Your TV or projector will almost certainly have speakers built-in, and it may be tempting to use these. After all, that's one less thing to buy, find space for and maintain. But as soon as you hear a system with dedicated speakers, you'll know what you've been missing.
The question then is just what sort of speakers to get. Sound bars are compact, easy to install and they range in price from fairly inexpensive to a bit spendier to ludicrous. No matter your budget, there's a sound bar for you.
Surround speakers may be appealing as well. They take a bit more time to set up than a sound bar, but they allow for a more flexible arrangement. And if you decide to expand in a couple years, you can do so without replacing your entire kit.
Here's how to decide whether to get a sound bar or surround system!
Why get a sound bar
I've had a Vizio SmartCast sound bar since December 2017, and it was a big upgrade from the basic speakers built into my projector at the time. I live in an apartment, so a complex surround system was too much of a hassle when I was looking at speakers.
Sound bars are incredibly easy to install. Just plug in the sound bar's power cable, plug it into your display with an optical, 3.5mm or HDMI cable and that's it! Most sound bars function as HDMI hubs, and some let you pair your smartphone over Bluetooth or use the sound bars as a Chromecast Audio target. But if you don't want to use those extra options — or you're on a time crunch — you'll be up and running in about a minute.
Surround systems… well… surround your living room. You need to make sure you have space behind your couch for your rear speakers, and a place on each side for side channels. And somewhere for the subwoofer, and if you're getting really crazy, holes in your ceiling for speakers there. You don't HAVE to go all out with a surround system, and there are sound bars with extra pieces as well, but a surround system is by definition going to involve more time, space and cable management than a sound bar.
Everyone has a different budget, and sound bars can get wildly expensive. But if you just want something better than your TV's speakers — and almost anything would be better than your TV's speakers — you don't need to spend more than $100. Meanwhile, just the receiver in your surround system will likely cost more than $100, and that's without any speakers included.
Why get a surround system
If you do have more space and more money to throw around, a surround system will serve you well for years to come. Despite my reservations about having to move everything if I move to a different apartment, I'm looking at a surround system for later this year.
Better sound quality
Okay, "better" when it comes to sound quality is going to be subjective. But part of this is just physics: the reason a sound bar is better than the speakers in your TV is because there's more space for the sound in your sound bar to bounce around than there is in the speakers inside your TV. The same is true when comparing a sound bar and a surround system: more space generally equals better sound. A sound bar will do its best to make it sound like your audio is routed to separate channels — and it will sound great. But a receiver and physically separate speakers will divide your sound much better, because everything's physically apart from each other.
In addition to being able to choose exactly where your speakers are placed in the room, a surround system lets you pick up your components at your pace. Only have money for the receiver and front speakers right now? Cool, get those and get them installed. A few months down the road, you can pick up your subwoofer or rear surrounds. A few months after that, get your upward facing speakers for some sweet Dolby Atmos action. With a sound bar, you generally get what you get at the time of purchase.
Even better, all of your speakers don't have to come from the same manufacturer. If you see one brand's speakers are on sale, you can get those speakers and know they're compatible. If you want to add surround speakers to your Sonos sound bar, you can only use Sonos surround speakers. Same with other sound bar makers. And if a new whizbang audio format gets announced in a few years, you'll likely just need a new receiver and whatever additional speakers that format requires. That won't be a cheap purchase, but it'll be less expensive and less work than an entirely new sound bar.
If you have a lot of HDMI devices — streaming stick, a couple game consoles, an HTPC, an whatever else — and not a lot of HDMI ports on your display, a receiver will also act as an HDMI hub. Most sound bars will too, but less space on the sound bar means fewer ports than on a receiver.
So which is better?
The best thing about our world is it gives us different options to better fit our lives. So deciding whether a sound bar is better than a surround system or vice versa is going to depend on your individual circumstances and living room layout. As an apartment dweller, I'm hesitant to get a surround system that may not work well in a future apartment, or may break during a move in a year. I also like that a sound bar allows for less clutter and it's easier to manage.
The nerd in me is really tempted by a surround system, though. I was a bit underwhelmed when I demoed some 5.1 channel sound bars, so if I want more channels it's going to be with a receiver and dedicated speakers. Most of my media is coded for five channels of separation, so I would get some benefit from using more speakers. I'm moving apartments in September 2018, so I'll just have to wait and see how my new living room is arranged before making any purchase decisions.
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