Can soundbars produce surround sound?


closeup on soundbar speaker

Although soundbars previously promised better sound quality than bulky household speaker systems, back then they did sacrifice the sound performance for portability. However, today’s soundbars have come a long way and are a whole different story. In addition to supporting DTS:X surround sound formats and Dolby Atmos, they also offer overheard and height effects. In other words, you get the surround sound effect with a surround sound system.

Soundbars can produce surround sound, similar to an AV receiver-based sound system. They achieve this by adding height and overheard effects, which allows them to produce dynamic and enveloping sound, often found in a surround sound system. You cannot even tell the difference between the two.

But how are modern-day soundbars able to produce such beautiful sounding audio that they weren’t able to produce a couple of years before? Let’s find out. 

How does the soundbar work?

Soundbars are a group of seven(or any number of speakers based on the price) speakers grouped in a box or ‘bar’. The speakers are positioned in a specific way so that they produce a specific sound effect, also known as the psycho-acoustic effect. 

The effect sends different sound beams in every direction like the front left, right, center, surround left, right and top. The unique beam comes out of a dedicated channel in the soundbar and bounces off the walls. The device tricks your senses into believing that the sound is coming from different angles, all while not sacrificing the overall sound quality. 

On the contrary, I was genuinely fascinated by the technology used in these audio devices. It is quite impressive that these devices are able to produce quality sounds that are easily comparable to full-fledged home theater systems.

Do all soundbars provide surround sound?

Not all soundbars are capable of providing surround sound. I bought a set of soundbars for $180 the other day, and though they were better than the stock TV speakers, they couldn’t produce any surround sound whatsoever. 

Although some soundbars do come with a ‘surround’ mode, the sound channels are still located right in front of you. All the subtle frequency manipulations implemented by the technology might somewhat convince an untrained ear, but music lovers will see through the veil immediately. 

However, note that the cheap soundbars are not to be trifled with. Inexpensive though they may be, they still produce better quality sound compared to the down & back-firing stock LCD television speakers. So, if you crave the true ‘surround’ experience, I suggest you increase your budget since the best soundbars can cost somewhere between $500 to $1,000.

Soundbars such as the TCL Alto 9+ have multiple drivers pointing directly at you, towards left and right, and towards up and down. It’s one of my favorites as the audio simulation is quite realistic. The Dolby Atmos audio processing in this particular soundbar is as close as you can get to a real 5.1 channel.

TCL Alto 9+
TCL Alto 9+

Soundbar vs surround sound system

I remember the first time I came across this dilemma, I was trying to figure out which one I should buy. While soundbars come close to mimicking the effects of a traditional surround sound system, they still lack superior clarity. 

Wirecutter hosted an experiment involving esteemed music professionals LeRena Major and Dal Gonda. They partook in a simple test to determine if soundbars could compete with a traditional 5.1 speaker setup.

You can read the entire experiment here. But to put it simply, both music enthusiasts preferred the speaker system over the soundbar. The music quality, especially the vocal parts were much clearer in the speaker system compared to the soundbar. However, neither of them seemed too inclined to buy the speaker setup and preferred the soundbar instead.

According to them, setting up an entire speaker system seemed like a lot of work. It also looked very bulky and they could not afford the space in their living room. The soundbar on the other hand not only looked better but was easy to set up.

They were not willing to invest the effort or time to install a sound system that provided only minor vocal upgrades. Therefore, given the choice, they will prefer the surrounding sound quality provided by the soundbars. 

In conclusion, though soundbars cannot provide the same level of surround sound as you see in a traditional sound system, they are a viable and much cheaper alternative. FYI I bought my soundbar before reading this. Sounds like I made the correct choice. 

How to set up a soundbar?

To set up a soundbar you need to connect it to your TV. All extra speaker systems, consoles, or other audio output channels will go into the soundbar.

Now before I jump into the connecting part, here are a few things you should consider while buying a sound system. 

Firstly, always buy a soundbar with an HDMI(ARC) port because it supports the most audio formats by far. It would be optimal if your television also has an HDMI(ARC) port, and if it does not, make sure the next one you get comes with such a port.

Secondly, you always want to stick to HDMI ports because optical ports do not support all modern audio formats. Here is a comparison:

OpticalHDMI
StereoStereo
Dolby DigitalDolby Digital 
DTSDTS
DTS:X
Dolby Digital Plus
Dolby Atmos

1. Connect your soundbar to the TV via the HDMI(ARC) channels.

2. If you have consoles such as an XBOX or a Play Station, connect the consoles to the soundbar first.

3. Now take the output from the soundbar and connect to the TV. This ensures the sound quality remains top-notch since it’s not going through the TV first.

4. Make sure HDMI-CEC is enabled from your TV because it’s a requirement in some televisions. 

5. If your TV does not have an HDMI(ARC) port, you can use the optical port instead. 

6. Head over to Amazon and buy any Toslink cable to connect your soundbar with the TV via the optical port.

7. Another way to connect the soundbar to the TV is via the Aux cable, which requires an RCA cable.

8. The last way you can connect the soundbar to the TV is via Bluetooth. Now the sound quality will not be the best, but it is the simplest form of connection there is.

F.A.Q.

Are soundbars better than home theatres?

Although soundbars provide good quality surround audio, it’s not the same as a dedicated speaker system placed throughout the room. Whether or not they are better depends on your usage. 

If you want a theatre-like experience in your home, you are better off with a dedicated speaker system. However, if you frequently change homes, or have a small living room, a soundbar might be a good fit. 

What are the deciding factors of a sound system selection?

It usually depends on the type of content and your room size. A home theatre system is the best fit for rooms greater than 250 square feet. If your room is smaller, a soundbar will do just fine because more speakers cannot produce the desired sound effects due to space constraints.

Soundbars also lack vocal clarity, so if you’re an audiophile who prefers absolute sound clarity, you’re better off with a surround sound system. For other casual purposes, the soundbar does a good enough job.

Do surround soundbars provide a good experience?

It depends on your expectations. On the average low end, soundbars offer decent music quality that’s better than stock TV speakers. The expensive ones however provide a more immersive experience. They are usually the best choice in most cases thanks to their low price and easy setup options.

Best soundbars to buy

Here is a list of some of the best soundbars that produce some truly impressive surround sound:

1. Vizio V-Series 2.1

2. Klipsch Cinema 600 Sound Bar 3.1

3. Vizio Elevate

4. Sonos Arc

5. Yamaha SR-C20A

Parting thoughts

I believe that a few years from now technology will eventually give birth to soundbars that are on par with surround speakers. We never thought we’d get this far, and nothing is stopping us from achieving more of the same. Until then you will have to make do with present-day soundbars. Although they are not the best surround sound providers, they are not the worst either.

Rune Bearson

As you can see, I love my headphones! I use them every day when commuting, watching YouTube videos, playing guitar/piano and doing chores. I'm a podcast addict and I like all kinds of music from metal to chillout ambient.

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