We’re living in a golden age of televisions, where even entry-level sets look absolutely fantastic by any reasonable measure. But there’s a downside: Most TVs have pretty cruddy sound.
From the increasing number of whispery, dialog-heavy dramas to the failure of TV makers to put decent speakers in their screens, it seems there’s an ongoing conspiracy against your ears. Thankfully, there’s an easy fix: Get a sound bar.
These modern wonders will make your TV shows and movies sound better than ever, often even without wiring up a complicated multi-speaker home theater setup.
Where should you start? These are our favorite sound bars depending on what your exact needs are.
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Best for Your Budget: VIZIO SmartCast 38” 5.1 ($250)
Looks can be deceiving with VIZIO’s SmartCast 38″ 5.1 sound bar setup. But in the end, the system’s understated style conceals some great value.
Consisting of a 38-inch sound bar, a wireless subwoofer, and a pair of wired satellite speakers, this speaker configuration is designed to blend into the background of your living room. The three-channel sound bar fits perfectly underneath just about any television on the market, and the subwoofer tucks away nicely on the side. Pairing the sound bar in the front with the satellites in the rear provides a good surround-sound experience for movie watchers.
But as the name implies, the SmartCast also hangs its hat on streaming audio from Chromecast-enabled apps via the system’s Wi-Fi connectivity (it also can connect with devices via Bluetooth.) With all these speakers at such a low price — and with streaming smarts to boot — the Smartcast is a smart choice for people looking to upgrade their living room’s sound without having to raid the couch cushions for loose change.
Best for Small Spaces: Polk MagniFi Mini ($269)
Because of the underwhelming audio packed into today’s televisions, small spaces can suffer from big audio problems just as easily as larger rooms. But if you don’t have enough real estate for a bigger speaker, Polk’s MagniFi Mini should have your space covered just as well.
Just 13.5 inches long, this sound bar packs six drivers into its array, spreading out audio in a wide arc that decently simulates surround sound. A wireless subwoofer brings the thunder here, in a moderately sized boot that can really kick out the bass (especially if you’re using it on a hardwood floor.) The unit comes equipped with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for streaming (or Google Casting) music and other audio.
But the real treat with the Magnifi is its customizable Voice Adjust technology, which amplifies the dialogue of whatever you’re watching so you don’t have to turn on closed captioning just to follow along. That in itself may be worth the cost of the upgrade.
Buy now: Polk MagniFi Mini, $269, Amazon
Best for Standing Televisions: Sonos Playbase ($699)
Banking on research that said nearly 70% of all TVs stand upright on some sort of table or entertainment center, Sonos developed its Playbase to double as a full theater sound system for televisions as well as a music streaming device, the likes of which the company has pioneered for years.
Able to support a 77-pound television (that’s very heavy), the Playbase comes in black or white to blend in seamlessly with either the screen or the furniture — unless you’ve got wood grain, and then you’re out of luck.
But it’s the sound that counts most. Compared with the downward-facing speaker grills on most current-day sets, the Playbase is rich, powerful, and a worthwhile upgrade. Ten drivers — that’s six mid-range speakers, three tweeters, and one subwoofer — cast a wide soundscape, both covering the room in sound and hitting the highs and lows. An array of video-centric features like night mode, which can help make action movies bedroom-appropriate, make the Playbase a versatile speaker solution. And that’s without accounting for the 80-plus streaming services that the sound bar can connect to for music, news, and podcasts.
Buy now: Sonos Playbase, $699, Amazon
Best for Bass: Samsung Sound+ ($420)
Upgrading your television’s sound can be a tricky proposition: Your TV already has substandard sound, so you don’t want to choose a speaker that’s going to be less than the best. But proper sound solutions take up space — specifically they need room for a subwoofer so Law & Order’s “dunn dunn” can carry the proper weight.
The Samsung Sound+ provides the oomph without the extra box, thanks to distortion-cancelling technology that puts each of its nine speakers in sync. With a wide range tweeter, the sound bar throws audio out across the room, which means you don’t have to be dead-center to enjoy a movie. Meanwhile, smart sound modes optimize the sound for specific content, so action movies get a different earprint than basketball games, for instance.
Able to connect to Samsung televisions (as well as smartphones and tablets) via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi — in addition to HDMI passthrough — it can offer a wire-less setup. That’s not “wireless,” mind you. You still need electricity to power the sound bar, but if you’re pairing Sound+ with a Samsung television, you can daisy chain using one cable to power both.
Buy now: Samsung Sound+, $420, Amazon
Best Overall: LG SJ9 ($899)
Any home theater worth its salted popcorn needs to have surround sound, but wiring speakers into the walls isn’t always possible. And for a truly breathtaking setup, you’d need to install more than just speakers in front of and behind your cinema seating — it’s the overhead speakers that really make movie soundtracks come to life.
Featuring Dolby Atmos technology, LG’s SJ9 sound bar is the clear winner when it comes to audio quality. A 5.1.2 speaker setup, this 500 watt, 55-inch bar has an external subwoofer, two front speakers, a center channel, and a pair of ceiling-angled surrounds that simulate sound effects coming from above. With Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, the SJ9 can carry a signal without wires, or if HDMI is your jam, the speaker can handle 4K pass-through.
But the big difference between the SJ9 and the rest of the pack is its ability to upsample lesser-quality sound, as well as handle high resolution audio. Whether it’s connected via the built-in Chromecast technology or over Bluetooth, the SJ9 can play music from services including Spotify, Pandora, and Google Play, too. But these web-based solutions usually stream 16-bit audio. The SJ9 cleans up those files rough edges, playing them at 24-bit quality instead.
Buy now: LG SJ9, $899, Amazon