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Best soundbar for 2021 – CNET

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Best soundbar for 2021 - CNET

Soundbars are a home theater’s secret weapon. At a relatively low cost, you can significantly improve the sound that comes from your TV — a boon when streaming your favorite shows, enjoying a special-effects-heavy flick or playing a game on your new Xbox or PS5. Soundbars are also a breeze to set up, which also helps make them considerably more popular than larger home theater speakersAV receivers and subwoofers.

In general, soundbars offer clear sound and more than one EQ mode, and all are bound to offer better audio quality than your TV. From solid bare-bones bars to smart Alexa-powered, Atmos speakers, this is CNET’s lineup of the best soundbars available from $100 and up. This list is updated periodically as new soundbars become available and are tested. 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

If you’re looking to ditch your TV speaker, this is where we suggest you start. Our longtime TV soundbar favorite, the Vizio SB3621n-E8, has essentially been replaced by the new V21. The subwoofer may be smaller on the newer model but this audio bar still sounds great, as well as offering HDMI connectivity with HDMI ARC and a much easier-to-understand input display. This is the best soundbar value we’ve tested this year.

Read our Vizio V21 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

If your price range is limited, for less than a C-note, the Creative Stage Dolby Atmos soundbar offers a bunch of previously unheard-of features, including HDMI connectivity with HDMI ARC port and a subwoofer. But what’s even more remarkable is that this affordable soundbar sounds better than most of its ultrabudget competition, with a wired subwoofer that fills the room with great bass. It has a variety of audio modes, making this soundbar speaker especially suited to music, concerts and gaming. Excellent sound quality for gamers and movie fans alike.

Read our Creative Stage review.

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Easily supplanting our previous favorite, the JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass, the Klipsch Cinema 400 adds great design and an even bigger wireless subwoofer. Sound quality is still king, though, with a real sense of dynamics and excellent music replay. If you want to make your TV the next best thing to a cinema, this is one of the most affordable ways to do it.

Read our Klipsch Cinema 400 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Yamaha YAS-209 offers excellent sound quality in a compact soundbar. The addition of Amazon Alexa is useful, allowing this voice-controlled smart soundbar to stream music, and the mics work well in loud environments. The soundbar’s implementation of DTS Virtual:X virtual surround sound offers a rich effect reminiscent of surround speaker sound. Two HDMI connections are included, one with HDMI ARC. This smart soundbar’s wireless subwoofer is more articulate and offers more headroom than the competing, and also excellent, Polk Command Bar. However, the Yamaha soundbar YAS-209 doesn’t use the company’s MusicCast system, so it won’t sync up with other Yamaha speakers.

Read our Yamaha YAS-209 review.

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Vizio M512a-H6 is the most cost-effective way to get true Dolby Atmos playback. This surround system includes a main soundbar with upfiring height speakers built in, a 6-inch subwoofer and two wired rear speakers. That’s a lot of parts, but they were easy to set up and we were impressed with the overall build quality. Most importantly, it offers excellent performance with movies, including real Atmos effects we could hear, as well as music. The M512a-H6s lacks Chromecast and AirPlay streaming, along with dedicated voice presets, but still earns our hearty recommendation for both home cinema fans and people looking to listen to their favorite album (whether in Atmos or not).

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Vizio Elevate’s main draw may be its motorized-height speakers, but once you get over their novelty you’ll find that the speaker system also sounds great. The separate sub and height-enabled rear speakers really help pull this Vizio soundbar ahead of the Sonos Arc sonically. With Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Chromecast built in, multiple HDMI inputs and Bluetooth, the only thing the Vizio doesn’t provide is Apple AirPlay support.

