What to look for in a sound bar
Before you even think about brands, you need to start by looking at what you need from a sound bar.
Sound bars are designed to either sit on the entertainment center directly in front of your TV or hang on the wall beneath it. Your sound bar should be roughly in line with the width of your TV. If it's considerably larger, it'll still sound fine, but it's going to look weird. A sound bar that's smaller than your TV isn't such a big deal, but you'll want to make sure it has the same curvature, or lack thereof, as your television.
Ports and connectivity should be your next area of consideration. Do you want to connect with HDMI? Optical? Coaxial cable? Analog connectors? Or wirelessly via Bluetooth or NFC? Sound bars offer as many options and permutations of the above as standard receivers do, so check carefully to ensure your sound bar includes all the inputs you need.
What about power? Wattage isn't everything, but sight unseen it's worth paying attention to the total power output of the sound bar you choose. Remember that total wattage will be split among the drivers in the sound bar itself and the external bass unit, assuming you choose a model that includes a subwoofer (which we highly recommend). 200 to 300 watts RMS is probably fine for most living room installations.
Speaking of bass, one big advance in recent years has been the shift from wired subwoofers to wireless. All of the sound bars in this roundup include a wireless bass unit which gives you massive flexibility in where you position it in the room.
Whether you stash it next to the couch or in a corner behind the television, you won't have to worry about running a wire from the sound bar to the sub.Every sound bar we tested automatically synced the two speaker units successfully, so you also won't have to worry about the sometimes arcane system for connecting the two.
For our roundup, we focused on units with a $500 price ceiling, with the goal of seeing how far that investment would take us — and whether there was truth to the idea that an audio-only manufacturer's sound bar would sound the best. Here's how they stacked up.
Representing speaker builders
We selected these three well-known speaker companies to present their best sound bars priced $500 or less (click on each product to read our full review):
Representing TV Manufacturers
We selected these three large players to represent the efforts of TV manufacturers to build high-quality sound bars that sell for $500 or less:
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