Soundbars vs. Home Theater Speakers: One Is Obviously Better
I am about to say two words that please some, make others angry, and reflect a feeling that has long been considered a fact in the deeper realms of the home theater community.
Before half of the aisle grabs their pitchforks – and the other lifts a glass – let me put this divisive statement into context. On its own, there is nothing wrong with the soundbar by nature. They’re an instant improvement over the poor sound quality of standard TVs, and most have a streamlined simplicity that allows almost anyone to use them.
However, pair any soundbar with a comparatively expensive, traditional home theater setup – in other words, a wired configuration of home theater speakers and a dedicated subwoofer with an A / V receiver to power them – and reveal the obvious shortcomings of these bar-based systems which unravels the entire mystique of the product.
In my time at Digital Trends and in all of my years of personal experience with home theater equipment, I haven’t found a soundbar that could make me rethink my system. Here’s why.
la carte, no one size fits all
My first foray into the world of home theater was through Craigslist, where I found a bargain for a five-speaker set from Polk Audio’s RTI series. An old-school Denon AVR 3805 receiver and a coil of speaker cable later went to the races.
Then I added a retro M&K subwoofer and another pair of Polk bookshelf speakers to bring my surround setup to 7.1. But I wanted more, so I bought a Klipsch SW115 to add more bass, then a vintage pair of Infinity Compositions Overture 3 speakers to replace my front left and right polks, then a new Marantz receiver, then a new front sound stage courtesy of Polk The LSIM series of audio, then … well you get the point.
Building a traditional home theater system offers the ultimate opportunity for customization. You can expand your setup however your budget allows, with the option of starting small with a stereo 2.0 setup or adding a center channel and subwoofer for a 3.1. Over time, nothing prevents you from expanding your system, updating it, and fine-tuning it to your taste.
In comparison, soundbars are more of a one-stop shop. There are exceptions, of course – Sonos products let you add wireless rear speakers or a subwoofer to your Sonos Beam or Sonos Arc, though you’re limited to keeping things within the Sonos family, which forces you to, by the rules from Sonos to play. But with most sound bars, what you get is what you get. If you later want more low-end or a little more clarity in your sound, you can buy a completely new system. Lucky you!
There are many people, perhaps most of them, who have no problem with a one-and-one solution. And that’s fine. But for anyone who has a choice of swapping parts to improve their system over time without completely redesigning the entire setup itself, stay away from the modern soundbar.
Timeless vs. time bomb
When it came time to take my Denon receiver out of service, I didn’t because it was no longer functional. Far from it – it has become the heart of a system I built for my parents, and it does a commendable job on a product that is well over a decade old.
The motivation for the change of recipient was to correspond to the modern times. I wanted a receiver that could support 4K video pass-through and Dolby Atmos audio, as well as other conveniences like Bluetooth and wireless music streaming. So I found a receiver within my budget (a Marantz SR5012), swapped out my Denon, and that was it.
I didn’t have to replace any other audio component.
Home theater speakers like mine are a longevity lover’s dream. As long as I take care of them, I may never have to replace them. The Infinity Overture 3 speakers mentioned earlier were some of the more musical speakers I’ve ever heard, and they’re essentially as old as me.
As A / V technology moves faster and faster, like a marathon runner finding his second wind, I just need to make sure that part of the puzzle is up to date to stay tuned. This is not the case with sound bars. If you bought yourself a premium soundbar about three years ago, but the idea of Dolby Atmos intrigued you, congratulations! You are buying a whole new system to enjoy the latest technology.
Firmware updates are one thing, of course. But in these modern times, when every single component in the chain of operations has to work in unison to achieve the audio and video formats you want, the chances are that new software just won’t make it.
An incomparable sound stage
Bill Roberson / Digital Trends
There are numerous reasons why the wiki for the r / hometheater subreddit literally starts out by explaining why you shouldn’t buy a soundbar. The main reason for this could be the discrepancy in sound between a soundbar system and a similarly expensive home theater setup.
I could sit down and tell you traditional home theaters sound better until the cows come home. The fact is, the sound is subjective, and it is conceivable that someone might prefer the audio quality of a good wand-based setup. Instead, let’s break down the physicality of each type of setup.
