Which should I buy — soundbar or surround system?
Both have their advantages and disadvantages
Your TV or projector will almost certainly have speakers built-in, and it may be tempting to use these. After all, that's one less thing to buy, find space for and maintain. But as soon as you hear a system with dedicated speakers, you'll know what you've been missing.
The question then is just what sort of speakers to get. The best soundbars are compact, easy to install and they range in price from fairly inexpensive to a bit spendier to super spendy. No matter your budget, there's a soundbar for you.
Surround speakers can be appealing as well. They take more time to set up than a soundbar, but they allow for a more flexible arrangement. And, if you decide to expand in a couple of years, you can do so without replacing your entire kit.
Here are some things to consider when you're deciding whether to get a soundbar or surround system.
Why get a sound bar?
Soundbars are incredibly easy to install. Just plug in the sound bar's power cable, plug it into your display with an optical, 3.5mm or HDMI cable and that's it!
Most soundbars function as HDMI hubs, and some let you pair your smartphone over Bluetooth or use the soundbars as a Chromecast Audio target. But if you don't want to use those extra options — or you're on a time crunch — you'll be up and running in about a minute.
If you're an apartment-dweller or are generally short on space, soundbars are the way to go. Surround systems… well… surround your living room. You need to make sure you have space behind your couch for your rear speakers and a place on each side for side channels. And somewhere for the subwoofer. And, if you're going all out, holes in your ceiling for speakers there.
You don't HAVE to go all out with a surround system and there are soundbars with extra pieces as well, but a surround system is by definition going to involve more time, space and cable management than a soundbar.
Everyone has a different budget, and soundbars can get wildly expensive. But if you just want something that's better than your TV's speakers (and almost anything would be better than your TV's speakers) you don't need to spend more than $100/£100. Meanwhile, just the receiver in your surround system will likely cost more than $100, and that's without any speakers included.
Why choose a surround system?
If you do have more space and the money to spend on it, a surround system will serve you well for years to come.
Better sound quality
Okay, "better" when it comes to sound quality is always going to be subjective. But part of this is just physics. The reason a soundbar is better than the speakers in your TV is because there's more space in your soundbar, than there is in your TV speakers, for the sound to bounce around.
The same is true when comparing a soundbar and a surround system — more space generally equals better sound. A soundbar does its best to make it sound like your audio is routed to separate channels and it sounds great. But a surround system's receiver and physically separate speakers will divide your sound much better because everything's physically apart from each other.
In addition to being able to choose exactly where your speakers are placed in the room, a surround system lets you add components at your pace. Only have money for the receiver and front speakers right now? Cool, get those and get them installed. A few months down the road, you can pick up your subwoofer or rear surrounds. A few months after that, get your upward-facing speakers to add some Dolby Atmos action. With a soundbar, you generally are stuck with what you get at the time of purchase.
Mix and match
Even better, your speakers don't all have to come from the same manufacturer. If you see one brand's speakers are on sale, you can get those speakers and know they're compatible. If you have a Sonos soundbar and want to add surround speakers, you can only use Sonos surround speakers. It's the same with other soundbar makers. And if a new whizbang audio format gets announced in a few years, you'll likely just need a new receiver and whatever additional speakers that format requires. That won't be a cheap purchase, but it'll be less expensive and less work than a brand new soundbar.
If you have a lot of HDMI devices — streaming stick, a game console, an HTPC and whatever else — a receiver will also act as an HDMI hub. Most soundbars will too, but less space on the soundbar means fewer ports than on a receiver.
So which is better?
Deciding whether a soundbar is better than a surround system or vice versa is going to depend on your individual circumstances and living room layout. As an apartment dweller, you may be hesitant to get a surround system that may not work well in a future apartment. A soundbar is also less cluttered and is easier to manage.
If you're settled in, have the space (and the cash) and if sound quality is important to you then a surround system is likely to tempt you.
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