When we sit down to watch a movie, we want the sound to be perfect. Clear dialogues, spot on special effects, rumbling bass. But the reality is often far from it. Most of us have flat-screen TVs which although do a good job video quality wise, have fairly average audio. The reason for this is the speakers inside the TV. Flat-screen TVs have limited space. They cannot house large woofers and tweeters. Most have thin low-power speakers with tinny sound that can barely match up with the 4K HD video on screen.
To counter this, you can add a speaker or a soundbar to your TV. This will significantly improve your TV’s sound. The new speakers take over the TV’s built-in speakers and replace the TV sound with robust speaker sound. This ensures every aspect of the soundtrack is accurately reproduced so that the cinematic experience is enhanced.
Speaker vs Soundbar – How To Choose?
Let us now try and understand how speakers and soundbars work.
Here are the topics covered in this article:
- Speaker system and its applications
- Soundbar and its applications
- Pros and cons of a speaker system
- Pros and cons of a soundbar
- Features to look for in a sound system
- Feature to look for in a soundbar
Speaker System and Its Applications
A dual speaker system has two stereo speakers and an AV receiver. More advanced systems include subwoofers and surround sound speakers. They can be 2.0, 2.1, 3.1, 5.1, 7.1, 9.2 and so on in configuration. The first digit signifies the number of speakers and the second digit signifies the number of subwoofers. Some high-end systems may have configurations like 5.2.2. Here 5 means five speakers, the first 2 means two subs and the second 2 means two Dolby Atmos add-on speakers that sit atop the floor-standing speakers.
The receiver drives the speakers. It feeds them with power and input signal. It sits below the TV while the speakers are placed in strategic locations around the room. The receiver is the hub of all the inputs and outputs. The inputs bring in the input signal from the source gadgets like cable TV box, media player, etc. The outputs carry out the amplified signal to the speakers and the TV. The receiver needs a power connection too. For this you will need to plug it into a wall power outlet or better yet, a power protection device. Some speaker systems may not have a receiver if the speakers are self-powered.
The two speakers in dual sound systems are responsible for the left and right channel sounds. The left hand side sounds are produced by the left speaker and the right hand side sounds are produced by the right speaker. This provides true stereo separation and imaging. It gives sound a sense of direction and makes the movie experience more realistic. As the number of speakers increase, the spaciousness of sound increases. With multiple speakers aimed at the listening position, you get immersive surround sound with localized sound effects. This transforms your movie watching experience and makes it more enjoyable.
Sophisticated sound systems have a dedicated centre speaker, one or more subwoofers, multiple surround sound and ceiling (in-ceiling) speakers. The centre speaker produces most of the dialogues of a movie. The surround sound speakers generate much of the ambient sounds of the track and stretch the sound stage. The ceiling speakers create overhead effects. The subwoofer takes care of bass frequencies.
Bookshelf speakers are the commonest type of speakers. Other varieties include tower (floor-standing), on-stand, wall-mounted, in-wall and ceiling speakers. Most speakers have Dolby Digital surround sound processing. Premium models have Dolby Atmos and DTS:X capability.
Dolby Atmos speakers can either be ceiling speakers or upward-firing. The former are in-ceiling speakers i.e. they are installed in a cut-out in the ceiling. The latter are of two kinds: integrated units that also include traditional forward-firing speakers, and add-on modules comprising of only the upward-firing speakers. The second type sits atop the floor-standing surround sound speakers that you normally see beside/behind the listening area.
For a speaker system to work well, you need to maintain line of sight with the speakers from the couch. If you can’t see the speakers it means sound is getting obstructed. Avoid shoving them in corners. Keep tweeters at ear height. Do not place the receiver in a cramped space. Allow sufficient room for ventilation. If the device becomes too hot, it might shut down.
Speakers can be wired or wireless. Wired systems sound good, wireless systems look good. The former has better sound due to uninterrupted signal transmission via speaker cables. There are no drops and blanks in the sound. Wireless systems offer a clutter-free setup. They are easy to maintain, move and re-position. Both types of systems, however, need electricity, and for that you will need to connect them to power outlets.
