Sound Bars Guide: Virtual Surround Sound 101

You’ve just bought a shiny new flat panel TV, stunningly crafted and a testament to human engineering. But it sounds like someone strangling a dolphin while watching an old Arnie film. You need better sound – fast – without having to punch holes in the walls or ripping up the floor to hide cables. You need a soundbar, and here are the basics you should know before buying one.

Top image: Harman Kardon SB16

A soundbar, as the name suggests, is a long, horizontal bar of a speaker that sits underneath your television. Depending on the brand, it uses a variety of different technologies to create a virtual surround sound experience in the room. See Gizmodo's Soundbars section for even more examples.

The obvious benefit of this kind of speaker is the fact that you don’t need to run cables around the room to get your surround sound experience. Just plug it in and connect it to your AV source, and the soundbar will do the rest.

Of course, not all soundbars are created equal. Understanding some of the technologies in soundbars is essential before you head to the showroom to avoid buyer’s regret. Here are some of the most important specs you should take into account while shopping for a soundbar.

Yamaha YSP-5100

You Want A Virtual 5.1 Option

There are a number of products on the market that look like a soundbar and smell like a soundbar, but when you plug them in, they're nothing more than two speakers and cables in a long rectangular box. Make sure the soundbar you buy promises at least 5.1 or "surround sound" before swiping the credit card.

Subwoofer

Because of the size and shape of a soundbar, the lower bass notes on offer are generally less than amazing, so make sure you check to see whether or not the soundbar includes a separate subwoofer to give you proper “point one” bass quality. If not, chances are you’re not going to be happy with the overall sound.

Connections

The last thing you want to have to do when setting up your soundbar is find out that you need some weird European connection (we’re looking at you, SCART) just to get your sound playing. HDMI is essential — as the one cable looks after both video and audio in the highest quality. You might also want to look at a soundbar solution that offers multiple HDMI ports or an AV receiver as part of the package to manage inputs from all your devices, from your Blu-ray player to your PS3 to your Xbox 360 to your Foxtel iQ.

Bose Lifestyle 135

Extras

Some Soundbars incorporate an iPod dock, which is great for playing back music without needing to have the TV on. Others include an integrated Blu-ray player, while even more include an FM or DAB radio tuner. The ability to switch video sources could also be convenient, depending on your personal home theatre setup.

Try Before You Buy

Of less concern are the number of speakers within the soundbar - while some soundbars boast up to 42 different speakers, more speakers don’t always equate to superior sound.

But that’s something you should always find out for yourself. As with any quality home audio purchase, you should never buy a soundbar without listening to it first. Testing a product in a showroom is the easiest way to save yourself a lot of heartache when buying any home theatre equipment.

Bowers & Wilkins Panorama

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