Increasingly popular, soundbars are an excellent alternative to home theater systems composed of an A/V receiver and a speaker pack. Easier to integrate into the living room or bedroom, soundbars are ideal for those who wish to limit the number of cables in their living room. They can then be discreetly installed on the TV cabinet in front of the television, or wall-mounted underneath the TV.
There are countless differnt soundbars, ranging from stereo models, sometimes with the support of a subwoofer, to models capable of simulating spatialized sound or being paired with true wireless surround speakers. To make sure you make the right choice and immerse yourself in the heart of the action scenes in the best possible conditions, here is a comparative guide of the best soundbars of 2021.
Soundbar or home theater?
Although the image of LED, OLED and QLED TVs continues to improve with 4K and 8K Ultra High Definition and HDR display technologies (HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, HLG), the sound is often their Achilles heel. To enjoy a more immersive sound experience, there are many powerful compact home theater systems andhome theater packs, but this sometimes involves installing many speakers in your living room, all connected to the amplifier using long and unsightly cables. A soundbar is therefore the simplest and most aesthetic way to boost the sound of the TV. Placed under or in front of the television, a soundbar is less intrusive and is ideal for providing a better quality soundtrack for your television.
Stereo or multichannel sound?
Many types of soundbars exist, from simple stereo models to those capable of producing true 5.1, 7.1 or even Dolby Atmos and DTS: X sound, which results in a more or less wide spatialization of the soundstage. The simplest soundbars offer stereo sound by integrating at least two full-range drivers. Often more compact and more affordable, these models are intended to provide a few additional watts to the television for a better perception of stereo programs like TV shows and sporting events, for example.
In addition to stereo, some soundbars like the TCL Ray-Danz incorporate an additional driver for the center channel. These are known as 3.0-channel or 3.1-channel soundbars when accompanied by a subwoofer. The addition of this center channel allows the soundbar to reproduce dialogue more effectively, which benefits talk shows as well as movies.
Finally, the most advanced soundbars like the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar increase the number of channels and therefore the number of drivers, which can quickly reach several dozen. This abundance of drivers offers a more immersive and more faithful reproduction of the various effects. These multichannel soundbars are the models to choose to enjoy the most immersive home theater experience and immerse yourself in the action with Netflix movies and series or, better still, movies played on a 4K UHD Blu-ray player.
Yamaha has been the leader in multi-channel soundbars for many years with its YSP (Yamaha Sound Projector) sound projectors. This technology allows it to boast the highest performance Dolby Atmos soundbar on the market, the Yamaha YSP-5600. It has no less than 44 drivers located over the entire front panel and angled very precisely. They are responsible for reproducing the sound beams corresponding to the seven channels of a Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 home theater system (Front Left/Right, Center, Surround Left/Right, front Left/Right Dolby Atmos effects).
Virtual surround sound or dedicated drivers?
There are two main families of surround soundbars on the market: those that produce virtual surround sound and those that are equipped with dedicated drivers for each channel. Soundbars that produce virtual surround sound, through digital signal processing (DSP), are typically 2.1-channel (two stereo channels plus a subwoofer) or 3.1-channel (three-channel LCR plus a subwoofer) models. The front drivers reproduce the soundtrack by applying processing that expands the sound field, horizontally for surround effects and vertically when they are also Dolby Atmos or DTS: X compatible.
With the virtual spatialization of surround sound effects, the result is more or less convincing depending on the technology used and the volume of the listening room. The surround sound effects are less precisely localized than with dedicated surround speakers, but the soundstage still spreads out wide and high enough to offer a more convincing immersion than with a stereo soundbar. However, those who want to enjoy more precisely spatialized surround sound should turn to a soundbar in which each channel has its own driver. These then use the reflection of the room’s walls and ceiling to position the different effects more precisely in the space.
Dolby Atmos and DTS: X soundbars
Dolby Atmos soundbars are the ultimate solution to enjoying the most immersive experience possible. Like with surround effects, some soundbars offer virtualized Atmos effects reproduced by the front drivers. These are called Virtual Dolby Atmos soundbars. An example is the Denon Home 550. However, the most advanced models use dedicated drivers facing the ceiling. They transmit the Dolby Atmos effects which are reflected by the ceiling towards the viewers, using the same principle as the Dolby Atmos speakers used to complete a pack of classic 5.1 or 7.1 home theater speakers. The user is then enveloped in a sound bubble and enjoys 3D sound.
Soundbars with wireless surround speakers
Although the drivers dedicated to Atmos effects often offer very convincing results (provided you do not have a cathedral ceiling), the precision of the surround effects is variable from one room to another. With a very crowded room or a listening position far away from the TV, the surround effects may be less noticeable than with a conventional home theater system. To overcome this problem, more and more manufacturers allow their soundbars to be associated with wireless surround speakers. This is known as wireless home theater. This is the case with Sonos soundbars, which can be associated with any Sonos wireless speaker, such as the Sonos One SL, to reproduce surround effects. Denon soundbars like the Denon Home 550 can also be paired with Heos compatible wireless surround speakers like those in the Denon Home range.
Using a soundbar with wireless surround speakers provides an experience very similar to that of a home theater system, but without the inconvenience of wiring the rear speakers. These can therefore be placed more freely in the listening room, near the sofa. For the majority of wireless surround speakers, however, it is still necessary to connect them to the mains for them to work. If you don’t have an outlet near your sofa, some manufacturers offer battery-powered surround speakers. This is the case of the Philips Fidelio B97 and its very ingenious surround speakers which can be stored and recharged on the ends of the soundbar. It also makes it possible to enjoy an even more discreet system when the soundbar is not in use.