Speaker systems are perfect for flat-panel TVs. You can watch movies, stream music and play video games. You can stream songs via Bluetooth from your smart phone using Spotify and Pandora. If the system is compatible with Wi-Fi, you can wirelessly stream songs from the internet, enjoy multi-room music and play high-resolution media files from your home desktop. But platform compatibility varies from device to device. You might want to check with the vendor before buying.
Soundbar and Its Applications
A soundbar is a compact all-in-one sound system. It consists of tweeters, midrange drivers and woofers lined up neatly inside a single slender cabinet. It has built-in amplifiers and crossovers. Some soundbars include a subwoofer for extra bass. The sub can be wired or wireless. It can be powered through a wall power socket or be battery-operated.
The basic idea behind a soundbar is to provide a space-optimized sound solution. Soundbars typically have a small footprint. They are slim long gadgets that sit pertly under the TV. They are shaped like bars with grilled panels and back-lit buttons.
A soundbar combines the left, right and centre channel speakers in one place i.e. the soundbar cabinet. If there are surround sound speakers like side-firing or upward-firing speakers, they are also housed in the same cabinet. Soundbars can be classified according to their number of channels. They are available in 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, 9.1 and so on setup. The first digit indicates the number of speakers inside the bar enclosure and the second digit indicates the number of subwoofers. Some high-end soundbars have the ability to add separate satellite speakers for additional surround sound. Such a bar might have a configuration like 7.1.2. Here 7 means seven speakers inside the soundbar, 1 means one subwoofer and 2 means two surround sound satellite speakers that can be added to the system to expand the sound field. Sometimes the satellite speakers are included in the original soundbar package, sometimes they are optional and you can purchase them on the side.
Soundbars are built to match your TV’s screen size (diagonal). There are also curved soundbars to go with curved-panel Ultra HD TVs. To understand fully which soundbar size would best suit your TV, we suggest you speak with your dealer and also read the product specs.
The best place for a soundbar is just beneath the TV. You can place it on the same table as the TV. Or you can mount it to a wall if the TV is similarly mounted. Just make sure to leave enough space between the top edge of the bar and the bottom edge of the TV so that no sound is deflected.
Some soundbars are called soundbases. These are special devices that act as pedestals for the TV, i.e. the TV sits on them. They are broader and studier than regular soundbars as they have to carry the weight of the TV.
Some soundbars are hybrids. They come with a pair of satellite speakers for surround sound.
Soundbars can be active or passive. We would strongly advise you go for an active model. Active soundbars are self-sufficient gadgets. They can power themselves and do not need an AV receiver or an external amplifier. Passive soundbars, on the other hand, need an AV receiver. They lack built-in amplification and depend on the receiver for its power supply. This means added hassle, wiring and costs.
Like speakers, most soundbars have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. So it throws open a lot possibilities in terms of what you can access and play through the soundbar.
Nowadays, almost all brands offer Dolby Digital sound formats in their soundbars. For a few extra bucks, you can also get Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Soundbars that have Dolby Atmos, have upward-firing speakers built into the bar. These speakers project sound towards the ceiling from where it reflects back to the listener creating an overhead effect.
The subwoofer accompanying the soundbar is best placed on the floor. Since bass frequencies are not very directional you can place the sub anywhere you want. Just take care to avoid corners as it can make the bass too boomy.
Now that we have discussed the essential features and applications of a speaker system and a soundbar, let us move on to the pros and cons these gadgets. Hopefully it will help you figure out whether you need a soundbar or a speaker system. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Hence, it is important that you understand all the aspects in full. Here we go.
Pros and Cons of a Speaker System
The biggest benefit of a speaker system is sound quality. Since even an entry-level system has at least two speakers, you get a wider soundstage with more volume. You can place one speaker on either side of the TV. Have them face the listener so that the sound directly comes at them. As you increase the number of speakers, the sound arena widens. A surround sound effect is created. With multiple surround speaker aimed at the listening position, some even from the ceiling, the listening experience is greatly elevated. You hear all the details, every nuance is nicely brought out. High notes are sweet, midrange is balanced and bass is deep.
