Top Picks Soundbars and Home Theater in a Box

Soundbars: Passive LCR
A passive LCR soundbar accepts the left, center, and right channel signals from an A/V receiver, with the intent of replacing the separate front three speakers of a typical theater system with a convenient, single-cabinet speaker positioned directly below or sometimes above the display. Sometimes they contain technology to artificially widen the soundstage to create an illusion of spaciousness or surround sound. Soundbars usually benefit from or require an additional subwoofer to reproduce low frequencies.
Goldenear SuperCinema 3D Array System: $2,000
We reviewed the 3-channel SuperCinema 3D Array ($999) with a matching powered subwoofer and a pair of surround satellites to fill out a $2,000 system. A true breakthrough product, it uses an advanced design to cancel crosstalk between the left and right channel to vastly improve imaging over conventional soundbars and provide an unusually spacious soundfield that borders on providing virtual surround channels even without satellites. Reviewer Darryl Wilkinson called it “a stunningly ear-catching accomplishment that redefines the very notion of what an LCR soundbar can achieve.” (December 2012, see HomeTheater.com for review.)
Quad L-ite: $2,350
This LCR soundbar with matching remote-controlled sub and a pair of small satellite speakers to be used for wired surround channels comes from respected speaker-maker Quad. It delivered the goods in spades, said reviewer Mark Fleischmann, who noted that these “are great products no matter where you move the goalposts,” but “by the minimal standards of soundbar products, they are champions. Even judged by the same standards as any other speaker type, they deliver the audio fundamentals with panache.” (August 2010, Read Full Review)
Phase Technology Teatro PC-3.0 System: $2,400
For our review, we mated the Teatro PC-3.0 ($1,200) with matching Phase Technology satellite speakers for surround duties and an 8-inch subwoofer for a full system price of $2,400. Reviewer Mark Fleischmann was impressed, noting the soundbar’s spacious imaging and vocal clarity. “It impressed me that the Teatro can produce a front soundstage as refined, intelligible, and just plain great-sounding as any other bar out there, and it even competes effectively with high-quality conventional speaker packages in that respect,” he said, adding “this is one bar a guy could like walking into.” (May 2009 Read Full Review)
PSB Imagine W3 On-Wall Soundbar System: $3,046
The Imagine W3 system is no ordinary soundbar. Apart from being a four-piece system—with a wall-mountable soundbar, two on-wall surround speakers, and a subwoofer—you need an A/V receiver for power and surround processing and it costs about 10 times more than a typical soundbar. But it is money well spent for a low-profile, on-wall speaker setup that sounds amazing. Wrote reviewer Darryl Wilkinson, “When the system is installed and fired up, there’s something just short of miraculous that occurs…There’s an intangible, impossible-to-measure seamless whole created…and it’s what makes the W3/W1/SubSeries 200 theater speaker package such a standout.” (HomeTheater.com, Read Full Review)
Soundbars: Passive Multichannel
A passive multichannel soundbar accepts signals from all five of an A/V receiver’s main channels, and includes drivers and/or technology to create “virtual” surround sound. Most soundbars benefit from an additional subwoofer to reproduce low frequencies.
Definitive Technology Mythos SSA-50: $1,099
Eight of the 12 drivers in this soundbar directly reproduce the five channels of a typical surround system, with the rest dedicated to cancelling aural crosstalk to enhance the soundstage and spatial effects. Reviewing it with the 8-inch ProSub 800 subwoofer, Darryl Wilkinson noted that “this is by far the best-sounding single-cabinet system I’ve heard to date, not only when it comes to watching action-packed Hollywood multichannel blockbusters, but also with more intimate two-channel music.” Since our review in 2008, DefTech has also introduced a slimmer version, the Mythos XTR-SSA5 ($999). (August 2008, Read Full Review)
Atlantic Technology FS-7.0 Soundbar/SB-800 Subwoofer: $1,100
The first 7-channel soundbar mated with an 8-inch subwoofer, both elements of this system were recently upgraded to the FS-7.1 ($950) and SB-900 ($350) and are scheduled for review; check back at HomeTheater.com. With the original system, reviewer Mark Fleischmann noted that “When you take into account the system’s surround and music performance, its simplicity and ability to automatically adapt to any AVR from two to seven channels, and its reasonable price, the FS-7.0 is an outstanding value in a soundbar speaker.” (Feb 2010, Read Full Review)
Soundbars: Active LCR/LR
An active LCR soundbar is an all-in-one, single-cabinet speaker that includes signal processing, amplification, and drivers for the left, right, and center channels of a home theater system. A variation is the active LR system, wherein the dedicated center channel drivers are omitted. Sometimes these systems contain technology to artificially widen the soundstage to create an illusion of spaciousness or surround sound, though it’s generally understood that the end goal with such a system is to simply provide a more robust two-channel stereo alternative to a TV’s built-in speakers. Soundbars usually benefit from or require an additional subwoofer to reproduce low frequencies, and a sub is often included active soundbar systems.
