Best Buy Soundbars of 2016
It's amazing what you can do with a soundbar these days
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Whilst the market for soundbars continued to grow in 2016, it was also the year when things got immersive.The trend towards thinner TVs has resulted in increasingly poor audio quality and, in turn, this has created an unprecedented level of demand for alternative audio solutions. The product that has benefited the most has been the soundbar, the demand for which can be directly correlated to the arrival of ultra slim TVs. Whilst some manufacturers like Yamaha have been making soundbars for years, the huge demand from consumers has seen just about every other manufacturer jump on the bandwagon. The reason for the particular popularity of soundbars stems from the fact that they provide a clean and simple solution to the problem of poor TV audio. They are far less intrusive and much easier to set up than an AV Receiver, making them the ideal choice for many consumers. The inclusion of subwoofers with many soundbars, even at lower price points, means they are capable of delivering a big front soundstage and the use of sound projection has allowed certain soundbars to produce a surround effect by bouncing the audio off the side walls. There are now soundbars that even bounce the sounds off the ceiling to create an immersive audio experience with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks. So let's take a look at the soundbars that have really impressed us this year.
- 4K UHD (Ultra HD)
- Acoustic Energy
- Dolby Atmos
- DTS: X
- High Dynamic Range (HDR)
Samsung HW-K450 – £169 – Best Buy
If you have a TV with a screen size of 55 inches or less and you're looking to beef up its sound without breaking the bank, then the Samsung HW-K450 could definitely be the soundbar for you. It's attractively designed, with a lovely finish and great build quality. It comes with a matching wireless active subwoofer, along with a remote control, an optical digital cable and brackets for wall mounting. There's even an optional wireless surround kit if you want to create a 4.1-channel system. The K450 has an HDMI input and an HDMI output (both are 1.4 and the latter supports ARC), along with Bluetooth and Samsung's TV SoundConnect feature. The included remote control might be a little small for some people but we found it quite effective and for Android users there's also a Bluetooth app. The HW-K450 is easy to setup and as long as you're careful about subwoofer placement, the performance can be very good.
The Samsung was quite refined for a budget soundbar and it could go loud without distorting or becoming brittle. The subwoofer isn't a monster but it gets the job done and combined with the soundbar the two can deliver an open front soundstage that should be enough for the average living room. The K450 could reproduce effects whilst keeping dialogue clear and despite a number of listening modes, we tended to just use Standard. The surround feature merely added too much echo but we found the soundbar and subwoofer combination could produce a nice sense of immersion. The K450 also sounded good with music and it has a decent level of file support, making it an ideal budget soundbar with a great all-round performance. The Samsung HW-K450 was a bargain when it was first released but at current prices, it's a steal.Acoustic Energy AEGO Sound3ar – £199 – Recommended
The Acoustic Energy AEGO Sound3ar, if you'll excuse the marketing jargon, is a great budget soundbar and subwoofer combination that delivers an excellent combination of performance and value. The design is attractive and the build quality is impressive for the price, whilst the smaller size of the soundbar means it can fit easily under the majority of modern TVs. The subwoofer houses all the amplification and connections, which means there are only two cables running to the passive soundbar, keeping things tidy around your TV. The connections are limited but Acoustic Energy do include cables, which is handy, and although the remote is a bit rubbish, it does get the job done. Setting up the AEGO Sound3ar is very simple and once everything is connected there are LEDs on the front of the subwoofer that indicate which input you are using and the volume setting.
Acoustic Energy may have built the AEGO to hit a specific price point but they certainly haven't compromised in terms of sound quality, with a performance that is anything but budget. The Sound3ar delivered a lovely detailed sound, with a nicely balanced tonal quality and plenty of bass. The mid-range and high frequencies are also well rendered and the sound has plenty of dynamic range, considering the size of the soundbar. The smaller dimensions of the soundbar did mean that the front soundstage was a bit narrow, lacking the enveloping nature of larger models, and the amplification will struggle in larger rooms but in a normal sized living room it has more than enough power. Overall we found the Acoustic Energy AEGO Sound3ar to be a very capable performer with TV, movies and music, making it a great choice if you're on a limited budget.
