We Tested 14 Soundbars For Six Months And Found Two Clear Standouts

We Tested 14 Soundbars For Six Months And Found Two Clear Standouts

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CNN —  

As TVs slim down, picture quality keeps getting better while built-in audio continues to deteriorate. That’s why, as we note in our best TVs guide, it makes sense to pair your TV — even a brand-new model — with a soundbar.

Sure, you could wire a few different speakers up around the room. But the all-in-one solution of a soundbar is the simplest way to boost your audio experience. Plus, they rival the output of surround-sound systems and you don’t need to spend a small fortune to get a quality soundbar.

Over the course of many months, we tested 14 soundbars against TV shows, movies and a ton of audio content. In the end, we found two soundbars that stood out from the rest.

Best Soundbar

While the Streambar Pro didn’t feature the best sound quality of the soundbars we tested, you would have to spend more than double the price to get something more than nominally better.

The upgrade pick

At $799, the Sonos Arc tops all other soundbars in terms of pure audio chops — and can even put up a fight with most home theater systems.

ROKU

Roku’s Streambar Pro replaces the Smart Soundbar.

There’s no question Roku has solidified its place as one of the top streaming device makers around. But another area in which Roku continues to shine is with its audio lineup. In 2020, the Roku Smart Soundbar was our top pick for best soundbar. And in 2021, the Streambar Pro picks up right where the Soundbar left off, once again earning our top nod.

On paper, the Streambar Pro doesn’t raise the bar (forgive the pun) when compared to the Smart Soundbar, but that’s by design. Roku is in the process of streamlining its product families and released what amounts to be a slightly upgraded Smart Soundbar under the Streambar Pro name. Think of the Streambar Pro as a Smart Soundbar 1.5, just by a different name.

And for the same $179.99 you get a 2-in-1 soundbar that pairs audio with Roku’s streaming platform. That means you get access to countless streaming platforms (like Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max and Peacock, among others) and Roku’s own Channels lineup that has shows and movies available to watch for free. For instance, as we’re writing this, we’re watching “Cast Away,” a classic, for free.

So what’s changed besides the name? The Streambar Pro now comes with an upgraded Voice Remote and a pair of wired earbuds that can be used with the new remote to privately and quietly listen to your show while a roommate or loved one sleeps nearby. Also included in the box are two AA batteries for the remote, a power cable, an HDMI cable and an optical cable. You truly get everything you could possibly need in the box, minus the TV.

All in all, it was incredibly easy to set up. You’ll just need to give the Streambar Pro power and connect it to your TV. You should connect the Streambar Pro to your TV’s HDMI eARC port if it has one. This allows you to use the Roku remote to control volume levels and the power status of your TV using the included Roku remote.

The Streambar Pro’s plastic build, enveloped by soft mesh on the front, lacks a certain flair. We appreciated that, though, as the Streambar Pro doesn’t fight for attention like some of the other flashier soundbars we tested. And the compact design (32 inches long, just under 3 inches tall, to be exact) is the perfect size; it’s never dwarfed by TVs pushing 60-plus inches, nor does it overwhelm smaller TVs.

Tucked behind the fabric front cover are four 2.5-inch full-range drivers to push out the sound, and they’ll certainly catch your attention. Those small but mighty speakers aptly tackle low, mid and high tones, adding vibrancy to the traditionally flat sound that a TV delivers. During testing, we sat 10 feet from the TV and Streambar Pro setup. Whether we were watching the Olympics or “Ted Lasso,” it sounded as if the conversations were occurring right beside us.

The Streambar Pro increases reactionary sounds, things like audience clapping or aww-ing from the crowd, to bring them to full life. It’s also well balanced, with a focus on proper spatial placement. When watching “Avengers: Endgame,” we heard Captain America’s shield fly from left to right and Iron Man fly from right to left.

In terms of what’s lacking, bass isn’t the Roku Streambar Pro’s strong suit. It’s certainly there, but it’s not as in your face as with other soundbars we tested. Again, that’s not so much a knock against the Roku, as the sound overall was well balanced and really didn’t leave us wanting for more bass. (If bassy sound is something you’re looking for, the Vizio V-Series 5.1 is a great option, though it lacks clarity when using just the soundbar.) As a result of that balanced approach, we were able to more clearly discern the finer details in whatever we were watching, such as background conversations in a movie, street noise during a racing sequence or environmental noises in a nature documentary.

You can use the Roku OS interface (the same setup as on Roku streaming devices) to make adjustments to the sound. Roku has a speech clarity setting that increases vocals in TV shows and movies, which essentially lowers other tones in the mix so that you can hear the important dialogue even when using the soundbar at lower volumes.

Roku OS 10 added a Virtual Surround 5.1 feature to the Smart Soundbar as well. It’s a setting you’ll need to enable in Sound Settings, and, well, we didn’t notice much of a difference between when it was turned on or off. There is a slight change in the direction the sound comes from, but it wasn’t enough to wow us.

But back to the speech clarity feature for a second — it has a dramatic impact, for the better. When we watched an episode of “Conan” with vocal enhancement turned on, the Streambar Pro strategically raised both the host’s and guest’s voices while lowering audience reactions. There’s also night mode, which lowers hefty sounds like explosions or racing engines so as not to disturb others. One thing missing, though, is a dedicated equalizer for adjusting low, mid and high tones, which would allow customization to the sound experience and is something many other soundbars offer.

