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Sound bar and home cinema buying guide

It's easier than ever to enjoy an incredible immersive sound experience at home. Don't suffer thin sound from thin speakers on a flatscreen TV. Here's how to pick a sound bar or home cinema system that will put you right in the middle of the action.

What you need to consider

What do you like to watch?

If you love your soaps, reality TV and Saturday night entertainment, a basic sound bar is probably going to give you all you need to improve your sound experience. It's with sports, movies and music that a more expensive system comes into its own.

Surround sound puts you in the middle of the action. Many sound bars can simulate surround sound, with high-end models delivering an experience that's close to the real thing. But if you do want the real thing, you'll need a home cinema system for fully immersive sound.

How much space do you have?

If you're short of space or are hesitant to set a large system up, then a sound bar is the best option. Typically they have 2 units, a speaker and a subwoofer. The speaker sits in front of your TV, or can be wall-mounted. A subwoofer can be placed anywhere, as it doesn't need to face you. Some models - known as sound bases - are made so your TV can be placed on top of them.

You'll need more room if you want a full home cinema system. They include 5 or more speakers, plus a subwoofer. Speaker sizes vary, however, so you can find a design that fits easily in your home.

What about cables?

Speaker wires can be a nuisance, particularly for home cinema systems. Some systems have all or some wireless speakers, but these cost more. If you pick a standard system, you'll need to consider how to hide or position the wires so they're not in the way.

Cables are less of an issue for sound bars, unless there isn't room for the subwoofer to sit near the sound bar. Handily, wireless models are also available.

The benefits of Bluetooth

If you have a system that features Bluetooth, you can stream music direct from a Bluetooth enabled mobile device and use your TVs sound system as a stereo.

Comparing sound bars and home cinema systems

Sound bars

Sound bars are a simple way to provide richer, sharper sound quality and clearer voices from your flatscreen TV.

Entry-level sound bars offer standard stereo sound, but next level models create simulated surround sound using clever acoustics. This creates an immersive sound experience, with the best models creating surround sound that's almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Sound bars feature either an inbuilt or separate subwoofer. Subwoofers create deeper, low-frequency bass sounds. An inbuilt system won't offer the same levels of depth, although high-end models come close. An inbuilt subwoofer may be beneficial if you're worried about being too loud.


Sound bars are available in 3 designs:

Sound bar

This features subwoofers built-in into the sound bar, reducing space.

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Sound bar with subwoofer

The most common design, the sound bar sits beneath your TV and the subwoofer can be placed on the floor.

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Sound base/sound board

These are designed for your TV to be placed directly on top of them, so they appear as part of the set, saving space and reducing clutter. Usually the subwoofer is built-in.

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Home cinema system

A home cinema system uses multiple speakers placed around the room to fully immerse you in sound. Each speaker functions as a channel that produces sound. Some may also come with a DVD or Blu-ray player built-in. The most popular systems are:

5.1 channel

This includes 5 speakers and a subwoofer. 3 speakers are placed at the front of the room, 2 at the back.

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7.1 channel

This uses 7 speakers and a subwoofer. 3 speakers at the front and 4 at the back.

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TV sound is usually 2 channel (stereo left/right). Home cinema systems expand this sound to go across multiple channels. For the most perfect, 3 dimensional sound experience, you need a 5.1 (or above) soundtrack specially created for surround sound. You can find this on selected DVDs, most Blu-rays, and subscription or cable services like Sky or Netflix.

Multiple speakers take up space, but are available in many sizes, and smaller does not have to mean quieter. Unless you invest in a wireless system (which tends to cost more) you will have wires extending around the room. Some systems are part wireless - these connect the front and back of the room wirelessly, so only speakers near each other require a cable.

Understanding the specs

This section goes through all the common specs and jargon so you can get to grips with all the features and decide which ones are the most important for you.

Speaker sizes (and shapes)

A sound bar should ideally be the same size as the TV it's being used with, otherwise it may look out of place. This is particularly important if you choose a sound base. Curved sound bars are available for curved TVs.

Speakers for home cinema systems come in all shapes and sizes, and you'll need to consider where you can place them. If they don't come with stands, you may need to purchase them separately, although many can also be wall mounted.

The subwoofer

All sound systems come with a subwoofer, either built-in or as a separate unit. It creates deep, low frequency bass sounds and can be placed anywhere, as it doesn't project sound in a direction the way a normal speaker will.

A separate subwoofer will produce deeper sound than an inbuilt subwoofer, although some premium designs come very close.

How many channels

The number of channels is the number of points from which a sound system produces sound. A 5.1 system - the most common for home cinemas - has 5 speakers and a subwoofer (that's the .1) and are placed around the room to create surround sound.

Soundbars tend to be 2.1 systems - the bar contains 2 speakers providing stereo (2 channel left/right) sound and a subwoofer, although they may be able to simulate surround sound. Some sound bars have more channels built-in, and this helps them imitate surround sound better.

True or simulated surround sound?

For the real experience you need multiple speakers. Sound bars can only imitate surround sound using clever acoustics. Although more premium models can do this so well you may struggle to tell the difference.

Dolby and DTS technology

Your speakers will use a version of these sound processing technologies. These take sound from its source (TV broadcast, online video, DVD etc.) and distribute it across the available number of channels (speakers).

If the source has a specially created 5.1, or higher, soundtrack then the sound sent to each channel creates a very accurate 3 dimensional sound experience. When the source is a standard stereo soundtrack, like most TV, these systems create a facsimile of 3 dimensional sound.

Whether Dolby or DTS is the best is a subject of much debate, but DTS is generally considered to be slightly clearer.

Speaker power

Speaker power is measured in watts. The higher the wattage of your speakers, the louder sound they can create.

Bluetooth

If your sound system has Bluetooth you can easily stream music and other audio content from a mobile device and play it straight through your speakers.

HDMI and optical connectors

Most sound bars and home cinema systems connect to your TV using an HDMI or optical cable. HDMI provides better quality, but optical can be used if you have a shortage of available sockets in your TV.

Receivers and amplifiers

The receiver or amplifier is where sound is controlled, processed and then sent to the speakers. Sound bars have this part built-in, but some home cinema system may have it as a separate unit.

Active or passive speakers

This is largely academic unless you intend to customise your system. Most speakers are passive, because they don't need to be connected to the mains. Subwoofers and amplifier/receivers will sometime require mains power, making them active speakers.

Essential accessories

Here are a few important extras you may need to really perfect your home entertainment experience.

Projector

If you're choosing a home cinema sound system, then why not choose a projector and really turn your home into a cinema. You don't even need a screen, just a clear white wall.

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Cables

An HDMI cable is best for connecting your sound system to your TV, but an optical cable can also be used.

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Sound bar bracket

If your TV is wall mounted, you can also wall mount your sound bar using a wall bracket.

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Delivery & Payment

If you've settled on which type of sound system to buy, then you're ready to shop. Still not quite sure? Our customer services team will be happy to give you more information and advice.

Want to know the difference between OLED and LED? Our TV buying guide is packed with everything you need to know before deciding which television to buy.

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