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How to get better HDTV audio with a soundbar

Here's what you need to know about soundbars and what to look for

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Affordable flat-screen HDTVs are everywhere these days, but many models omit an important part of the viewing experience: good sound. The slim bezels on the bottom or sides of HDTVs leave little room for quality speakers to properly (and loudly) reproduce the audio from TV shows and DVD or Blu-ray videos.

You could set up a full home theater audio system with a receiver and 5.1 or better speakers to overcome this problem. But that may be overkill for your situation or maybe you don't have the room or just don't want all those unsightly cables cluttering your TV room.

One nice alternative that has emerged in the past few years to deal with just this problem is the soundbar. A soundbar is a single audio unit that incorporates the center, left, and right speakers. Paired with a subwoofer, soundbars provide the aural oomph lacking from flat screen HDTVs, in a sleek, unobtrusive package.

These days, you can find soundbars from companies such as JVC, Polk, Sony, Vizio, Yamaha, and others, at prices ranging from $200 to $1000 or more. Here's what you need to know about soundbars, and what to look for.

Clean and simple

In a traditional home-theater setup, an audio/video receiver acts as a hub for coordinating AV signals and for interpreting encoded sound, such as Dolby Digital or DTS and then sending the resulting audio signals to the correct speakers. But most soundbars don't need a separate audio receiver, because they have sound processors built in.

Another advantage of soundbars is that they let you avoid all the wires needed to connect separate speakers to a receiver. This, in fact, may be what drives many people to soundbars, better-than-stock audio with less mess than a full home-theater setup. To further cut down on cable clutter, some soundbars include wireless subwoofers, which use the 2.4Ghz radio-frequency band to send the signals that produce teeth-rattling rumbles of bass. But even though a soundbar means fewer wires, you'll still have at least two cables to deal with: the one carrying audio signals from the TV to the soundbar, and the one carrying electricity to the soundbar.

Some soundbars, such as JVC's $300 TH-BA1, can use digital signal processing to emulate true 5.1-channel ("surround-sound") audio. By directing some sound waves off walls and floors, and adding slight delays and other effects to particular bits of audio, these systems can often create the illusion of having rear-channel speakers--some of the audio can sound like it's coming from behind you. Of course, these systems work better in some rooms than others, rooms that are too open or too large often defeat the effect. If you want true surround sound, you'll need more than a soundbar.

What to look for

When considering a soundbar for your HDTV, you'll want to think about the kinds of audio connections you'll need to use. Many soundbars, such as Sony's $300 HT-CT150, offer a built-in HDMI switch so you can connect multiple HDMI-equipped AV sources, your cable or satellite box, Blu-ray player, and game console, for example and then use a single HDMI cable to connect everything to your TV. If you have older components without HDMI, or if you prefer other types of connections such as optical-digital audio, you'll also want to make sure you have enough of the appropriate inputs and outputs on the soundbar.

Also consider where the soundbar will fit within your set up. Most people mount a soundbar just below the HDTV; if you've already got the TV mounted, check to be sure you have enough clearance for the soundbar's height. In a pinch, you can put the soundbar above your TV, though that may adversely affect the quality of the audio experience.

Many soundbars include a remote control for adjusting the soundbar's sound mode and volume but not all. Some have controls only on the soundbar or the subwoofer. (Many of these are designed to be set to the best level to match your TV, after which you use your TV's volume control to change the level. But you'd still need to use the soundbar system's own controls for changing, say, audio modes.) If that's the case, you'll want to position the components such that these controls are accessible.

Soundbars are not perfect audio solutions. They tend to have less dynamic range than stand-alone speakers and less power than an audio/video receiver, if you have a large room, a soundbar may not be loud enough. Soundbars also don't do true surround sound, and they can't match a decent receiver/speaker system for audio quality. But if you've got a smallish room and you want to boost your HDTV's audio capability, a soundbar may be your best bet.


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