Home Theatre Speakers vs Soundbar: Which is Best For Your Room?
Beauty and simplicity… we all agree that these are extremely important in our homes.
Electronics and home entertainment products are smaller and more feature-packed than ever. And that has made it possible to have beauty and simplicity while also having awe-inspiring sights and sounds.
Are soundbars actually good?
Do they compare to separate speakers and complete home theatre systems?
In this article I’m going to answer exactly those questions.
We’ll break down soundbars for you so that you know why they’re so popular, how they compare with the other solutions, and what the best choice would be for your own entertainment space.
Sound bar breakdown
It’s no mystery… TV’s are bigger than ever but they all come with the most dreadful, “tin-can” sound you can imagine.
This is because they’re designed for excellent picture quality while keeping size and weight down. They throw little speakers in them pretty much as a bonus.
Everyone that decides to invest in a great entertainment system at home chooses not to settle for that weak audio quality. And because they’re out there looking for simple and attractive solutions, the soundbar gets a TON of attention.
It makes sense too.
Here are all of the reasons that soundbars are so popular:
Compact and all-in-one
The biggest selling point of soundbars is the fact that they’re relatively slim and they’re also completely self-contained. Soundbars pack an amplifier, a speaker, and other things into one unit. This makes them look discrete in your lounge room and keeps everything in one place.
Fewer (& shorter) cables
Pretty much all soundbars require a power cable and a signal cable (like HDMI or optical). That’s it. It feels less complicated and less cluttered when you don’t have to have speaker cables, which are needed when you go with a traditional box speaker setup.
Feature packed (sometimes)
Some, but not all, soundbars can come with a Bluetooth connection or a mobile app. That’s another feature in the same box which is really attractive to people who want wireless connectivity for their music.
Additional subwoofers are usually available
Soundbars always lack in bass, so many of them either come with a subwoofer or can be connected to one. This is helpful when you want a bigger sound with more emotion and presence.
Audio is surprisingly decent
When you look at long skinny black bar sitting under the TV and think “Wow that’s pretty small,” you end up surprised at how big the sound can be. They produce way more volume and clarity than the “shoebox” speakers that come inside your TV screen. This gives a real wow factor when you first hear it, and it does make for decent background listening. They’re also excellent solutions for folks who struggle to hear dialogue on the TV and want something quick.
A lot of retail shops today are pushing soundbars. So if you don’t learn about their weaknesses, you’d have no reason to doubt that they’re the perfect solution…
But I can tell you they are FAR from perfect.
That’s why we’re going to get a little real here and go through their weaknesses. Because there are trade-offs to making them small and simple.
Small speaker cones
In making the whole product slim, the soundbar has extremely small speaker cones. (That’s the circular part of the speaker that actually vibrates the air.)
This has a huge downside… it’s physically impossible for the cones to accurately reproduce certain frequencies.
In other words, sounds in the mid frequencies and mid-bass don’t sound as clear and realistic as they could. So guitars, certain string instruments, male vocals, and other sounds are going to be at least slightly compromised.
The other thing too is if you up the volume, sometimes even to moderate levels, you start to get obvious distortion in the mids and bass. Those small cones just can’t create the best sound field when you want it loud.
All-in-one means poor 3D sound
Since everything is one unit, it’s all packed in just under your TV screen. This makes it physically impossible to get a truly great stereo image.
That’s because a stereo image is created when your ears pick up sounds from different locations in the room. When you can spread the sources of the sounds out in front of you (or around you) the system can create a vivid 3D sound stage.
It’s an awesome experience that you can’t really get with a soundbar.
Some of them try to fire audio off the side walls of your room to replicate a stereo image, and it can work… but only if your room is the perfect size. And even then it’s not nearly as good as genuinely separate speakers.
Fewer cables can backfire
In general, fewer cables feels like a great thing. Cables make you think of things like trip hazards waiting to happen, “rat’s nests” of wires, and unsightly cords draping around the room.
The problem with this feature of soundbars is, people often need connections that they don’t include.
I can’t tell you how many times a client bought a soundbar and needed to hook up a turntable, or wanted an output, or was using a projector screen… and felt totally screwed over by the soundbar manufacturer because they didn’t add in connectors.
Sometimes it’s as simple as an AUX cable connection or a digital “pass-through.” Yet a shocking number of soundbars don’t have them. All that simplicity quickly becomes not-so-simple.
Extra subwoofers are usually overrated
Many people feel that the only compromise of sound that soundbars have is in the bass category.
This is slightly true… they are missing sub bass completely.
The fact that they can be paired with an additional subwoofer, usually of the same product line, makes them feel like they’re getting the whole package.
There’s a problem with this, however. These companion subwoofers almost always have loose speaker cones. And that makes the bass boomy.
Boomy bass might sound BIG, but it also sounds like one deep music note is being played at all times. It can also drown out the other sounds in your music or movies.
