With TVs getting shiveringly slim, as many as a quarter of TV buyers now snap-up a soundbar on the spot. At the other end of the scale, those with home cinema speaker cable spidered around the skirting board have doubtless been told to get rid of it by now.
A box full of speakers that sits under the TV, an all-in-one soundbar is a clean solution, but there are myriad options.
As usual, it comes down to price, but as a rule of ear the bigger – and deeper – the soundbar, the better it is, especially at the lower end of the market. So don't fall for the sales patter about 'super slim' soundbars – you know what happened last time you fell for that one.
Designs and ambitions differ, from full 'virtual' surround ambitions to Bluetooth streaming, but before you buy think about how you want to wire-up your TV, set-top box, games console and soundbar.
A soundbar with a few HDMI ins and outs is handy and allows a one-cable connection to a TV, while some soundbars use only optical digital audio cables – though not all TVs have a corresponding optical digital output. However, the most important question is this: are you trying to recreate a full-blown surround sound experience for immersive movies and gaming, or just trying to give Strictly Come Dancing a leg-up?
1. Sonos Playbar, £599
A wireless soundbar with built-in subwoofer (though an optional, wireless subwoofer is available for a further £599), the Playbar is all about convenience. Aimed at 37-inch+ screens and comprising nine separate speakers, Playbar sounds stunning and can integrate nicely into an existing Sonos audio system – or be the first thing you add to your home from which a rich, easy to use multi-room audio system can organically grow. With just an optical digital audio input, it's not the most adaptable soundbar around and nor is it the best-sounding, but it's nonetheless an assured and very desirable product. If you've already used Sonos multi-room products, good luck resisting this one.
Read: Sonos Playbar review
2. Bose Cinemate 1SR, £1,299
Ever wanted an Acoustimass? Bose-speak for a subwoofer, it wirelessly connects – and effortlessly so – to its mothership and adds some valuable low-frequency frolics to the impressive, though very expensive Cinemate 1SR soundbar system. It's relatively slim and its five speaker drivers add some definite welly to a telly, but it won't act as a hub for a home ents set-up since there are no HDMI inputs, just digital and analogue audio jacks. Some clever construction Bose calls Fleximount allows the 1SR to be turned on its axis and thus wall-mounted, which is a neat trick. However, convenience and the easiest set-up we've ever seen is what you're really paying for. One for the technophobe, not the bargain-hunter.
3. GoldenEar Technology SC3DA, £995
Another high-end attempt at a soundbar comes from the superbly-named Golden Ear, whose gloss black aluminium SC3DA – which stands for SuperCinema 3D Array – is all about precision engineering and exacting sound quality. Designed to excel with stereo music as well as TV and Blu-ray, the SC3DA's main unit houses left, centre and right-channel speakers, but there's more to it. It might look like it comes with a second set of separate left and right speakers, but they're actually cancellation drivers that help address phase issues from the main soundbar. That's the 3D Array Technology at play, that is, and it's there to create a wall-to-wall-to-ceiling soundstage – though you'll need to drive it from a separate amplifier. In terms of ambition at replacing a home cinema, put Golden Ear in the same category as Yamaha.
4. Panasonic SC-HTB770, £TBC
If only Optimus Prime and co. could do something this useful. Due out shortly from Panasonic is this, the first 'transformer' soundbar that's aimed at those that really want to put together a home cinema, but haven't got round to it yet. In position one the oversized SC-HTB770's stainless mesh design is a traditional soundbar, and clearly built to suit 55-65-inch screens, but it can also break apart into a 3.1 system. The centre speaker remains in place while its two flanks split and rotate to the vertical position, with a gyroscope sensor detecting the vertical position they're then placed in.
Elsewhere the 300W-toting SC-HTB770 houses Bluetooth for streaming music from a phone, three HDMI inputs, and two optical audio inputs – crucial inclusions that pushes convenience still further – while a subwoofer sits alongside. Expect a price north of £500.
5. Samsung HW-F750, £TBC
Samsung has been playing around with vale amplification for a few years, so the appearance for 2013 of the first valve-amplified soundbar is no surprise. It's used primarily to add some warmth to digital audio, though the Samsung HW-F750 connects to a TV over Bluetooth something that's a hallmark of convenience-focused products rather than those vying for ultimate sound quality. Using SoundShare, which is embedded in Samsung's Smart TVs, the HW-F750 has its own built-in gyroscope to gauge its position in a room, and adjusts sound accordingly. A feature called AirtrackON wakes-up the HW-F750 when the TV is switched-on as well as allowing the TV's remote control to operate its volume.
6. Yamaha YSP-4300, £1,299
It was Yamaha that invented the soundbar several years ago with its first-gen Digital Sound Projectors, and it's still going strong. Perhaps the ultimate upgrade to a flat TV available without plumping for a full surround sound system, the YSP-4300 uses Yamaha's tried-and-tested beam tech that uses 22 separate speakers to bounce soundwaves off walls and ceilings to create an enveloping surround sound effect. If that wasn't serious enough for you, the YSP-4300 comes with two wireless subwoofers; this is home cinema in all but shape.
7. Orbitsound M12, £399
Comprising eight separate speakers inside a one-box soundbar, the key claim of the Orbitsound M12 is one of 'spatial' sound', which we've heard before with the Orbitsound T9; it's genuinely capable of creating a moving sweetspot and a balanced stereo sound. British-designed and hand-painted, the powered M12 adds a ninth speaker in its downward-firing wireless subwoofer, and also includes Bluetooth streaming from phones and tablets. A nice touch is its one-touch 'grab' feature, which automatically plays the last song it played from a paired device.
If Bluetooth adds some convenience, the M12 doesn't have HDMI inputs, instead connecting to a TV via an optical audio cable, 3.5mm jack or left/right stereo phonos.
8. Roth SubZero, £99
British-designed and with a subwoofer built-in (the clue's in the name), the SubZero is a thoroughly affordable way to increase sound quality, though it's not the 'AV hub' that some soundbars promise. Best used with relatively small TVs – say, 32-40-inch in size – the SubZero is another that lacks HDMI switching, though it does cater for three different types of audio connection; left and right stereo audio (phono), optical digital and a 3.5mm stereo mini jack. At around 89mm in depth, there's an option to wall-mount, too. Great value for those looking for a simple boost to a TV's slim speakers.