sb 1There are two reasons television soundbars are proving so successful; one; they sound good, two; televisions don’t.

Generally speaking even premium televisions have dreadful sound and it’s because it’s impossible to fit decently-sized speakers into the skinny cabinets televisions are packed into these days. There are a few exceptions, notably Sony’s X90 models ($3499 to $8999) and LG’s larger UB models ($2899 to $12,999), but in most cases television sound is thin, disembodied and shallow.

The interesting thing is that you may be so used to crook sound from your telly that you figure it’s normal. If you’re happy with it read no further. But if you’re finding voices difficult to understand, if dialogue is being drowned out by the action, if music sounds harsh and brittle and if even the most intense action flicks are not exciting anymore, think about better sound.

Lots of people are, and that’s why soundbars are one of the biggest sellers in the audio/visual business. Television manufacturers are aware of this but instead of doing something about the rotten speakers in their televisions they’re making matching soundbars to sell as add-ons. Sony has seven to choose from, Panasonic five, LG six and Samsung five including a curved one to fit its curved screens.

sb2But the best performers still come from the specialist audio brands. Yamaha unveiled the first soundbar back in 2005 (it cost $2500) and has dominated the market since. It now has 13 models including a soundbase, ranging from $249 to $2999. There isn’t a bad one among them.

But before you jump in think about how you want to use one; is it for television only or for music as well? The demands of movies and music are different and it’s only further up the food chain that you start finding soundbars that can do both jobs well.

You don’t really need to spend more than $500 or so if you’re buying for television sound alone; there are even soundbars priced below $100 that sound better than a lot of televisions. But down here they’re aimed at pairing with small televisions in small rooms. They don’t go much louder than conversation.

Bush’s BSB02BT20 may be $89 but it’s surprisingly effective with a small telly in a bedroom. I’ve also been impressed by the Samsung offerings under $500, and particularly by JBL’s $599 SB200.

Lots of soundbars have Bluetooth and near field communication to stream music from phones and tablets and generally this is pretty poor quality music, but if you’re playing CDs through your telly or watching concerts on Blu-ray you’ll note a marked improvement in audio quality further up the price range.

The Sonos PlayBar ($999) is an impressive performer and works happily in non-Sonos households while audio brands JBL, Onkyo, Polk and Pioneer have a major presence in the market. Pioneer’s $549 SBXN700 is a great performer but the subwoofer is quite large (many soundbars come with a separate subwoofer). If that doesn’t suit look at the $449 SBXN500, still with great sound but there’s no sub.

JBL has a long heritage in movie sound and its SB200 and $399 SB100 come without subs while the $999 SB700 has one which is reasonably compact. It sounds terrific.

sb3Soundbases are an alternative to soundbars and they’re gathering popularity. They’re a flat array of speakers designed to have the television placed in top. Bose was first with its $549 Solo and has just introduced the Solo 15 at $629 that, as well as having some minor sonic improvements is also slightly larger and has a greater weight-bearing capacity.

Size and weight-bearing are important; they dictate the size of the television that can be placed on the soundbase. The television’s base needs to fit on it with no overlap anywhere. That original Solo was severely hampered by maxing out at screens of up to 106 cm, while the larger Solo 15 will take screens up to 127 cm and 34 kilograms.

This is where Sony’s bigger $449 HTXT1 becomes attractive, because it takes a bigger television base and, with a 30 kg limit will take some 140 cm models. Denon also has an attractive offering, the $549 DHTT100, which takes up to 27 kg. LG’s delightful LAB54OW SoundPlate ($799) has a built-in Blu-ray player and takes 35 kg.

Prices start at $399 for Bush’s BAS520BT which takes 30 kg, and Panasonic’s SCHTE80, also 30 kg.

Published December 2014