The ideal theater ensemble has a front sound stage with separate speakers for displaying the left, center and right channels. The left and right speakers should be the same distance from the center speaker and slightly aligned with the center of the listening room. Depending on how many pairs of surround speakers you are working with, these should ideally be placed at ear level to the side or in the rear area of the seating area. The subwoofer should be placed in the best possible location in the room to reproduce low frequencies, which can be determined thanks to a simple trick called sub crawl.
Done right, this setup can create a truly immersive environment that brings everything from Marvel movies to episodes of Family Guy to life in incredible detail. The goal of the soundbar, on the other hand, is to achieve the same effect with miniature-sized components. Maybe that wasn’t the goal originally (and maybe it still isn’t for some), but it doesn’t matter with brands that offer top-notch soundbar systems. At this premium price point, these bars can be expected to produce the same sound at a price usually reserved for higher-end home theater speakers. The marketing for these top notch soundbars reflects this, which exacerbates the problem.
Physically, there is a legitimate problem with meeting that expectation. The bar itself houses the left, center, and right channels and leaves little space for real separation between the channels. In addition, each driver in these soundbar chambers is typically smaller than drivers in a home theater speaker, which puts the bars at a disadvantage when it comes to producing full, resonant sound. Too often the result is unfulfilled sound coming from a room under your television, as opposed to the sprawling soundstage that embodies a true home theater.
So it makes sense that, as good as the premium bars like the LG SN11RG or the Samsung HW-Q90R sound (and they sound great too), they still have a serious physical disadvantage when it comes to playing home theater sound. I bet that a properly assembled system – let’s say the SVS prime 5.1 system paired with a powerful A / V receiver like the Denon AVR-S950H – will sound significantly better and be available at a lower price than any of these soundbars. Hell, depending on which of these two soundbars you go for, there would be a few dollars left to add some ceiling speakers or height channels to the setup that would allow Dolby Atmos playback. This would almost certainly have a better effect than the upward facing drivers in soundbars, which rely on reflecting frequencies from the ceiling and back towards the listener.
A couple of concessions
Nick Woodard / Digital Trends
By now, I’ve no doubt pissed off some perfectly happy soundbar owners. That is understandable. I wasn’t exactly friendly to the bars, but they’re not all bad. Honestly, there are areas where the modern soundbar excels and other times when it is the better option.
For starters, soundbars are no doubt easy. They’re easier to set up, use, and customize. There’s no speaker cord to meticulously hide in the corners of your room, and no extensive list of settings to go through during initial setup like most A / V receivers do. Plus, with most soundbars these days, it’s not difficult to turn up the bass, muffle the treble, or toggle between preset sound settings to find the sound that’s right for you. I think most A / V owners can agree with me that while it offers far more ways to customize the sound, it tends to be a lot more complicated to fine-tune than with a soundbar.
Aesthetically, soundbars can also be an attractive option. Aside from speaker cords running around the room, home theater setups can include bulky subwoofer enclosures and tall, towering floorstanding speakers. Soundbars are undoubtedly more reserved, and the best of the group can blend in with the environment they’re in. This is an important factor for the minimalists of the world.
Finally, there are some rooms where traditional theater audio setups like the one I’ve described just don’t make sense. I wouldn’t put a full speaker system in a bedroom, nor would I try to hide cables in an oddly shaped living room. Home theaters will always get the better of me, but I can understand that some people just can’t stand the headache of hiding cables but still want the sound to be improved.
Hopefully I didn’t give the impression that all soundbars sound bad because that’s just not true. LG and Samsung’s flagship bars offer immersive fun, and Vizio offers a great cross-section of value and sound with its selection of bars. I haven’t heard the Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar, but I’ve heard from others that it’s great. And judging by Sennheiser’s track record, I bet it is.
It doesn’t change the fact that I’m still waiting to hear a bar cross the threshold and make me rethink every word I’ve just written. I think products like Klipsch’s The Fives are on the right track as they offer a unique blend of home theater components and soundbar simplicity, and competitors following in those footsteps might have the answer I’m looking for.
Ultimately, this is my challenge to the many great audio companies out there: Develop a product that combines the best of both worlds and wins the hearts of staunch traditionalists in the home theater, while remaining accessible to those who indulge in the ease of soundbars. Do something that hits that sweet spot. Do something that gives me a compelling reason to sell my beloved A / V equipment and to enthusiastically join the ranks of soundbar believers.
I dare you.