Even so, the Roku Streambar Pro is a no-nonsense way to add robust sound and smarts to your TV. At less than $200 and with performance akin to much pricier models, the Roku Streambar Pro is a no-brainer.

Jacob Krol/CNN

While you’re paying a hefty sum for the Sonos Arc, you’re really getting a complete package that surpasses all other soundbars we tested in terms of sound — and even most home theater systems.

Compared to the Roku Soundbar, the Sonos Arc is larger, spanning 45 inches. But the bulkier build makes sense, considering there are 11 speakers packed inside. While that’s not the most speakers we tested — the Vizio Elevate boasts 18 — the Sonos Arc is unmatched in the audio it can deliver, as it consistently delivered a crisp, detail-filled sound that was noticeably clearer than the TV’s built-in speakers.

But what truly set it apart from all the other soundbars we tested was how well it placed sounds around you for a full 360-degree audio experience. That’s thanks to the Arc’s secret sauce: TruePlay, a feature that utilizes built-in smarts to customize the audio mix for the space it’s in. During setup in the Sonos app (available for both Android and iOS), it will prompt you to complete the TruePlay process, during which the Arc will play a series of pulsating tones as the app instructs you to stand in certain positions away from the speaker — all the while the microphone on your smartphone is listening for the tone and how it sounds, collecting data from around the room where the Arc is set up. It’s listening to see how the tone is coming across, at what volume it is the most clear and if there are any echoes it should work to avoid. As a result, rather than pushing a wall of sound straight at you, this customized audio mix allows the angled speakers (pointed left, right, up and down) to push sound through the nooks and crannies of your space, immersing the room in sound to deliver a true surround-sound experience.

That custom mix’s clarity is never overwhelmed no matter how high the volume (and it can get wall-buckling loud) or how thunderous the bass the Arc can produce. And while the Roku handles spatial sound aptly, the Arc is unrivaled here, as it transplanted us back to a theater in a way no TV or soundbar could. You really feel the sound around you — if a car is racing across the screen from left to right, you feel as though it’s truly zooming by you.

More mundane or everyday content like reality TV, game shows, serials, news and documentaries also sound richer and more detailed, allowing you to hear everything to the fullest extent. Watching “Planet Earth,” for instance, main tones like the narration and backing track come through unmuddled while also introducing sounds that are normally glossed over — think animal calls in the distance or the pitter-patter of them moving. The Arc is also Dolby Atmos compatible, so for Dolby content, it will keep the audio mix true to the maker’s intent rather than compressing the audio to fit through TVs’ built-in speakers.

The Arc’s intelligence expands beyond the sound mixing too. The Arc lives within the Sonos ecosystem, so it can integrate with other connected speakers for a grouped audio experience. Additionally, the Arc features far-field microphones, which make it a very large smart speaker. Soundbars from Bose also feature this, but many others we tested did not have the smart assistant function built directly in. Sonos lets you pick between Amazon Alexa or the Google Assistant. AirPlay 2 is a great solution if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, as you can cast content to the Arc right from your device.

At $799, the Sonos Arc is not cheap and sits in the upper echelon of soundbars. But for its price, you’re getting a soundbar that produces audiophile-like sound quality.

After combing through editorial reviews, customer reviews and spec sheets, we decided on our testing pool of 14 soundbars.

With each soundbar, we paid close attention from the moment the box arrived, noting how protected the soundbar and accessories were. We timed how long the setup took and how clear the instructions were. Additionally, we paid close attention to what was included in the box. And if there was an app available, we tested it on multiple devices.

Each soundbar was tested with a range of TV models, including the Hisense ULED, LG CX, Samsung Sero, Sony X800H, Sony X900H, Sony X950H, Sony A8H, TCL 5-Series, TCL 6-Series, TCL 8-Series, Vizio V-Series, Vizio M-Series, Vizio P-Series and Vizio OLED, among others, to ensure compatibility across models.

When it comes to sound quality we tested with an array of content that spanned all genres of TV shows, movies and music. We tested with a broad range of content, including “Avengers: Endgame”; “The Mandalorian”; “WandaVision”; “Hamilton”; “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”; “Frozen II”; “Tangled”; “Wreck-It Ralph”; “Space Force”; “The Bold Type”; “Below Deck”; “90 Day Fiancé”; CNN and CNN International; “The Love Guru”; Austin Powers, James Bond and Iron Man movies; “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”; “Letter to You”; “Springsteen on Broadway”; “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”; “The Office”; “Wonder Woman 1984”; and countless others. We analyzed the sound via histogram and with measuring volumes that the soundbar could produce.

While the soundbar was in use, we noted if the bar itself was rocking or rattling. If the soundbar featured a microphone, we looked to see what it could be used for. In addition to standard connectivity like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, we also tested casting technologies like Google Cast and Apple AirPlay 2.

Lastly, as we always do, we paid close attention to the warranty of each soundbar and what it covers.

Bose 700 Soundbar ($799; bose.com)

The Bose 700 Soundbar represents the high end of Bose’s lineup. At $799.95, the 700 soundbar is the same price as our winner, the Sonos Arc. In our opinion, it has one of the most aesthetically appealing designs of any soundbar we tested — a combination of glass and metal available in black or white.

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We tested 14 soundbars for six months and found two clear standouts

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