For your television or home theater system, audio quality is of the utmost importance. There are several products on the market proposing one solution or another. And it can be a bit overwhelming trying to decide which one is best for you.
In this article, however, I will focus solely on the final link in your audio chain: the speaker system. We will review the pros and cons of the three main types of home theater audio delivery systems: speakers, soundbar, or surround sound.
Know What Effect You are Going For?
When it comes to audio for your home theatre system, there is no such thing as ‘one-size-fits-all.’ Each solution has its advantages and disadvantages. In order to understand which product you should get or which solution you should explore in more depth, let’s start by examining how you use your home entertainment system. Then we can determine which kind of system is suited for that use and check some of the top 10 sound bar reviews.
This set up was initially developed for large concert halls and theaters. Though it wasn’t the first time, in the early 1980s there was an attempt to market this technology for the home. This came about with the boom of home movie rentals brought about by the popularity and affordability of VHS tapes. The idea was to allow movie-goers to get the full experience of their local cineplex right in the comfort of their own home.
There are a few things to take into account when assessing the effectiveness of this system. Firstly, the surround system design came into the public’s consciousness in the late 1970s. Although the technology had existed for decades, it wasn’t until the cinematic release of Star Wars, in 1977, that the concept gained its popularity. This is important to take note of when considering the pros and cons of surround sound design.
Star Wars is an effects-heavy blockbuster with lightsabers slashing about, ray guns being fired, and spaceships engaged in high-speed dog fights. This kind of viewing experience is what is best suited for surround sound. Explosions and shots going off at high volumes all around you can heighten the adrenaline rush this kind of movie is meant to deliver.
On the other hand, when you are watching a dialogue-heavy drama with this system, it can be rather distracting.
The system wasn’t designed for that. You see people’s lips move on a screen in front of you, but their voices come from a different source, to your side or behind you. The effect is unsettling and not at all effective.
This home system design is better for larger rooms, such as movie theaters, as it was initially designed for. While you don’t necessarily need a 100-seat theater to get a similar experience, for smaller living rooms, the effect of the surround system will be diminished. And with too little space for the audio to ‘breathe,’ the sound quality will suffer as well.
Surround Sound versus Dolby Atmos
Whereas surround sound systems consist of strategically placing speakers in front of, behind, and to the sides of the moviegoer, it would take nearly forty years before a vertical dimension was added to the design.
Dolby Atmos took this original design and reconfigured it to incorporate overhead speakers. The design was first implemented in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California in 2012. Soon thereafter, a home version was developed and marketed.
To experience this at home, it isn’t necessarily mandatory to install overhead or ceiling speakers. The effect is often generated by simply having dedicated speakers aimed at the ceiling. The waves would then bounce off the ceiling and back to you. Nevertheless, given the technical requirements and the considerable amount of space needed in order to achieve this with overhead speakers or overhead speaker effects, installing Dolby Atmos in your home is still reserved for the consumer with a relatively large space and a generous budget devoted to their home theater system.
In a similar vein to Star Wars, with a video game full of explosions and flying crafts, or in first-person shooters, the design can be quite effective at adding to the immersive experience these kinds of games are meant to deliver. When your craft or avatar is struck from the side by a powerful force, it can help get you further into the action when the sound, also, comes at you from the side.
However, much like the experience at your local cineplex, because of the kind of experience it was designed to heighten, it is worth noting that this effect is really only available at high volumes.
While it was created to compliment blockbuster movies at the cineplex, this kind of system has never really been exploited in concert halls. We are not accustomed to experiencing music in this kind of environment.
The music we are accustomed to listening to comes to us, either acoustically from the instruments and voices we can see in front of us, or electronically from speakers that are also in front of us and at close proximity to their source.
At high volumes, this can create an exhilarating experience for certain kinds of music in the short-term, but the experience is too unnatural for it to have a lasting pleasant effect. And, most likely, the pleasure you get from listening to music in surround is due mostly to the high volume rather than to the design.
The exception–and it is a notable exception–is with electronic music. In electronic music, there is no acoustic source being amplified, and therefore, the link between the eyes and the ears is not important. What I mean is: your ears won’t be ‘tricked’ by seeing a guitarist in front of you and hearing the guitar behind you. The experience of much electronic music is audible in nature, and sometimes, the thumping bass or pulsating beats are meant to be felt, as well. Thus, it is possible for a surround sound system to enhance that experience.
It is worth noting, that–with very few exceptions–electronic music is created, mixed, performed, and mastered to be consumed in a stereo environment. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be enjoyed in a surround system design. But, most likely, that was not its original intent.
Surround sound is effective for your home theater at high volumes for movies and video games that are action-packed. It is significantly less effective at low volumes or for dialogue-driven movies. This system was also not designed for music. And in order to get its desired effect, it does require a room with a certain amount of space. And don’t forget that your AV receiver will also impact the output.
