A sound bar by definition is simply a “speaker bar” that fits under or near the TV or entertainment unit and gives reasonable quality 2.0 stereo, 2.1, 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound in situations where placement of separate speakers (6 in the case of 5.1) are impractical due to wires or power etc.
Stereo (2.0) units have no sub-woofer with mid and high range speakers. Think of these as simply giving better sound than the TV speakers i.e. more volume and perhaps better tone.
Mid-range (2.1) have the same style of bar and add separate sub-woofer (very necessary to adding the presence needed for home entertainment). These have better sound control.
Higher end (5.1 or 7.1) use separate amplifier/receivers and highly directional “sound waves” to give the surround effect to listeners. By all reports these work very well as long as you are not a dedicated, take no prisioners, audiophile.
Last year you would be flat out finding too many sound bars to choose from. Now everyone from Kmart to Samsung have offerings. It is very hard to test these unless you use a sound “lab” so I set out to see if they made any appreciable difference to the standard TV set offerings – and yes I admit that would not be hard.
Currently in the economy end of the market (all these improve on standard LCD TV speakers)
Audiosonic KW-3508 2.0 ($79) sold via Kmart are one of the cheapest sound bars availalble. There are lower cost USB or audio line in speakers for computers but this unit does the job.
Samsung HW-E450, 2.1, 3D ($400) has an inbuilt amplifier (no power rating given), separate sub-woofer and HDMI, audio, optical and USB inputs. It is about 90cm long and 4.5cm high. Care that it (like most in this range) only decodes MP3 and WMA sound (not ACC for iTunes) and Dolby Digital and 3D Sound Plus. Good basic unit - if a little overpriced in comparison to the Philips.
LG NB3520A 2.1 ($399) is similar to the Samsung 2.1. Claimed 2 x 80W front and 1 x 140W sub-woofer (not sure if that is RMS – probably PMPO). It has USB (music file playback only), Bluetooth and audio and optical line input. It is about 1m long and 90mm high.
Philips CSS2123/79 ($199) is similar to the Samsung 2.1. Claimed power is 2x 30W RMS and 30W RMS sub-woofer. Its 70cm long. Stand out value.
Yamaha YAS-101 TV Audio booster ($326). It is 90cm long and 11cm high. Connects via Digital Audio (Coax or Optical). The 201 model at ($549) has a few more features. Good quality and reasonable price.
Next step up - mid range
Yamaha YHT-S401 ($799) has a separate “sub-woofer integrated receiver” and sound bar. It claims “7.1 like” sound and 250W total power. It has HDMI (3 in 1 out) and USB. 80cm long.
Haier SBEV40-3D 5.1 3D ($450). The bar includes an iPhone dock and more features via the Sonic 3D Sound+ App. Not a well known brand but looks OK.
Philips HTB5150D/12 ($599) that handles DivX Plus HD, MPEG1, 2, 4 and is a 5.1 system. 2 x 150W and a 250w Wi-Fi subwoofer are respectable. iPhone support and HDMI with ARC. FM tuner and internet radio, 3D Blu-Ray player and 2D to 3D conversion, HD up scaling and more. At the price it is probably the pick of the bunch.
LG HX56S (pictured) incorporates DLNA, Blu-Ray (CD/DVD/Music), ACC (iTunes support with a dock port) and most other Dolby/DTS decoding, FM radio, some Smart TV features (YouTube, Google Maps etc), 3 HDMI V1.4 and 80211.N Wi-FI – all for $999.
And the grand finale
Yamaha has a few models ranging from $1,299 to $2,999 that cover all needs. This is where I would start if you are looking for a system with a "sound pedigree".
Digitalcinema has a range of specialist sound bars so I won’t list them here. Brands include Boston Acoustics, Klipsch and Harmon Kardon stating from around $700.
Sonos reputed to be developing an 802.11n Playbar with Sub-woofer for aroud $1000.
TV manufacturers (some of which are represented above) will be looking to add more to the all in one formula with better sound bars which could utilise the spare computing power already in smart TV’s (see iTwire article ) to provide all of the above features. According to JB Hi-Fi (Sydney retail store) it is getting harder to sell discrete AV receivers and 5.1/7.1 speaker packages against the mid-range and higher range sound bar market.