Vizio S4221w-C4: $249
The S4221w-C4 delivers enormous bang for the buck and is one of the best soundbars you can buy for $249, offering performance that matched or beat four other systems reviewed in a roundup of five 2.1 soundbars. “We can’t think of any soundbar that’s a safer recommendation than the S4221w-C4,” wrote reviewer Brent Butterworth. “It has a big, enveloping, yet natural sound, it plays loud, it has a nice feature set, and it’s priced really, really low. What more can you ask?” (December 2013, Read Full Review)
Vizio S5430w-C2: $300
Vizio does it again, this time with a simple, three-channel soundbar that delivers an impressive soundstage and satisfying home theater experience at a price that’s hard to believe. Summing up his impressions, reviewer Steve Guttenberg wrote: “For a $300, one-piece, subwooferless soundbar system, the S5430w-C2 is as good as it gets. And that’s not meant as a knock. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d have to spend far more to get any soundbar that performs as well as this one does.” (SoundandVision.com, Read Full Review)
Pioneer SP-SB23W: $399
Pioneer caused quite a stir when it introduced the SP-BS41-LR speaker system a couple years ago. Reviewers were stunned by the performance it delivered for $528 but they shouldn’t have been: The system was designed by Andrew Jones, the same guy who designed the $78,000/pair TAD Reference One. Here Jones brings his mojo to the soundbar. Reviewer Brent Butterworth wrote: “I loved the clean voice reproduction in music and movies; to me, it sounded more like a good desktop audio system than like a soundbar…Audiophiles who value clarity and natural reproduction will love the SP-SB23W.” (December 2013, Read Full Review)
ZVOX 580: $400
This all-in-one platform-like speaker system is sold online at zvox.com, and can support a stand-mounted television of up to 70-inches or be placed in a shelf below the TV. Thanks to its larger cabinet size (for a subwoofer) and the inclusion of two woofer drivers it provides rich, full sound without the need for a separate powered subwoofer, and reviewer Lawrence Ullman liked its sonics, easy operation, and ZVOX’s 30-day audition policy, though “Once you hear a 580 and discover how easy it is to use, I seriously doubt you'll ever want to part with it.” (HomeTheater.com, Feb 2012, Read Full Review)
JBL Cinema SB400: $549
In a nod to JBL’s pro pedigree, the SB400’s wireless subwoofer packs a 200-watt amplifier and an 8-inch driver, which is considerably beefier than your typical soundbar sub. The system also excels in terms of connections, offering three HDMI. “Harman’s seemingly simple surround mode delivered exactly what I hoped,” wrote reviewer Brent Butterworth. “It expanded the sound beyond the edges of the soundbar and created a nice, subtle sense of envelopment without introducing artificial-sounding artifacts.” (December 2013, Read Full Review)
Atlantic Technology PB-235 H-PAS Powerbar: $899
Atlantic Technology just introduced its first powered left/right 2-channel soundbar and included its patented H-PAS cabinet design that delivers substantially lower bass out of a small cabinet/small woofer speaker system. Although the cabinet is slightly larger than most soundbars, it provides unusually full sound on music without the need for a separate subwoofer. (January 2013, Read Full Review)
Soundbars: Active Multichannel
An active multichannel soundbar is an all-in-one solution that contains its own processing and includes drivers and/or technology to create “virtual” surround sound. Most soundbars benefit from an additional subwoofer to reproduce low frequencies.
Vizio S4251W-B4 Soundbar System: $330
Ideal for home theater newbies on a budget or enthusiasts looking for an inexpensive and acceptable TV audio solution for a bedroom, the S4251W-B4 is the one of the few soundbar systems that have a wireless subwoofer and discrete surround speakers. The system is easy to set up and even includes all the cables you’ll need to get it up and running. As reviewer Mark Fleishmann concluded: “This system does far more for movies than I’d have expected in a $330 product....And in this time of holiday, its affordability makes a good case for giving the gift of home theater.” (SoundandVision.com, Read Full Review)
Sonos Playbar: $699
The Sonos wireless music system has won accolades since it hit the scene in 2005. With Playbar, the company tackles the tinny sound coming from your TV. Put this slender bar with its nine powered drivers and Dolby Digital processing beneath your TV screen and prepare to be amazed. Setup is easy and you get a huge bonus: the bar doubles as a wireless audio system that streams music from your home network—Pandora, your iTunes library, you name it. If you want deep, pulsating bass you can add the companion Sonos SUB ($699, also a Top Pick). Wanna take the system to its surround sound pinnacle? Put a pair of Play:3 powered speakers ($299 each) in the back of the room and you’ll have an impressive yet seriously simple surround setup. (HomeTheater.com, Read Full Review)