Yamaha YSP-1600 – £349 – Highly Recommended
Yamaha have been making soundbars for years and were instrumental in developing the technology long before its explosion in popularity. They have also pioneered the use of sound projection to bounce sounds of side and rear walls to create a surround experience from a single point. The Yamaha YSP-1600 combines all of their expertise and was a great buy when it was launched and, thanks to a recent price drop, is now even more attractive. The build quality is top-notch and connectivity options, including an HDCP 2.2 compliant HDMI input capable of accepting 4K signals up to 60 frames per second, are almost equally as solid. You also get integration with Yamaha's excellent MusicCast system, turning the YSP-1600 into a networked audio streamer and/or part of a multi-room audio system.
This 5.1-channel digital sound projector also lives up to its name by actually being capable of producing sound behind the listening position, courtesy of eight 'beam' drivers that can be adjusted for different room layouts. This technology really works, creating a genuine sense of envelopment compared to normal soundbars, although it will depend on the shape of your room. It's equally at home with movies, TV and music so, whatever you throw at it, the Yamaha sounds accomplished and refined. The only negatives we can mention are a somewhat cheap feeling remote and the lack of a separate subwoofer. As a result the system can sound a little thin in the bass department when it comes to low frequency effects in movies, although you can add an external subwoofer if you prefer. However this doesn't stop the Yamaha YSP-1600 from coming highly recommended.
Denon HEOS HomeCinema – £399 – Highly Recommended
Denon entered the soundbar market fairly late but the HEOS HomeCinema is an attractively designed and solidly constructed soundbar that doesn't feel the need to be flashy or draw attention to itself. The classic look of the black soundbar and subwoofer combination will match most TVs and the connections include an HDMI input and an HDMI output with ARC. It's a shame they don't support 4K/HDCP2.2 but in reality it's unlikely to be an issue for most people and although the HomeCinema doesn't come with a separate remote, you can either use the excellent HEOS App or your TV controller. The HomeCinema includes built-in WiFi and forms part of Denon's HEOS multiroom ecosystem, allowing you to listen to your favourite music streaming services or play music from connected devices. You can also send the TV audio to other speakers connected to the HEOS ecosystem, which might prove useful during live events. You have the option of stand or wall mounting the soundbar and there are plenty of included accessories.
As we would expect from a Denon product, setup is very straightforward, with the HEOS App taking you through the entire process. You can select different inputs, choose sound modes and set the subwoofer level using the app and there are other features available including a Night Mode and a Dialogue Enhancer. However, it's the sound quality that really matters and here Denon have delivered with a clear and precise signature that is capable of an open front soundstage and plenty of deep, well integrated bass. The mid-range is nicely defined, maintaining dialogue fidelity; whilst the higher frequencies are also handled well ensuring that sounds don't become sibilant. The HomeCinema can go loud without distorting and, combined with the subwoofer, it can produce an excellent room filling sound. Whether it's TV, film or music, the Denon HEOS HomeCinema is an extremely capable soundbar and subwoofer combination that is a worthy addition to their current line-up of products.
Samsung HW-K950 – £1,299 – Highly Recommended
The Samsung HW-K950 is part of a new breed of soundbars that combine wireless rear speakers with upward-firing drivers to create a genuine immersive audio experience. The soundbar, itself, is attractive and the build quality is excellent, with an overall feeling of a high-end product. The wireless active surround speakers are designed to match the soundbar both in terms of design and tonal quality, creating an effective five-channel setup. The addition of a powerful wireless active subwoofer and four upward-firing speakers means that the HW-K950 can deliver a highly effective 5.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos experience. The soundbar uses HDMI 2.0a with two inputs and an output that supports ARC and also includes Samsung's Multiroom system for music streaming, either via subscription services or its extensive file support. The provided remote control is well designed and easy to use, whilst setting up and controlling the soundbar was extremely simple. In terms of its performance, the HW-K950 is simply the best soundbar that Samsung have released to date, with an open and immersive soundstage that still remains precise and controlled. The use of a wider dispersion tweeter, combined with the larger soundbar and wireless surround speakers, means that the HW-K950 can deliver a multi-dimensional audio experience to a wider area, rather than being focused on a single listening position. As a result everyone can enjoy an immersive listening experience, regardless of where they are sat in the room.
