It’s not a exaggeration to say that the best soundbars can revolutionise your viewing experience, whether that’s afternoons on the sofa watching sports, movie nights or just your next Netflix binge. If you can’t hear the action, then you’re in danger of missing out on key details.
Most modern smart TVs are designed to be as thin as possible, and so it’s pretty impossible to include good speakers within their minimised interiors. A soundbar, then, is a worthy investment that compensates for this with fantastic bass, clarity and more.
And soundbars also come in a variety of shapes and sizes, taking into account the fact that most people don’t have the space for a large, cumbersome speaker system.
Ordinarily a single speaker bar can sit snugly under the TV, and the subwoofer accompanying some models are usually wireless for easier placement. That makes these ‘2.1 systems’ easy to install and incorporate into your existing set-up.
We’ve taken a look at some of the best soundbars available right now, ranking them on their design, sound quality and more to make your choice a little easier. And if you’re in the market for a new TV to match your upgraded sound, check out our ranking of the best TVs.
The rated best soundbars 2021
1. Panasonic SC-HTB900
Best soundbar with Dolby Atmos
Dimensions: 12.8 x 105 x 7.8cm
If you want Dolby Atmos with deep powerful bass, but don’t have the space or budget for a Sennheiser Ambeo, Panasonic’s SC-HTB900 is our preferred affordable alternative.
Compact and versatile, this 3.1 system can be expanded into a fully-fledged surround sound system with optional additional rear speakers, if the whim takes you. And its bass performance is profound.
The good news is it looks terrific too, with a smart curved grille and touch controls for power, volume and input selection. Panasonic sometimes forgets to add style to its substance, but that’s certainly not the case here.
Adding extra confidence is a ‘Tuned by Technics’ badge, which hints that this soundbar can satisfy audiophiles.
Connections include two HDMIs and optical digital audio. Naturally there’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth too.
The SC-HTB900 uses a front-facing left, centre, right driver array, with a pair of woofers and dome tweeter for the left/right stereo channels, plus matching twin woofers to handle centre channel. The wireless subwoofer sits on a moulded plastic base, so it’ll sound equally good on carpet as a wooden floor.
Measuring just over a metre wide, the SC-HTB900 bar is best partnered with TVs 55-inches and larger.
Unusually for a Dolby Atmos bar, there are no up-firing speakers built-in. Instead a 3D Surround effect creates an illusion of height. However, what really impressed us was the width of the Panasonic’s soundstage and the musicality of its presentation.
Total power output is rated at 505W, which breaks down to 3 x 85w across the front, and 250W driving the sub.
This Panasonic is exciting when it needs to be, but can hold a tune, too. And that wireless sub adds a huge amount of depth to the mix.
Ideal Home rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
2. Sony HT-ZF9
Best smart soundbar
Connectivity: Bluetooth, HDMI, USB, Wi-Fi
Dimensions: 9.9 x 100 x 6.4cm
This ultra slim bar and partnering wireless subwoofer offers Dolby Atmos sound and High-Resolution audio, making it a fine choice for home cinema and Hi-Fi enthusiasts.
A metre wide, the HT-ZF9 suits 55- to 65-inch screens. Connections include three HDMIs, a 3.5 mm minijack and optical digital audio input.
In addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, there’s Google Chromecast built-in so it can connect your Google phone or smart-home device
This is another Dolby Atmos bar that doesn’t employ up-firing speakers, instead it boasts Sony’s Vertical Sound Engine to fool our ears into thinking sounds are coming from up high. It works a treat, engulfing the listener in various sound effects.
Auditioned with Dolby Atmos soundtracks from Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, we were thrilled by its cinematic performance.
Dolby Atmos movies play with exaggerated height and width, while the subwoofer has a welcome kick. If you want to go full surround, you can also upgrade with Sony’s optional rear speakers.
Its high-res drivers are crisp and smooth too, perfectly in tune with the latest generation of HD music streaming services from the likes of Amazon, Tidal and Deezer.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
3. Majority K2 Soundbar
Best budget soundbar
Connectivity: Bluetooth, HDMI, OPT, RCA, USB
Dimensions: 76.2 x 5.3 x 6.9cm
A sleek-looking soundbar with great sound output and an eco-conscious message behind it, the Majority K2 Soundbar comes in the form of a slim soundbar and wireless subwoofer, significantly boosting your TV’s sound for a budget price.
While the bass from the subwoofer can’t quite measure up to that of some competitors, the convenience of a basic wireless surround sound set-up and the affordable price tag more than makes up for this lack. The soundbar also comes with a pleasing amount of features.
From Bluetooth and USB media playback to expanded bass, treble and EQ options, the offering from Majority lets you get the audio just how you like it.
Connect the soundbar to your television via HDMI ARC, Optical Audio or RCA if your set-up is on the older side, and you’ll immediately notice the enhanced sound quality. You can also mount the speaker to the wall if you don’t have a TV stand, but it looks great either way.
And along with the planet (and expenses) friendly power consumption, Majority plans to plant a tree for every customer, so that’s a nice little bonus!
