All of us craned our necks trying to understand dialogue from our favorite cable shows. Even cranking up the volume and fiddling with onscreen menus left us wanting. Part of the problem was my friends' lofty ceilings. The other is the simple fact most of today's flat panel HDTVs have merely adequate sound systems at best.
With minimal power and size they hardly complement a terrific picture. Fortunately there are tons of solutions for adding Big Sound to your Big Picture for a better experience--no matter what you watch.
I've reviewed dozens of HDTVs and practically all of them have two small speakers, each with 10 watts of power. You'll see the spec as 10+10 watts per channel. Making matters worse in this era of shrinking bezels and thinner TVs, the speakers are very small and aimed toward the floor (called down firing).
Even if you turn the volume all the way up, there's no way you'll hear crisp dialogue or a beautiful soundtrack. This is the reason reviewers and CE manufacturers have urged people to buy surround sound systems for superior home theater.
I'm all for surround sound but the biggest hassle is the fact you need at least five speakers and power to drive them all, typically from an A/V receiver. A true 5.1-channel surround system consists of three speakers in the front of the room (left, center, right channels) and two rears in the back. The .1 (point one) is for a subwoofer that delivers the deep bass that makes Hollywood action movies so much fun. Not many people want to live with six boxes of varying sizes scattered around their family rooms let alone dealing with wiring the system. Fortunately there's a much simpler solution—a sound bar.
At its most basic, this is long, relatively flat, thin speaker that fits neatly under your HDTV. Typically they are black or have gloss-black finishes that tie in neatly with your television. The sound bar can be mounted on the wall or rest on a stand, depending on your installation.
Under their grilles, they consist of a number of woofers and tweeters—the basic components of typical loudspeakers. The "bar" will typically contain left, center and right channels but they can have more as the price goes up. In many cases a separate subwoofer is part of the package which can be a wired connection or wireless.
The bar will also have power to "drive" the speakers and in many instances digital circuitry to re-create a surround feel without adding tons of clutter to your room. Better models will have virtual surround settings from SRS, Dolby or Sonic Emotion. I've experienced all of them and while not as good as physical rear speakers, they add a spaciousness that really makes a huge difference to your viewing experience. Definitely look for this feature.
Setting up a sound bar is a snap as you basically run the audio out from your TV to the back of the sound bar. A supplied remote lets you adjust the volume to your liking and in many instances your TV remote can do the job. It's that simple. I can guarantee the performance is so much better than your TV speakers you'll consider it one of the best entertainment investments you ever made.
Yamaha was one of the first companies to perfect the technology and it only makes sense audio manufacturers would be in the forefront of good TV sound. Since those initial efforts the number of choices has grown dramatically with prices ranging from less than $100 to thousands.
Brands run the gamut too, from mainstream TV makers like Sharp, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic to venerable speaker companies such as Boston Acoustics, Definitive Technology, Klipsch and Bose. I highly recommend you listen to your prospective sound bar before you buy. Also realize the room acoustics of a local dealer will be different than your home so make sure there are no restocking fees if you don't like what you hear after you it set up.
Manufacturers roll out new sound bars every year. One of the most interesting is from Haier, a company known more for refrigerators than audio components. It features Sonic Emotion Absolute 3D effects which I heard at CES this past January. Even though the listening environment was far from ideal, the bar provided a big, spacious sound that made you feel like there were rear speakers behind you rather than an open aisle in a convention center.
The Haier SVEV40-3D 40-inch 3D Sound Bar ($399, due April) has a total of 230 watts, a far cry from the 20 of an HDTV. Beyond its ability to transform your viewing experience, this sound bar—and many others—also has a dock for your iPod, iPhone or iPad so you can listen to your music collection as well when there's nothing appealing on TV.
Another good, affordable sound bar option is the Yamaha YAS-101 ($299). It has built-in Air Surround Xtreme circuitry to deliver a 7.1-channel surround effect. Rated a total of 120 watts, it's an excellent complement to Blu-ray players that handle advanced surround sound formats. The piano-gloss finish is attractive, too.
Bose is a perennial best-seller. Its CineMate 1 SR ($1,499) consists of a sound bar and a wireless Acoustimass bass module for room-rumbling low notes. It comes with a universal remote and has built-in Adaptiq calibration so it adjusts the effects to match the acoustics of your room.
You can really spend as much or as little as you'd like for a sound bar but I suggest sticking with familiar brands and that you do an "ears-on" test if at all possible. After a quick set up, sit back and watch your HDTV really spring to life.