The importance of subwoofers
Despite the “integrated subwoofer” claims made by manufacturers, it is clear that few soundbars offer powerful bass when used alone. The result is far from what you can achieve with a real subwoofer. For the best reproduction with action scenes or video games, it is strongly recommended to opt for a soun bar sold with a subwoofer or to acquire a separate subwoofer. In order to facilitate their integration, most of the subwoofers supplied with the soundbars are of a reasonable size. In addition, almost all of them communicate wirelessly with the soundbar, so they only need a power outlet to operate. Their placement is therefore once again facilitated.
Any soundbar must at least offer an HDMI Arc and/or an optical input so it can be connected to the TV. This allows you to retrieve the soundtrack from the different sources associated with the TV, but also programs played from streaming applications such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+. For Dolby Atmos or DTS: X compatible soundbars, only an eARC HDMI port can retrieve the soundtrack in Dolby Atmos. However, it is also necessary that the TV has an eARC port, otherwise the sound will be limited to 5.1 of HDMI ARC. Finally, some soundbars also offer HDMI inputs to receive audio streams from your sources and transfer the UHD 4K HDR or Dolby Vision image to the television.
Modern soundbars are increasingly connected and versatile. At the very least, this connectivity takes the form of a Bluetooth connection facilitating the distribution of music from a smartphone, tablet or computer. Some models, like Yamaha MusicCast soundbars, also benefit from a WiFi and/or Ethernet network connection with support for numerous streaming protocols and access to online music services. The integration of Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant voice assistants is also increasingly common. These greatly facilitate the control of the soundbar by allowing you to control all the essential functions, simply by asking. Choosing a soundbar with a voice assistant is therefore the best solution for intuitive use.
Some connected soundbars also offer multi-room functions to enjoy music in any room of the house. Some soundbars use proprietary multi-room technology, which means they can only be paired with devices of the same brand. This is the case with Sonos, Yamaha MusicCast and Denon Heos soundbars. However, when these soundbars also integrate Airplay and/or Chromecast protocols, in addition to or instead of proprietary technologies, you can perform multi-room pairing with any other compatible device.
What is the best soundbar of 2021?
Throughout this guide, we have gone over the best 2021 soundbars according to various criteria, such as the number of channels, spatialization technologies and even connectivity. However, it is difficult to award the title of “best soundbar of 2021” to a single model, as it differs according to the preferences, needs or budget of each user. A soundbar for the living room TV will have to meet more stringent requirements than a soundbar for the bedroom TV. There is therefore not one, but a selection of the best soundbars in different categories.
The best 2.1 and 2.0 soundbars
- Sonos Beam: 2.0, Amazon Alexa, HDMI ARC, optical, WiFi, AirPlay 2
- Yamaha YAS-209: 2.1, 200W, DTS Virtual: X, WiFi/Bluetooth, HDMI ARC in/out, optical, wireless subwoofer, Amazon Alexa
- Cabasse Stream Base: 2.1, 4 channels, WiFi, Bluetooth, USB, optical
- Samsung HW-T420: 2.1, 150W, Bluetooth, USB, optical input, wireless subwoofer
- Samsung HW-S41T: 2.0, 100W, Bluetooth, optical input
The best multichannel soundbars
- Sonos Arc: 5.0.2, Dolby Atmos, HDMI ARC, AirPlay 2, WiFi, streaming services, TruePlay calibration
- Samsung HW-Q800T: 3.1.2, 330W, Dolby Atmos/DTS: X, Bluetooth, WiFi, 1 HDMI input (ARC/CEC/4K/HDR), Alexa compatible, wireless subwoofer
- Yamaha YSP-5600: 7.1.2, HDMI 4K, WiFi, AirPlay, Bluetooth, S/PDIF inputs, MusicCast multi-room
- Yamaha MusicCast YSP-2700: 7.1, 107W, HDMI 4K/60p, wireless subwoofer, WiFi/Bluetooth, S/PDIF inputs, multi-room
- Sennheiser Ambeo SoundBar: 5.1.4, 250W, 3x HDMI inputs, 1x HDMI eARC output, 1x Optical input, 1x RCA input, Bluetooth, Chromecast
The best soundbars with wireless surround speakers
- Yamaha MusicCast BAR 40 + MusicCast 20: 4.0, 100W, WiFi/Bluetooth, multi-room, AirPlay 2, HDMI ARC, S/PDIF, wireless surround speakers
- Samsung HW-Q950T: 9.1.4, 546W, Dolby Atmos/DTS:X, Bluetooth, WiFi, 2 in /1 out HDMI eARC, Alexa, subwoofer and surround Atmos wireless
- Sonos Beam 4.1: 4.1, Amazon Alexa, HDMI ARC, optical, WiFi, AirPlay 2, wireless subwoofer and surround speakers
- Philips Fidelio B97: 7.1.2, 450W, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, IMAX Enhanced, DTS Play-Fi, Bluetooth, voice assistants, HDMI eARC, wireless subwoofer, removable satellite speakers
- Sonos Arc 5.1 SL: 5.0.2, Dolby Atmos, HDMI ARC, AirPlay 2, WiFi, streaming services, subwoofer and wireless surround speakers