The sound quality is also better because the work is distributed. Each speaker performs a specific task. The centre channel speaker takes the load of the dialogues and vocals, the front speakers produce the bulk of the musical score and special sound effects, the surround sound speakers provide ambient details and spaciousness, and the subwoofer adds bass and depth.
If you buy a 5.1 or 7.1 home theatre system, chances are the receiver has advanced object-based software like DTS:X and Dolby Atmos. These further enhance your cinematic and gaming experience with localized sound details. Note that both the receiver and the speakers have to support the software for it to work. So, for instance, if you are adding new Atmos speakers to your existing home theatre system, it will only work if your home theatre also supports the software.
Another benefit of speakers is flexibility. A speaker system can easily be upgraded in future. If you feel like throwing in a pair of extra speakers or a wireless sub, you can totally do that. For example, if you want to add tower speakers, you can easily do that without buying a whole new system. You can also mix and match components by different brands. All your speakers need not be from the same brand. As long as they are compatible, it will work.
For large rooms speakers are best. If space is not an issue and you have the budget for it, we would any day advice you to opt for a speaker system. For rooms bigger than 150 square feet, a 2.1 speaker system is great. For 200+ square feet rooms, a 5.1 system is more suitable. However, room acoustics also play a role in sound quality and we think you should analyze your space well before deciding on what to buy.
The main drawback of a speaker system is its cost. A 2.1 speaker system can set you back by $300. A 5.1 channel surround sound system can cost you upwards of $500. You can find cheaper varieties too, but we are not sure how good they’ll sound. Among budget 2.1 systems, the Logitech Z623 is quite a steal. It is priced at $120 and has good ratings too. In affordable 5.1 surround sound systems, the Yamaha YHT-4950U, available at $423, deserves mention. You can also check out the Pioneer SP-PK52FS which comes for $500.
The other drawback of speakers is that they occupy more space. You will need space for a receiver and at least two speakers. As the number of components increase, so will the space needed to install them.
Plus, there will be more wiring. So you can expect a degree of clutter. Maintenance will be more as you will have to periodically dust or vacuum the area to clear out the accumulated dirt.
The installation can be a tad complicated. A simple stereo system has pretty DIY installation. But larger, more complex systems with multiple devices may require professional assistance. You will need to gauge the best spots for speaker placement and the best speaker height for optimal sound. For this, you might need an expert’s help.
Pros and Cons of a Soundbar
The biggest advantage of a soundbar is that it’s affordable. It costs less than a speaker system of the same range. You can get a pretty decent bar and sub combo for less than $200. For instance the Vizio SB3621, a 36-inch 2.1 soundbar with a wireless subwoofer, costs just $130. It really takes the cake when it comes to budget soundbars. It is one of the highest selling soundbars on Amazon. The JBL Bar 2.1 Home Theatre Starter System, a soundbar and wireless sub duo, is available for $170. The Yamaha Audio YAS-209, a slightly more expensive model comprising of a 37-inch bar, a wireless sub and advanced features like DTS:X, HDMI and Alexa voice control, is priced between $300-350. So, there are a ton of options. We would say try and stick to reliable legacy brands. Apart from the ones mentioned above, you can also check out Sony, Polk Audio, Bose and Klipsch. Do not fall for overtly cheap products. Read the reviews carefully and check the specs.
A soundbar has a compact design. It needs very little space which means it is ideal for small rooms and apartments. You can place it under the TV either on a flat surface like a table or mount it to a wall. Take care not to block the IR remote sensor on the TV. The subwoofer can be tucked under a table. But be sure it doesn’t block the sound waves.
If you have a small room, it is better to go for a soundbar. Cramming a home theatre system into a small space makes no sense. The sound will be too overwhelming and it will ruin your movie. If the total area of your room is 150 square feet or less, a soundbar will serve you better.
A soundbar has less number of devices and, therefore, is easy to set up. It doesn’t require an awful lot of wiring. It has a simple plug-and-play functionality which makes it easy to get started. In most cases, users are able to do it themselves.
