February 16, 2011, 12:08 PM — Affordable flat-screen HDTVs are everywhere these days, but many models omit an important part of the viewing experience: good sound. The slim bezels on the bottom or sides of HDTVs leave little room for quality speakers to properly (and loudly) reproduce the audio from TV shows and DVD or Blu-ray videos.
You could set up a full home theater audio system with a receiver and 5.1-or-better speakers to overcome this problem. But that may be overkill for your situation--or maybe you don't have the room or just don't want all those unsightly cables cluttering your TV room.
One nice alternative that has emerged in the past few years to deal with just this problem is the soundbar. A soundbar is a single audio unit that incorporates the center, left, and right speakers. Paired with a subwoofer, soundbars provide the aural oomph lacking from flat screen HDTVs--in a sleek, unobtrusive package.
These days, you can find soundbars from companies such as JVC, Polk, Sony, Vizio, Yamaha, and others, at prices ranging from $200 to $1000 or more. Here's what you need to know about soundbars, and what to look for.
Clean and simple
In a traditional home-theater setup, an audio/video receiver acts as a hub for coordinating AV signals and for interpreting encoded sound--such as Dolby Digital or DTS--and then sending the resulting audio signals to the correct speakers. But most soundbars don't need a separate audio receiver, because they have sound processors built in.
Another advantage of soundbars is that they let you avoid all the wires needed to connect separate speakers to a receiver. This, in fact, may be what drives many people to soundbars--better-than-stock audio with less mess than a full home-theater setup. To further cut down on cable clutter, some soundbars include wireless subwoofers, which use the 2.4Ghz radio-frequency band to send the signals that produce teeth-rattling rumbles of bass. But even though a soundbar means fewer wires, you'll still have at least two cables to deal with: the one carrying audio signals from the TV to the soundbar, and the one carrying electricity to the soundbar.
Some soundbars, such as JVC's $300 TH-BA1, can use digital signal processing to emulate true 5.1-channel ("surround-sound") audio. By directing some sound waves off walls and floors, and adding slight delays and other effects to particular bits of audio, these systems can often create the illusion of having rear-channel speakers--some of the audio can sound like it's coming from behind you. Of course, these systems work better in some rooms than others--rooms that are too open or too large often defeat the effect. If you want true surround sound, you'll need more than a soundbar.
What to look For