How effective the upward-firing speakers are will depend on your ceiling but in our living room the HW-K950 steered sounds effectively around the room and overhead channels were clearly originating from above us. However it wasn't just that the HW-K950 can deliver an impressive performance with Dolby Atmos, it also sounded great with regular 5.1 mixes and the surround upmixing feature was very effective. The front soundstage was particularly impressive, with great clarity and definition. Dialogue was always clear and music sounded particularly good, whilst sound effects are delivered with precision. The subwoofer has plenty of power and makes its presence felt but if we had one real criticism of the HW-K950, it's that the bass could be a little over-powering at times. This can be mitigated through careful placement and setup but we suspect it is an aspect of the system's attempts to provide an enjoyable immersive experience to as many listeners as possible. An extra HDMI input or two would have been nice and the absence of DTS-HD Master Audio/DTS:X support is a shame, although there's technically no reason why it couldn't be added via a firmware update later, should the number of DTS:X discs increase dramatically. Those complaints aside, the Samsung HW-K950 hardly puts a foot wrong and if you're looking for a soundbar with great performance, plenty of features and Dolby Atmos support, it should be at the top of your short list.
MORE: What is Dolby Atmos?
Yamaha YSP-5600 – £1,499 – Recommended
When you consider Yamaha's experience in sound projection, it was only a matter of time before they applied it to immersive audio. The Yamaha YSP-5600 supports multi-dimensional sound in a similar fashion to the Samsung HW-K950 but, unlike the latter, it does so completely from a single point. There's a 46-speaker configuration built into the YSP-5600 that bounces sounds off the side walls, rear walls and ceilings to completely immerse you in surround audio. There's no denying that the Yamaha is a large and expensive soundbar but it definitely works, although how effective it is will depend on your room – you will need reflective walls and a flat reflective ceiling to get the full effect. In demos we were surprised at how similar the experience actually was with Dolby Atmos and whilst a solution like the YSP-5600 can never fully replace an actual immersive audio set up, it's certainly a lot easier to install and far less intrusive in terms of having speakers all over your lounge. Although the YSP-5600 supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the majority of the content that you'll be listening to won't be using immersive audio, so it's important it can also perform well in terms of more normal duties. Thankfully it doesn't disappoint, with all of Yamaha's experience coming into play and the soundbar producing a lovely open sound field that filled the room.
When it came to movies there was a nice sense of envelopment but dialogue always remained clear, especially when it came to TV programmes. The bass performance was also good, with the soundbar's woofers performing effectively and the lower frequencies were well integrated when we added a subwoofer. If you're a fan of Yamaha's DSP processing, there's a decent selection of options but we prefer our audio unprocessed. The YSP-5600 also performed well with music, which is useful since it supports Yamaha's MusicCast multiroom system. In fact, this soundbar is feature-packed with just about everything you could want, which makes Yamaha's approach to the HDMI connections all the more puzzling. None of the HDMI connections support HDR and only one input and the output support HDCP 2.2. If you compare it to the cheaper Samsung HW-K950 which uses HDMI 2.0a inputs/output with support for HDR and HDCP 2.2, the Yamaha is rather limited in terms of it future-proofing. The YSP-5600 also doesn't come with a subwoofer as standard, so it's actually even more expensive than the HW-K950 which does. However the Yamaha does support DTS:X which the Samsung doesn't, so neither option is perfect. However the Yamaha YSP-5600 is an excellent performer, so if you have the budget, space and suitable environment it's certainly worth considering.
MORE: What is DTS:X?
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