Featured Product: Sonos Beam | $399 | Amazon
Getting a good image out of a TV is becoming easier and easier. With tech getting cheaper and streaming services introducing more 4K options, there’s really never been a better time to be all about things looking good. However, the place where are a lot of TVs fall down is when it comes to delivering that same quality into your ears. The audio is rarely good enough to handle both dialogue and excellent music, and some TVs can hardly manage either. It’s not all bad news though.
It’s now easier than ever to find one of the best soundbars to help your setup keep up. You don’t have to settle for the muffled and mangled audio your TV provides when you can spend a little bit, or a lot, of money to improve your experience. There are a lot of soundbars out there, and it can be tough to know which one will suit your needs. Thankfully for all of us though, the lovely lot over at Gizmodo know an awful lot about the best soundbars, and they’re happy to share that info around.
Before we get into the picks for the best soundbars themselves, it’s worth talking about the best place to buy soundbars. It’s completely natural to go to Amazon for things like this, because more and more companies go to them first to list their products. There’s also a good chance that what you’re after will eventually come on sale too. Of course, keeping an eye on Best Buy, Newegg, and B&H Photo can always pay off too, as they all tend to try and keep things exciting by doing sales at different times. So if you’re looking to get one of the best soundbars, then the best place to buy a soundbar can change regularly based on whether or not they’re putting a sale on.
Best Cheap TV Soundbar: Vizio 2.0 Soundbar
Buying a soundbar doesn’t have to be a major investment or require any kind of intensive setup process. Vizio’s 2.0-channel soundbar system is a cheap and easy upgrade that should deliver a solid improvement if your TV’s speakers aren’t cutting it. Sure, you won’t get thrilling base or stereo separation here, but at a price under $100, you really can’t complain.
Gizmodo’s Adam Clark Estes summed it up, writing: “There’s a difference between a good deal and a great soundbar. The Vizio 20-inch 2.0 soundbar is only one of those things.” You can also bundle in a subwoofer to fill out the low end if the soundbar itself doesn’t meet your expectations.
Best for Streaming: Roku Smart Soundbar
Some people are a fan of combo stuff, some aren’t. But if you’re a shampoo-and-conditioner-2-in-1 kind of person, check out the Roku Smart Soundbar, which puts a 4K Roku streaming box inside a decently compact soundbar. The soundbar itself is $180, which is pretty great considering a comparable Roku Ultra costs $100 on its own. I’d recommend grabbing it with Roku’s own wireless subwoofer for a fuller sound, though. If you don’t already have a Roku (or are in need of an upgrade), Estes called it a “no-brainer”—and the same goes for the newer Roku Streambar, which is a bit smaller and cheaper. But if you already have a streaming solution, you might be better off with the next soundbar on this list …
Best Budget Surround Sound: Vizio V-Series 5.1 Soundbar
The fact is that Vizio happens to be incredibly good at this soundbar thing. Their products often offer an excellent mix of quality and affordability, so it’s no surprise that they’re also responsible for one of the best inexpensive soundbars. That being said, the Vizio’s V-Series isn’t just a soundbar, because it also comes with a few extra speakers to allow you to create a good surround sound system. It means that you’re getting a little bit more for your money, and it also means that you’re about to have a seriously improved quality of life when it comes to how everything you watch sounds.
Best Small Soundbar: Sonos Beam
If you already have Sonos speakers in your house, the convenience of a Sonos-based TV setup is tough to ignore. The Sonos Beam is a small soundbar that is a bit pricey for its size, but integrates with the rest of your Sonos system (not to mention Alexa), which makes it well worth the cost. Oh, and you can pair your existing Sonos speakers and sub to the Beam for 5.1 surround sound, which is just awesome. It sounds better than its tiny size would suggest: “the soundbar’s biggest advantage is the size of the soundstage,” explained Estes in his Gizmodo review. “Thanks in part to its rounded corners, the Beam actually pumps out audio in three directions ... that sound felt much bigger than a two-foot-wide soundbar ought to, since most soundbars just have speakers on the front.” In other words, Sonos knows what it’s doing.
Best With Atmos: Sony HT-G700
While you can get 5.1 surround sound from a $250 Vizio bar, you do have to contend with extra speakers and cables around your room, which just isn’t tenable for some. Factor in Dolby Atmos soundbars, which often require certain types of ceilings (see below), and surround sound may look unappealing to some folks. Enter Sony’s HT-G700: Not only is it a larger soundbar/subwoofer combo that sounds better than its smaller competitors, but it uses Sony’s best-in-class processing to mimic a more immersive soundstage and Atmos height effects. Gizmodo’s Victoria Song noted that it’s not the same as having true rear and height speakers—which my experience bears out using a similar Sony bar—but it can do wonders given the fact that everything’s coming from one unit on your table. In fact, it’s impressive enough that Gizmodo considers it the best soundbar for most people.
Best Budget Dolby Atmos Soundbar: Vizio M-Series M51a-H6
If you’re hunting for a straightforward surround sound system that supports Dolby Atmos without breaking the bank, Vizio’s M-Series M51a-H6 is a compelling budget-friendly option. At a $350 list price but seen for quite a bit less already, the M51a-H6 gives you a central soundbar with nine built-in speakers, and it’s supported by a pair of satellite speakers and a subwoofer.
Like some Atmos setups, it struggles to deliver the kind of verticality that you expect, and it’s not the most robust or exciting option out there. But it is affordable, and if you don’t want to go nuts on a sound system, it can do the trick. It’s only available at Sam’s Club and Costco as of now, however. As Gizmodo’s Victoria Song wrote:
“To be honest, if I were making a wishlist for someone else to buy me a 5.1 soundbar system with Dolby Atmos, this probably wouldn’t be my No. 1 pick. I’d probably choose something more expensive, with upward-firing speakers. If I were paying with my own money? I’d be plenty happy with this soundbar.”
Best Spatial Sound for Small Rooms: Sonos Arc
Now we get to the big boys. If you like the idea of Sonos (as described above) and Dolby Atmos height effects (as I’ve written about plenty of times here at The Inventory), the Sonos Arc is for you. It takes everything great about the Sonos Beam—that is, wireless whole-home audio—and merges it with a larger soundbar with better sound, a slick design, and up-firing Dolby Atmos drivers. Song put it this way: “For someone like me, who doesn’t have any space for an extra subwoofer or satellite speakers, this is probably the easiest, most space-efficient, Atmos-compatible ‘home theater’ I could get.” In other words, it’s a compromise, but a damn good one that most people would be willing to make—and if you do have other Sonos speakers in the house, you can pair them all together for a fuller 5.1.2 Atmos setup.
Best Home Theater Soundbar: Vizio Elevate
Finally, at the top end, we come back to Vizio. While the Sonos Arc provides 3.0.2 sound on its own (or 5.1.2 with a lot of sold-separately add-ons), Vizio has crammed 5.1.4 channels of Atmos goodness into a single $1,000 package with the Elevate. Song called it “a step up” from other Atmos-capable soundbars, and having used its predecessor myself, I can say Vizio provides one of the best home theater experiences you can get in a soundbar package. At $1,000, it’s easily as expensive (if not moreso) than a true Atmos speaker setup, but again: this offers convenience, space savings, and attractive design that a more complex set of gear can’t match. If you’re a renter who can’t put speakers in your ceilings, Vizio’s Elevate is totally the way to go.
This story was originally published by Whitson Gordon on 12/02/2020 and updated by Andrew Hayward with new information on 03/23/2021.