Product Reviews

Speakers Are Great—but Don’t Underestimate the Soundbar

A soundbar requires, in most cases, one power cord and a couple HDMI cables. Even if you have a subwoofer or rear speakers, they usually connect to the main unit wirelessly, requiring only a wall outlet nearby. You can easily fit your soundbar on a small table like the one pictured above, with no extra gear cluttering up the space. With a bulky receiver, two to three speakers in the front, and multiple runs of speaker cable, that becomes more difficult. (It’s possible, but difficult—and the smaller your speakers, the more you begin to lose the sound-quality advantage.)

Remember also that this is rarely one person’s decision. The more components you add, the more the spousal/parental/roommate acceptance factor drops. An enthusiast may want to set up a full 5.1 system, but others in the household may not be so accepting. A high-end soundbar can be a great compromise in this scenario, especially if you live in a small apartment and don’t have room for a separate theater cave.

The Cost-Benefit Curve

Finally, you have to consider price. There are soundbars in just about every bracket, some of which compare to speakers more or less favorably, which makes a broad cost comparison difficult to pin down.

There are, for example, some cheap 5.1 speaker sets out there, but the cost of a receiver ups the price significantly. On the lower end, a soundbar is probably going to be cheaper for those on a budget—heck, Vizio’s shockingly decent V-Series 5.1 system is only $200. It’s tough to find a full speaker setup that cheap unless you buy used. (And soundbars can play at that game too—Craigslist and OfferUp have plenty to choose from.)

That said, the higher you go in price, the more difficult the cost-benefit analysis becomes. Midrange soundbars like Samsung’s T650 get more into the price realm of speakers with a receiver, and once you get into expensive Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbar setups like the Vizio Elevate, you can almost certainly build a better-sounding speaker system for the price. (There are also compelling in-between options, like the Enclave Cinehome II wireless 5.1 system.)

Ultimately, it’s a balancing act. When you’re looking at the cost of a soundbar versus a speaker setup, you need to look at your specific price bracket and remember the advantages of both approaches. You aren’t just balancing sound quality with price, you’re looking at the total package, and while it’s hard to beat the sound of a well-built surround system, the clean look and simple setup of a soundbar is unparalleled. So look at your budget, look at your space, and look at your spouse’s face when you offer different suggestions. If you can make a full speaker system work, I highly, highly recommend you go for it. But if it sounds like too much of a headache, those high-end soundbars sound pretty great—you’re just paying a bit extra for the simplicity. And you know what? That’s OK.


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