Soundbars vs. Home Theater Speakers: One Is Obviously Better
I am about to say two words that will delight some, upset others, and reflect a feeling that has long been considered a fact in the deeper realms of the home theater community.
Before half of the aisle reaches for her pitchforks – and the other lifts a glass – I would like to add context to this divisive statement. In and of itself, there is nothing inherently wrong with the soundbar. They are an instant improvement over the poor sound quality of the standard television, and most have a streamlined simplicity that allows just about anyone to use them.
However, pair any soundbar with a comparatively inexpensive, traditional home theater setup – in other words, a wired configuration of home theater speakers and a dedicated subwoofer with an A / V receiver to power them – and show the obvious shortcomings of these bar-based systems This causes all of the mystique of the product to dissolve.
In my time at Digital Trends and during my many years of personal experience with home theater devices, I have not yet found a soundbar that could force me to rethink my system. Here’s why.
À la carte, no one size fits all
My first foray into the world of home theater was via Craigslist, where I found a set of five speakers from Polk Audio’s RTI series for a bargain. An old-school Denon AVR 3805 receiver and a spool of speaker cable later I headed out to the races.
Then I added a retro M&K subwoofer and another pair of Polk bookshelf speakers to bring my surround setup to 7.1. But I wanted more, so I bought a Klipsch SW115 to add more low end, then a vintage pair of Infinity Compositions Overture 3 speakers to replace my front left and right polks, then a new Marantz receiver, and then one new front soundstage courtesy of Polk The LSIM series of audio, then … well you get it.
Building a traditional home theater system offers the ultimate customization option. You can expand your setup as much as you want if your budget allows. You can start small with a stereo 2.0 setup or add a center channel and subwoofer for a 3.1. Over time, nothing prevents you from expanding, updating, and customizing your system exactly to your liking.
In comparison, soundbars are more of a one-stop shop. There are exceptions, of course – Sonos products allow you to add wireless rear speakers or a subwoofer to your Sonos Beam or Sonos Arc, although you limit yourself to keeping things within the Sonos family, which forces you to obey the rules of Sonos. But with the vast majority of sound bars, what you get is what you get. If you later decide you want more low end or a little more clarity in your sound, you can buy a completely new system. Lucky you!
There are many people, maybe most, who have no problem with a one-time solution. And that’s good. But for anyone who has the choice of swapping parts to evolve their system over time without completely redesigning the entire setup itself, stay away from the modern soundbar.
Timeless against time bomb
When it came time to retire my Denon receiver, I didn’t because it stopped working. On the contrary, it’s at the heart of a system I built for my parents, and it does a commendable job for a product that’s well over a decade old.
The motivation for the change of recipient was compliance with modern times. I wanted a receiver that could support 4K video pass-through and Dolby Atmos audio, as well as other conveniences like Bluetooth and wireless streaming for music. So I found a receiver in my budget (a Marantz SR5012), swapped out my Denon, and that was it.
I didn’t have to replace any other audio component.
Home theater speakers like mine are a dream for longevity lovers. As long as I take care of them, I may never have to replace them. The aforementioned Infinity Overture 3 speakers were some of the more musical speakers I’ve ever heard, and they’re essentially my age.
As A / V technology advances faster, like a marathon runner finding their second wind, I just need to make sure that part of the puzzle is up to date. This is not the case with sound bars. If you bought a premium soundbar about three years ago, but the idea of Dolby Atmos intrigued you, congratulations! You will be purchasing a whole new system to enjoy the latest technology.
Firmware updates are one thing for sure. But in these modern times, when every single component in the chain of operations has to work together to achieve the audio and video formats they want, the chances are that new software won’t do it.
An unsurpassed sound stage
Bill Roberson / Digital Trends
There are numerous reasons why the wiki for the r / hometheater subreddit literally starts out by explaining why you shouldn’t buy a soundbar. The main reason for this could be the discrepancy between a soundbar system and a similarly priced home theater setup.
I could sit and tell you traditional home theaters sound better until the cows come home. The fact is, the sound is subjective and it is conceivable that someone might prefer the audio quality of a good bar-based setup. Instead, let’s break down the physicality of each setup type.