The classic predecessor of the surround system design, the stereo speaker system consists of separating the audio signal into the left and right speakers. As mentioned, an AV receiver is critical to the quality, but the real advantage of stereo is in its versatility. The speakers can be distributed far enough apart so as to mimic, to a certain extent, the effect of sound all around you. But when used with more traditional music or dialogue-driven videos, the speakers can be set in front of the listener and near the audio source so as to recreate a more natural listening experience.
A speaker set-up can be modified by adding a wireless or wired subwoofer for extra bass and smaller tweeters for high frequencies. When the signal is broken up and distributed through multiple speakers, this allows for more effective use of space, since the set-up can be customized for each particular room or hall they are in.
Stereo design is effective both at high and low volumes. And it is the overwhelmingly preferred way of listening while using headphones or earbuds.
Do You Need a Center Speaker?
Center Speakers in a surround system design are critical, as it minimizes the potentially destabilizing effect of having the dialogue and less action-heavy sounds coming at you from the sides.
However, when listening to music, it is not necessary. It could even diminish sound quality. Music is made, mixed, and mastered–to a large extent–for a classic stereo set-up. Adding a center speaker would be going against the sound engineer’s intentions.
To a large extent, soundbars are this generation’s surround sound. Invented at the turn of the 21st century, soundbars came to prominence in the wake of a technological trend toward the simple, the smaller, the easier to set up and use.
Soundbars consist of multiple speakers in a single enclosure. Though they are a good solution for listening to music, they were initially created as a simple solution to poor television speaker audio performance. They are ergonomically designed to be placed either below or above the television. Many models often come equipped with a wireless subwoofer for extra bass.
Beyond being a sort of compromise between the surround system design and traditional stereo speakers, soundbars offer versatility and simplicity in their set-up, as well as easy portability, and can easily improve your home theater.
One of the more popular manufacturers of soundbars today is Samsung. With soundbars, Samsung saw in this trend an effective way to optimize the audio of their televisions. To gain an even better foothold on the market, Samsung soundbars are compatible with other brands and offer many kinds of connectivity, including Bluetooth and other wireless technologies.
The best soundbar on the market will depend, of course, on your priorities. Are you interested in replicating a surround sound system in limited space? Or, are you more interested in optimizing the audio of your television?
The best soundbars on the market range from 100 dollars to more than a thousand dollars. But soundbar tv may also be the least expensive listening upgrade.
Soundbar vs TV Speakers
A soundbar will deliver considerably better audio than simple TV speakers. This is true even for high-end television models. There are a number of reasons for this. To name a few:
Televisions are made to deliver quality images; the sound quality is most often an afterthought.
With TV speakers, the sound resonates in an enclosure that was not designed for audio, an enclosure that also houses the television screen made of glass or plastic; neither is a material that produces rich audio resonance.
To get the most out of your television, a soundbar can be a simple and affordable solution.
Soundbar vs Bookshelf Speakers
Assuming the speakers and the soundbar are of comparable value, the option that is best for you will be determined by your priorities and by what kind of experience you are looking for.
Bookshelf speakers may be a better option for music, while a soundbar is best suited for television audio. However, both options work in either context. With bookshelf speakers, you gain a bit in flexibility while sacrificing a bit in the simplicity of use and connection. And remember that with bookshelf speakers you will need to add an AV receiver to the speaker system, while a soundbar will take up less space.
Soundbar vs Speakers
If the priority of your home theater, however, is music, then you will most likely be better served with traditional stereo speakers or speaker towers.
Stereo speakers will most closely recreate the concert hall experience. And the overwhelming majority of music is recorded, mixed, and mastered with the intent of being experienced with a traditional stereo speaker design. In fact, the pros and cons are identical to the bookshelf speakers except that tower speakers are bigger in size.
Soundbar versus Surround System
This depends on what you are using a soundbar for. If you are exclusively interested in sound designed for gaming or to enjoy action-packed blockbuster films, then the surround system is still going to be your best option (provided you have the requisite space and you don’t live in an apartment complex with thin walls).
If you want more versatility in your home theatre, or if you are limited in space, you can get a similar experience with a soundbar. And it can be a very satisfying alternative.
Is a soundbar better than traditional speakers?
Again, that will depend on how you use your home theatre. A soundbar will give you portability and easy set-up and connectivity. It will also, at high volumes, allow you to approach an audio experience similar to that of the multi-speaker system design.
With a soundbar, for the sake of convenience and ease of set-up, you are giving up a certain amount of flexibility.
The simple reductionist summary is that a soundbar delivers the best sound quality for television; speakers are the best option for music; surround sound is the best option for gaming and action-packed movies. However, other factors still need to be considered, such as the size of the room where you install your home theater and the volume levels you prefer to listen at.