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Sound Bar vs Surround Sound

  • 6 min read

By Robert Silva for Enclave Audio

Today's TVs are better than ever when it comes to watching movies and TV shows, but let's face it, their sound quality just doesn't stack up to match the great picture. However, do soundbars provide an effective sound quality boost? Let's check out your options. 

Soundbars

A soundbar is a device designed to provide fuller sound for watching TV without a lot of speaker connection hassle. 

Soundbars are single cabinets that incorporate speakers for the left and right channels. Some may also include a center channel speaker. Two or more amplifiers are also housed inside its cabinet to power the speakers. 

Soundbars provide connections for your TV, and, in many cases other devices, such as DVD/Blu-ray player, cable/satellite box, or game console. The number and type of connections may vary. An increasing number includes one or more HDMI connections, but other connections often included are digital optical and analog stereo (RCA or 3.5mm). 

Many Soundbars also include Bluetooth which allows direct streaming from compatible smartphones.

A soundbar can be easily placed on a shelf or table below the TV, or, in most cases, can be wall-mounted.

Some soundbars come in the form of a base that you can place a TV on top of. These types of soundbars are usually referred to as a Sound Base or similar name. 

Soundbars are affordable in most cases. However, prices vary depending on size, features, whether it comes with a subwoofer, and/or extra surround speakers.
Soundbar System

Soundbar Limitations

Soundbars are convenient and especially practical for smaller rooms. However, as a home theater sound system they fall short in several areas:

Narrow Sound Field

Soundbars typically have a narrow sound field as its speakers are fixed within a specific-sized cabinet. Ideally, the soundbar should match the width of your TV so that the sound from the left and right channels appear to come from the left and right areas of the screen. However, with so many TV screen sizes, it isn't always easy to find a soundbar that will physically match every TV screen width. Those that have a large screen TV (say 55-inches or larger) often purchase a soundbar that is shorter than the TV's width. Also, with 65-inch and larger TVs, it's rare to find a soundbar that matches the width of the TV screen. 

Limited Voice Level Adjustment 

If a separate center channel speaker isn't included inside the soundbar, it's harder to bring out vocal or voice dialog since you can't increase the center channel sound level independently from the left and right channels. There are some soundbars that include a dialog enhancement or voice boost setting, but it's usually just an on/off setting, rather than a continuous level or volume setting that allows you to control more precisely how much center channel emphasis you might need.

Power Output Limitations

If you have a large room, most soundbar systems don't have the power output to do your sound justice. Although soundbars allow for slightly larger speakers and air movement than TV speakers, the amplifiers are often not powerful enough to fill a large room with impactful sound. 

Limited Surround Sound Capability

Since the speakers in a soundbar are confined to the soundbar's width, they have to use audio processing "trickery" to provide a wider surround sound experience.

The audio processing used in many soundbars to widen the sound field has different names, depending on brand/model, but fall under the commonly used term "Virtual Surround Sound". This means that even if they provide decoding of Dolby or DTS surround sound formats, soundbars often have to reprocess the sound so that it can be placed within their internal speaker configuration. 

Audio processing "tricks" enable many soundbars to project sound further than the limits of their physical width, but the results aren't always distinct. 

Some soundbars attempt to solve the above issues by positioning the internal speakers so that they point up or out. Also, many soundbars include a wired/wireless subwoofer and/or wireless surround speakers that connect to the subwoofer or a separate amplifier placed in the back of the room. However, many of these soundbar wireless subwoofer and surround speakers operate in the crowded 2.4 Ghz frequency which can lead to drop outs and latency issues. 

The True Surround Sound Option

If you are going to add a subwoofer and/or surround speakers to a soundbar set-up, why not take the extra step of having a true surround sound system with separate speakers?

You might be thinking that this is going to be a more expensive approach, but not necessarily when you check out the cost of some of the higher-end soundbar systems offered by some companies. Some of those higher-end soundbar systems actually cost more than some true surround sound systems. 

A true surround setup includes separate speakers for each channel that can be placed in a wider configuration in the room, the results of Dolby, DTS, and other surround sound formats are more precise as the sound is sent to each speaker location.

Wired Surround Sound 

The most common way to access true surround sound is to connect your TV (and other source devices) to a home theater receiver. The receiver then decodes and sends the surround sound audio signals to each speaker.

However, the main drawback of this option is that in addition to connecting your source devices to the home theater receiver, you have to connect the receiver to each speaker using wires, and an RCA audio cable to connect the receiver to the subwoofer. That creates a lot of clutter, which turns many off leading them to the soundbar alternative instead. However, it doesn't have to be this way.

 

Wireless Surround Sound (WiSA)

Instead of the hassle of having a surround sound setup with wired speakers, you can opt for one of the growing numbers of WiSA-enabled home theater systems that provide wireless speakers, such as the Enclave Audio CineHome II or THX-Certified CineHome Pro System.

These systems are packaged with a central control hub that connects to your TV. Similar to a home theater receiver, the hub decodes the surround sound signals from the TV (including sources connected to the TV) and sends them to each speaker in the system wirelessly. 

In a WiSA system, the needed amplifiers are built into each speaker, rather than needing them built into the control hub. This allows the control unit to be very compact. 

The only connection downside with a wireless system is that each speaker needs to be plugged into an AC outletin order to power each speaker's built-in amplifier. However, that’s less clutter than long speaker wires and cables running from five or more points in the room back to a home theater receiver. 

Connecting your TV to a wireless surround sound system is just as easy as connecting it to a sound bar. Most TVs provide analog and/or digital optical audio outputs, HDMI ARC/eARC, or all three. However, the easiest, and most flexible way to connect your TV to a surround sound system is to use HDMI ARC/eARC. 

The TV uses the HDMI ARC/eARC connection to transfer audio signals to the Enclave Audio CineHome II or CineHome Pro control hub. The control hub decodes the surround sound signal (such as Dolby Digital or DTS) and sends it wirelessly to the correct speakers (left, center, right, left, surround, right surround, and subwoofer). If the signal is a stereo-only signal then it's sent wirelessly to the left/right front channel speakers. 

 

Another way to take advantage of a home theater system with wireless speakers is with select 2019/2020 LG Nanocell and OLED TVs. With the addition of a USB plug-in Axiim Link transmitter, you can use the TV to send surround sound wirelessly to any WiSA-enabled speaker system. In this type of setup the TV becomes the control center for the wireless speakers, no additional control center is required. 

Sound Bar

Home Theater Surround Sound

Convenient and easy to set up.

Wired systems more complex to set up - Wireless systems easy to set up.

Speakers typically confined to a single cabinet.

Separate speaker for each channel.

The voice level is hard to adjust.

The center channel voice level can be adjusted separately from the other channels.

Limited surround sound capabilities often resorting to audio processing rather than true surround sound.

Better able to support discrete Dolby/DTS/PCM 5.1 channel (or more) surround sound.

Low power output.

Higher power output.

The Bottom Line

Soundbars are an easy way to boost the quality of your TV sound but aren't the optimum solution if you are looking for a real home theater surround sound experience. For that you need a good surround sound system, and with the availability of wireless surround sound, it's just as easy to set up and use as a soundbar.

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