Soundbar VS Surround Sound – Complete Guide
Although most televisions come with decent audio systems, many a time it may not be enough. The sound quality may be lacking in certain aspects. Projection, clarity and feel may need enhancing. For this you have two options. You can either add a good soundbar to amp up your TV’s audio system or go for a surround sound speaker system. The soundbar vs surround sound system debate is an old one. Several factors influence the choice of sound devices for your home/office. In the following sections, we will learn the basics of soundbar and surround sound technology. We will also try and understand the surround bar vs surround sound argument. We will evaluate which device is better in what kind of setting, and why. In short, we will help you make up your mind regarding what to go for, soundbar or surround sound speakers.
A soundbar is a one-piece long slender bar consisting of several speakers placed side by side. It is often accompanied by a separate subwoofer for extra bass. A soundbar is a great way to boost the sound quality of your TV’s in-built speakers. It comes with adjustable sound modes capable of producing distinct dialogues and vocals. Some soundbars can also produce virtual surround sound wherein sound is reflected from walls and ceilings to create the illusion of surround sound.
A typical surround sound speaker system is a 5.1 home theater system with multiple speakers that can be placed in different corners of a room for optimum acoustics. It delivers room-filling cinema-like surround sound that is projected towards the viewer from every direction. Action-packed movies with advanced special effects are best enjoyed with a surround sound system. Intelligibility is greatly improved and even the faintest sounds come out louder and clearer. A surround sound system generally comes with an AV receiver, 5 speakers and one subwoofer.
Soundbar vs surround sound system – How is a soundbar different from a surround sound system ?
The soundbar vs surround sound system is a long-drawn tug-of-war with no real winner. Fundamentally, a soundbar and a surround sound system are the same- they are both audio devices used to boost the sound produced by television speakers. But there are a few differences. To begin with, a soundbar is compact and takes up very little space whereas a surround sound system consists of several speakers and needs more space. If space is an issue, soundbar is a clear winner in the soundbar vs home theater tussle. A soundbar can be placed anywhere – on a flat surface in front of or under the TV. It can also be mounted on a wall. Placement of the various units of a surround sound system in a room needs to be properly planned so that it can create stunning acoustics. Soundbars do not have too many wires and hence, are clutter-free. Surround sound systems may entail a few wires. Although there are Bluetooth enabled wireless surround sound systems, to get truly awesome and uninterrupted surround sound, you will need a wired connection between your TV and the speakers of the surround system. Soundbars have a minimalist look and are unobtrusive in design. They preserve the aesthetics of a room. A surround sound system can make a regular room look like the inside of a cinema hall or theater. It can completely alter the look and layout of a room and greatly enhance the decor. A soundbar can deliver crystal-clear dialogues and vocals. So they are ideal for watching dramas and comedies. Surround sound systems are excellent at producing special sound effects. So they are perfect for movies with a lot of action, animation and adventure. Installing a soundbar is fairly simple, but installing a surround sound system can be complicated. The layout and size of a room also matters. If the room is spacious and open, without any distinct corners and the walls are far away from the TV, a soundbar is the best option. It can make the TV sound louder and clearer. A soundbar also works best in smaller compact rooms measuring 12 feet by 13 feet, or less. On the other hand, if the room is medium or large sized and has defined corners where the speaker units can be placed, a surround sound system with a receiver and 5.1 channel speakers is preferable. A soundbar cannot produce surround sound but can create an illusion of surround sound by reflecting sound waves off walls and ceilings. This is called virtual surround sound and most soundbars have this feature. Price wise, soundbars are more affordable than home theater systems. Depending on how sophisticated they are, soundbars can cost anywhere between $70 to $2000, or more, whereas prices of surround sound systems start at $400 and can go up to a staggering $50,000, or more.
Soundbar vs surround sound – characteristics and features :
In the following paragraphs we will discuss the difference in physical design, sound quality and pricing of soundbars and surround sound systems.
