Can a Soundbar Produce a Convincing 5.1 Music Presentation?

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Q The rock group Genesis and several other bands have released albums in 5.1 surround. Is it true there’s no way to listen to these recordings without losing detail when using a soundbar for playback? Or would you have to use an actual five-speaker surround sound system? —Robert Hadley Jr. / via e-mail

A Not necessarily. You could get a good 5.1 music experience with a soundbar, but it would have to be a very good soundbar—one capable of reproducing the discrete 5.1 channels in the recording and providing a convincing spatial representation of the surround channels via digital signal processing (DSP).

Two examples of this soundbar type that Sound & Vision has reviewed recently include the Focal Dimension and Yamaha YSP-5600. The Focal provides five separately powered full-range drivers—one for each channel—plus a subwoofer output. Surround virtualization is achieved via DSP “shaping” of the left -right surround channels by the Dimension, which we found in our review to provide an authentic sense of envelopment with 5.1-encoded material.

The Yamaha takes a somewhat different approach. Using an array of 32 small drivers, it conveys surround information by bouncing sound beams off the walls of your room. The reflected sound is precisely steered and time-aligned to deliver a sense of coming from speakers located at other points in the room, and it works with 5.1-, 7.1-, and even Dolby Atmos–encoded content.

The only issue with the Yamaha and Focal is cost: At $1,600 and $1,700, both lie at the upper end of the soundbar price range. You could use a less pricey 2.1- or even a passive 5.1-channel soundbar to play 5.1 music, but you will likely, as you suggest, end up losing detail.