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Chances are, if you have an ultra-slim 4K TV, you may find yourself a tad disappointed. Not by the picture – which is likely better than any TV you’ve ever owned before – but by the very poor sound quality. This is hardly surprising given the slimness of all modern TVs.
Since your new TV is about 4cm in depth, what possible chance has it of producing audio with any semblance of presence, depth or bottom-end grunt? In many cases it’s even difficult to hear dialogue properly because the actors’ voices sound like they’re bouncing off the wall behind the TV instead projecting to the front.
Thankfully, a sound bar fixes this issue in a trice and for not too much extra outlay. A sound bar is a long, slim speaker module that sits under or in front of any standard flatscreen TV. Depending on the length – usually about 10cm shorter than the width of a 49-inch TV – a typical sound bar has between three and five small speakers with two of the speakers placed towards the end of the unit for spacial effect.
Connecting a sound bar
Sound bars can be connected to a TV using two main methods: HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) and optical cable. HDMI ARC was created to reduce the amount of cabling to and from a TV and, in most instances, it works straight out of the box without the need to delve into the TV’s settings menu.
However HDMI ARC cables are much thicker and therefore less supple than our preferred method, optical cable, which does the job just as well despite the need for some tweaking in the TV’s settings menu.
If your TV and sound bar supports HDMI eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel), then perhaps use that method because the sound quality is invariably a little better and, more importantly, it supports a range of high-end audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos and DTS-HD.
That being said, the extra sound improvement that eARC provides is more suitable for a fully-fledged home theatre system with surround-sound speakers than a budget- to mid-priced sound bar, so don’t feel you’re losing out a lot by using optical cable instead.
Should I go for a Bluetooth option?
Some sound bars can also be connected via Bluetooth but this isn’t advised because there’s a very good chance the actors’ lips won’t sync perfectly with the audio and that would defeat the whole point of having a sound bar in the first place, especially since the bar is right underneath the TV well within cable reach. That said, sound bars equipped with Bluetooth can easily be used for music streaming from a mobile device.
JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass
Key specs – Dimensions: W96.5 x H5.8 x D8.5cm; Separate subwoofer: Yes; Surround sound: No
For the keen price, the JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass impresses in every department. First and foremost, it’s an absolute doddle to set up – simply connect it via the provided optical cable or HDMI eARC cord (not included) and the wireless subwoofer automatically syncs to the bar.
What impressed most about this sound bar is the crisp, perfectly equalised sound it projects coupled with the simplicity of its remote interface. There are no specialised ‘surround’, ‘music’ or ‘dialogue’ buttons on the remote here because they’re not really required.
All you need to know is that this is one of the best models at reproducing dialogue – actors’ voices have the rich, deep presence of a close-mic’d radio DJ and jump straight out at you, even when whispered.
The JBL’s wireless subwoofer is a mini monster that provides timber shivering bass in three increments. Medium is best for most TV programmes, but if you want the room to explode during a movie’s action sequences, then set it to maximum for deep rumbling bass that you can feel in the chest.
We love the simplicity of this system – easy to set up, easy to control and it has arguably the best audio frequency distribution of any other model on this page.
Creative Stage V2
Key specs – Dimensions: W68 x H7.8 x D10cm; Separate subwoofer: Yes; Surround sound: Yes
The Creative Stage V2 is proof positive that you don’t have to spend a fortune on improving the sound of a flatscreen TV. A smidge under £100 buys you a short, stocky sound bar (67.5cm in length) and a slim, wired subwoofer that kicks out some serious chest-pounding bass.
Mind, the sound bar itself is quite tall (7.8cm) so it may not fit directly under some TVs. Nevertheless, like most sound bars it can also easily be mounted to a wall.
The Stage V2 can be connected via either HDMI ARC or optical but you will need to buy the cables yourself, along with a pair of AAA batteries for the remote control. Its Bluetooth function is also handy for streaming music from a mobile device.
For the price, this writer was very impressed with this model’s sound quality. Granted, it didn’t go quite as loud as other models here but then again the volume we tested it at was plenty loud enough. The Stage V2 was particularly adept at reproducing dialogue which is an area where some sound bars struggle.
Furthermore, the addition of a ‘dialogue’ button on the remote boosts the frequencies of voices even further without affecting the rest of the soundstage too much.
Polk Signa S3
Key specs – Dimensions: W89.8 x H5.6 x D8.3cm; Separate subwoofer: Yes; Surround sound: No
This is arguably the best looking system in this roundup – its sleek grey cloth covered tweeter bar sits perfectly under even the lowest of TVs while its slim, similarly handsome subwoofer kicks out oodles of rumbling bass while being remarkably discrete in stature. Granted, the remote control feels cheap and flimsy in the hand and the jury’s out on the dialogue specific buttons that tend to make voices sound a bit shrill and harsh, but in the main this is a superb sound bar package that delivers a punchy, polite sound that is very easy on the ears, whether it’s watching a news channel or a full-blown action movie.
Aside from dialogue selection, the remote also includes a volume control for the subwoofer. There are seven levels of bass available – from almost non existent to over the top – but we would advise setting it somewhere in the middle for a more naturalistic bass response. We would also suggest using ‘Movie’ mode as the main setting for the full surround sound effect.
If you’re after a very decent sound bar and subwoofer package that blends in seamlessly with the TV and its surroundings then look no further than this cracking contender.
Key specs – Dimensions: W98 x H6.4 x D10.8cm; Separate subwoofer: Yes; Surround sound: Yes
This model comes with a 98cm bar and a slim, wireless subwoofer for extra punch. The bar itself is excellent at reproducing speech but you will need to have the subwoofer’s volume ramped up to at least midway or voices may sound a bit thin.
Despite being a bit cluttered, the remote control provides a few clever preset sound profiles – ‘Cinema’, ’Music’, ‘Voice’ and ’Auto Sound’ – plus, for those who have connected the system via HDMI eARC, an ingenious function called ‘Immersive AE’. In this mode, the HT-G700 makes full use of Dolby Atmos, immersing the viewer with sound from both sides as well as the front. If you don’t have the space for a full surround system with speakers both fore and aft, then this model might just fulfil your needs.
Another handy thing about this model is that the main volume increases in tiny, almost indiscernible increments – perfect for those who want to continue watching TV while others have gone to bed.
If you’re in the market for a sound bar package that produces a really wide soundstage with plenty of low-end rumble, then give this model a whirl.
Key specs – Dimensions: W65.1 x H6.8 x D10cm; Separate subwoofer: No; Surround sound: No
In the market for a small, discreet sound bar that also provides instant access to AirPlay 2 and a host of audio streaming sites? That’ll be the Sonos Beam. Available in black or white, the Beam connects via HDMI ARC so you can use the existing TV remote to adjust volume. However, to get the most out of its features requires using the Sonos app, which isn’t as practical as a separate remote control.
This model excels at speech reproduction so if you have trouble hearing what actors are saying then this is the sound bar for you. However, the lack of a subwoofer means that
some explosive movie moments can sound somewhat subdued (if you have an extra £699 knocking about, this writer would recommend adding the Sonos Sub for extra bottom end clout).
Being of Sonos origin, the Beam also provides instant wi-fi access to your favourite streaming services and even Sonos’s own radio station, Sonos Radio HD. For those with an existing home network of Sonos speakers, it also allows you to extend the TV sound to other rooms.
The Beam is well worth the outlay if you’re looking for a neat and tidy sound bar that creates an immersive sound from a single unit. However, the lack of a subwoofer does impact on the overall result, especially when watching action movies.