Physical design of soundbar :
Soundbars, as we have already discussed, are slim and slender bars within which a row of speakers and amplifiers are laid out. It is like a long cabinet that contains the built-in speakers and amplifiers. A soundbar is a single device shaped like an elongated box. It generally has an understated and minimalistic design. Some soundbars have an aluminum or steel body with a solid grille covering the front panel. Some soundbars have a plastic body and cloth grille. Most soundbars come with a separate compact subwoofer for deeper bass. It is mostly wireless but a few models have wired subwoofers. Soundbars have in-built Bluetooth. Most also have Wi-Fi connectivity. You can easily stream your favorite shows and music from other Bluetooth enabled devices like smart phones, laptops, etc. There are three variants in soundbars. One is the common single-unit soundbar that houses two or more speakers and amplifiers. This is the standard variety in soundbars. It can be placed in front of the TV or mounted on a wall. The second type is the pedestal soundbar. It is shaped like a flat rectangular box and acts as a platform on which the TV rests. This kind of soundbar is specially engineered to take the weight of the TV. It is also called sound base, sound stand, sound plate or speaker base. It contains both speakers and amplifiers and sometimes may also come fitted with a subwoofer. The third kind is a hybrid between a traditional soundbar and a surround sound system. It comprises of a soundbar and two rear speakers for surround sound. The soundbar can be placed on a table or mounted on a wall and the speakers can be placed on either side of the listening/viewing position. Soundbars come with inputs for feeding in audio signals from devices like your television, Blu-ray discs, set-top box, gaming console, etc. Soundbars come in varying lengths. It is important to select a soundbar that compliments the size of your flat-screen TV. The following chart can help you in picking up the right soundbar.
Note: Televisions are measured diagonally. Therefore, soundbar length does not correspond directly to the size of your TV’s screen. Also, it is not compulsory for a soundbar to match the width of the TV, even if they are both from the same brand. We recommend looking up the manufacturer’s manual and finding out the actual width and length of the products before purchasing them.
|Length of soundbar in inches||TV screen size|
|38 inch to 45 inch||42 inch to 50 inch|
|50 inch||55 inch to 60 inch|
|60 inch||70 inch|
Pedestal style soundbars are less popular but still sold in the market. Their demand has fallen primarily because most flat screen TV brands, for safety reasons, have done away with the centralized stand and replaced it with dual feet at either end of the screen. Also, pedestal style sound bases lack a solid bass support as they do not have a separate subwoofer like other conventional soundbars.
Physical design of surround sound system :
A surround sound system is a home theater system that has multiple units. A typical 5.1 channel speaker system will have one AV receiver, five speakers and one subwoofer. The 5 in 5.1 indicates the number of speakers. There are three front speakers, one to the right of the TV, one to the left and one in the centre in front of the TV or above it. There are two other speakers that are placed behind the viewing area or couch facing the TV, one on the left and the other on the right. These two speakers provide rear surround sound. The 1 in 5.1 refers to the number of subwoofers. Most surround sound systems come with a 5.1 set-up. But other configurations are also available with variants as compact as 2.1 and as expansive as 9.2. Placement of the speakers and the subwoofer around the room needs to be well-planned to create an optimum surround sound experience. A surround speaker system makes in a living room is a statement. It is testimony to how much the owner of the system appreciates good entertainment. A home theater system requires wires to deliver uninterrupted surround sound. It may seem a little messy but it is required. You can use Bluetooth speakers but authentic room-filling sound can only be generated with the help of wires. The installation process of a home theater system may also be a tad complicated as it involves multiple devices.
Sound quality of soundbar :
A soundbar greatly enhances your TV’s sound. It makes it louder and more distinct. Dialogues are crystal clear and bass is deep. You can rest assured you will not miss a single word of the shows and movies you watch. Soundbars are perfect for small and medium spaces. It produces booming sound that is projected towards the couch where the listener is seated. Soundbars have virtual surround sound. This technology mimics actual surround sound by bouncing sound waves off walls and ceiling to give the impression of sound coming from different directions. In other words, soundbars simulate surround sound. However, they cannot offer an authentic surround sound experience. They can only create an illusion of surround sound through virtual surround sound processing. Hybrid soundbars with extra rear speakers manage to produce a somewhat surround sound effect but of course it does not compare with the real deal. The sweet spot in soundbars is generally static and cannot be moved around. Sound from the device is projected to a central position in front of the TV and that is where the sound is best experienced.
