Whether you are dedicated to music as your passion in life or just want the best possible entertainment experience, how you get sound into your living room is an important decision. Sure, you can use the default speakers inside of your television, but that is hardly the best you can do, even if you get a high-end TV. Instead, what you need is something more dedicated, something engineered to make you marvel at what musicians and sound engineers can do in modern entertainment.
Yet what should you pick for your home, and what is there to choose from? While there are tons of models and setups out there, we find that there is one main choice to make at the start. Do you want a surround sound system, or do you want to focus on a sound bar? Both have amazing examples and can produce an excellent experience, but they are not the same and people will differ on which one is right for them.
Here is just about everything you need to know when making your decision:
Something more classic that has been around in one form or another for decades upon decades now, the surround sound system is what you might think of when you first consider a home entertainment experience.
Yet just because they have been around for a while does not mean they are not good for today. Speakers are getting better every year, and that also means that the best speakers of just a few years ago are now the average speakers of today. This means that excellent sound quality is more affordable than you might think. This is the case with all systems, and a general rule of technology, but is especially the case with surround sound systems.
Here are some things that you need to know:
Let’s say you have the benefit of not having any neighbors. Let’s also say you also are not concerned about the long-term health of your ears and ability to hear. Let’s finally note that you might be an enthusiast of turning your speakers up to eleven to get every decibel out of your sound system. If all of these hypotheticals are true, or you just want the power potential, then a surround sound system is on average going to be a better choice. Their size allows for larger, more powerful speakers, there are more speakers in the sound system, and more power can go into the speakers.
In short, sound bars can only do so much, but surround sound has almost unlimited power, and just comparing same-priced models will show you the difference. Surround sound will also sound better when louder. It’s like having a fast car: you might not go at its top speed, but you feel proud it’s there.
While many say that installing a surround sound system is absolutely worth it, there are some common installation problems or challenges to contend with. They might include:
A surround sound system involves a fair number of speakers, but just how many are there? There are multiple answers to the question. You can start with five or even three speakers, and then move on from there. There are even systems that use nine or eleven speakers (additions usually come in pairs). More speakers allow for additional directions, creating a better experience for many. Some say it's overwhelming and that’s why we recommend testing out a similar system, if possible, but you can also disable speakers in some instances if it is too much.
Also, once you get a system, there is a strong chance you can add more speakers to the equation down the line if you want something more or have more money to spend on the equation. You will want to get the same set or brand, of course (or at least in most instances), but you can’t add onto a sound bar like you can a surround sound system.
There is another defining point in a surround sound setup: you can choose where to put the speakers. There is a recommended setup and you will want to stick mostly to it, but you can adjust distances, angles, and more to create an experience that’s perfect for you and those around you. You can tailor it to where you usually sit. With the right settings, you can even make some speakers more powerful than others. In short, surround sound offers more customization for your experience.
The downside of this is the responsibility of all that customization and the chance of getting it wrong. More experimentation might be required than with a soundbar.
So who is a surround sound system for, and what makes the most of it? Here are a few of the main examples:
When buying a cheaper surround sound system, it might not be all that different from a speaker set you can buy at any regular store. Your money is better spent elsewhere, and in the worst cases, your TV sound might be better without the cheaper sound system in some cases. You don’t want that.
Higher-end options will be able to be louder, have clearer sound and better range, be made out of better materials, be more durable, and have plenty of overall benefits. Higher-end speakers might also be more stylish in appearance to many, though this is a matter of personal preference.
Lower-end options might not be made of excellent materials, might break more easily from an accident or two, and might not have the profound range and power that a high-end set would have. It will certainly be more than what most people expect and better than whatever might be on your TV or current devices, but it won’t be like you’re at the theatre. As mentioned, it might not be worth it to get the cheapest of the cheap for surround sound systems.
On another note, more expensive sets likely have more speakers. Cheaper ones might have fewer speakers by default. There might even be model variations where this and the price are the only differences. Don’t forget that you can upgrade later if this is your concern.
However, the warnings above about cheap speakers are not to say there are not mid-range affordable options, however. There might be fewer speakers and fewer options, but the sound quality will be there and be enough for most people (though not enthusiasts).
As one last fun fact that might be useful, more expensive speakers are usually heavier. This is due to the drivers and other parts necessary to create a better, and sometimes louder, sound. If you find a super-lightweight speaker, that might not be a great sign. As a matter of curiosity, check to see how much speakers weigh.
A good surround sound system is going to cost a pretty penny, and there’s no way around that unless you get lucky. Besides, you don’t want to just get what is on sale. You want to get what is best and right for your home. This is something of an investment to make in your living space, and the good news is that a surround sound system can last you years and still sound great, especially if you take care of it. You might need to replace cables occasionally, but this is a negligible cost and easy to accomplish.
