Soundbars are a relatively new invention. The 5.1 surround sound setup—one left speaker, one center, one right, and two rear—used to be the most popular way to improve your home theater’s audio, and it tended to be pretty expensive. Then, in 1998, Altec-Lansing released the world’s first soundbar and changed the way living rooms worked. It’s been two decades since, and thanks to a weird consequence of innovation, pretty much all TVs now require a soundbar.
This isn’t some conspiracy cooked up by Big Soundbar. It’s actually directly related to improvement in TV design. As LCD and OLED displays have taken over the market, TVs have simply gotten so thin that they can’t accommodate speakers big enough to put out decent sound. This wasn’t an issue back in the CRT days, when televisions were roughly the size of a refrigerator. As you can see in this teardown of an old LG Flatron, the big case required to house the tube meant that the TV could support big drivers inside of big boxes that can better project the sound. It almost looks like someone cut a soundbar in half and stuffed it into the back of the TV set.
Of course, this would be impossible with today’s too-thin flatscreens. Look at these replacement speakers for a 55-inch LG TV with an LCD display. Each one looks smaller than a candy bar, which means the drivers can’t be much bigger than what you’d find in a decent set of headphones. How on Earth are you supposed to enjoy the Earth-shaking dino roars in the new Jurassic World movie through those dinky things? What you do hear with TV speakers will sound tinny and become more distorted the more you turn up the volume. You’re also not going to get much bass, since tiny speakers can’t move much air.
This is where soundbars come in. For less than a hundred bucks, you can buy a slim row of speakers that will sit inconspicuously beneath your TV and deliver louder, higher quality audio than most TV speakers, if only because they’ve got bigger drivers inside a specially-designed box. Depending on the model you might get tweeters, mid-range drivers, and passive woofers that provide more detail on all frequencies. Spend a little more money and you can get a separate subwoofer or even rear speakers for a full surround sound experience. This year, we reviewed three new soundbars—one from Samsung, one from Polk, and one from Sonos—that added new features like voice control and multiroom audio for $200 to $400. You can spend a lot more money than that and get soundbars with serious audio upgrades like Dolby Atmos compatibility.
But the main point here is that you’re missing out if you’re just using regular old TV speakers. Soundbars are a cheap and convenient way to boost your movie-watching experience. You should get one. Of course, there are more complicated ways to solve that problem. You could do the whole home theater thing with floor speakers and little cube speakers on a stand and even an amplifier. You can also go super low budget and plug computer speakers into the back of your TV. They will probably sound better than the TV speakers! Just do yourself a favor and get some sort of speakers.