Soundbars: Are They Sonic Solutions?

Perusing your favorite AV site (it’s this one, right?!), browsing real or virtual aisles of an electronics store, or surfing the Web, you’ve undoubtedly run across multiple companies offering to improve your audio by adding a soundbar. With models ranging from sub $100 to over $2,000, it’s a category that has exploded practically overnight.

In a way, soundbars can be likened to nuclear power; used correctly, they can improve your life, but misused can kill everyone in the world several times over. (I don’t have all the science needed to back that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.)

As a custom installer who makes his living designing, selling, and installing home systems, you might be surprised to hear that I am all for the category. In fact, we demonstrate three different soundbars in our showroom and feel they definitely have a place in the industry. And now that manufacturers like Definitive Technology, Polk, MartinLogan, B&W, Paradigm, GoldenEar Technology, and even Krell have gotten into the business, the category has been validated as a performance alternative.

And judging by industry projections (the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association’s—CEDIA—Benchmark Survey), the category isn’t going away anytime soon: Soundbars account for nearly 41 percent of the home theater category revenue and have experienced nearly 100 percent growth, which is expected to continue.

Why to Bar
Have you listened to the audio from a flat-panel HDTV lately? It generally ranges from “worstsounding thing I’ve ever heard!” to “barely acceptable.” During a recent vacation, our condo was outfitted with Vizio flat panels, and even with the volume jacked to max, we still strained to hear and understand movie dialogue. As flat panels become even flatter with bezels measuring fractions of an inch, there’s just nowhere to install speakers. In fact, many TVs now place speakers behind the TV firing directly into the wall, with sound every bit as terrible as you’d think. Couple this with plummeting flat panel TV prices people are buying by the cartload, and you have the perfect storm of terrible sound.

When to Bar
Soundbars are the perfect solution in a variety of instances. For example, I have an amazing, 9.1-channel system in my main room but a MartinLogan soundbar and sub in my bedroom that makes watching TV and movies far more enjoyable for times when I want to chill in bed. With flat panels frequently installed in every room in the home, an accompanying soundbar is a great add-on.

Some people just don’t want to be bothered by the wiring and complexity of a traditional receiver-based surround system. Most soundbars are no more complicated than simply raising and lowering the volume, so for the tech-challenged, a soundbar is a great solution. They are also perfect for the space-challenged as they sit/mount right below the TV, and you’re done.

There are also times when a traditional home theater install just isn’t possible or practical. I’ve run into rooms where retrofitting wire to surround speakers just isn’t realistic. Rooms built on concrete slabs with tile or hardwood flooring; rooms with no attics and ceiling joists running the wrong direction; long rooms with walls of glass or with many breaks in the wall without baseboards or crown molding to conceal the wiring… Sure, there are wireless solutions available, but they have their own issues, requiring power and wiring to the amplifier, thus not being truly wireless.

Finally, from a budget standpoint, soundbars are almost always less expensive, especially in labor/installation cost.

When Not to Bar
Are soundbars right for every situation and installation? No. In fact, hell no. The best soundbar will never be able to replicate the discrete performance of even a basic, true 5.1-channel surround system. At their best, soundbars use acoustic trickery and aural black magic to trick your ears into hearing sounds out to the side of your listening position but can’t put sounds distinctly behind you or surround an entire audience in sound. If you have the budget and are looking to achieve the best performance in your room, then a soundbar shouldn’t be your first choice.

Like anything, soundbars aren’t the right call for every situation, but they certainly have their role. For custom integrators and users alike, they provide another tool in the arsenal to provide entertainment solutions for a variety of situations and provide a terrific performance add-on to flat panel installs.