It’s not exaggeration to say that the best soundbars can revolutionise your viewing experience, whether nights on the sofa involve sports, movies or just your next Netflix binge. If you can’t hear the action, then you’re in danger of missing out on the action.
Most modern smart TVs are designed to be as thin as possible, and so it’s pretty impossible to include good speakers within their interiors. A soundbar, then, is a worthy investment that compensates for this with fantastic bass, clarity and more.
For the latest expert advice on all things tech, read our buying guide reviews.
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 find you’re looking for a speaker with additional smarts, take a look at our guide to the best smart speakers.
The rated best soundbars 2021
1. Sennheiser Ambeo 3D Soundbar
Best soundbar overall
At more than a metre wide, and tipping the scales at 18.5kg, the Sennheiser Ambeo isn’t exactly petite.
But this is the Rolls Royce of Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars. It will make your living room sound like a premium movie theatre, without the need for a forest of speakers.
Hidden from view inside this single box are 13 drivers, with a combined power output of 250W, and a peak (for big explosions and the like) of 500W. Technically speaking, that’s more than enough to hear the faintest of noises in any film or TV show.
What Sennheiser has created is the equivalent of a high-end home cinema system, complete with multiple inputs so you can connect it to any TV.
There’s no separate subwoofer supplied, but frankly you won’t need one. This monster of a soundbar handles deep bass better than any other.
The Ambeo is great with movies, and while it doesn’t have rear speakers, its processor cleverly creates the illusion of sounds coming from behind you. The effect is great and during testing, I looked over my shoulder more than once because of the immersive sound.
This big beast isn’t just brilliant with movies, it’s also a fine music system too, effortlessly filling the largest of rooms with sounds, which is great for when you’re hosting parties.
Ideal Home rating: 5 out of 5 stars
2. Panasonic SC-HTB900
Best Dolby Atmos soundbar
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
3. Sony HT-ZF9
Best soundbar for movie watching
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
4. Sonos Arc
Best smart soundbar
Sonos’ new flagship 5.1 soundbar is its first with Dolby Atmos, and therefore it’s the bass-filled treat that many Sonos fans have been waiting for. It’s been in development for seven years and you’re rewarded for your patience.
The booming bass is satisfyingly rumbling and intense, and even if your TV set doesn’t currently support Atmos, it’s going to dramatically improve the sound quality. Dialogue is crisp and clear, explosions punchy and room filling. Even watching MasterChef, the Arc enhances every chopping knife and bubbling pan.
Early reviews suggest that you can take things to an even higher level with the addition of a Sonos Sub and two Play Ones – upgrading the system to 5.1.2.
The Arc also promises many multitasking opportunities – Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are built in, so if you’re pondering the weather, tomorrow’s schedule or just how tall Chris Hemsworth is, Arc has your back.
One thing that immediately strikes you is its size. It’s not the shortest of soundbars at a lengthy 114cm, so you will find it sits better under a modern 55-inch TV, rather than anything smaller.
Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars
5. Bose Soundbar 500
Best soundbar for compact spaces
A great example of a smart home soundbar, the Bose Soundbar 500 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 Amazon Alexa and Apple Airplay 2 compatible, with Google Assistant support to come.
As we’ve come to expect from Bose, design and cosmetic finish are high.
Standing just 4.4cm tall, and 81cm 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 500 ships with a tidy remote control, but can also be driven with a matching Bose app. To fine tune performance, the Bose ADAPTiQ headset is included.
If you find the SB500 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
6. JBL Bar Studio
Best soundbar under £150
Compact but powerful, this entry-level soundbar from JBL over delivers on its modest price ticket. If you’re looking to lift your TV’s sound out of the thin and weedy doldrums, this will do the trick.
Just 60cm wide and 6cm tall, it’s suitable for screen sizes 40-inches and upwards.
Sharply designed and well finished, it certainly doesn’t look like a budget bar. Its specification is also reassuringly ambitious, with Bluetooth streaming support. Connections include HDMI and optical digital audio.
JBL is known for its fulsome sound quality, and there are aspects of that here. The Studio Bar goes deep, with a gratifying level of slam.
But JBL knows how to do fine spatial detail too, adding atmosphere to any given scene. Behind the grille are twin tweeters and a woofer.
The price tag implies certain limitations though. It’s best suited to smaller living rooms and dens, and doesn’t have the power plant to fill a larger listening space. It wouldn’t be our first choice as a wireless Bluetooth speaker either, although having the option to stream is appreciated.
But for sheer bang for buck, this is a stonking buy.
Ideal Home rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
How to choose the best soundbar for you
Choosing the best soundbar for your home can be tricky if you don’t know the ins and outs of the different features, so we’ve answered some of the most common questions you may have.
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