Sound quality of surround sound system :
Home theater systems produce impactful head-spinning surround sound. Every sound is crisper and clearer. The five speakers deliver every detail in high definition. The crack of a whip, the boom of gunfire, the roar of a lion, the rustle of dry leaves underfoot, the sound of a helicopter circling overhead – every sound is delivered with accurate spatial imaging. The audio quality feels so real that it transports the viewer/listener to the scene being played out on the screen. Every sound emanates from the direction in which the action is taking place on the screen. For example, if a car zooms past from left to right on the TV screen, the sound produced by the home theater system also moves from left to right, in sync with the action on screen. If a bird flies overhead, the sound of its wings flapping will also come from above. These are some of the nuances you can expect from a surround speaker system. In addition, the dynamic range of sound becomes wider, words and vocals are more intelligible and bass effect is more powerful. Home theater systems are therefore ideal for watching action-packed movies and shows which have plenty of special effects and animation. The high definition front (left, right and center) speakers are designed for pinpoint imaging and spacious distribution of sound in the front. A home theater system has more tweeters, drivers and woofers than a soundbar and therefore can easily fill a room with all-encompassing and reverberating sound. The entire 5.1 channel speaker system is capable of maintaining pinpoint accuracy of sound placement across the sound spectrum. The sweet spot(s) in surround sound systems can be moved around the room. You can adjust the placement and angling of the speakers to channel sound towards any viewing/listening position you like.
Pricing of soundbar :
Soundbars are generally cheaper than home theater systems. In the soundbar vs home theater debate, soundbar is a clear winner in terms of affordability. They can cost anywhere between $70 to $2000, or more. However, be sure to check out the specifications in the manufacturer’s manual. A soundbar may be large and expensive. But that does not imply its sound quality will also be great. Sometimes, a low or medium cost soundbar is sufficient to create realistic audio. It largely depends on the layout and size of your room. So do not judge a device solely based on its price. Take into account other factors too like space and TV size before buying a soundbar.
Pricing of surround sound system :
Surround speaker systems are more expensive than soundbars. They can cost anywhere between $400 and $50,000, or more. Some low-cost home theater system cost the same as medium price soundbars. Before investing in a device, it is important to understand your sound requirement and the layout of the room or space where the TV is located. The number of speakers will depend on the corners and angles in the room. Therefore, it is imperative that you read the specifications carefully before purchasing.
Soundbar vs surround sound – Which is preferable in what kind of setting ?
In the debate between soundbar vs surround sound, we often neglect to take into account the setting of the place. The size and layout of the room, the placement of furniture in it, the distance of the walls and ceiling from the TV and the audio system – all these factors influence the final sound delivered by the device. The acoustics of a room directly impact the movement and dispersion of sound around the room. Soundbars work best in small and medium-sized rooms. They are good for compact spaces where the walls are not too far away from the TV and soundbar. Soundbars project sound to a central area in front of the TV. The sweet spot cannot be moved much. Therefore, if you are simply looking to enhance your TV sound and if your room is small to medium sized, a standard soundbar is enough to give you better audio. Soundbars are also ideal for large and spacious rooms which do not have defined corners or which have high or asymmetrical corners. Soundbars cannot generate real surround sound. They can only mimic it. They use virtual surround sound processing technology to simulate surround sound by reflecting sound off walls and ceilings to give an impression of surround sound. Virtual surround sound is certainly an improvement over regular TV audio, but it still doesn’t compare with a full-range 5.1 channel surround speaker system. So whether it is a soundbar or surround sound speakers, the layout of a room and the arrangement of furniture and other objects in the room directly impact the sound experience. Also, if you want to mount your device on a wall, a soundbar is the best option. It hardly has any wires and can easily be set-up.
