Budget Bars: Soundbars from Vizio, Samsung, LG, and Harman Kardon

TVs are lonely. A beer-soaked barstool at 2 a.m. kind of lonely. They cry out for companionship, their tinny, bass-less voices difficult to hear, even harder to enjoy. When they were young, they held so much promise: high definition, good times, low cost. How quickly came the onset of disappointment?

A search, a hope, a late-night call for help. Four suitors — less "Diamonds and Gold" and more "Small Change" — sauntered in: the Valley vixen, Harman Kardon’s Soundbar 30; two Seoul singers, LG’s NB3520A and Samsung’s HW-E550; and Vizio’s VHT215, glossy black from head to toe and fluent in Mandarin.

The tip jar at the bar may not hold quite enough, but enough is all you will need to hold: Just a few hundred dollars is what you’ll pay for this play. In tow with each soundbar: a faithful wireless subwoofer to nip at the heels and bring bass to the table where none was before. Half the bars are HDMI-friendly, and all of them come with remotes for you to dial in your choice of 11 p.m. loud or 4 a.m. loud.

But now it’s a quarter to three, there’s no one in the place, ’cept you and me. Let’s find one for your baby, and three more for the road.

Measurement Notes

To test the performance of the soundbars, I first did frequency response measurements on both the soundbars and subwoofers. Then I did CEA-2010 output measurements on the subwoofers.

Soundbar response measurements were done on the left channels only, with all surround, EQ, and volume management modes deactivated. I placed the bars atop a 2-meter stand and placed the microphone at a distance of 2 meters, enough to incorporate the contributions of all the drivers and diffraction from the front baffles of the soundbars. I averaged responses at 0°, ±10°, ±20°, and ±30°, then smoothed the result to 1/12th octave. These measurements were good down to 300 Hz. I then did ground-plane measurements (smoothed to 1/3rd octave) of the soundbars to get their <300 Hz response, then spliced the ground plane to the quasi-anechoic response to get the curves you see here. All subwoofer frequency response measurements were done using 1/3rd-octave-smoothed ground plane sweeps at 2 meters. I used a Clio FW analyzer in MLS mode for the quasi-anechoic measurements and log chirp mode for the low-frequency measurements.

I measured the Samsung HW-E550 in both configurations: soundbar (horizontal) and stereo speaker (vertical).

CEA-2010 measurements were done at 2 meters, then scaled up +6 dB to simulate results at 1 meter as required by CEA-2010. Averages were performed in pascals, according to the new but as-yet-published revisions to CEA-2010. An “L” appears next to those measurements in which the device reached maximum volume without passing the CEA-2010 distortion thresholds. With most subwoofers, this indicates the presence of a limiter that actively restricts maximum output, but with low-cost products like these soundbars it may simply reflect the manufacturer’s chosen maximum output level. — Brent Butterworth