Soundbars & Soundbases: When, Where, and What to Look For
Soundbar and soundbases can be audio saviors for living rooms, bedrooms and dens. They can be the answer to a homeowner’s home audio prayers, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
First, what’s the difference between a soundbar and a soundbase?
At its most basic, a soundbar is a small tube or long box outfitted with a variety of drivers, digital amplifiers, crossover circuits and inputs designed to give you better sound than the array of speakers wedged into your half-inch-thick flat-panel TV. Soundbars basically sound better because they’re bigger. They usually have bigger (and often more) drivers than a TV’s built-in audio system. They have a cabinet that was designed for sound rather than designed to keep a big glass panel from falling on the floor, and they offer some placement flexibility.
Soundbars (not counting the LFE—low-frequency effects—channel) are usually offered as 2-channel or 3-channel systems, although 5- and 7-channel soundbars are also available, and wireless subwoofers are often a packaged option. You should consider a 3-channel system (right, center and left fronts) as the minimum because it will deliver the best dialog performance. The more channels also usually means the soundbar will do a better job at simulating a surround-sound experience.
A soundbase is very similar to a soundbar, except that it’s shaped more like a clothing box than a tube. A soundbase is designed to sit under the TV—you put your TV right on top of it rather than hang the speaker on the wall, the way a soundbar is meant to be displayed. There are two main benefits of this format. First, the larger cabinet of a soundbase means there’s usually room for larger amps and drivers than what a soundbar can hold. They often contain large down-firing base drivers on the bottom, and therefore don’t require a separate subwoofer; and they look better with TVs that aren’t mounted to a wall.
Why Use a Soundbar/base?
Like traditional speaker form factors, soundbars/bases vary widely in design and performance. Shopping for a soundbar isn’t as simple as picking the one that’s the same length as your TV (although that helps and looks nice, too). Future soundbar owners need to consider where they plan to put them and how they plan to use them.
People choose soundbars over receiver/speaker combinations for a variety of reasons, including space and budget. “If a soundbar is the right fit [for the client] we recommend them,” says Mark Fienberg, vice president of sales for The Source Home Theater Advisers (a division of The Source Home Theater). “But if they want it for their main viewing/listening room, or if music is important to them, we will have a serious discussion about it.”
Is a soundbar/base user sacrificing much performance compared to a traditional speaker system user? This depends on the system and the user. “New soundbars have 80 percent of what a full surround-sound arrangement has,” says Ryan Herd, CEO of One Sound Choice. “They’re also a great alternative for a kids’ gaming room or the bedroom where the client would like to keep costs under control.”
Noah Stein of Smart Homes Chattanooga encourages the products to clients who are wary of the space that amplifiers and separate speakers take up, especially when in-wall speakers are not an option. “They are really great, and our customers are happy with them. We feel that the tradeoff of sound vs. aesthetics is well worth it.”
Most, but not all, soundbars offer one or two digital audio connections (usually an optical input), as well as a set of analog inputs. When hooking up, you connect all your audio sources to your TV (ideally via HDMI) and then use your TV’s digital audio return channel (ARC) output (usually an optical output) to connect to the soundbar. Then all of the audio going into the TV will come out of the soundbar. Unfortunately, many TVs downconvert an incoming surround-sound signal to stereo when sending out via ARC, which means the 5.1 audio from your Blu-ray player or DVR may be turned to stereo by the time your soundbar gets it. This may not matter a whole lot depending on how your soundbar creates its soundstage, but it’s worth considering if you hope to get a simulated surround-sound experience.
A few soundbars/bases include HDMI inputs, which will usually preserve the full multichannel audio signal. Some are even able to decode Dolby and DTS formats properly.
While most people select a soundbar to play back TV and movie soundtracks, a great benefit of many models is their smartphone and tablet connections. Bluetooth is the most common wire- 8 Presented by www.corebrands.com Soundbars and Soundbases electronichouse.com less connection you’ll find on a soundbar because nearly every cellphone and tablet includes the technology. With a Bluetooth connection you can play back your stored music as well as streaming apps such as Pandora or Spotify. This feature extends the soundbar’s functionality beyond just a TV accessory.
Most soundbars/bases operate as a separate product in your A/V system, rather than like a speaker (passive soundbars need to be connected to a receiver/amplifier). The system will likely come with a remote, but most users will be happier either configuring the soundbar to be controlled from their DVR or TV remote, or will want to integrate the soundbar control with a separate universal remote or third-party control system. Better-designed soundbars will automatically turn on when an audio signal is detected in the input. Some soundbars also include an IR passthrough to make control easier.
Mounting a soundbase is easy. You put it on your TV stand and then place the TV on top of the soundbase (make sure the soundbase can handle the weight of your TV). But where do you put a soundbar? The most obvious place is on the wall directly under the TV, but the truth is that most people don’t put their TVs (at least not all of them) on a wall.
If you’re not going to mount the TV on the wall, make sure the TV’s base doesn’t get in the way of the placement of the soundbar, and likewise make sure the soundbar doesn’t get in the way of the TV or its IR sensor. Sometimes a soundbar resting on a low table can benefit from the addition of small wedge feet to help angle the sound up toward listeners.
Some soundbars also don’t sound well when placed inside a TV cabinet, so make sure you talk to your dealer or integrator about proper placement.
Standard on-wall installation, for the most part, is fairly straightforward, and many soundbars come with mounting hardware. The main concerns are hiding the connection wires and AC cable (an Insta Outlet can be useful here), and making sure the wall can support the system.
Fireplaces can pose the same problems for soundbar mounting as they do for TV mounting. “Most people like to tilt their TV down [to improve the viewing angle], so we have to mount the soundbar to the TV instead of the wall,” says Dan Hong of Global Custom Integration. Stein notes that if the wall above the fireplace is stone, placing the soundbar on the fireplace mantel can be a good option. Otherwise, he attaches the soundbar to the TV.
Articulating mounts are attractive options for people who want to be able to move their TV into different positions, but this poses a problem for soundbar mounting. How do you hang a soundbar on the wall when the TV swings away from the wall? As with tilted TVs over fireplaces, the best option 9 Presented by www.corebrands.com Soundbars and Soundbases electronichouse.com is to attach the soundbar to the TV with a mounting device such as the OmniMount OCSBA universal soundbar mount or the Sanus VMA202.
While soundbars are big improvements over a TV’s built-in speaker system, their slim profiles and small drivers make them ill-suited for bass playback. Some soundbars today come with separate active subwoofers. Often these subwoofers are wirelessly connected to the system, which makes them very flexible in terms of placement. When hooking one up, it’s a good idea to test it out in a number of locations to determine where it sounds best, because things like corners or floor material can affect performance. Usually the subwoofer in a soundbar system has a higher crossover than a typical home theater setup.
Feinberg says that he usually incorporates a wireless subwoofer into systems because they’re flexible and less expensive to install. “We always suggest a subwoofer with a soundbar to give the customer more bass,” says Stein. Hong adds that he usually suggests an in-wall subwoofer, so there’s nothing else to clutter up the room.
EH Staff • February 25, 2015 • electronichouse.com