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How to buy a sound field in 2019

For many people, sound bars are the best way to get better sound quality from a TV.

They are simple and inexpensive and do not have all the frustrating leads that come with a real surround sound system. While most audio bars do not sound as good as true separate speakers – especially with music – if you're mainly looking for better sound with movies and TV shows, they are much better than your TV's built-in speakers.


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So what sound field should you buy? A good place to start is CNET's list of best sound bars, but if you just want a quick recommendation, you go here. All three represent the best we have tested (from February 2019) to their price points.

Best sound field under $ 200

Vizio SB3621n-E8


Sarah Tew / CNET

If you want maximum performance for a minimal expense, Vizio The SB3621n-E8 is CNET's Editor's Choice in Budget Category. It offers Bluetooth connectivity and a wireless subwoofer. It sounds good and doesn't look so shabby.

Look at Walmart

Read CNET's review

Best sound field with Alexa

Polk Command Bar


Sarah Tew / CNET

Polk Command Bar is the best sound field with built-in voice assistant (Alexa) . While it will see lots of competition this year, it will remain a dynamic performer with an appealing Amazon Echo vibe.

Look at Amazon

Read CNET's review

Best sound field over $ 500

Sony HT-NT5


Sarah Tew / CNET

It may be a bit in the tooth and lack Dolby Atmos, But Sony HT-NT5 still offers excellent performance for the money. It also adds HDMI switching for some flexibility.

Look at B&H

Read CNET's review

Want to know more? Here is a quick primer on which functions are most important to your needs and other things you should know.

What size sound field do I need?


Audio bars are sometimes designed to match the width of some televisions.


Audio bars come in all shapes and sizes: from under one foot long as long as one person. While the larger sound bars sometimes offer more drivers and thus a bigger sound, others are everything you pay for longer boxes.

Note that the length of a sound field does not correspond directly to the screen size of the TV, as the TV is measured diagonally. Using this handy chart, you can work out the typical width of your TV compared to the screen size.

Audio lengths for TV screen sizes

Length in inches TV screen size
12 All
38 to 45
42 inches to 50 inches
50 55 inches to 65 inches
60 70-inch and greater

Of course, the sound field may not necessarily match the width of your TV, although they are both of the same manufacturer. So if this is important to you, check the width of both models in the manufacturer's specifications before purchasing.

What connections do I want?

Many manufacturers still expect you to use your TV to switch between devices. For a long time, this involved an optical output but the presence of HDMI sound fields means that you know you have a choice between the two formats. The idea is that you connect all your home theater systems directly to the TV, then connect your TV's HDMI ARC (audio return channel) or optical output to the audio field. It is a simple overall design, as you only need to change inputs with your TV remote control. (For more information read our guide to using your TV as a switch .)

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Most televisions today have both an optical audio output and HDMI ARC.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Considering user-friendliness, it is possible to use television as a switch for most, as long as there is an optical audio output on the back.

However, there are some drawbacks to this configuration. For one, you are limited by how many inputs your TV has. If your TV only has three inputs, you can only connect three devices. You can get around this with an HDMI switch, but then you start adding complexity you probably hoped to avoid by first getting a sound field. Another problem is that most televisions downgrade incoming sound to stereo, rather than a true surround sound signal. Most bars are stereo-like, but surround-capable rows work best with a surround.

Many newer audio fields, usually at $ 200 and above, include the real HDMI inputs that you need to connect AV devices directly to the audio field (rather than touching them via the TV). For future proofs, look for at least three inputs and try to make sure they can send 4K and HDR signals – especially if you already have a 4K TV. If the sound field only has a HDMI ARC input, be aware that you cannot connect a cable box or Blu-ray player to it. Connect your set of devices to the TV first and then connect a cable between the TV's HDMI ARC port and the audio field.

Do I need wireless music?

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Sonos Beam is an audio bar with support for wireless music and several voice assistants

Juan Garzon / CNET

While many features are redundant when it comes to audio bars, there is one main exception: wireless streaming. This can take one of two main forms: Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Wireless streaming lets you play music from a variety of sources – like iTunes, a computer or streaming services – on your sound field.

