Upgrade your TV’s sound

denon HEOS_Cinema_BAR_3QL_Combo_16x9

Televisions have come a long way since the days when they were huge, cumbersome boxes taking up precious floor space in your living room. They’re getting wider and thinner, with displays more vibrant and crisp, but as the visual aspects have improved, sound has tended to decline.

You could lay the blame for this squarely on the same reason displays are getting better: there just isn’t room to put in high-quality speakers. If you want an ultra-skinny and extra-large display, where are the speakers meant to hide?

Soundbars are the cheapest and most convenient way to compensate for the dreary sonic fidelity of modern screens.

While busy-bodies, audiophiles and people looking for an authentic theatre experience are better off cherrypicking the separate components for themselves, soundbars are for folk who want a simple, easy-to-install alternative with high-quality playback.

It helps that soundbars also serve several purposes. While designed primarily for your television, most support Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, meaning you can stream music from your phone, tablet or laptop.

Some even boast multi-speaker functionality, allowing you to connect several speakers throughout a home to the same output, providing you’re keen to fork out for the extra speakers. No more waiting in the loungeroom for that Living on a Prayer key change: you’ll hear it just as well in the kitchen.

Oh, and if you have your television bracketed to the wall, don’t worry — most soundbar models are designed to do the same.

It’s not all smooth sailing, though, and before you throw your device down and sprint to your electronics store, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one: the market is saturated and prices tend to vary dramatically.

Meanwhile, it can be a bit hard to determine whether any given model is right for your television. Here we’ve reviewed some of the standout models on the market, and also offer some tips and must-knows if you’re looking to purchase one of these bad boys.

What to look for

HDMI passthrough support

If you plan to connect a soundbar to your TV via HDMI, make sure your TV is ARC compatible. Most TVs with ARC HDMI have it clearly marked near the ports, but double check before purchasing.

If your TV’s HDMI port isn’t compatible, optical or coaxial connections are usually an option.

Will it fit?

It may seem like common sense, but be wary of dimensions. If you plan to lay your soundbar in front of the TV, will it obscure the screen? Will it be too wide for your cabinet? Will it fit on the wall?

Bluetooth connectivity

While Bluetooth is a stock standard feature in most modern soundbars, do double check, and don’t bother purchasing a soundbar without it.

Type

Soundbars come in two typical designs: traditional and pedestal. The former is most common and resembles, funnily enough, a long tubular bar. The latter resembles a plank and sits beneath your TV.

How we tested

We tested each product using both HDMI and Bluetooth where possible, as well as optical connections.

Each was exposed to a range of music spanning genres techno through to folk, and we used video-on-demand service Stan to test the speakers’ cinematic prowess.


Panasonic SC-ALL70T

panasonic SC-ALL70T-Left1This unit is relatively stripped back and easy to use, befitting its price tag.

We had it working within minutes of opening the box, as its Bluetooth compatibility is straightforward — pair the subwoofer with the soundbar, and then pair the soundbar with a Bluetooth compatible television or other device.

There are HDMI-in ports as well, but the lack of wires (save for the AC adapters) is what makes this unit attractive at this price.

You get three speakers inside the 95cm-wide soundbar, pumping out 350watts combined with the 16cm wireless sub, which can be moved at will, though it does need an AC power cable.

The output is balanced and satisfactorily clear, though be careful not to situate that subwoofer too close to the bar itself because it’s liable to muddy whatever dialogue is running through the main speakers.

Aesthetically, the SC-ALL70T is discreet and unassuming, whether situated in front of a television or bolted to a wall.

As for the woofer, its not the prettiest black block you’ve ever seen but given the speaker points downwards, you can hide it behind the ferns and not obscure its output.

With 5.1 Surround support and the ability to connect several speakers at once, it’s hard to pass this device up, though you can pay $150 dollars less for the next model down.

Price: $749
From: Panasonic

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5


Panasonic SC-HTB690

panasonic SC-HTB690 FrontThe SC-HTB690 is basically the same as Panasonic’s more pricey SC-ALL70T, though this model — for around $150 cheaper — lacks 5.1 Surround and multi-speaker functionality.

For those very keen on surround sound, a soundbar might not be the best option available (though the SC-ALL70T does it well as far as soundbars go) and multi-speaker functionality… well, it depends whether you own compatible Panasonic speakers.

