Soundbars, subwoofers, sound bases and speaker boards - we unravel what they all mean
So, you’ve followed all our various TV Buyers Guides, got your new set home and connected it to all of your equipment but you’re yearning for something better, in terms of the sound. A flat panel TV can produce amazing pictures but their speakers are inhibited by the slim-line design. There are numerous ways you can improve upon the in-built speakers but the most convenient, tidy and simple of those is the soundbar.
While the idea of the product is simple enough, their popularity is such that the product sector has grown to include several different solutions. There are simple single soundbars, soundbars with internal and separate subwoofers and you can even put your TV on top of some soundbars; typically these are called a soundbase, sound plate or speaker board. With so many products to look at, things can get confusing, so let’s run through your different options:
If you think of a traditional pair of stereo speakers, laid down on their sides and then joined together, you have the basic premise of what a soundbar is. Your most basic soundbar will almost be precisely this and whilst it will almost certainly improve upon your TV's speakers, you might find it lacking when watching movies or drama series with dynamic sound effects. More often than not, however, you will find that a stand alone soundbar unit will feature built-in subwoofer speakers to take care of those.
Soundbar with subwoofer
To get even more convincing low end effects, you are probably best seeking out a package comprising a soundbar and separate subwoofer unit. The subwoofer can connect to the soundbar with a cable or, more commonly, using wireless communication. We find that a soundbar and separate subwoofer can usually produce a more sensational experience than a single soundbar unit, unless you’re spending an awful lot of money. Be aware that while some subwoofers are labelled as wireless, they do need their own power source, so they will need their own mains cable.
Sound base, Soundplate and Speaker Board
The traditional soundbar is undoubtedly a neat and tidy solution, but they will take up some extra room on your AV cabinet. In recognition of this, a new offshoot of the soundbar was created and, depending on the manufacturer, can go by a number of different terms. As well as those in the heading above, we’ve also seen the terms ‘sound stand’ and ‘sound plinth’ used but they all equate to pretty much the same thing. They are designed to be sturdy enough to take the weight of a typical TV, but it’s definitely worth checking that they can cope with the weight of yours.
You should be able to easily find the information regarding maximum weights and the sizes of TV stands able to fit, and then you just need to cross reference those against the specifications of your TV; you will usually find this information in the back of the owner’s manual and it’s almost always available online.
The soundbase has the smallest footprint
Like the traditional soundbar, you can buy a soundbase with integrated subwoofer(s) or with a separate unit. There are even some that have built-in Blu-ray/DVD players, as well as a range of Smart TV features. You might sometimes see these labelled as all-in-one home cinema systems but they are not to be confused with packages featuring multiple surround speakers.
Soundbar vs Sound Base
In our experience, we’d generally steer you towards a soundbar with a separate subwoofer as they usually offer a better sense of sound separation. Although there are exceptions to that rule. Of course, you may be space limited and have no option but to your stack your TV on top, but you needn’t worry as there are some impressive sound bases available.
Soundbars with detachable speakers
This is a very niche product category right now, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see others follow the lead of Philips. Their idea to place detachable speaker modules at the end of the speaker bar, allows you to create more of a surround home cinema experience and the fact that they recharge when attached means it’s a truly wireless experience.
They now can be built in to surround systems
Though the uptake of multi-room audio systems can’t match that of the individual soundbar market, their popularity is definitely on the up. Sonos has, more or less, had the market to themselves in the last few years but they are now facing increased competition. Notably the Far Eastern brands have designs on making inroads, with both Samsung and LG aggressively marketing their own solutions.
The soundbar component in all of those systems can be used in a few ways; as a standalone, as part of a chained multi-speaker setup where music can be piped around the home or, a bit like the detachable speaker option above, in a surround sound system. You use the soundbar as the front and centre speakers, with any two of the wireless speakers you have acting as rear surrounds.
If your soundbar or soundbase has an HDMI connection, it will be compatible with the Audio Return Channel (ARC) feature of the HDMI specification. The chances are your HDTV will have one ARC capable HDMI port and it will almost always be marked as such with labelling next to it. All things being equal, this is the easiest way of hooking up your soundbar and it means you can use your TV's remote to control the volume of the soundbar.
You will need to check the specifications of your TV to see whether it will downmix multichannel from connected equipment (e.g. Blu-ray/DVD Player) to stereo; in which case you might want to consider taking a direct connection from your kit to the soundbar. Some soundbars have more than one HDMI connection but your can use digital audio connections as an alternative if not…
Digital Audio (Toslink and Coax)
This is the next best option after HDMI, and some would argue it’s actually a more reliable alternative. Like HDMI, digital audio connections can carry multichannel audio signals but you won’t usually be able to use your TVs remote to control the soundbar's volume in this set up. The majority of TVs, set top boxes, disc players and soundbars have a Toslink (see below) digital audio connection but you will find some with Coaxial terminals, so you’ll need to check how your equipment will hook up together before making any decisions.
Toslink on the left/Coaxial on the rightStereo (3.5mm/RCA)
Your television might have left and right stereo outputs (almost always colour coded red and white) and you can use these as an alternative to HDMI or digital audio but, obviously, this will mean you can’t take multichannel audio signals from the TV. At the soundbar end, it’s most likely that the stereo input will be via a single 3.5mm jack, so you’ll need a RCA to 3.5mm cable to make things work.
If your TV is of a more recent vintage, you are likely to find that it won’t have discreet left and right stereo jacks but it almost certainly will have a headphone output. You can use this to connect to the stereo input of your soundbar, using either a simple 3.5mm audio cable or a 3.5mm to RCA lead. We would advise that this should only be used when you absolutely can’t get anything else to work, as the sound quality from most TVs headphone outputs isn’t that great.
Bluetooth capability is now becoming an almost standard feature of a soundbar. In case you didn’t know, Bluetooth is a way of wirelessly taking audio signals from your capable smartphone, tablet or PC and it’s most often used for streaming music. You will need to check how both your Bluetooth device and the soundbar initiate their pairing modes but it’s usually a very straightforward process. It’s becoming more common for soundbars to have a NFC (Near Field Communication) tag somewhere on them so, provided your phone or tablet is NFC capable, it’s possible to establish a connection just by tapping it on the appropriate area of the soundbar.
Hopefully we’ve covered all the present alternatives but we’ll keep our eyes on developments in the market and update this guide accordingly. We are, as ever, open to comments, suggestions and questions and we invite you to do so in the section below.
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