Better TV audio with a soundbar – five things to keep in mind

Dolby Atmos, eARC and rear speakers – are you up to speed on soundbar specs?

A lightning bolt cuts the night sky and lights up the living room for a split second. Moments later, thunder rumbles overhead and you instinctively duck on the sofa. At the same time, you hear quiet footsteps from the floor above and a creaking door, slammed so loudly that it sends shivers down your spine. But wait a minute, there’s no floor above us, you think, sinking deeper into the sofa.

With a decent home cinema system, this is the kind of experience you can expect when watching films and TV series. The sensation of sound coming from above you as you listen to rumbling thunder, splattering rain, creaking doors and buzzing helicopters. The experience is rarely perfect, but you can be whisked away to another reality for the odd moment.

We could recommend a complete home cinema system with a surround sound amplifier, ceiling-mounted speakers and double subwoofers for the optimal audio experience. However, in this article we’re focusing on a smaller and more economical solution – a soundbar – for those who aren’t looking for a full-blown home cinema.

Here we list five things you ought to keep in mind when choosing a soundbar.

Dolby Atmos / DTS:X support

If you watch a lot of films and TV series, you need a soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. There are two so-called object-based audio formats that enable your soundbar to play sounds at different volumes, depending on the type of sound and its source in the picture. This gives you a sense of both distance and height, enhancing your TV viewing experience.

Soundbars that support Dolby Atmos and DTS:X have upfiring speakers, that is, speakers which are tilted upwards to enable sounds to be bounced off the ceiling. This lends a sense of height, so that sounds coming from above in the film also seem to do so when you’re sitting on your sofa. The technology isn’t perfect, and it can’t compare with actual ceiling-mounted speakers, but the models which yours truly has tested exceeded expectations.

Soundbars are marked with different number combinations, such as 2.0, 2.1, 5.1 and 7.1.4. These indicate how many speaker drivers the system encompasses.

  • First digit: Indicates the number of audio channels supported 

    2 = stereo sound

    3 = stereo sound + centre speaker for dialogue

    5 = surround sound with left, right, centre and two rear speakers
7 = surround sound with left, right, centre, two rear speakers and extended rear audio channels
  • Second digit: Indicates whether subwoofers are included and, if so, how many
  • Third digit: Indicates how many upfiring speakers are included

Subwoofer and rear speakers

A soundbar alone offers better audio quality than your TV speakers, but without a subwoofer you miss out on the wonderful sensory experience of explosions, thunder and the like. A subwoofer takes care of the bass and produces a muffled, rumbling sound that enhances the experience.

Most soundbars on the market use what is known as virtual surround sound. Instead of using physical rear speakers, they simulate the effect of sound coming from behind. For this to work well, your soundbar must be correctly positioned in the room so that the sound can bounce off the walls.

A better choice in terms of the audio experience is to choose a soundbar with physical speakers that are placed behind or to the sides of you. Only a few soundbars come with rear speakers, and equally few support aftermarket rear speakers. Be sure to check before you buy.

Soundbars with subwoofer and rear speakers

Stream music over Wi-Fi

Soundbars are not as good at playing music as “real” home cinema systems with larger speakers. The speaker drivers in a soundbar are simply too small to seriously compete with larger, more refined systems. That said, you shouldn’t disregard the opportunity to play music through a decent soundbar.

A soundbar is still better than your TV speakers, and if you have limited space, a soundbar can comprise the primary sound system in your home, even for music. And the easiest way to stream music is either over Wi-Fi from your mobile phone, computer or tablet, or directly from a music streaming service, provided your soundbar supports this.

Some soundbars can be connected to a larger multiroom system, enabling you to expand your setup with more speakers for an even richer experience. These include models from Sonos, HEOS, Yamaha MusicCast and Apple Airplay 2.

Soundbars with Wi-Fi connectivity

Number of HDMI ports

How many devices do you want to connect to your soundbar with HDMI? These can include a laptop, a game console, a media player or a Chromecast. Many soundbars have just one or two HDMI connectors, which limits how many devices you can hook up at the same time.

If you have a TV that supports eARC, choosing a soundbar that also supports eARC is a partial solution. You can then use your TV’s HDMI ports to connect your devices and route the audio to your soundbar with HDMI.

Another option is to use an HDMI switch. This is an addon device with several HDMI inputs that you can switch between depending on which device you want to use. Not all HDMI switches support 4K resolution and HDR – be sure to check before buying to make sure the switch meets your needs.

eARC support is future proof

A soundbar that supports eARC via HDMI can play high-definition audio from your TV. This allows you to use the apps in your smart TV to watch films without compromising the audio quality.

For eARC to work properly, it must be supported by both your soundbar and your TV. At present, there are relatively few models on the market that use eARC, so be sure to check if this is important to you.

One important point to consider is that many TVs and soundbars support its predecessor, ARC, which is notably inferior. So, don’t be fooled by specifications that include ARC. The newer eARC standard offers considerably better functionality and support for higher audio quality.