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Your TV Speakers Are Terrible. Amplify Your Audio With the Best Soundbars, According to Gizmodo

Image: Sonos

A good TV can be shockingly affordable these days, but while the picture quality has improved and sets have gotten dramatically thinner, the speakers have become tiny and terrible. Your TV’s speakers probably aren’t well-equipped enough to put a boom in your room from explosions, let alone deliver decently intelligible dialogue.

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Given that, a soundbar is all but essential these days to deliver a solid viewing experience. A basic soundbar won’t match a proper 5.1 speaker set in terms of immersion, but they find a happy medium in terms of sound quality and space. And they’re typically not as much of an eyesore either. Hunting for a soundbar that meets your needs and budget? Here’s what our pals at Gizmodo recommend.

Best Place to Buy Soundbars

We have an array of picks below, but if you prefer to browse the listings yourself, we have a few recommendations for where to start. Amazon typically has the best prices on a wide array of brands, but it’s always worth checking Best Buy to see if they have a better deal. Otherwise, retailers like Newegg and B&H Photo are good alternate options to scope out.

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Best Cheap TV Soundbar: Vizio 2.0 Soundbar 

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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If you’re looking for a cheap and easy upgrade that won’t cost you hundreds of dollars, Vizio’s 2.0-channel soundbar system can do the trick. At just 20 inches long, it’s compact enough to fit into just about any space, but it also means that you won’t get booming bass or stereo separation. Did we mention it’s cheap?

Gizmodo’s Adam Clark Estes summed it up, writing: “There’s a difference between a good deal and a great soundbar. The Vizio 20-inch 2.0 soundbar is only one of those things.” Even so, it’s sure to beat your TV’s speakers, plus you can bundle in a subwoofer to fill out the low end.

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Best for Streaming: Roku Smart Soundbar

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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Some people are a fan of combo stuff, some aren’t. But if you’re a shampoo-and-conditioner-2-in-1 kind of person, check out the Roku Smart Soundbar, which puts a 4K Roku streaming box inside a decently compact soundbar. The soundbar itself is $180, which is pretty great considering a comparable Roku Ultra costs $100 on its own. I’d recommend grabbing it with Roku’s own wireless subwoofer for a fuller sound, though. If you don’t already have a Roku (or are in need of an upgrade), Estes called it a “no-brainer”—and the same goes for the newer Roku Streambar, which is a bit smaller and cheaper. But if you already have a streaming solution, you might be better off with the next soundbar on this list …

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Best Budget Surround Sound: Vizio V-Series 5.1 Soundbar

Image: Vizio

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When it comes to straight sound, Vizio has the soundbar game pretty much on lockdown—especially at low and midrange price points. If you want to upgrade from the smaller options above, a longer soundbar like Vizio’s V-Series will get you better stereo separation, louder volume, and clearer dialogue thanks to its dedicated center channel. Oh, and it comes with a subwoofer and two satellite speakers, so you’re getting true surround sound from a $250 package. While my compatriots at Gizmodo haven’t reviewed this model specifically, I own its predecessor and can say confidently it sounds pretty good for the price and size. It doesn’t quite rival a dedicated surround setup, but for the price, space savings, and spousal acceptance factor, it’s an absolute winner.

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Best Small Soundbar: Sonos Beam

Photo: Sonos

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If you already have Sonos speakers in your house, the convenience of a Sonos-based TV setup is tough to ignore. The Sonos Beam is a small soundbar that is a bit pricey for its size, but integrates with the rest of your Sonos system (not to mention Alexa), which makes it well worth the cost. Oh, and you can pair your existing Sonos speakers and sub to the Beam for 5.1 surround sound, which is just awesome. It sounds better than its tiny size would suggest: “the soundbar’s biggest advantage is the size of the soundstage,” explained Estes in his Gizmodo review. “Thanks in part to its rounded corners, the Beam actually pumps out audio in three directions ... that sound felt much bigger than a two-foot-wide soundbar ought to, since most soundbars just have speakers on the front.” In other words, Sonos knows what it’s doing.

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Best With Atmos: Sony HT-G700

Image: Sony

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While you can get 5.1 surround sound from a $250 Vizio bar, you do have to contend with extra speakers and cables around your room, which just isn’t tenable for some. Factor in Dolby Atmos soundbars, which often require certain types of ceilings (see below), and surround sound may look unappealing to some folks. Enter Sony’s HT-G700: Not only is it a larger soundbar/subwoofer combo that sounds better than its smaller competitors, but it uses Sony’s best-in-class processing to mimic a more immersive soundstage and Atmos height effects. Gizmodo’s Victoria Song noted that it’s not the same as having true rear and height speakers—which my experience bears out using a similar Sony bar—but it can do wonders given the fact that everything’s coming from one unit on your table. In fact, it’s impressive enough that Gizmodo considers it the best soundbar for most people.

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Best Budget Dolby Atmos Soundbar: Vizio M-Series M51a-H6

Image: Andrew Hayward

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If you’re hunting for a straightforward surround sound system that supports Dolby Atmos without breaking the bank, Vizio’s M-Series M51a-H6 is a compelling budget-friendly option. At a $350 list price but seen for quite a bit less already, the M51a-H6 gives you a central soundbar with nine built-in speakers, and it’s supported by a pair of satellite speakers and a subwoofer.

Like some Atmos setups, it struggles to deliver the kind of verticality that you expect, and it’s not the most robust or exciting option out there. But it is affordable, and if you don’t want to go nuts on a sound system, it can do the trick. It’s only available at Sam’s Club and Costco as of now, however. As Gizmodo’s Victoria Song wrote:

“To be honest, if I were making a wishlist for someone else to buy me a 5.1 soundbar system with Dolby Atmos, this probably wouldn’t be my No. 1 pick. I’d probably choose something more expensive, with upward-firing speakers. If I were paying with my own money? I’d be plenty happy with this soundbar.”

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Best Spatial Sound for Small Rooms: Sonos Arc

Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

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Now we get to the big boys. If you like the idea of Sonos (as described above) and Dolby Atmos height effects (as I’ve written about plenty of times here at The Inventory), the Sonos Arc is for you. It takes everything great about the Sonos Beam—that is, wireless whole-home audio—and merges it with a larger soundbar with better sound, a slick design, and up-firing Dolby Atmos drivers. Song put it this way: “For someone like me, who doesn’t have any space for an extra subwoofer or satellite speakers, this is probably the easiest, most space-efficient, Atmos-compatible ‘home theater’ I could get.” In other words, it’s a compromise, but a damn good one that most people would be willing to make—and if you do have other Sonos speakers in the house, you can pair them all together for a fuller 5.1.2 Atmos setup.

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Best Home Theater Soundbar: Vizio Elevate

Image: Vizio

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Finally, at the top end, we come back to Vizio. While the Sonos Arc provides 3.0.2 sound on its own (or 5.1.2 with a lot of sold-separately add-ons), Vizio has crammed 5.1.4 channels of Atmos goodness into a single $1,000 package with the Elevate. Song called it “a step up” from other Atmos-capable soundbars, and having used its predecessor myself, I can say Vizio provides one of the best home theater experiences you can get in a soundbar package. At $1,000, it’s easily as expensive (if not moreso) than a true Atmos speaker setup, but again: this offers convenience, space savings, and attractive design that a more complex set of gear can’t match. If you’re a renter who can’t put speakers in your ceilings, Vizio’s Elevate is totally the way to go.

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This story was originally published by Whitson Gordon on 12/02/2020 and updated by Andrew Hayward with new information on 02/04/2021. 


Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and all-around tech nerd. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn't get grease on his mechanical keyboard.

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