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The Best Soundbars, According to Sound Engineers and Professional Audiophiles

Photo: NBC

As TVs get thinner and thinner, there is one big downside: There’s no room left for good speakers. One solution is to add an audio system, but that involves a lot of extra money and a bunch of wires to try to keep from tangling. The easier solution is a soundbar. On their own, these sleek devices don’t provide quite the same immersive sound as full surround-sound systems, but they do give you an excellent — and much simpler to install — approximation. To help you find the best soundbar for your setup and budget (along with a few multi-speaker options), we spoke with 11 sound engineers, recording industry professionals, and audiophiles. We also tested out a few ourselves. Here are the favorites.

Best overall soundbar

Seven of our experts recommend Sonos’s smart soundbars, and 3 specifically mentioned the Arc. “If you’re looking for something cost-effective and plug-and-play, the Sonos Arc is great for those who want a minimalist footprint with a convenient all-in-one audio solution,” says Justin Schwartz, owner of Sage AV in New York City. “The Arc easily connects to any TV to improve the acoustics for all your shows and movies, in addition to providing all the bells and whistles of a stand-alone smart speaker for the times you just want to listen to music.” Plus, the Arc has “the benefit of being part of the Sonos ecosystem,” says Mark Feinberg, founder of Home Theater Advisors in New York City. That means you can add additional Sonos speakers or a subwoofer and group speakers in various rooms to play music seamlessly throughout your home. And the quality is excellent. Our colleague Chris Welch at the Verge says, when paired with a subwoofer, “the Arc delivered sound as immersive as the multiple-speaker Atmos system. If you didn’t know the Arc was bouncing sound off the ceiling and rear wall, you would easily believe that there were speakers there.”

Best overall (less-expensive) soundbar

Two of our experts recommend the Beam, and Welch likes it as an alternative to the Arc for setups that are tight on space. Although it’s not going to get you quite the same depth of sound as the Arc, Feinberg says the Beam “sounds very good and really serves a purpose for those smaller or budget-oriented needs.” Audiovisual and acoustics consultant Matt Mahon of LSTN calls the Beam his “personal pick.” Along with the sound quality, he likes how the speaker can be connected to your phone over Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth. That way, when you want to use it to play music, you don’t have to worry about the signal dropping because you walk too far from the speaker. Plus, he says, “it’s dead easy to expand to add a Sonos subwoofer and satellite surrounds.”

Best budget soundbar

Yamaha YAS-109 Soundbar
$200
$200

Sound engineer Nicholas Radina is frequently asked what he uses in his personal life. Eschewing pro equipment, “I strive to keep it simple at home and gravitate toward brands I use often,” he says. “A brand I trust day in and day out is Yamaha.” He loves the YAS series of soundbars, particularly the YAS-109 as a “great, affordable entry.” Or for a little more money, the YAS-209 adds an “easy-to-deploy subwoofer” for those looking for a slightly fuller sound, he says. (His tip: “Put the sub in a corner to take advantage of the ‘boundary effect,’ which will give a nice, free loudness bump to your low end without needing more power or larger enclosure.”)

Most innovative soundbar system

AIX Records founder and author Mark Waldrep’s favorite soundbar is JBL’s Bar 9.1. It comes with a dedicated wireless subwoofer and two satellite speakers that carry “discrete surround channels into your listening room,” he says. Those satellite speakers are also interesting because they are completely wireless. Attach them to the soundbar to charge, and when it’s time to watch a movie or a football game, you can set them up behind you, where they’ll last for up to ten hours. “It delivers theater-quality sound,” Waldrep says.

Best two-channel soundbar systems

Two-channel systems include a subwoofer, which adds deep bass that the smaller soundbar just can’t handle. These are good for situations where, instead of the entire dynamic range of a full surround setup, you just want Call of Duty or Terminator to feel that much more alive. “If all you need is a small speaker to improve your overall sound quality beyond your television’s built-in speakers but don’t want to spend a lot, a basic unit from Monoprice or Vizio can be purchased for less than $150,” Waldrep says. He recommends the Monoprice SB-200SW bar, which connects via HDMI, Bluetooth, and optical and coaxial inputs. It also includes a separate 30-watt wireless subwoofer.

Strategist tech writer Jordan Bowman bought this Samsung soundbar after realizing that his TV speakers just weren’t cutting it anymore. (“I was watching Lord of the Rings and the famous scene where Gandalf yells, ‘You shall not pass,’ barely seemed to resonate,” he says. “God forbid a character in Game of Thrones decided to whisper. I felt like I had the television on mute.”) He likes the Samsung for its simple setup, affordable price tag, and ability to bolster audio and create an immersive sound, whether he is gaming or watching TV. It’s more expensive than the Monoprice option above, but you’re getting a higher-end experience, with clearer sound and the confidence that comes with buying from a major brand.

Audiovisual and acoustic consultant Alexander Mayo of the Arup Group really likes JBL’s 2.1 Deep Bass bar. “The perfect soundbar for me is aesthetically neutral, can pair with a subwoofer, and includes Bluetooth for easy music playback from a mobile device. The JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass hits all of these points while leaving behind some of the simulated surround processing of its rivals, which are hit or miss in execution,” Mayo says. Though it lacks some smart features like Alexa or Google Assistant, Mayo says “it more than makes up for that in the bass response of the subwoofer and is priced very competitively for those looking for an upgraded experience to what the built-in TV speakers can provide.”

Video editor Travis Weir recommends this soundbar, which includes a separate and surprisingly delicate subwoofer. “The essential feature here is the subwoofer,” he says. “Normally it’s extravagant — overbearing in modest spaces and insufficient in big, lofted living rooms unless you let a pro audio service turn your pockets inside out,” he says. But the HW-R450 “has quality-of-life things that I like. The remote is weird enough to stand out in the pile, the Bluetooth is reliable, and the subwoofer is small enough to fit inside my entertainment center. Why do we put it there? It’s dead center to our sofa, and resonance goes through the furniture rather than the floor, saving us a cranky knock from the folks downstairs.”

Best 5.1-channel soundbar for small spaces

After testing the Vizio M-Series Soundbar for a month, Bowman recommends it for anyone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money, but who is interested in a full home-theater experience. The subwoofer and soundbar connect wirelessly, but the tiny side speakers have to connect via audio cables. He especially enjoyed the Dual Stereo Mode, which had such immersive sound that sound effects feel like they are creeping out of the back speakers, while the dialogue comes directly out of the soundbar. For anyone with a small space that isn’t conducive to speakers behind you, Vizio has something called Front Surround Mode. Line all the speakers up beside the TV and they create a virtual 5.1 system, which Bowman found to be very convincing, if slightly less immersive. The soundbar can also connect to a smart speaker, so you can control your smart appliances and smarthome via the soundbar or the Vizio remote.

Best soundbar for Roku TV users

Chris Welch, our colleague at the Verge, calls the Roku Speakers “a massive improvement over the awful built-in speakers on Roku TVs, which sound lifeless and frequently make dialogue hard to understand. If you’re tired of that and want to give shows and movies the audio they deserve with minimal fuss, Roku’s option starts to make a lot more sense.” All the audio components connect to each other wirelessly for a simple setup process and no need to deal with a wired mess behind your television. Plus, “Music playback is better than I expected it to be, and these speakers are genuinely good at playing a range of styles,” Welch says. “Sometimes soundbars focus on TV and movie audio at the expense of music, but Roku has checked off both.”

Best soundbar for audiophiles