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Soundbar vs. Surround Sound: How to Choose What's Right for You

Learn the advantages of soundbars and surround sound systems to enjoy high quality audio at home.

Getting Started

With TVs getting thinner and less expensive all the time, their sound quality has started to suffer. To get the most out of your games, movies, and whichever Netflix series you're binging this week, investing in better speakers is a must.
Once you've decided to upgrade your audio setup, the next step is figuring out which kind of system will work best in your home. Is a sleek soundbar the right choice? Or would a surround sound system be a better fit? In this breakdown, we pit the two against each other–soundbar vs. surround sound–to help you choose which is right for you.

The Advantages of a Soundbar

Soundbar Installation Is Easy

Soundbars are simple to install, making them the obvious choice for those who don't want to trouble themselves with positioning surround sound speakers around the room. They're especially useful for renters who wish to avoid installing anything too complex, knowing they'll have to tear it down at the next move.
Instead of running wires around the room to multiple speakers, soundbars provide high quality sound in a compact package that sits right next to your TV. If your entertainment room is short on space, the compact design of a soundbar is perfect.
Soundbars typically connect to your TV with an optical or HDMI cable. Some of them can even act as an HDMI hub. These models let you connect your cable box, streaming devices, and game systems, directly to the soundbar, passing the video signal along to the TV. Because the HDMI ports on a TV can often be difficult to reach, these models make it much easier to connect new devices to your system.

Soundbars Are Compact

Although the average soundbar is typically larger than most speakers, their all-in-one design makes them the more compact option. Unlike a surround sound system, you don't have to worry about whether you have space behind the sofa for the rear speakers or a table/mounting space located somewhere on the sides.
While some soundbars come with subwoofers or even additional speakers, other models squeeze those additional components into a single compact unit. Several models can even emulate surround sound by bouncing audio waves around the room. You'll be amazed the first time you hear a car buzz past your ear, knowing that the only speaker sits in front of you.

Soundbars Are More Affordable

With a soundbar, you can step up the sound quality of your entertainment center for as little as $100. While the best soundbars can cost more than a thousand dollars, that still pales in comparison to the price of the best surround sound set ups which can cost 10x that or more.

The Advantages of a Surround Sound System

Superior Sound Quality

As great as soundbars can be, surround systems will usually provide a better listening experience. By positioning speakers all around the room, you really feel like you're in the center of the action, because you are! Surround sound systems excel at soundstaging, making it easy to hear the "location" of different sounds. They let you hear the cheer of the crowd surrounding you at sporting events or soft footsteps creeping up from behind in thriller movies.
Surround sound setups also tend to offer higher quality sound, depending on the system and the soundbar you're comparing it to. Having more speakers located throughout a room creates an involving and cinematic experience with sound, just like in your favorite movie theater. A quality soundbar is a significant improvement over built-in TV speakers, but the immersion of a surround sound system is perfect for musicians who hear every note and movie buffs who love the feeling of being in the middle of an epic battle.

Customization Features

Unlike a soundbar that typically sits in front of your television, each individual speaker of a surround sound system can be placed wherever you like. You can get speaker stands to place directly behind a sofa or mount them in the ceiling or walls. And speaker placement is just the tip of the ice berg in regards to the ways you can customize your setup. Surround sound systems are made up of a variety of components. One advantage to this is that you can upgrade or add to the system as you go. You can start with the front speakers and receiver, adding on the back speakers and subwoofer at a later date.
The real beauty of this is that a surround sound system can be a blend of different manufacturers. Nearly every brand uses the same simple speaker wire to connect the various components. However, some manufacturer's like to use propietary connections to keep you tied into their ecosystem. That said, it often makes sense to use the same manufacturer for your various speakers as the tone of the audio often blends more naturally this way. With soundbars, it's much less common to be able to add speakers down the line. Some allow you to connect surround speakers wirelessly, but most aren't as adaptable.

Extra Ports

Surround sound systems require a receiver that acts as the central connection point for the speakers and audio video sources like your cable box or game system. Most include a variety of ports to connect your various devices. So even if your TV only has one or two HDMI ports, a receiver makes it easy to connect more devices. As mentioned before, some soundbars can act as HDMI hubs, performing much like a receiver in this regard.
Some receivers even offer two or more "zones" for audio. These zones allow you to connect a second set of speakers to sync your favorite audio in different parts of your home. That way, you don't have to pause the movie if you get up for a snack and you'll never miss a beat dancing from room to room.

Which Fits Your Entertainment Lifestyle?

The choice between a soundbar and surround sound system may come down to your living arrangements. If you have a small apartment, the compact design of soundbars make them the go to choice. However, if you have the space, surround sound setups will almost always provide a better listening experience.
Some of the best brands available, such as Bose and Sonos, offer a wide array of soundbars, receivers, speakers, and subwoofers. So whatever your budget may be, there's a system to match. You can also check out our comprehensive Soundbar Buying Guide to better understand their various features and help you determine if it's the right fit for your TV and entertainment setup. Whichever system you choose, you'll be delighted at the improvement over your TV speakers.
Last updated: December 17, 2020

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