It’s actually expensive to make a speaker cone that’s both big and tight, and that’s the only way to get a high quality, punchy sub-bass. They’re always dedicated subwoofer products and they always have powerful amps inside.
Don’t want to spend a heap of extra cash just for the bass sounds? The solution could be to go with separate home theatre speakers instead. Ones that already produce a pretty awesome, punchy bass response.
It still needs a space to sit
Are soundbars more compact and self-contained than many other audio solutions?
But people forget… they still need to sit somewhere.
People are looking for an audio system that will give them great sound without looking like big boxes in their room. And a soundbar can help… until they realise they weren’t going to put a big entertainment unit under their TV.
Even the soundbar has to go somewhere, and you will see it there. You will also probably see at least one cable running between it and your TV.
(Keep reading to find out my personal recommendation for a home audio system. It sounds a lot better than a soundbar and, amazingly, there’s even less components in your way.)
Now with those strengths and weaknesses in mind, let’s take a look at how soundbars compare with a traditional home theatre solution.
Soundbar vs surround sound
Home theatre means you’re going to have a head unit of some kind (an AV receiver / amplifier) and that will power separate speakers in a couple locations around your room.
When you decide to go down the traditional home theatre and surround sound setup, you’re immediately freeing your options up. You are:
1. Separating the speakers which will give you excellent 3D sound and stereo image.
2. Allowing for bigger speaker cones / drivers which will improve performance with mid-range sounds.
3. Allowing for a receiver that will give tons of flexibility in terms of connections, inputs and outputs, ease of control, and both Bluetooth and app control.
Yes, you will have to run cables to the speakers. If you plan and install carefully, you won’t ever see them once they’re in.
You will also have a bit of setup up front. But again, once it’s done, you shouldn’t have to ever worry about it again.
And yes… there will be more than one speaker (anywhere from two to seven, or more). You could pick speakers that look okay in your room… but I have an even better solution to share with you (more on that later in this article).
Here’s a handy table to help you quickly understand the differences between soundbars, traditional home theatre speakers, and our own Jensen speaker line:
|Soundbar||Home Theatre||Jensen Speakers|
|Better than TV Speakers|
|No Big Boxes|
|Very Few Components|
|Easy to move|
|3D sound staging|
|Minimal Distortion when played loud|
|Richness and clarity|
|No visible cables|
My personal recommendation, including the consideration of prices, is to make your entertainment room sing… don’t settle for a soundbar.
Even the “big top performance” ones struggle to create a full, rich frequency range. If you turn it up a moderate amount, things just won’t sound as clear and separated.
(I have a more specific recommendation in the next section that will outperform soundbar audio night-and-day — and it will actually look even better, with zero clutter. But before I tell you about it let me recap the difference between soundbars and speakers.)
In several years of selling home audio speakers I have… literally… never once had a person listen to a soundbar and then a set of same-price separate speakers back to back and not agree that the separates sounded better.
Sure, if you have nothing to compare it to, a soundbar can get a reaction. Especially if it has a sub.
“Wow that’s pretty good… I heard that one at the shopping mall the other day.” Yeah… in a cluttered retail store that sells volume not performance.
When you have a chance to sit down and watch The Dark Knight, listen to a live concert, or play through your favourite album…
…and you do it with something that sounds better than a soundbar…
…you will get goosebumps.
There’s no going back really.
A quality audio system really does enhance your entertainment experience immensely and your friends will beg to come over to your place.
How to have amazing sound and a clutter free home theatre
When you make the decision to hook up your entertainment room with a good sound system, you want to make the best choice possible.
That means audio quality isn’t enough by itself.
It has to look clean and be totally free of clutter, and it has to be simple.
If you go with a soundbar you will definitely get a simple all-in-one solution. It might not sound as good (which is a shame) and it might not play nice with other devices you have. But it will be convenient.
What people don’t think about is the fact that you will still have to put it somewhere. You will still have to dust around it. And you will still see cable hanging out of the back of it.
They say it’s the best solution for compact and clean… but I’m here to tell you it most definitely is not.
The true best option for keeping your sound system looking smart (actually, almost invisible) and being unbelievably easy to maintain (you won’t have to dust around it or look at cables) will also give you high performance audio quality as well.
That solution is to get quality in-wall and in-ceiling speakers for your room.
These are designed for incredible audio performance that can give you the best 3D sound stage, rich and detailed sounds across the whole frequency range, AND to be nearly invisible.
We’ve been developing and making amazing, high-performance in-wall and in-ceiling speakers for over 30 years and our latest range is jaw dropping.
You’ll be able to crank your system, if you want, to rock out at high volumes without excessive distortion…
You’ll tear up at the intense emotions you feel when you immerse yourself in the soundscape of your favorite movies…
And you’ll never, EVER look at a speaker in your room and say “I wish that wasn’t in my way!!!”
Hopefully you’ve learned a lot with this article and you can make an informed decision about whether to go with a soundbar or a home theatre system. See you on the next one!