Read our Vizio Elevate P514A-H6 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you simply must have the fewest number of boxes and remotes in your living space and yet demand the best Atmos quality sound performance you can get, this Sennheiser speaker is your guy. It’s a single unit, without a subwoofer, but it’s able to conjure up the most realistic overhead and true surround-sound effects we’ve ever heard. It’s also controlled entirely via remote control. It’s not a cheap piece of sound equipment but it’s comparable in price to a full set of surround speakers without the bulk and with 85% of the great sound and performance.

Read our Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review.

 

Also consider

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

If you’re interested in setting up a multiroom sound system, a Sonos soundbar system is still the best option. The Sonos Arc is the company’s best soundbar and includes Dolby Atmos playback, a class-leading music ecosystem and Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa built into the bar itself. The soundbar system sounds good with music and movies, and adding a pair of Ikea Symphonisk bookshelves should really boost your home theater sound experience. The Arc sounds a lot bigger than the cheaper Beam TV sound, which needs the $700 subwoofer on top to make it comparable in terms of sound.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While we really like the Roku Streambar Pro, the Roku Streambar does essentially the same job for $50 less. With a full-fledged 4K HDR Roku streamer built in and a single voice remote controlling everything, this bar gives you audio and video in one simple bar. The Roku soundbar setup is a breeze; just add to a TV with a simple HDMI port connection. This affordable soundbar has sound quality that’s acceptable for the size and price, and you can add a $129 wireless subwoofer for more punch.

Read our Roku Streambar review.

 

Best bass without a subwoofer: Zvox SB500

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you’re looking for a single audio bar that’s even cheaper than the Sonos Arc, the Zvox SB500 is a great option for people who still prize sound quality. This speaker offers multiple sound mode options, tighter bass and better sound than most other single-speaker options. While it may lack the Sonos’ Wi-Fi streaming, the Zvox still includes Bluetooth connectivity for streaming audio from your phone or tablet.

Read our Zvox SB500 review.

 

How does CNET test soundbars?

CNET follows a rigorous, unbiased evaluation process for all of our soundbar testing. We test soundbars ranging from simple stereo speakers all the way through to Dolby Atmos systems. Our audio lab includes a Samsung QLED television (with HDMI eARC), an Apple TV 4K streamer, a Microsoft Xbox One X and an Oppo UDP-205 4K Blu-ray player. Similar soundbars are compared side by side with different content, including movies, music, TV shows and games. We grade the sound quality of each by evaluating speech clarity, dynamics, bass response and musical playback. 

FAQ

How do I choose a soundbar?

The most important consideration when choosing a soundbar is how much you want to spend. There are great soundbars at every price level, from $100 and up, though if you’re paying over $500 it may be more worthwhile to save for a AV receiver and speakers. Single-bar systems are great for smaller TVs while a soundbar-and-subwoofer combo is great for a living room. Read more in our soundbar buying guide.

Can you use any soundbar with any TV?

With only a handful of exceptions you can use any soundbar with any TV, though it does sometimes help to match TV and soundbar brands. Many new soundbars use HDMI ARC to channel the audio from your TV through the soundbar, so if both devices have one of these ports that’s all you need. Some older soundbars use an optical connection and most TVs offer these as well.

The exception? Roku TV Wireless Speakers and Samsung SoundConnect. The former uses a proprietary wireless connection, and lacks an HDMI port, so you need a Roku TV (and not a Roku streamer) to use it. The second is also proprietary between Samsung soundbars and TVs, though the soundbar usually offers HDMI for connection to other brands.

Will a soundbar improve sound quality?

Modern TVs feature very small speakers that are designed to bounce sound off your TV stand. They can sound distant and tinny as a result. Adding a soundbar will improve the sound of most TVs almost instantly, especially when it comes to reproducing speech, and will also enable you to enjoy music as well.

Can you use a soundbar to play music?

Playing music through your TV almost always sounds better when you have a soundbar connected. Many soundbars have Bluetooth, meaning you don’t need the TV on to listen to your tunes. In general a soundbar with a wireless subwoofer is best for music as it will help reproduce dynamics as well as deep bass.

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