It also depends on how much full-house audio means to you. If either of these are crucial for your wellbeing then don’t bother reading further.

This model shouldn’t be defined by what it lacks, though, because the SC-HTB690 otherwise features all of the benefits of its more expensive sibling.

The sound is crisp, balanced and vibrant, while the options for connecting to it is abundant: HDMI, optical and Bluetooth are in, and of all the soundbars we tested, the Panasonic models caused the least grief setting up.

It also features 4K passthrough and a downward-facing sub speaker, which has the added benefit of emitting a faint rumble during particularly action-packed cinematic scenes (unless you’ve got it hidden behind the ferns).

If you need a budget soundbar setup, there really isn’t a better option than this, and $600 seems remarkably cheap for the performance you get.

Price: $599
From: Panasonic

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5


denon-dhtsh14Denon DHT-S514

Coming in at half-a-grand less than the Heos HomeCinema system, the Denon DHT-S514 is likely to do everything you need if you just want better quality audio for your television.

The wide soundbar (it’s a smidgeon over a metre long) has six speakers in it, while the wireless 49-watt subwoofer boasts two drivers and a bass port.

The DHT-S514 boasts one HDMI port, optical and coaxial inputs and Bluetooth functionality. It carries Denon’s own Virtual Surround, which offers several audio settings you can tweak to perfection.

It has no LED display, but using the small, credit card-sized remote control, you can use lights on the soundbar as a guide — though you’ll need to remember what each colour means.

In terms of output, we had good results across the board. The DHT-S514 strikes a nice balance between clear, trebly top ends and well-rounded, static-free bass.

Whereas cheaper soundbars generally have a weak point between either of those extremes, Denon seems to have mastered the balance in this space — though you’ll need to use common sense when it comes to coordinating volume between the subwoofer and the soundbar itself, especially given how powerful the DHT-S514’s bass can sound.

War films will sound especially devastating through this configuration.

Price: $999
From: Denon

Rating: 4 stars out of 5


Denon Heos HomeCinema

denon HEOS_Cinema_BAR_3QL_ComboThe Heos HomeCinema comes with all of the elements you’d expect from a soundbar in this price range.

It has six speakers in the soundbar itself (two 5-inch drivers and two dome tweeters) and two drivers in the subwoofer.

That subwoofer, by the way, packs a real punch. We listened to some aggressive German techno through that thing and it didn’t threaten to clip. Likewise, streaming Better Call Saul on Stan provided a cinematic experience you just don’t expect from a video-on-demand stream.

HDMI is the best way to connect up, but there’s also optical and coaxial, and you can even plug your phone straight into its 3.5mm input.

It has multi-room functionality controlled by a special Heos app, which you can use to access your Spotify or Tidal account on other Heos speakers in your house. Or you could have your television audio playing in the kitchen, or the bathroom, where it’d come especially in handy during the cricket.

Virtual Surround is supported, and there’s plenty of opportunity to tweak the sound settings with a Dialog Enhancer mode.

You might baulk at the price tag — and the Heos HomeCinema lacks the ultra-thin gimmickry of the similarly priced Harman / Kardon Sabre — but this setup is a true workhorse.

Price: $1,500
From: Denon

Rating: 4 stars out of 5


Sony HT-NT3

sonyPricewise, this model sits firmly in the middle of Sony’s range, but compared to similarly priced competitors, it feels quite premium.

This 2.1 channel, 400-watt soundbar and subwoofer combo supports Sony’s own hi-res audio. That probably won’t mean much if you’re in the market for a soundbar (true audiophiles would never deign to choose the easy option) but if you believe the hype, it’s sure to be a boon.

It’s also HDCP 2.2 compatible so 4K playthrough is possible. The HT-NT3 is wider than a lot of its competitors at 1.7 metres, so if you plan to have it rest in front of your television, make sure your television is big (or else wall mount it, though that hardware isn’t available in the box).

When it comes to clarity, the HT-NT3 is remarkable — bass feels subterranean, yet defined, and higher frequencies sparkle — but we had some trouble actually getting the device to pair with some Bluetooth devices.

It comes packed with a remote control that can scroll through a variety of channels (including three separate HDMIs) but it’s quite annoying to use, thanks to button latency.

