Just bought a sexy new flat screen, but can’t hear out what anyone says? It’s a common complaint. Like pop stars, flat screens are obsessed with being thin, not sounding good.
There simply isn’t enough space in the body for proper room-filling sound. You know when a cartoon character gets runover by a steamroller, and they’re squashed flat and have a squeaky voice? It’s the same thing. Sort of.
Previously, television sound systems required you to install hi-fi components all over your living room, like you were building a YUPPIE Stonehenge. ‘Soundbars’ are a new breed of discrete speakers designed to sit under your television, pumping up the jam. Here are some of the best.
Orbitsound SB60 airSOUND BASE (£299)
Subwoofer: No Connection: Digital Audio Remote Control: Included
This isn’t technically a soundbar, but a ‘soundbase’. The other speakers here are thin and long and can be mounted to the wall. This is shorter, much deeper and more box like.
The idea is that your TV sits directly on top of the speaker. Whether this defeats the point of a flatscreen Doctor Digital leaves up to your own judgement. Like most of the other soundbars, this connects with a single Digital Audio cable from your television. Most newer TVs have this, but it’s worth checking beforehand.
The Orbitsound uses its bulk well. Speech is separated out from background music, and there is a decent amount of punch, despite not having an external subwoofer (more on this later). There is a slight metallic ring to voices, meaning Bruce Forsyth sounds like he’s been replaced by a Cylon. Also, the remote control is rubbish, but that’s to be expected at this price.
Some of the more expensive speakers here are quite directional: they sound great when you’re sitting directly in front of them, but tail-off as you move left or right. Impressively, the Orbitsound has speakers built into its sides, meaning you can sit almost in line with the television without a noticeable drop. Worth remembering if your living room is shaped more like a corridor.
Samsung HW-F750 (£599)
Subwoofer: Included Connection: HDMI Remote Control: Volume is controlled by television
This is actually two boxes: one the long, thin soundbar, the other a squat wireless subwoofer that sends the lower bass notes directly into the floor. The subwoofer is so large it’s almost monolithic, and will be a pain to conceal somewhere in the room. Still, it means explosions in movies are truly sofa-shaking, and that your downstairs neighbours will hiss like snakes every time you pass them in the hallway. Glowing vacuum tubes (like those used in old radios) are set into the front of the soundbar. The result is a sound with the warm, reassuring power of your father reading a bedtime story.
It’s a handsome thing with some clever features. Unlike all of the other soundbars tested here, this can connect to your television with the HDMI cable from your set-top box: a much neater arrangement than having yet another cable hanging out of the back of your TV. This should allow your television to control the volume directly, although it does come with its own remote control.
You can also play music from your phone or tablet over Bluetooth. It’s simple and works well, but pales in comparison to the one-man-band that is the Sonos (below).
Sonos Playbar (£599)
Subwoofer: £599 Wireless Bridge: £39 Connection: Digital Audio
Remote Control: Volume controlled through free app and existing remote
The Playbar doesn’t come with a subwoofer, although you can buy one separately at great expense. You will also have to buy a wireless ‘bridge’ if you aren’t able to run a cable directly to your internet router. Without the sub, sound is a bit harsh: loud but lacking weight. It’s also the most directional speaker tested here. Sit off to one side and it sounds like Greg Wallace is locked in the boot of your car.
However, you need to think of the Sonos Playbar as a foundation. This is more a speaker that happens to sit under your television, rather than a dedicated soundbar. Sonos products can play an inexhaustible range of music, whether its online or stored on your computer. The more products you buy, the better it gets. As well as the subwoofer, adding more wireless speakers allows for true surround sound. Every Sonos product you own can be controlled from the free app, although the Playbar will also learn the signal from your existing television remote control.
With Sonos speakers scattered around the house, you can sync up the music in every room, to have the kind of parties you see in adverts and glossy American dramas. Don’t have that many friends? Don’t worry. With Sonos speakers scattered around your house, you’re clearly rich enough to buy them.
Bose CineMate 1SR (£1,299)
Subwoofer: Included Connection: Digital Audio Remote Control: Replaces existing remote control
The Bose sounds lovely. It should, for the price. Classical flutes trill pleasingly, while there’s enough bass to turn an episode of Masterchef into a full-blown rave. The sound is so clean, you sometimes hear too much. Who knew newsreaders had so much saliva?
That said, it lacks the extra features of the cheaper soundbars. This is nothing more or less than a fantastic speaker with a dinky subwoofer. The most gadgety thing about it is the headset you use to set the system up. Strapping two microphones to the side of your head, you shuffle about your living room while the soundbar plays sci-fi laser sounds. It feels like you’re the Manchurian Candidate being brainwashed to kill the president, but helps the system adjust for the particular acoustics of your room.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressive the sound is. Still, if you’re spending this amount of money, you should really consider upgrading to full, multi-speaker surround sound. Alternatively, hire local villagers to enact intricate shadow theatre on your walls.