The ideal theater ensemble has a front sound stage with separate speakers for the left, center and right channels. The left and right speakers should be equidistant from the center speaker and pointed slightly towards the center of the listening room. Depending on how many surround speakers you are working with, you should ideally place them at ear level on the side or at the back of the seating area. The subwoofer should be placed in the best possible location in the room to restore low frequencies, which can be determined using a simple trick called a subcrawl.
Done right, this setup can create a truly stunning environment that brings everything from Marvel movies to episodes of Family Guy to life in every minute detail. By comparison, the goal of the soundbar is to use miniature-sized components to achieve the same effect. Perhaps that wasn’t the goal originally (and for some may not yet), but it doesn’t matter with brands that offer soundbar systems for the highest price. At this premium price point, these bars can be expected to produce the same type of sound at a price usually reserved for high-end home theater speakers. The marketing for these top notch soundbars reflects this, which exacerbates the problem.
Physically, there is a legitimate problem with meeting that expectation. The bar itself houses the left, center, and right channels and leaves little room for any real separation between the channels. In addition, any driver hidden in these soundbar chambers is usually smaller than the drivers in a home theater speaker, putting the bars at a disadvantage in producing full, resonant audio. Too often the result is unfulfilled sound coming from an area under your television, as opposed to the expansive soundstage that embodies a true home theater.
So it makes sense that premium bars like the LG SN11RG or the Samsung HW-Q90R (and they sound great) still have a serious physical disadvantage when it comes to playing home theater sound. I’m willing to bet that a properly assembled system – for example the SVS prime 5.1 system in combination with a powerful A / V receiver like the Denon AVR-S950H – sounds noticeably better and is available at a lower price than any of these soundbars . Depending on which of these two soundbars you choose, that leaves a few dollars to add some ceiling speakers or height channels to the setup that allow Dolby Atmos playback. This would almost certainly have a better effect than the high-driving drivers in soundbars, which rely on frequencies bouncing off the ceiling and returning to the listener.
A couple of concessions
Nick Woodard / Digital Trends
By now, I’ve no doubt pissed off some perfectly happy soundbar owners. That is understandable. I wasn’t exactly nice to the bars, but they’re not all bad. To be honest, there are areas where the modern soundbar excels and other times when it is a better option.
For starters, soundbars are no doubt easy. They’re easier to set up, use, and customize. There’s no speaker cord to try meticulously hiding in the corners of your room, and no extensive list of settings to go through during initial setup, as is the case with most A / V receivers. Plus, with most soundbars these days, it’s not difficult to increase the bass, muffle the treble, or switch between preset sound settings to find the sound that’s right for you. I think most A / V owners can agree that while it has far more options for sound customization, it is far more complicated to fine-tune than a soundbar.
Aesthetically, soundbars can also be an attractive option. Aside from speaker cords running throughout the room, home theater setups can include bulky subwoofer enclosures and tall, looming floor-standing speakers. Soundbars are undoubtedly more reserved, and the best of the group can blend in with the environment they’re in. For the minimalists of the world, this is an important factor.
Finally, there are some rooms where traditional theater audio setups like the one I’ve described just don’t make sense. I wouldn’t set up a full speaker system in a bedroom, nor would I try to hide wires in an oddly shaped living room. Home theaters will always win me over, but I can understand that some people just can’t stand the headache of hiding wires but still want some improvement in sound.
Hopefully I didn’t think all soundbars would sound bad because it just wasn’t. LG and Samsung’s flagship bars are awesome, and Vizio’s range of bars offers an excellent cross-section of value and sound. I haven’t personally heard Sennheiser’s Ambeo soundbar, but I’ve heard from others that it’s great. And judging by Sennheiser’s track record, I bet it is.
It doesn’t change the fact that I’m still waiting to hear a bar cross the threshold and I think over every word I’ve just written. I think products like Klipsch’s The Fives are on the right track by offering a unique blend of home theater components and soundbar simplicity, and competitors following in those footsteps might have the answer I’m looking for.
Ultimately, this is my challenge for the many great audio companies out there: create a product that combines the best of both worlds and wins the hearts of staunch home theater traditionalists, while still remaining accessible to those who value ease turning towards soundbars. Do something that hits that sweet spot. Do something that gives me a compelling reason to sell my beloved A / V equipment and enthusiastically join the ranks of soundbar believers.
I dare you.