Is a soundbar as good as a stereo receiver?

Sonos ARC Atmos surround sound immersive soundbar
Sonos ARC Atmos surround sound immersive soundbar

In a word – yes!

The soundbar has come a long way from the very first Altec-Lansing model of 1998.

They provided better sound than the speakers built into TV’s, but the original soundbars were passive speakers. Just a bunch of speakers in a long narrow wooden box that connected to your stereo amplifier with wires.

Yup – our early soundbars were just left, right, center, and subwoofer speakers carefully chosen and repackaged to fit neatly under the TV or on top of wood creates, shelving, or whatever supported your TV.

Compared to my traditional free standing speakers, they took up less space, didn’t need to be installed in walls or the ceiling, and hooking them up didn’t take running and hiding speaker wires everywhere.
 

laughing at soundbar

Not a serious audio choice?

For quite a while, you might argue even today, soundbars are frowned upon by “serious” audio and TV listeners.

They were designed and marketed as a compromise solution from the start. Not meant to be compared to real stereo speakers, but sold on the convenience of use, low price, and most importantly, much better sound than the built-in free TV speakers.
 

TVs got better; speakers got worse

We are fortunate to experience an incredible advance in television technology.

Heavy glass cathode ray tubes (CRT) have been replaced with high resolution, incredible looking plasma, liquid crystal displays (LCD), and now organic light emitting diodes (OLED) TVs that are getting thinner all the time.

While we can appreciate fantastic 4K (and even 8K) resolution images on huge screens with an incredible array of color, contrast, and image processing, the sound quality has gotten worse.

Yup! Our obsession with super thin TVs with awesome displays has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the built-in speakers smaller and smaller.
 

Do you want fries with that?

If you buy a TV at a big box electronics or retail store, if is not fun. You have probably been nudged (or pressured) to buy a soundbar at the same time.

Just like the classic fast food joint meal deal or combo promo that asks “Do you want fries with that?” Retail superstore salespeople are trained to tell you why you must buy a soundbar for your new tv.

Doesn’t have to be a good one. Just as long as you add at least that $100 entry-level or unknown store brand soundbar. Gotta keep the salesperson happy.
 

The “Rodney Dangerfield” of audio gear?

No sooner do you agree, then the sales droid does the classic bait and switch and starts the real pitch.

You need a soundbar, but they are crap. If you really want to enjoy your fancy new tv, you should get a real audio solution. That nice shiny audio video receiver (AVR) with a full set of speakers and a big subwoofer.

“Easy” to install yourself if you are handy. But no worries, their professional services group of pimple-faced, teenagers in mini-vans will be glad to handle everything from delivery to installation and hook-up.

Time to trade up?

The price tag really starts to add up. A decent AVR will run a few hundred dollars. The good ones are at least $600 to $2000 or more.

Then you enter the special “sound room” where you learn speakers can range from a modest pair at $100 or $200 each to esoteric brands that quickly cost upwards of $500 or much more.

And for a proper surround sound setup, you need five, or better seven of them, plus a separate subwoofer.
 

More, much more, than 28 flavors

Does a $100 soundbar sound like a good stereo, or any stereo system? No.

But soundbars have become a huge industry. The original 3-speaker (left, center, right) passive version has morphed into an incredibly sophisticated piece of audio gear.

Modern soundbars may have 5, 10, or 15 speakers inside and sophisticated electronics with self-powered amplifiers and digital signal processing.

Soundbars may be connected with speaker wires, HDMI cables, optical cable, or wireless options.

Companies like Leon Speakers manufacture custom-built soundbars to match the physical size and look of you specific TV.

They can hide the soundbar inside acoustically transparent wooden enclosures that are works of art.

But wait, there’s more!

Soundbars have options for wired or wireless subwoofers, add-on speakers, and lots of extra features.

Soundbars can also be used as general purpose speakers for smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Other models have built-in voice assistants from Google or Amazon Alexa. Still others work with the smart speaker you may already own.
 

You get what you pay for

Like many consumer products, a higher price usually corresponds to a better product.

Don’t think that soundbars must, by some magic law of nature, always be less expensive than a traditional stereo receiver.

Every situation is different.

Sometimes spending $3,000 for a custom-built soundbar is the right choice and less expensive than a $5,000 or $10,000 traditional stereo receiver setup.

And if you have a small budget, buying even the bargain basement $100 or $200 soundbar will be a big improvement over the tiny speakers in modern flat screen televisions.
 

Why you might want to spend a lot more for a soundbar

So here’s some practical reasons I see my clients increasing their budget and comfort level for buying more than a basic soundbar with their new tv purchase:

Cost of Installation – Most of our homes are not wired for sound – literally. The cost of cutting into the walls or ceiling to mount speakers, run the wire, and then patch, plaster, and paint everything to match might be prohibitive.

Not to mention the dust, disruption, and inconvenience of having contractors and installers doing all the work.

Visual Aesthetics – Don’t overlook the look. Gone are the days of putting huge speakers on display to show off your stereo equipment.

Soundbars can be discretely wall mounted under the tv or hidden in purpose built furniture or cabinetry.

The spouse approval factor (SAF) is often crucial to allowing the purchase in the first place.

Buying a soundbar may be the only way to upgrade the tinny, built-in TV speakers that meets SAF while providing much better sound.

Advanced technology – Soundbars are evolving faster than stodgy stereo equipment. The new Sonos ARC includes full Atmos spatial audio in addition to surround sound capability that puts many mid-range traditional setups to shame.

Multifunction convenience – With bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and built-in voice assistants, our soundbars can be used for much more than just watching TV.

We rarely use our stereo systems for casual music listening. They are just hard enough to use that most of us would rather plug into our smartphone or grab a basic bluetooth speaker than fiddle with the controls “just to play some music” and “mess up the TV settings”.
 

Listen up!

So don’t be afraid to spend your money on a good soundbar.

Take the time to shop, and more importantly, listen, to the difference between the $100, $500, and $1000+ products that are available.

Here’s some additional information on your savings by not buying an expensive audio video receiver (AVR).
 

Robert

Automation technologist and problem solver

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