Roundup: Six Soundbars Put to the Test

A Satisfying Substitute for Real Home Theater Sound?

I’ll assume that you, as a Sound & Vision reader, would prefer a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system to a soundbar. But I’ll also assume that you don’t have 5.1 or 7.1 in every room of your home. Or in your vacation home, or your parents’ home, or your kids’ rooms. For these situations, even the cognoscenti—that means you—might be tempted by the convenience and low cost of a soundbar. Still, though, you’re probably not going to risk your status as an audiophile by buying one of those bottom-of-the-barrel, $150 cheapies at Costco.

A lot of audio manufacturers have a customer just like you in mind. They’ve introduced a bunch of soundbars in the $400 to $600 range, products that combine the simplicity of mass-market stuff with at least a smidgen of the sound quality of a real surround sound system. They’re not just for movies and TV, either. Most of the newer soundbars include Bluetooth wireless capability, so you can stream tunes stored on your smartphone, tablet, or computer, or play Pandora, Spotify, or Internet radio stations.

But can a soundbar really deliver satisfying sound? I’ve heard most of the lower-end models the big-box stores sell, and while a few are surprisingly good, I wouldn’t want any of them as my daily driver. However, I discovered there were quite a few new mid-line models I hadn’t heard. So I rounded up review samples from JBL, LG, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio, each one of them in the 2.1 (soundbar plus wireless subwoofer) configuration. Then I spent several nights watching movies and listening to music on the different soundbars, trying their various sound modes and inputs and getting used to their remote controls.

I then invited regular Sound & Vision listening panelists Geoff Morrison and Lauren Dragan over for a brief listen. I followed that with CEA-2010 output measurements on all of the subwoofers (available at our Website), then sent them all over to Mark Peterson for frequency response measurements.

So is there a 2.1 soundbar that can please the audio cognoscenti? Let’s find out.

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