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
4. Philips Soundbar HTL3325/10
Best mid-range soundbar
Connectivity: Bluetooth, HDMI ARC, USB
Dimensions: 82 x 9.5 x 67cm
It’s not the cheapest soundbar on our list, but the Philips HTL3325/10 is a great option if you’re looking for good value at a mid-range price.
The bar sports Bluetooth connectivity and Dolby Digital for that surround sound effect, boosting the audio experience whether you’re watching the big game or the nightly news. It’ll perform well for film nights and Netflix binges, too.
The geometric design of both the soundbar itself and the wireless subwoofer looks great with a mesh front and the controls situated on top, and the sub is svelte enough to tuck around on the floor without drawing too much attention to itself. You can also mount the bar to the wall if you choose.
Available in light grey (pictured) and black, the Philips HTL3320/10 isn’t flashy, but is well-regarded by reviewers and, if you’re still relying on your in-built TV speakers, will significantly improve your viewing experience.
5. Bose Soundbar 300
Best soundbar for compact spaces
Connectivity: Bluetooth, USB, HDMI, Opt
Dimensions: 5.6 x 67.5 x 10.2cm
A great example of a smart home soundbar, the Bose Soundbar 300 is the more compact stablemate to the Bose SB700.
This home theatre all-in-one offers voice control courtesy of an eight-microphone array, optimised for both near-field and far-field voice pickup. It’s compatible with Amazon Alexa, Apple Airplay 2 and Google Assistant, so there’s plenty of smart home options.
As we’ve come to expect from Bose, design and cosmetic finish are high.
Standing just 5.6cm tall, and 67.5cm wide, this compact soundbar sports a subtle matte finish and has a smart aluminium grille that wraps around the sides.
Connections comprise a single HDMI and optical digital audio. There are touch sensitive buttons up top for power and microphone control.
Behind the grille you’ll find three forward facing drivers, supported by side firing cones to each side. Despite its relatively high price, this isn’t a Dolby Atmos compatible soundbar.
The Soundbar 300 ships with a tidy remote control, but can also be driven with a matching Bose app. If you want multi-room audio, you can easily link the soundbar with other Bose speakers around the home.
If you find the SB300 light on bass, it’s upgradable with the Bose Bass Module 500 wireless subwoofer. If you’re really feeling flush, you can even add dedicated Bose rear speakers, creating a fully cinematic 5.1 experience.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Why do I need a soundbar?
Star Wars director George Lucas says ‘sound is 50 per cent of the movie-going experience’. He probably had his movies in mind when he said this, but we reckon the same applies to repeats of Love Actually…
Thanks to new display technologies like OLED and edge-lit LED, the average TV is now wafer thin. But while they look stylish and its image quality is often breathtakingly good, there’s a high price paid when it comes to audio performance.
With no room to accommodate even modestly-sized speakers, today’s TVs can sound thin and feeble. While some high-end TVs come with quite advanced sound systems, the vast majority of sets are lacking, and these are well worth upgrading with a soundbar.
Even the cheapest soundbar will give you better clarity and greater volume than a standard TV speaker system. And the best will transform your viewing completely.
Furthermore, most soundbars also offer Bluetooth, so you can get the best sound when streaming shows to your TV from your phone or tablet.
What size soundbar do I need?
It makes sense to buy a soundbar that pairs up nicely with the size of your TV. Parking a compact bar in front of a 65-inch giant telly doesn’t just look odd, it won’t generate the kind of sound required.
Ideally, the soundbar should be slightly smaller in width than the screen it’s going to be partnered with.
Can you use a soundbar on any TV?
Essentially, yes. There are two ways to connect a soundbar to a TV, through the HDMI slot and via digital optical audio.
All new TVs have HDMI inputs. This single connection sends the sound from the TV to the soundbar with ease.
If your set is an older model that lacks an HDMI slot, then the digital optical audio cable will do the same job.
The entire set up process shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes – and that includes brewing a cuppa and making a token attempt to read any instructions in the box.
What are the differences between each soundbar?
Typical soundbars will be either stereo or multichannel. If a bar is stereophonic and comes with a subwoofer then it’s called a 2.1 system – the .1 always refers to the subwoofer.
If it’s a home cinema-style soundbar, with multiple drivers used to emulate various channels of sound, it’ll be described as 3.1 or 5.1.
Of course, the beauty of a soundbar is that it’s more or less an all-in-one solution. So a multichannel capable soundbar will look much like a stereo one.
In practical terms, a stereo soundbar will fire audio towards the listener, while a multichannel bar magically creates the illusion that sounds are coming from all around the room.
How we test the best soundbars
Our featured soundbars have been tried and tested for both technical performance and how they compliment the sound and aesthetic of the TVs we watched them with.
We put our ears to the ground (metaphorically, not literally) and listened out for high sound-quality, echoes and reverb and for whether the soundbars can handle films, TV and music at loud volumes.
How the soundbar looks with your TV is important, too, so we found out whether certain soundbars blend well with ultra-wide, super thin TVs and whether they look good beside, above or underneath the telly.
Also, we rate the soundbars on ease of installation, compatibility and little added extras, like Bluetooth and connection to phones and smart-home devices, like the Amazon Alexa.
Additional words by Amy Cutmore; Caroline Preece