Sound Bar Shopping: A Sound Investment For Your Ears

Ready to Go Sound Bar Shopping?

If you are shopping for an alternative to expensive, clunky surround sound, but still want to augment the basic sound from your television, sound bars are a great choice. A sound bar is not going to provide the same experience as surround sound, but it will give you better sound than what your television can provide, straight from the package. Having the know-how allows you to choose carefully, and avoid the common pitfalls and purchasing blunders of audio-newbies. These tips will help you not only pick out your new sound bar, but also fit right in with the audiophiles.

Knowing the Lingo

Before you go shopping, you should know a few basic terms; otherwise, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with technical questions that you aren’t even sure how to phrase. When you start looking, the assumption is that you’ll know how what these terms mean, and how to use them:

Active System

In the very simplest terms, this means “powered.” But, of course, it’s not that easy. This really means that you are shopping for a system that does everything, right out of the package, in one sleek, usually black, plastic box: amplification, speakers, and signal processing. Most sound bars of this type advertise that you don’t need a subwoofer, but many people choose to add one anyway because sound bars, by nature of their design, are so small that they cannot approximate the same low frequency bass sounds as a subwoofer. For example, some active systems like the Vizio 3821, or the LG NB3530A even come with one, saving customers the trouble of piecemealing a system together.

Passive System

In contrast to an active system, this means “unpowered,” to the layman. In general, these are wireless systems, which many people prefer for their uncluttered appearance. This doesn’t mean that it’s unpowered, just that this type of sound bar gets its power from an A/V source, or a connected amplifier. Unlike the easy set-up of an out-of the box active model, setting up a passive system requires a little more home-theater know-how, and is often, but not always, a little more expensive. A good example of a wireless system is the Samsung HW-K360, or the Definitive Technology W Studio, if you are looking to spend a bit more.

Subwoofer

This is the big box in your corner that amplifies lower frequency sounds, such as bass. Most companies have managed to make them smaller and sleeker, making it easier to squish them away, unobtrusively, into your living environment. Without a subwoofer, sound bars may have a difficult time approximating the full effect of sounds like explosions or blasts.

Amplifier

An amplifier increases the electric signal, especially sound. Most of the time, your Blu-Ray player, or other A/V device has one, already embedded in it.

HDMI

This is the acronym for High Definition Multi-Media Interface. You’d be surprised how few people know what this means; but without it, you wouldn’t be able to watch your favorite television or movies. HDMI is proprietary; and, it changes, or translates, uncompressed video and data files into a viewable format on your compatible device (TV, laptop, tablet, etc.).

Consider the Size of Your Room

There is a difference between amplifying sound for a tiny apartment’s living room, your bedroom, or a large studio. In the case of a large space, anything larger than around 15×20, you may want to consider forgoing the sound bar, and investing in surround sound, as a sound bar cannot approximate the same quality of a surround sound system, in a large space. But, in a small space, a sound bar can declutter the environment; and a wireless system, like the Vizio SB-4051 can be an especially efficient, clean way to deliver great sound.

What are you Using it For?

This sounds like a ridiculous question; you are using it to enhance the sound coming from your television. But, like all products, speakers are limited by the purpose of their design; and many are only as good as what they are designed to play through them. If you buy a system that is expressly designed for music, then sit down to watch an action movie, you will be sorely disappointed. There are many sound bars on the market that are designed to do both, such the VIZIO SB4451-C0. While there are many sound bars that are touted to be best for music, there are also sound bars that are especially tuned to be good for film and television sound, such as the Sony HT-CT770 2.1 and the LG NB3530A.

Design and Function

There is something to be said for design. Sound bars are sleek, compact and easily blend with your television and media system. They are, also, supposedly easy to use. If you select one that is gets high consumer reviews from CNET for function, but low marks for attractiveness, like the Pioneer SP-SB23W, you have to ask yourself how willing you are to look at something you hate, in your living room, on a daily basis.

You also have to consider the design of the sound bar’s remote control, which is no small issue, despite its compact, handheld, size. Based on the design of your model, you may be saddled with an additional remote to manage just your sound bar. Or, more likely, you are going to have to reprogram which sound inputs your TV is going to be using for sound, and then, manage the remotes accordingly, which can be a hassle, at first. You will also want to check that your model has a front display that registers user inputs. Otherwise, your well-designed model becomes very frustrating to use, as you can’t tell whether it’s registering your volume adjustments. A good user-display model is the Klipsch RSB-11. Additionally, something many people don’t consider is that you may have to consider a way to mount, place, or otherwise arrange the unit, so that the sound bar doesn’t interfere with the operation of your existing devices’ remote control pathways. Sleek design comes with a price, if you have to get up to change the channel every other minute.

Finally, take a tally count of the speakers. A sound bar may not come with just the sound bar. If it comes with an additional speaker(s) or subwoofer, consider the placement in your room. Take into account the size and placement of the sound bar, as well as any other components that it will come with. These things don’t seem like they matter, but they matter a great deal when you are putting up extra shelves to accommodate bookshelf speakers.

soundbar-system

soundbar-system

Connectivity and HDMI

While this seems like a simple question, it is deceptively so. You want your sound to connect to your television. But, do you also want it to connect to your iPod, or other wireless device? Do you want it to connect to the wireless network, in your home? Some, lower priced models, have a maximum number of allowed connections, either wireless or USB (digital audio inputs). You’ll probably want an active sound bar, with USB ports, if you want to connect several devices, or a Bluetooth capable device. If you want to connect more devices, or have a slightly larger budget, the Yamaha YAS-203 is a nice choice.

Some technical notes to be aware of, before you purchase, include that you need to know if you’re connecting a sound bar to a cable box with coaxial digital audio output, or if you need to buy a converter box, or use an analog connection. Almost all sound bars now come with HDMI connections, even lower priced models; but, if it doesn’t, you’ll need to split your audio connection between the sound bar and the video output. This can be needlessly complicated. The Sony HTST5 Premium comes with 3 HDMI Connections, Wi-Fi, and 2 optical and 1 coaxial connection.

Budget and Product Quality

Sound Bars range in price from under a hundred dollars, to well over a thousand dollars. So, you need to evaluate your budget, compare it to sound quality, and to your needs. There is a sound bar for every price, that matches every specification. For example, a unit with decent reviews, at a budge friendly price, is the Philips HTL211A; while on the other end of the spectrum, the Paradigm Shift Sound Bar receives equally nice reviews from both Wirecutter Magazine, and from Amazon Customers; but is far more expensive.

Warranty

Be way of products that are neither backed by a warranty, or by guarantees of customer service. Like any large purchase, you want to be able to access customer care for assistance with setting up your sound bar. And, if something goes awry, you want to be able to rely on the company to stand behind their product for both repair and replacement. Industry standard is 12 months; if this isn’t offered with your purchase, choose another product.

You can purchase almost all sound bars online; but, it’s very difficult to assess what you want without both hearing to compare, and hearing it in your space. So, if you can’t visit a local shop, make sure that your purchase has a good return policy, in case when you get it installed, you discover that you don’t find it aesthetically pleasing, that it doesn’t amplify the sound loud enough to reach your favorite chair, or that it has remote control issues.

Technical purchases can be daunting, but there’s no reason to be overwhelmed when you have a little know-how. A sound bar is a sound investment if you are looking to enhance your television’s sound, especially in a smaller living space; and, there are plenty to choose from. When you have some basic information, it’s impossible to go wrong.

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