We’re living in a golden age of flat screens. The downside: skinny televisions produce anemic sound. But you can easily beef it up with a sound bar.
You’re laying on your couch watching your big flat screen HD TV and the characters on the show are whispering during an important scene. You can barely hear what they are saying, so you crank up the volume. Out of nowhere explosions barge loudly into your living room and rock you right out of your seat, as the volume skyrockets substantially from the tinny and distant conversation before.
Here’s the thing: even though display technology has improved with TVs over time, one thing remains unchanged — TV audio is as awful now as it’s ever been.
Blame Their Design
As TVs have gotten slimmer with ridiculously thin bezels, there’s little room left for the speaker drivers. With such constraint, the drivers are often tiny and weak. A one-to-two-inch driver is not capable of reproducing low frequency booms and crisp dialogues to draw you right into the heart of the action – and that’s about the biggest driver you can expect to find in most current-day sets. Hence, TV sound has become wimpy and fails to do justice to the visual delights on screen.
Indeed, you often come across TV makers who like to brag about how thin their televisions are. Unfortunately paper-thin designs come at the expense of decent sound. Take a guess: where do you think your incredibly slim flat panel TV’s speakers might be placed?
That’s right: the back seat.
Back or Bottom Firing Speakers
Long gone are the days when TVs had forward-facing speakers. Our abhorrence for bezels has forced TV makers to relegate speakers to the rear, leaving them pointing downwards or backwards instead of right at you.
There is no worse place to put the speakers than the back of a TV. Think about how someone sounds if he is talking with his back to you. Muddy, right? High frequency sounds are very directional. Since the speakers are not facing you, the sound can become very muddy as it bounces off the walls. In this case, the speakers are struggling to produce accurate high-pitched treble sounds. That’s why the dialogues are simultaneously soft, muffled, and tinny. Jabbing at your remote control constantly to crank up the volume to better hear those soft and muffled voices in quiet scenes, or to turn it down every time something dramatic happens can be particularly frustrating if you’re in the midst of watching a thrilling action movie. Worse yet, the voices can simply become lost in the overpowering background music.
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to add decent sound to your window-into-Hollywood. There are plenty of options on the market, ranging from very technical and finicky to extremely easy-to-operate types of sound bar. If you want to spend a few hundred bucks or take a bigger chunk out of your bank account, that’s up to you. However, getting an external sound system for your flat-panel TV is a no-brainer.
The Easy Fix: Get a Sound Bar
Sound bar owes its existence to flat-panel TVs. This sleek speaker sits in front on a cabinet or wall-mounted below a TV. Surely a sound bar guarantees a higher fidelity audio than it is possible with just the TV’s speakers.
You can never go wrong with a sound bar if you are looking for the audio quality your TV deserves. The beauty of a sound bar lies in its simplicity. It is basically an all-in-one booster speaker with a built-in amplifier, so there’s no need for a receiver. Due to its one-piece design and easy connectivity, a sound bar generally requires no more than two digital cables: one to the power socket and one to the TV. A sound bar requires absolutely no wire-running, drilling, fussing, speaker calibrating, or amateur AV specialist adventures. So if space is at a premium and you’re ready to break free from snaking cables, read on.
There are essentially three main types of sound bar: speaker-only sound bar, sound bar with a wireless subwoofer, and sound bar with surround-sound capabilities.
Speaker-Only Sound Bar
This sound bar is exactly what you’d expect. With several speakers being integrated into one long rectangular box, the sound bar delivers far better sound than any TV speaker you are likely to hear. No great surprise there. This type of sound bar may even have a subwoofer output, but will probably require a separate subwoofer. At the very least, the sound bar points the drivers towards you. That’s a big step up over TV audio.
Sound Bar with a Wireless Subwoofer
You can also buy a sound bar with a subwoofer (or “sub”) to give your TV audio extra low-frequency oomph while maintaining that minimalist look in the room. The sub bundled with the sound bar contains a large speaker driver optimized for low frequency effects like the deep heavy bass of music and the explosions of action movies. This sub won’t give you window-rattling bass, but it will give you enough bangs and thuds in the low end. Low-frequency sounds are non-directional—meaning it will be difficult for your ear to locate where the bass is coming from. So, you can plop a wireless sub almost anywhere in the room, for instance behind a potted plant or next to your couch, and still have it blend well sonically with your sound bar.
Sound Bar with Surround-Sound Capabilities
Want the best possible sound? Look for a multi-channel sound bar with virtual surround sound that bounces off the walls to create simulated surround sound effects. This sound bar typically has five or seven audio channels, with discrete sounds assigned to each channel to create a 3D audio field while fooling your brain into thinking there are many speakers all around you – while they all come from the same sound bar!
The More Complicated Option: Home Cinema System
Want a full-blown home cinema experience? Nothing fills a big room with a full, dynamic range sound like a 5.1- or 7.1-channel system, which usually takes the form of a Blu-ray or DVD player along with a robust home theater receiver and multiple speakers.
Home cinema can give a big boost over TV speakers. Although 5.1 is the most common setup, the systems can be as compact as 2.1 or as expansive as 9.2. You’re simply able to get more immersive, powerful sound, courtesy of the multiple speakers arranged over a larger area than a sound bar. Take 5.1 for instance: the ‘5’ refers to five main speakers and the ‘1’ indicates the number of subwoofers. A 5.1-channel system will let you experience the sound in a more cinematic way, with sound effects coming from the front, to the sides, and from behind you.
However, setting up any home cinema that is worth salted popcorn requires larger space and serious effort. Most of the times, it can be pretty pricey as well. You’ll need to find space in your den, living room, or whatever space you intend to devote to your new home cinema. If you’re dealing with a small room, trying to squeeze a few extra inches out of an already tight space for your home cinema system can prove challenging.
To add insult to the injury you will be running cables under your carpet and around the edges of your walls and that can be extremely frustrating at times. What’s more, if you try to deploy a 5.1 or even a 7.1 setup in a small room, you’ll quickly notice the sound becomes muddy and unfocused. You will definitely appreciate a little bit of distance between you and the speakers to get the effect you’re looking for.
So, knowing that wiring up a bona fide multi-speaker home cinema gives you a headache, a sound bar may be the answer after all.
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