Polk SurroundBar 9000 IHT: $800
The IHT stands for Instant Home Theater, which is what this system delivers in spades. It’s easy to see why reviewer Darryl Wilkinson was impressed when you consider that the soundbar alone has eight speakers, each of which is powered by it’s own 45-watt amplifier. Add to that the 150-watt wireless subwoofer and you have a seriously simple setup that delivers an “exceptionally wide, dynamic soundstage.” Said Wilkinson: “When you add in the overwhelming simplicity…it makes the SB9000 a fantastic bargain for the person who wants his TV watching to be easy on the brain—but awesome for the ears.” (May 2013, Read Full Review)
Definitive Technology SoloCinema Studio: $1,199
The super-svelte SoloCinema soundbar system, which includes a companion wireless subwoofer, produces respectable bass, relaxed but present treble, and plays loud without any of the unnatural midrange or “phasey” colorations you get with a good many other soundbars. With big action movies like Oblivion, there was “just enough bass impact and extension to outline a true cinematic experience,” wrote veteran audio reviewer Daniel Kumin. All in all, the SoloCinema is a fine performer, delivering natural tonal balance and unusually good integration between soundbar and subwoofer. (June 2014, Read Full Review)
Sony HT-ST7: $1,299
The HT-ST7 is far from the cheapest soundbar but if you’re looking for home theater-worthy performance from a simple bar-plus-wireless-subwoofer system that is not only versatile but superbly crafted, it comes closer than most. Audiophiles will appreciate its DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD processing, three HDMI inputs, and HDMI output/Audio Return Channel. Reviewer Mark Fleischmann put it like this: “The soundbar provided its most memorable moments during Netflix binge-viewing of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as the Movie mode deftly juggled apocalyptic space battle scenes with intrigue and comedy on the space station.” Highly recommended. (SoundandVision.com, Read Full Review)
Paradigm Soundscape: $1,500
Paradigm upholds its storied reputation as a top-notch Canadian speaker company with Soundscape, which is aimed at movie fans who want to come as close as possible to a legitimate surround-sound experience without having to go through the hassle of installing a full-blown five-speaker-plus-subwoofer system. Mission accomplished. Seven carefully positioned drivers living inside its slim, rounded cabinet are more than capable of delivering “some genuine home theater wow factor,” in the words of reviewer Daniel Kumin. And you get all that without a separate subwoofer, which makes setup as simple as it gets. (September 2014, Read Full Review)
MartinLogan Motion Vision: $1,500
Few, if any, soundbars can match the sonic finesse of MartinLogan’s Motion Vision, whose sound is largely defined by its trio of Folded Motion tweeters, which excel at conveying nuances in timbre and delivering what reviewer Mark Fleischmann described as “outstandingly clear and communicative sound.” What’s more, dispersion is “world class,” which means you get revealing sound with a warm and gentle midrange no matter where you sit. And the bass? Surprisingly big for a slender 40-inch-wide cabinet—even without the optional wireless subwoofer. (April 2013, Read Full Review)
Yamaha YSP-4300: $1,900
The YSP-4300 is not your average soundbar—not even close. Based on the Sound Projector technology Yamaha has been perfecting for years, the two-piece system is perhaps the most sophisticated soundbar on the market with its 24 drivers, 10 surround modes, built-in calibration routine, adjustable tone and surround sound, 55-button remote, and 80-page manual. If you don’t mind a little complexity and like the idea of being able to tweak the sound in a way that’s simply not possible with other soundbars, the YSP-4300 is one of the best TV sound systems you can buy. (HomeTheater.com, Read Full Review)
Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR: $1,999
Soundbars promise to deliver a full home theater experience with less complication and confusion—and usually at a much lower price—than a traditional system. Problem is, but many fail. Miserably. The svelte SoloCinema with it’s sidekick wireless subwoofer not only rises to the challenge but excels at extending the soundfield to the sides and even behind your head. As reviewer Darryl Wilkinson put it, “I have yet to experience another soundbar that’s capable of creating such a wonderfully enveloping and thoroughly convincing soundfield for movies.” (February/March 2013, Read Full Review)
B&W Panorama 2 Soundbar System: $2,200 ($3,900 with PV1D subwoofer)
