An unfortunate byproduct of today’s thin flat screen TVs is that they don’t have the volume, and they don’t have the space to have a good audio system built into them, not like when we had old large cabinet tube-based television sets. So, anything that you add to that system is going to improve the audio quality of the television immensely, believe me. And you’ll know this that if you’ve ever listened to the internal speakers in one of these flat screen sets, it’s pretty bad. It’s not what I would call high fidelity.
So, should you get a soundbar, or conventional speakers? Basically, they will accomplish exactly the same thing. So, it’s really a matter of aesthetics, convenience, and how you want the system to perform.
Whether you have a pair of stereo speakers or an entire surround sound system, if you have the luxury that you’re not worried about having to have speakers out into the room and you have the space for it, that’s always going to give you the best performance. There’s no way around it. No amount of signal processing trickery is going to fake a good proper multi-channel surround system with speakers that are placed ideally for performance.
But there’s also complexity with those systems. You need a separate receiver or a separate processor and power amplifier to connect everything up and to power the speakers. Now, there are some cases where you can get active speakers or wireless speakers that have built-in amplifiers. But typically, those will only be for a stereo system, not for a full multi-channel surround system.
Soundbar or Speakers: The Middle Ground
There is a middle ground if you don’t have the space to place the speakers out into the room, but you want better performance than a soundbar is going to provide, then you can look at on-wall or in-wall speakers that, again, can be placed spaced apart, so that you’ll get a better sense of space in image.
The Open Bar + Subwoofer = Great Option For Small Spaces
Soundbars come in two or three channels. Now there are some that will do some trickery to try and fake surround channels by bouncing things off the wall or changing the alignment of drivers using digital processing. I don’t find that those work very well. But again, we’re talking about anything that you do to improve your television sound no matter what it is, is going to be better than the built-in speakers.
A soundbar basically will take the place of whatever number of speakers it purports to replace. So, in a stereo one, one unit would replace a pair of either bookshelf or floor standing speakers. The nice thing is that most soundbars, not all, but most soundbars have all of the electronics and the power amplifiers built inside. So, really, it’s an HDMI cable or an optical cable from the television set to the soundbar and then plug it into the wall.
Now, soundbars are very compromised on their own, because there, again, isn’t a lot of cabinet volume. Part of this is aesthetics. It would look really silly to have, you know, a foot and a half or two-foot deep speaker sitting on the wall under this nice thin svelte television set. So, they tend to actually be fairly shallow to match the aesthetic of the TV and not stick out too much. But what that means is that we don’t have the volume, the internal air volume inside the cabinet to get real bass. Now, again, there is some processing and trickery we can do to fake bass. But typically, what will happen with those systems is that you’ll get decent bass at very low listening levels. And then as soon as you turn it up, the bass disappears and it will sound thin.
To counteract this, most high-end soundbars like the Axiom Open Bar, will have a separate subwoofer. And that subwoofer is a small box that can be conveniently placed by an equipment shelf or in the corner or wherever it fits into your room, and whether it’s wired or wireless doesn’t really matter. It now helps to fill out those base octaves that the soundbar can’t reproduce on its own. So, basically, we can get excellent performance from a soundbar and even better performance from a discreet separate multi-channel speaker and home theater system. But again, anything you do to get rid of listening to those internal speakers in the TV is going to be better.
I will point out one thing that’s very important to keep in mind. If you think that you’re going to buy a soundbar with a little subwoofer for $99, and have it sound like the best thing that you’ve ever heard, it’s not going to happen. Think about how much you spent on your television set. And you should be dedicating at least that amount of money, if not more, on the audio to go with it. That’s a good rule of thumb, you have an $800 TV, an $800 soundbar would work.
The other thing that I’d like to caution you is that soundbars are one of the most badly overrated in terms of specifications of any audio component out there. You’ll see soundbars for $99 or $149 that claim to have 1000 watts or 1500 watts, complete nonsense. Unfortunately, there isn’t good regulation around these things. So, you know, manufacturers will often inflate those numbers.
One of the things that I would suggest doing is look to a dedicated loudspeaker manufacturer like Axiom. (I’m not saying it has to be us, but choose a company that their main business is building loudspeakers and not building every type of electronic gadget under the sun, there’s a good chance that those people will know better how to build a good soundbar than a company that spits out all kinds of gadgets and other electrical components.)
I hope that’s been helpful. It’s not really that big a mystery, speakers or soundbar, it really comes down to aesthetic preference.