issues that you may find in other wireless sound systems. You can connect your phone on the soundbar with Bluetooth, or via a cable. Unlike the LG SN7CY 160W, this system has only three channels, but the separate subwoofer here makes a big difference in audio quality. And the lower price tag on this bar makes it an excellent option for those looking to make the first step toward setting up a home cinema.

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