The moment you lay eyes on the Panorama 2—the second iteration of B&W’s first soundbar—you know it’s not your typical TV sound enhancer. The curvaceous design screams “special.” Hook up this plug-and-play puppy and lush sound from its nine drivers immediately confirms its elite status. Add the spherical PV1D subwoofer and the sonic picture jumps to another level entirely. Gushing with enthusiasm, reviewer Darryl Wilkinson’s wrote: “It’s the most seamless, most thoroughly impressive active soundbar package…with the most spectacular, utterly believable virtual surround I’ve ever heard.” (HomeTheater.com, Read Full Review)
Niles Cynema Soundfield CSF55A In-Wall Soundbar: $2,547 (including SW8 wireless subwoofer)
The CSF55A is the world’s first soundbar designed to be mounted flush in the wall without having to modify the wall studs. The cleverly designed system comprises three speaker modules, an amplifier module, a power supply, and an optional wireless subwoofer (included in our test). Impressed with the system’s overall performance, reviewer Darryl Wilkinson wrote: “The front soundstage was incredibly wide, and there were times when the faux surround effects were stunningly organic and engaging." If you want a soundbar that “disappears,” the CSF55A is the ticket. (May 2014, Read Full Review)
Worthy of Consideration
Though not Top Picks, these models are worthy of consideration. See our full review for details.
Polk Audio IHT 6000: $500
Soundbar pioneer Polk offers a range of passive and powered multichannel models, and the IHT 6000 provides a modest semblance of surround sound along with an ultra-thin soundbar with a 1.5-inch depth that mates well with today’s thin-screen LED TVs. A compact, wireless powered subwoofer is included and makes set-up easy. Read Full Review)
Home Theater in a Box (HTIB)
Home Theater in a Box systems (HTIBs) are complete home theater systems that are pre-packaged to simplify purchase and eliminate the need to independently research electronics and speakers. At the low-end, these are affordable solutions that include a console with a Blu-ray disc player and all the required amplification to drive five or seven main speakers and a powered subwoofer. You’ll also find boxed systems that include a traditional A/V receiver packaged with a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system.
Worthy of Consideration
Though not Top Picks, these models are worthy of consideration. See our full review for details.
Onkyo HTS-9400THX: $999
Perhaps the only THX-certified home theater box system we’ve seen, the HTS-9400 THX is a full 7.1-channel system that includes a well-featured Onkyo A/V receiver and 7-matched, wired speakers plus a powered subwoofer. It fell a little short sonically on what reviewer Kim Wilson felt was weakness in the speaker package; for it’s original $1,099 price you might do better matching a budget AVR with another manufacturer’s speaker package if you know what to buy. But it was still “highly competent,” and for some purchasers looking for a simple, turnkey purchase, it still provided a level of performance than can’t be had with most HTIBs. Read Full Review)
Denon DHT-1513BA: $600
For this system, Denon mated its bare bones, entry-level AVR-1513 A/V receiver with a 5.1-channel compact speaker package from sister company Boston Acoustics. Despite a bit of thinness in the upper bass region typical of small subwoofer satellite systems, and a lack of clean power endemic to budget AVRs, reviewer Mark Fleischmann found it to be “a very good value” that was “easy to use and suitable for low to moderate volumes in a smallish room…Denon has done a fine job of mating receiver and speakers in this pragmatically designed starter system. It provides basic performance and basic features at a basic price.” Read Full Review)
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COMMENTS
idaman@q.com's picture

I use you guys for buying electronics but I notice that you never do recommendations of these larger sizes that are under $3000.00.There has to be some good units out there and I am not interested in 3-D and could live without smart features if I can get a best picture at a down to earth price.

kathleen's picture

Has anyone heard of - AZON DEAL UPDATER (google it)? They have a little gold box on the site that spits out any discount promo codes for any product on Amazon. Bought my Samsung HT-E6500 lower than the discounted price. Don't think too many people know about this.

Aschinck's picture

Good afternoon guys.
As a worker in the electronic industry i often look at your top pick to see if some of my products would find a place in it. Recently i realize that for a buyer your list is kind of shitty. First most of the model are 2-3-4 years back. Would it be possible to have a top pick of 2014 and then 2015 product so we can keep a fair track?

thank you

Vrahode's picture

There has been a lot of new technology in viewing surfaces in recent years as the prior post stated. Draper, for example, who I work for has released a new line of surfaces called TecVision that out perform many competitor products through wider viewing cones, more consistent gain, lower gloss levels and even superior angular reflectivity. We would love to send samples and allow the folks at Sound and Vision the opportunity for objective comparison of these recent breakthroughs in screen technology.

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