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How to pick the right sound bar to go with your flat-screen TV

Jon L. Jacobi | Dec. 22, 2014
So your brand-new TV sounds like crap. Don't feel bad, it wasn't your lack of shopping prowess; there's only so much TV manufacturers can do when it comes to projecting audio from the extremely thin form factors of today's flat-panel TVs. (Well, truth be told, they were never much concerned with sound even when those weren't limiting factors. But that's another story.)

The higher-end models in Yamaha's YSP-series (the acronym stands for Yamaha Sound Projector) can do almost magical things with sound by analyzing your room's acoustics and figuring out how to delay some audio signals and bounce sound waves off the walls to fool your ear into thinking sounds are originating all around you. But the prices for these alternatives — the Sonos system described above costs $1796, and Yamaha's best sound projector (model number YSP-4300) costs $1900 — will be beyond some people's budgets.

Connectivity

Some sound bars come with a wide variety of inputs and outputs: HDMI, RCA, TOSLink, USB, and more. If you want to connect a Blu-ray player, a set-top box, and a video-game console, for instance, you'll want a sound bar that has multiple HDMI inputs to accommodate all those sources.

Now you could use a TOSLink optical connection for one of those sources, but you should be aware that it doesn't have the chops to handle the lossless surround sound that a Blu-ray player is capable of streaming. If you want to hear a disc's Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, you'll need a sound bar that can handle those codecs and you must use an HDMI cable.

RCA analog inputs are handy if you're using a stereo receiver or an older TV to drive the sound bar, but an 1/8-inch stereo input will work the same way (and RCA-to-1/8-inch stereo cables are cheap). The more inputs your sound bar has, the merrier. Just don't pay for connections you don't need.

Sound bars needn't be restricted to playing movie soundtracks. Many of the can also be used for stereo playback. The Sonos speaker mentioned above relies on its own wireless network, but many other systems — including the Samsung — can take audio streams from your smartphone or tablet, thanks to Bluetooth.

A Bluetooth connection to your sound bar is uber-convenient. Pull out your phone, press a button on the sound bar or its remote to activate Bluetooth input, and voila! The music that was emanating from your phone is now pouring out of your sound bar. Many sound bars also have an aux input that can do the same thing using your device's headphone jack. That's not as convenient as a wireless connection, but it will deliver much higher audio fidelity.

How much should you spend?

We've put prices tags next to the products we've mentioned by name, so you've seen the wide range of prices you'll encounter in the market. We've heard good sound bars that sell for less than $300, and we've heard speakers costing $800 or more than you couldn't pay us to listen to.

 

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