As for an exact range, it would be hard to give you one. While we went over some differences, it ranges from the low hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on what you are looking for.
Something a little bit more recent in its development is the sound bar system, which is, as expected, a bar you can install around your television or home theatre system to provide a better audio experience. There is a lot to say about the systems, and there is a lot of variety within them.
However, there are some common traits. They are nearly always in one singular bar or package (with all the speakers inside), they are easy to work with, and there is a lot to said about the stylish design of many of them, either sticking out in the right way or remaining hardly noticeable unless pointed out. And while surround sound has been around for a while, sound bars are a bit newer and have a bit more time to define themselves. The same technology that makes your smartphone speaker sound better each model can also push forward what a sound bar is capable of. And it is already capable of a lot.
Still, you should know more about what you might be getting into, so here’s some more information about sound bars:
The one thing that sound bars have going for them above any other option is that they have great sound quality in one package that is easy to install. You can hook most of them up in five minutes or less unless you are mounting it to the wall or something similarly fancy, and even then it’s still a quick process. There are only a few wires to worry about, and you know exactly where the sound will be coming from, requiring fewer adjustments.
Some sound bars might even be wireless, though one still needs to concern themselves with powering them and plugging them in near the TV is perfectly fine. We do not recommend a wireless sound bar at this time if they are even available to you.
Their simplicity also provides one more pro in the sound bar column: they are compatible with practically anything made today. You might worry about that with some surround sound systems (or rather some TV and entertainment systems), but a sound bar is easy to hook up and there will certainly be the right port for it with a modern TV.
And while some might scoff at the idea of this simplicity, there’s a reason it's so popular: lives and entertainment are complicated enough as it is. A sound bar can be a fantastic addition to a home, be more than what is needed, and will rarely cause a headache from confusion (headaches from loud sounds are up to you).
However, while there are some amazing benefits to having a simple setup that a sound bar allows, there is also the issue that it simply cannot do as much as a high-end surround system, or a surround sound system of the same price. Some of the efforts go into its compact nature, and a sound bar will not try to nor should try to match pound for pound the power of a surround sound system. There are at least two speakers (if not more) and hopefully a subwoofer in that bar, alongside the framework and other components of the piece. Design can only do so much, though engineers and innovators are trying.
You also cannot expand on a sound bar as much as you would with a surround sound system. While you might be able to get an extra speaker or a subwoofer to augment the system, generally what you get is what you’re stuck with. If you think that’s fine by you then please proceed, but we also know that some people want more and don’t want to pay for a whole new setup to get it.
And finally, as expected a sound bar is limited by the fact that it is one piece, and only able to project at you from your front (presumably). The best sound bars can trick you into thinking there is more, but the tricks only go so far when stacked up against the real thing. Large rooms won’t be the best environment for a sound bar.
In terms of a recommended setup, it's simple: put it right below your TV or right in front of it on the TV stand. You could also hang it on the wall right around it if the TV is mounted. There will almost always be room for it somewhere, and it will look nice centered to the TV, where it will make the most sense to put anyway.
As for potential and recommended uses, you might consider the following:
So what does the difference between a cheaper and more expensive sound bar look like? It might not be so apparent at first, and designs can be deceptive. Unless you are deep into this topic you won’t know the brands and models at a glance. Instead, you have to consider the numbers and the capabilities.
With the more expensive sound bars, you can trust that there will be a great sound of course, but they might be more powerful than you might expect. The sound bar itself might be larger with more behind it, or smaller yet more efficient. In either case, it is better by a few major measures.
On the cheaper end of sound bars, the general flaws with a sound bar start to show. You might not get the power you are looking for, and you might not get the directional sound you would hope for to some degree from the system. It will feel a little less like a great sound system and more like a simple upgrade to your TV. How much this is the case will depend on your standards and what you like to watch or listen to.
In terms of determining which ones are good, we encourage research and careful searching. New models come out regularly at all ends of the price range, so keep a good lookout.
Good sound bars are not exactly cheap, but they are more affordable for people than a full surround sound system. You can probably expect to pay several hundred dollars to get a sound bar that will meet your expectations, but if you stay on the lookout for sales and don’t mind last year’s model you can probably find something decent for around $200. Of course, this can change over time, but we think that you will find something that will work for you if this direction is right for your household.
In summary, we think a surround sound system is probably right for you if:
And we think a sound bar system is probably right for you if:
So how should you go about buying your system? Is there anything you should do or look out for? Yes, and it just starts with the following:
There might be other things to note, but it will depend on what you are looking for, your budget and lifestyle, and other things we cannot predict.
Whatever you are watching or listening to, you deserve the best sound system for your home. And whether that means a sound bar or a surround sound system for you, we hope you have a clear path forward. Note that technology is constantly changing so do try to keep on top of new developments, and take your time when picking out your preference. We wish you the best of luck so that you can enjoy wonderful sound soon.