A surround sound system on the other hand is perfect for large rooms with well-defined corners. The speakers and subwoofer can be strategically placed in these corners to create convincing and resonating surround sound. Volume wise also a surround sound system is powerful enough to create loud feel-the-sound-in-your-bones audio. But if the walls of the room are far away from the TV and the layout of the room is also oblong without any clear corners, then a home theater system may not be the ideal choice. For a surround speaker system to function effectively, the layout of the room must support it acoustically. A surround speaker system will also need more space, making it the right choice for larger rooms. In other words, if you are looking to amp up the audio quality of your TV speakers and your room is spacious and has well-defined corners, a home theater system is what you need.
Soundbar vs surround sound – Top 5 soundbars and top 5 surround sound systems :
Top 5 soundbars :
Vizio SB3621 :
The Vizio SB3621 is one of the best ultra-budget soundbars under $200. The Vizio SB3621 has Bluetooth and Dolby Digital and DTS decoding. It is accompanied by a wireless subwoofer. The soundbar is 36 inches wide and has a brushed finish with a cloth grille covering the front and top panels. There are controls for power, volume, Bluetooth and input selection. It has one coaxial and one optical input, one USB and one 3.5mm analog port.
Samsung HW-K950 :
The Samsung HW-K950 is one of the most advanced soundbars currently available in the market. It boasts Dolby Atmos Home Theatre which generates moving audio that can be precisely projected on a spot in a three dimensional space. It has 5.1.4 channels and 500W power. The HW-K950 is fitted with 15 separately-amplified speakers including 4 upward-firing drivers for a full-range home theatre experience. It also has a wireless subwoofer and two rear speakers for truly magical surround sound. It has Bluetooth and can be controlled through the Samsung mobile app. The HW-K950 is a high end soundbar and costs around $1300. In the surround bar vs surround sound conundrum, the Samsung HW-K950 wins hands down as a powerful soundbar which is very comparable to a standard home theater system in both performance and design.
Yamaha YAS 207 :
The Yamaha YAS 207 is one of the best mid-range soundbars. It is priced at around $300. It supports Dolby and DTS soundtracks. It also features Dolby Virtual X which is a virtual surround sound mode for stereo systems. The YAS 207 comes with a wireless subwoofer for deeper bass. The soundbar has a faux leather plastic top and a fabric grille. The front panel has touch sensitive controls. It has Bluetooth, a 4K-compatible HDMI in and out jacks, an optical port, a 3.5mm analog port and a USB port.
Polk MagniFi Mini :
The Polk MagniFi Mini is an ultra-compact 13 inch wide soundbar. It is affordably priced under $300. It is accompanied by a wireless subwoofer. It has 5.1 Dolby Digital decoding and Voice Adjust technology. It is built with Polk’s signature virtual surround sound technology. The soundbar has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and is compatible with Google Cast. It has 3 sound modes: Movie, music and sports. It also has a Night Mode. The MagniFi Mini has an optical input, an Ethernet port, HDMI ARC input, 3.5mm Analog mini-jack AUX input and USB input.
Sony HT NT5 :
The Sony HT NT5 is a stylish 2.1 soundbar for television under the $1000 mark. Design and feature-wise this soundbar wins full points. It houses a pair of 2 3/8 inch drivers and two sets of silk dome tweeters. The soundbar can be mounted vertically or horizontally on a wall. The drivers and tweeters are so arranged that they face the listener/viewer from all angles, no matter the placement. The Sony HT NT5 supports high resolution audio with 4K passthrough (HDCP2.2 and HDR) and is compatible with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It comes with a wireless subwoofer. It has Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC and is multi-room compatible. It has 3 HDMI inputs, one USB input, one HDMI ARC jack and analog and digital optical ports. You can also enjoy high resolution audio playback via USB (supports DSD and 24 bit/192kHz high bit rate audio codecs). It supports Google Home and Google Cast.
