Soundbar speakers: High cost doesn't always get you high quality

When you pay more for a premium-priced sound bar speaker system, you expect to get better sound. But based on our latest soundbar speaker Ratings, paying more doesn't necessarily guarantee that you'll get more, at least in terms of performance.

Soundbar speaker systems are becoming an increasingly popular option for improving your TV's sound. With more TVs offering very narrow bezels and ultra-thin cabinets, there's less real estate to put in powerful sound systems and larger speakers, so sound often doesn't match up to great picture quality.

Prices are all over the map, though. You can pay as little as $100 or so for a more basic model, or well over a $1,000 for a more elaborate system from a major brand. But paying more doesn't always get you more.

While several higher-priced models—from Samsung ($1,000), Sonos ($700), and Sony ($1,300)—came in at or near the top of our Ratings, with sound satisfying enough for music and movies, so did a $160 model from Vizio, a company that has consistently produced lower-priced sound bars that have done well in our Ratings. And if you're not as critical a listener, or you won't be using your sound bar for music playback, Vizio has a $100 sound bar that offers good sound.

Get more guidance with our home theater and sound bar speaker buying guide and Ratings.

But a number of higher-priced soundbars—ranging from $400 to $1,500—did no better than the cheaper Vizio, and a few that cost $400 (or more) didn't even do as well, offering fair sound quality that is perhaps only marginally better than the TV's built-in speakers.

Of course, sound quality isn't the only criterion we measure—we also consider ease of use and versatility—but a soundbar should deliver good sound. If you're in the market for a soundbar speaker, it really helps if to get a demonstration before you buy, as pleasing sound quality can be a subjective decision. If you can't listen first, check the retailer's return policy to make sure you can at least exchange the soundbar if its sound quality isn't to your liking.

The good news is that soundbars now come in various sizes that will pair with different TV screen sizes, and different designs, styles, shapes, and even colors to match your needs and décor. Even better, you don't have to pay a fortune to improve your TV's sound dramatically.

We'll be testing more soundbars than ever in 2014, so keep checking back for our expanded coverage of this increasingly popular alternative to a TV's built-in sound.

—James K. Willcox

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