Since number of components is less, a soundbar is easy to maintain. You don’t have too many surfaces to dust and corners to vacuum. There aren’t too many cables running along the edges of the floor gathering dirt and pet hair. In short, with a soundbar you can expect your room to be neater and less cluttered.
Another benefit of a soundbar is that it is self-contained. It does not need a receiver to run it, unless it is a passive soundbar. Most soundbars today are active and you don’t have to worry about powering it externally.
Advanced soundbars have surround sound capability. This means there are upward-firing speakers inside the soundbar can generate overhead effect by bouncing sound off the ceiling. The effect might not be as pronounced as a real 5.1 or 7.1 home theatre system, but it is still good given the low price of the device.
A soundbar is not very flexible when it comes to future upgrades. You may not be able to expand the system as you wish. There might be certain limitations to the number of gadgets you can add and the power handling capacities of these components. For instance, you may not be able to add more powerful speakers if your soundbar does not have the capacity to handle the load. You may also find it difficult to add surround sound speakers if the original soundbar is not compatible with surround sound software like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
A soundbar is not exceptional at generating surround sound effect. It does a pretty good job, don’t get us wrong, but it’s not the same as a full-blown home theatre system with multiple speakers. After all, for true surround sound you do need your speakers to physically surround you, at least to some extent, so that sound reaches your ears from different directions, creating the surround sound effect. This is where the soundbar, in our opinion, falls short since all its speakers (except the subwoofer) are housed inside the bar. The difference between a bar and a speaker becomes stark as the rooms get larger.
A soundbar does not have true stereo separation and imaging. Since the centre, left and right channels are placed side by side in the same cabinet, the left and right channels appear to come from the same spot.
Spending more on an expensive soundbar does not necessarily guarantee superior sound. The bar might be longer, but it must still match the TV screen in size. You don’t want a bar that’s way too large for your TV. That will not only look odd, but the audio and video quality will be mismatched.
What to Look For in a Sound System
HDMI Inputs and Outputs
Select a speaker system with HDMI capability. It simplifies connectivity. An HDMI cable transmits both audio and video signals. Therefore, there will be less wiring. We would suggest you buy a system that has more number of HDMI inputs and outputs than you need at the moment. This will future proof your system and leave you free to expand the setup. For instance, if you want to build a multi-room music system, the extra HDMI ports will come in handy.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
These two wireless modes of connectivity are absolutely important. Choose a system that has both.
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
Since these are the latest surround sound codecs, it will be a good idea to invest in a system that has these capabilities.
Voice Assistance Integration
If you already have a smart home speaker like Echo Dot or Google Home, it might be wise to buy voice-enabled speakers. You will be able to manage them easily through voice commands. Even if you don’t have a smart home assistant at the moment, you might still want to go for a voice-enabled speaker system so as to facilitate future integration of Alexa or Google Assistant.
What to Look For in a Soundbar
HDMI Inputs and Outputs
A soundbar with HDMI capability simplifies control. It lets you control the bar with the TV remote. All the sound devices connect directly to the TV and TV’s HDMI ARC or optical output connects with the soundbar. The TV acts as a switcher. For the sake of future proofing your bar, look for at least three HDMI inputs and make sure they support 4K and HDR signals, especially if your TV also has 4K capability.
Bluetooth and Wi-fi
As in a speaker system, in a soundbar too, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are necessary if you want to have multiple modes of playing music and movies.
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
If your room is large and you are buying a 7.1 or 9.1 channel soundbar, make sure the bar is compatible with one or both of these surround sound formats. You will get room-filling 3D surround sound. You will also be able to expand your system with extra Atmos-enabled satellite speakers if you want.
Voice Assistance Integration
Like speakers, a soundbar also benefits from voice assistance integration. The arguments put forth for speakers in the previous section also apply to soundbars.
This is not essential but it helps if your soundbar has a front display. Most bars have the display on the top panel. This means you have to stand up or crane your neck every time you use the remote to check if the bar’s sensor has received it. A front display takes care of this problem.