Top 5 surround sound systems :
Klipsch 5.1 RP-280 :
The Klipsch 5.1 RP-280 is the front runner among home theater systems. It is the top model in the Klipsch Reference Premiere Series of surround sound speaker systems. It features two RP-280 front floor-standing speakers, one RP-450 center channel speaker, two RP-250 side speakers and one R-115 subwoofer. The Klipsch 5.1 RP-280 has Linear Travel Suspension Titanium Tweeters which keeps distortions in check and improves depth and detail. The soundbar is fitted with dual spun copper cerametallic cone woofers. It also has 90×90 new-age Hybrid Tractrix Horns that use a combination of a square horn mouth and a round horn throat to optimize high-frequency response and extension and improve imaging accuracy and audio dynamics. The soundbar is built with compressed rubber to improve high-frequency damping to eliminate harshness and make sound more detailed and crisp. The Klipsch 5.1 RP-280 has flexible detachable grilles and the MFD cabinets have a beautiful brushed polymer veneer baffle finish. All in all, the Klipsch 5.1 RP-280 is a premium home theatre system that produces awe-inspiring realistic and room-filling surround sound.
Yamaha 5.1 channel Surround Sound Multimedia Home Theater Speaker System :
The Yamaha 5.1 channel home theater speaker system is the best budget surround sound system. It includes one central speaker, four satellite surround speakers and one 100W subwoofer for deeper bass. It has a frequency response of 28Hz to 50kHz and creates an immersive and reverberating surround audio experience. The Yamaha 5.1 ch home theater system is equipped with Advanced Yamaha Active Stereo Technology which maintains optimum sound pressure and reduces impedance so that the speakers have an improved linear motion. The entire system is magnetically shielded and can be wall mounted. The units have removable cloth grilles that lend the system a smart understated look.
Onkyo SKS HT540 :
The Onkyo SKS HT540 is a 7.1 channel home theater system that scores high on performance as well as affordability. At under $400, it is quite a steal. It includes centre, front and surround speakers that reflect bass two-ways (two-way acoustic suspension) and have a total power output of 130W. The front and centre speakers are fitted with dual 5 inch woofers with Onkyo Micro Fibre (OMF) Diaphragm technology. Cotton cones are also incorporated to get accurate and fast response. The system includes a powerful bass reflex-powered subwoofer that has an output of 230W and includes a 10 inch cone driver. It creates earth-shaking bass impact, taking your movie viewing experience to another level. The Onkyo SKS HT540 is slightly bulkier than other surround sound systems of its range and category. But it is capable of producing stunningly clear dialogues and convincing special sound effects. Its highs and mids are distinct and bass cover is impressive.
Fluance SXHTB BK :
The Fluance SXHTB BK is an excellent 5.0 channel budget home theater system under $400. It includes 5 surround sound speakers. The tower speakers have two-way and three-way drivers. It has a full-size centre channel speaker and two powerful wall-mountable surround sound speakers for creating room-filling sound. The Fluance SXHTB BK however lacks a subwoofer. But the tower and the surround speakers generate enough bass to make up for the absent subwoofer. The entire speaker system has MDF wood construction with stylish brass pins and black ash finish. The towers are 38.8 inches tall and weigh 33.4 lbs each. The Fluance SXHTB BK produces rich vocals and lows and great midrange. The floor-standing speakers have dual 6.5 inch woofers that are designed for optimal low frequency response. The Fluance SXHTB BK supports Dolby Surround and Dolby DTS soundtracks.
Q Acoustics 3000 Series 5.1 Cinema Pack :
The Q Acoustics 3000 is one of the best performing mid-price home theater systems. Priced at around $700, it is an excellent addition to your home audio system. In the soundbar vs surround sound system debate, this home theater system gets full points as a high-performing sound booster for your TV. The system has two pairs of 3010 standmounters, a 3090C centre speaker and a 3070S subwoofer. It comes in two finishes: Matte Graphite and American Walnut. It also has a gloss white version which is a real head-turner. The standmounters and centre speakers have a 2-in-1 concentric ring dome tweeter. It uses both conventional dome tweeter and ring radiator technology for superior surround sound. The Q Acoustics 3000 generates spell-binding detail and dialogue clarity. The resulting surround sound is spacious, loud and deeply reverberating, making your home entertainment enjoyable like never before.
To check budget soundbar for your TV, check this list. For Top Soundbar for Your Television do check this list. If you are looking for complete flexibility in your soundbar then, you can choose from a premium passive soundbar to boost your home theater system.