With TVs getting super-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 snaked around the living room or den 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 Dancing with the Stars a leg-up?
1. Sonos Playbar, $699
A wireless soundbar with built-in subwoofer (though an optional, wireless subwoofer is available for a further $1,000), 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, $1,499
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, $999
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, $399
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.