While soundbars are branded as all-in-one solutions for the living room, there are several things you need to look for to ensure you get a great listening experience.
- Codecs: Love ’em or hate ’em, codecs are an important thing to look for when looking at soundbars. Most will support both Dolby Atmos, which is an object-based surround system, and DTS:X, which uses a traditional speaker layout. For the most part, only blu-ray disks use DTS:X while most streaming services will offer Dolby Atmos.
- Speaker Array: Most soundbars will advertise something like “5.1.2” or “7.2.4”. This indicates how many speakers the bar has and where they are located. The first number indicates any front or side-firing speakers. The second number indicates how many subwoofers it includes. And that third number indicates how many surround speakers it’ll come with, or in some cases how many up-firing speakers are built-in. So a “7.2.4” setup would have seven front/side speakers, two subwoofers, and either four surround speakers or four up-firing speakers.
- Audio Return Channel (ARC/eARC): While all of the soundbars on our list support ARC or eARC, not all do. Assuming your TV has ARC/eARC (most modern TVs do have one HDMI input that supports it), it enables your TV to pass on high-quality audio to your soundbar over HDMI, including surround sound and Dolby Atmos. If your TV doesn’t have a dedicated HDMI ARC port, you’ll have to resort to using an optical cable. You cannot pass on Dolby Atmos or surround sound over an optical cable.
- “Smarts”: As with most of anything else, soundbars are starting to implement “smart” features. Most modern bars allow you to install an app, have access to a digital assistant such as Alexa, or have fancy upsampling features to simulate surround sound on non-surround sound content.
- ✓ Great Dolby Atmos experience
- ✓ Supports both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa
- ✓ Software updates for years to come
- ✗ Expensive
- ✗ Lacks DTS:X surround sound codec
- ✗ Sub + surround speakers sold separately
By far, Sonos offers the best soundbar experience thanks to the company’s expertise with smart home products. The ARC is a 5.1.2 system that only comes with the bar itself (subwoofer and surround sound speakers sold separately). But don’t let that fool you: the out-of-the-box experience is still excellent—picking up the subwoofer and surround speakers will only enhance an already superb experience.
In addition to supporting Dolby Atmos, the Wi-Fi connected bar has hands-free integration with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa features, and supports all of the major music streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Qobuz, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music. It’s practically a smart speaker, but one that actually sounds good, and perfect for listening to music.
If you have the extra cash and don’t mind tracking down all the different accessories for it, the Sonos ARC is truly a seamless and reliable soundbar. You can’t go wrong here.
It's pricey, but the Sonos ARC with all of its accessories outputs some of the best sound, regardless if it's in Dolby Atmos or streaming on Spotify.
- ✓ Infinite audio customization options
- ✓ Superb sound quality
- ✓ Sturdy and straightforward remote
- ✗ Expensive
- ✗ Lacks any sort of "smart" features
While you lose out on some of the smarts, the Shockwafe Ultra from Nakamichi is one of the highest-quality soundbars out there, rivaling some dedicated home theater setups when it comes to immersive sound. Being 9.2.4, the bar has five front-facing, two side-firing, and two up-firing speakers. You’ll also get two wireless subwoofers and four surround speakers. It’s almost a surround sound system, all it’s really missing is some rear speakers. The only downside here is that, while the subwoofers are wireless, the surround speakers are wired and need to be plugged into the subwoofers.
Of course, since almost nothing is mastered in 9.2.4, Nakamichi uses artificial intelligence (AI) to upsample your audio source and make use of every speaker the system has. It features all the goodies, including DTS:X and Dolby Atmos surround sound codec support, a proper remote control with an equalizer (EQ) and volume controls, and a bold design.
The only thing the bar really lacks is any sort of “smarts” such as voice assistant support, an app, or a connection to the internet. To do firmware updates, you’ll need to download them on your computer, copy it to a flash drive, and install it via the bar’s USB port on the back. But if your primary concern is sound quality, this is one you should look at.
Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra
Sometimes adding more speakers does equate to a superior sound experience. The Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra features a 9.2.4 speaker setup that sounds incredible. Though, some may dislike its futuristic design.
- ✓ Excellent Dolby Atmos experience
- ✓ Great surround sound experience
- ✗ Expensive
- ✗ Mediocre stereo listening experience
If you want the absolute best option for Dolby Atmos and surround sound content, look no further than the Samsung HW-Q950A. Trading blows with the Shockwafe Ultra and the Sonos ARC, the Samsung bar gets you a more elevated experience. It’s an 11.1.4 setup, which means the bar has 11 speakers, one external subwoofer, and four surround speakers. And much like the Shockwafe Ultra, it will upsample everything you’ve got in order to make use of every speaker.
However, the bar performs rather poorly for stereo or audio content not directly mixed in surround sound or Dolby Atmos. It’s not a terrible experience, but you could do much better, especially at this price point. On the bright side, though, the HW-Q950A does feature hands-free control via Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant.
At its price, you should hope that Samsung is delivering a great Dolby Atmos experience, especially with an 11.1.4 speaker setup.
- ✓ Inexpensive
- ✓ Good Dolby Atmos experience
- ✓ Great stereo listening experience
- ✗ Lacks up-firing speakers
Sometimes you don’t want the absolute best, but you also don’t want to cheap out and buy the least expensive thing. That’s where this Vizio M-Series soundbar comes in. It’s a 5.1 setup that features two surround speakers and a single subwoofer in addition to the soundbar.
It packs in all the bells and whistles such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X decoding, eARC, and surround speakers. Though, it is missing up-firing speakers, which hampers the Dolby Atmos experience a small tad. But don’t get us wrong, it still provides a solid experience despite the lack of up-firing speakers. It’s a great all-around soundbar that has great surround sound and stereo performance.
Vizio M Series M51ax-J6
The M51ax-J6 does everything you'd expect it to. It checks off every box and offers a pretty great sound experience, all without putting a huge dent in your budget.
- ✓ Inexpensive
- ✓ Good surround sound experience
- ✓ DTS decoding
- ✗ Lacks support for Dolby Atmos
- ✗ Lacks support for lossless audio
The V Series V51-H6 from Vizio is a solid entry-level choice, and one of the most affordable well. It’s the best option for those looking for something more than just their TV speakers, but not a ton more. It does lack certain features, however, like to play Dolby Atmos content nor is it able to decode lossless audio over ARC, but that’s to be expected at this price point.
Despite its shortcomings, this Vizio bar sports a 5.1.2 speaker setup, capable of standard surround sound decoding via the DTS codec. It also plays stereo content exceptionally well. This makes it a great option for those who plan on playing traditional TV or YouTube primarily. For the price, it’s hard to complain about its lack of lossless audio decoding or Dolby Atmos support.
Vizio V Series V51-H6
The V51-H6 is great for those looking to upgrade from their TV speakers. It's especially great if your main point of entertainment is live TV or watching YouTube videos.