Soundbars guide: fat sound for flat TVs


To be honest, flat televisions are great, but in most cases the sound can’t keep up with old tubes. The bass in particular likes to drown. No wonder, the resonance body is simply missing. This is why home cinema fans usually build complete 5.1 or 7.1 systems, but not everyone has the space, the money or the nerve to handle so many speakers.

Soundbars are a practical alternative. Everything you need for a fat sound is in the tubes. Our comparison test with 2.1 soundbars shows that these do not have to be expensive. In addition, the manufacturers now accommodate good sound in a comparatively small space. This not only applies to the normal sound, but also to the bass.

In this guide we give an overview of important features and show what the sound amplifiers cost.

What would technology be without partially competing formats? As soon as you deal with surround sound, you end up in a jungle of abbreviations. There are basically three large providers: Dolby, DTS and Auro, the first two sharing the lion’s share of the market. Clarifying all the details would go beyond the scope of this article. We therefore briefly show the most important sound formats and otherwise recommend that c’t follow-up video: In the sound cocoon.

With the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft at the latest, new sound formats will come into the living room. With Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D and DTS: X, an additional sound level is introduced. Because these formats want to further develop classic surround sound so that the sound not only occurs around the listener, but also comes from above. In the classic home theater, this means that you screw speakers to the ceiling. Soundbars have to use a little more tricks. The Sonos Arc (test report) has two large loudspeakers that point upwards at an angle and want to bring the sound to the user through the ceiling. In this way, a surround sound should be created despite only one device, which went pretty well in the test. However, it must also be clear that although many devices understand the formats without any problems, they lack the necessary speakers to reproduce the content correctly. Most of them emulate the 3D sound, only a few devices (such as the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar or the Bang & Olufsen Beosound Stage) really have the correct speakers. These products currently cost more than 2000 euros.

There is one more point: THX. This is not a dedicated sound format, but a certification. This means that the respective device (or the cinema) meets certain standards for the reproduction of the sound, which has just been defined in advance by THX (which is now part of Razer). Soundbars alone do not have this certification (and for most amateur film fans this is a bit of an exaggeration).

Not everyone can or wants to place five or even seven speakers around the television in their living room. This requires comparatively powerful receivers and a lot of cables to connect all speakers to the central amplifier. Resourceful engineers developed a virtual surround system accordingly. The idea: A whole battery of different loudspeakers in one housing trick the hearing and create the feeling of spatiality.

For the user, it seems as if the sound is coming from the left, back or right, but the speaker is actually in front of them. The disadvantage: not every hearing can be reliably tricked. There are users who do not like this type of sound, so the listening experience becomes worse. Everyone else benefits from a much simpler setup. Instead of five or more speakers and cables, it is sufficient to set up a central sound unit.

In recent years, a standard for connecting multimedia has become established: HDMI. The data runs digitally over the cables, the analog plugs are now largely a thing of the past. HDMI is divided into different versions. These are partially downward compatible, but always fall back on the oldest link in the chain. In other words, both the devices and the cables must support a certain version. The lowest limit should be HDMI 1.4, from this standard the UHD resolution (3840 × 2160p) found its way into HDMI. In addition, there is the standard with the audio formats Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD and dts-HD. If you have an HDR-compatible 4K TV (theme world), you shouldn’t go under HDMI 2.0a.

Most soundbars now connect to the TV using an HDMI cable. The correct connection to the TV is the HDMI socket marked ARC or eARC. The abbreviation stands for (enhanced) Audio Return Channel. The big advantage: Instead of connecting the player to the TV and soundbar, one cable is enough from the TV to the soundbar. The picture remains on the TV, the sound travels on to the soundbar. This works not only with consoles or Blu-Ray players, but also with the television picture or streaming content.

electric wire Optical / SPDIF HDMI HDMI Ethernet / HDMI Ultra Speed
Compressed 5.1
Uncompressed 5.1
Uncompressed 7.1
High bit rate (up to 192 kHz, 24 bit)
Maximum bandwidth 384 KBit/s 1 MBit/s 37 MBit/s
TV Control CHECK eARC data channel

EARC is the next version of this concept with a significantly higher bandwidth. This allows better sound, Dolby Atmos and DTS: X can be sent uncompressed in eARC to the soundbar. For all of this to work, the cables have to be fast enough. HDMI cables must be certified for “Ultra High Speed” (HDMI 2.1) or at least “HDMI with Ethernet”, both for the connection from the player to the TV and from the TV to the soundbar. If a component is too slow, the system reverts to an older standard. EARC prevails for TVs. Devices from Samsung, LG and Sony with eARC interfaces are currently available across all price ranges. When buying the soundbar, however, it is already worth paying attention to the new standard. The TV can always be upgraded later.

It is possible to use a soundbar without a subwoofer. Then the devices usually lack the right oomph. The tone just doesn’t feel full enough. There are basically three types of subwoofers: wired, wireless or integrated. The cheapest systems are soundbars with wired, external subwoofers. Wireless approaches, however, are not much more expensive and also work extremely well. Our comparison with 2.1 soundbars with wireless subwoofer shows that.

But both of them have a fat box around somewhere. The third option is soundbars with an integrated subwoofer. In addition to normal sound bars, this applies to sound decks or sound bases, for example. These require a little more space, but provide an impressive soundscape as the test of the Teufel Sounddeck Streaming (test report) shows.

Most sound bars and surround systems are described with two or three numbers, in the XXX format. The first number represents the speakers the system has. It is not just the number of speakers, but rather the zones that the soundbar can cover.

What sounds complicated comes from the classic surround sound structure: 2.0, for example, stands for two loudspeakers that are set up on the left and right at ear level next to the listener. Even numbers are split up to the left and right of the user, while odd numbers also have a center speaker. The number after the point indicates the number of dedicated subwoofers. In other words, a classic 5.1 system has a center speaker directly in front of the listener. There is also a front speaker on the left and right, a rear speaker on the left and right behind the listener and a subwoofer. Whose position is more or less irrelevant. Typical setups are as follows:

  • 2.1: One loudspeaker each front left and right, a subwoofer
  • 3.1: One loudspeaker each front left and right, a center loudspeaker in the middle, a subwoofer
  • 5.1: One loudspeaker each front left and right, a center loudspeaker, one loudspeaker each rear left and right, a subwoofer.
  • 7.1: One loudspeaker each front left and right, one center loudspeaker, one loudspeaker each next to the listener left and right, one loudspeaker each behind the listener left and right, a subwoofer.

The third X stands for the speakers, which are supposed to enable treble and 3D surround sound. They are interesting for Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D and DTS: X and create even deeper immersion. The number is either 2 or 4.

Using soundbars just for movies is actually a waste. The sound is good and the devices are often placed in such a way that they can provide good musical accompaniment to dinner and co. No wonder that almost every manufacturer of a multiroom system has a soundbar or soundbase in their range. So who? already has a multiroom setup (theme world), should choose his soundbar to match. Alternatively, you can use devices with Spotify Connect, Airplay or Google Cast, so that at least a simple use as a streaming system is possible.

Even a mid-range soundbar delivers significantly better sound than most televisions. You don’t have to invest a fortune, on the contrary. If you spend a little more money, you get clever additional functions and, above all, features related to streaming music.

If you buy a new soundbar now, you should use an eARC system right away, even if your own TV set does not yet have such a connection. The next television set it and the eARC soundbars are compatible with ARC. The new soundbar should also have Spotify Connect and / or Apple Airplay on board. Because it would be a shame if the very good sound is only available for television, where you can just as easily listen to music with it.