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How to pick the right sound bar to go with your flat-screen TV

Jon L. Jacobi | Dec. 22, 2014
So your brand-new TV sounds like crap. Don't feel bad, it wasn't your lack of shopping prowess; there's only so much TV manufacturers can do when it comes to projecting audio from the extremely thin form factors of today's flat-panel TVs. (Well, truth be told, they were never much concerned with sound even when those weren't limiting factors. But that's another story.)

In other words, they produce more bass, so you don't need a separate subwoofer (more on this later). If you decide to shop for a pedestal-style sound bar, make sure it's wide enough to accommodate your TV's stand, and that it's sturdy enough to support your TV's weight.

One last bit of prep before you hit the store: Snap a couple of photos of your TV and its surrounding environment with your smartphone. When you're in the showroom evaluating candidates, pull it out so you can get a good idea of what the speaker will look like in your home.

Subwoofers

If you settle on the conventional sound bar form factor over the pedestal type, you should consider buying one that comes with a subwoofer (unless the sound bar has one built in). The small speakers that can fit inside a sound bar just aren't capable of reproducing the low-frequency effects in modern movie soundtracks that give you that rumble and shake feel you get in the movie theater.

Now this will mean you'll need to accommodate what could be a large, boxy, and somewhat conventional-looking speaker, but you won't regret adding a subwoofer to your audio configuration.

And since low-frequency effects are non-directional — meaning it will be difficult for your ear to locate where the bass is coming from — you can plop a subwoofer behind a plant or even behind a piece of furniture. You'll need an AC cord to power it, but most subs make wireless connections to the sound bar.

If you're a considerate apartment dweller (headphones anyone?) or just don't like sub woofers, you can often increase the amount of bass produced by a conventional sound bar by "coupling" it with a denser object, such as a wood cabinet. Remember the first time you heard a tuning fork placed against a wall or other solid object? Same deal, except with low-frequencies.

Surround sound

If you see a sound bar touting its surround-sound capabilities, it's likely simulated surround. Less-expensive speakers use psychoacoustic techniques designed to fool your brain into hearing things that aren't actually present in the audio stream. Fire up Windows Media Player and turn on SRS Wow and TruBass to see what we mean. Faux surround can add a sense of stereo depth or spaciousness, but the quality varies between brands and don't for a second think that it will sound like true surround.

That's not to say you can't get true surround sound out of a soundbar. Higher-end products like the wireless Sonos Playbar ($699) can be linked to other wireless Sonos speakers (such as a pair of the $199Play:1s and the $699Sub) to create a genuine 5.1-channel home-theater audio system. Samsung's HW-H750 is another example of a sound bar that can be paired with wireless surround speakers.

 

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