Still, that’s a pedantic criticism for what is otherwise a very attractive package. It’s also more aesthetically pleasing than most of its competition, if that matters to you.

Price: $899
From: Sony

Rating: 4 stars out of 5


Harman / Kardon Sabre SB35CNTR and SB35SUB

harmankardonThe SB35 boasts some of the most impressive industrial design we’ve encountered in this space: the soundbar is extraordinarily thin, and the subwoofer is a wall-mountable 9cm — a far cry from the big black boxes most units ship with.

One drawback is the soundbar has to be wall-mounted, ie, it won’t sit in front of your television like most of the competition.

Meanwhile, the SB35 offers all the connectivity you’d expect at this price range: optical, analog, HDMI and Bluetooth. HDMI worked well for us, but do keep in mind that the soundbar only has mini-HDMI ports, and only one cord in the box.

Unfortunately, the slick size of the SB35 is its best quality. We had no problem getting good results from an HDMI connection in a home cinema environment: all the requisite clarity is present, the bass sounds like liquid molten at high volumes and the midrange sparkles.

That is, until you try to turn it up too high — the SB35 starts to clip far too early for a setup this expensive.

We suspect it’s the size of the speaker boxes at fault, or maybe that the SB35 provides a little too much leeway with its volume control, as it does seem to get louder than most of its competition but it doesn’t seem capable of those volumes.

If you’re happy to pay a premium for great design, and don’t want loud playback, the Sabre SB35 is a neat package.

Price: $1,699
From: Harman Kardon

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5


JBL Cinema SB350

jbl_soundbarandsub_front_revAfter half an hour spent trying to pair the subwoofer to the soundbar (I needed to ‘reboot’ the soundbar, naturally), the SB350 delivered reasonable but unremarkable playback.

There are six speakers tucked away in the one-metre-long soundbar and two in the subwoofer, and while the 2.1 channel, 320-watt output can’t compete with the Panasonic SC-ALL70T in this price range, it’s an undeniably satisfying sound for movie playback.

For Bluetooth music playback, we found that we needed to fiddle around a bit — both with subwoofer placement and the mixers on our smartphone — to get the SB350 to sound satisfactory.

While it supports wireless music playback, this was definitely designed with television and home cinema playback in mind. It’s equipped with Virtual Surround, which isn’t ‘true’ surround sound but it does a decent job of approximating that effect.

You’ll control the SB350 with a remote control, which allows switching between Bluetooth, HDMI, Auxillary and Optical.

The unit is attractive enough, and its semi-tubular shape unlikely to contrast too dramatically from whichever television you’re using — assuming you don’t wall mount it, which is an option here.

There’s no denying the SB350 is a decent product at this price, but with competitors delivering better performance at a smidgeon above the circa-$700 street price, it’s a little tough to recommend.

Price: $700
From: JBL

Rating: 3 stars out of 5


Bose Solo 15

boseSoundbars are meant to be an easy option, but what if you want an even easier option? The Bose Solo 15 is probably as simple as you’ll find, as it lacks an external subwoofer, doesn’t have any fancy HDMI connectivity, and pretty much only supports optical, analog and coaxial connections.

Lack of HDMI will be damning for some, but we found the Solo 15 most useful as a Bluetooth speaker, and that’s naturally only going to be useful if you have a Bluetooth-capable TV.

There’s no denying the Solo 15 lacks the class of more streamlined, discreet soundbars. This, after all, is a huge flat box slotted beneath your television (assuming your television isn’t too big: it only supports screens “up to 46-inches and some up to 50”).

Oh, and the remote control is hilariously massive — though it is universal. Don’t buy this if you’re into minimalist interior design. Even when a TV is placed on top of this devic,e it stands out like a sore thumb.

It’s hard to recommend the Solo 15 to anyone. The low-end Panasonic soundbar is much classier, boasts HDMI compatibility and sounds good, at only $50 more.

We experienced some rattle with particularly deep bass frequencies, and while you’re unlikely to stress this speaker too much with cinematic presentations, listening to high tempo, bass-oriented techno at high volumes wasn’t satisfactory at all.

Unless you can get this at a rock bottom price, there’s little to recommend it.

Price: $549
From: Bose

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5