Bluetooth is the easiest way to wirelessly stream audio from your phone or tablet. It works with the music stored on your phone and any music app (such as Pandora or Spotify), plus it's platform diagnostics – almost all iOS, Android and Windows phones and tables have built-in Bluetooth. Likewise, almost all sound fields on the market have the wireless standard, and if not, you can purchase an adapter such as Belkin s or Logitech s.

Wi-Fi offers several upgrades to Bluetooth including the ability to listen in multiple rooms and also control it with Google Assistant or Alexa. There are several competing "open" standards, including Play-Fi, AirPlay and Chromecast – not to mention their own manufacturers like Sonos – so it's worth to investigate Wi-Fi music options before buying .

The most cost-effective system right now is Google's Chromecast, which also allows multi-room playback and control with Google Assistant.

Do I need Alexa or Google Assistant built-in?

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Polk Command Bar has an Echo-like lighting

Sarah Tew / CNET

In 2019 you will see many audio bars offering built-in voice assistants from either Amazon, Google or both (in the case of Sonos Beam ). The argument goes like this: Why buy a Google Home Mini and a sound field when you can combine the two? It saves space and looks nicer, especially if you mount the speaker on the wall.

Buying a voice assistant depends on how comfortable you are with an "always on" microphone in your living space. If you have an Echo Dot speaker or two already, it is quite obvious, and models like Polk Command Bar will also allow you to control the functions of the sound field itself. You can also do cool things like turning off lights or asking for weather.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea, think of it as a web browser: The assistant is just sitting there waiting for you to say the watchword and then answering (vocal equivalent for a web search). Voice Assistant programs also let you read back everything it records if you are concerned about privacy. But if this is too much, you can simply choose a model without the function.

It is also worth mentioning that Amazon Echo Link will allow you to add Alexa capabilities to any audio field with an analog input (most have them), but you have to turn to this one the entrance to hear its answers (and music).

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The Samsung HW-K950 is a surround sound bar with dedicated Atmosphere speakers.

Sarah Tew / CNET

Do I need surround sound or Dolby Atmos?

Two-channel audio bars usually do not sound very different between stereo and surround modes, especially since they do not create a true surround sound experience in the first place.

Audio bars with optional surrounds, for example Sonos Playbar is the obvious exception to this: they give a huge sense of immersion when playing movies. This ability to add surround speakers to existing "bars" is now supported by many space audio bars, across brands like Polk, LG and Samsung. Usually, they use Wi-Fi to connect to standalone wireless speakers, but as this can add $ 300- $ 400 to the cost, it can be an expensive option.

Finally, this leads us to Dolby Atmos. In recent years, we have seen an explosion in the number of Atmos Sound bars released, and the price finally hides under $ 500 in 2019. While Netflix and other streaming services now offer movies and TV shows with Atmos audio tracks the number of titles is still dwarfed by the number of surround sound titles. While it is worth considering an Atmos-bar for future proofing, it is still not an important purchase. When we find an Atmos bar we can recommend for the money we let you know.

What is the difference between a sound field and a sound base?

The most common design for sound bars is quite literally a bar : it is a long, thin speaker that is often connected to a wireless subwoofer. The subwoofer can make a big difference, and if you have a choice between an "on board" or a separate part, you go to the discreet version. The sound field can be mounted to the wall or, more commonly, placed on the stand in front of the TV. It is largely a trouble-free design, although there may be some disadvantages including the ability to block your TV's remote sensor. . “/>

Sonos Playbase ($ 699, £ 649, AU $ 995) is CNET's favorite audio base

Sarah Tew / CNET

The audio bases are smoother than the more traditional bar design: They act as a pedestal for your TV and as a result never prevent the TV's remote sensors. Zvox pioneered this design, and despite excellent models like Sonos Playbase the form factor has unfortunately fallen out of fashion. The main reason is that televisions have moved from centralized pillars to the benefit of the feet at each end – mainly for safety reasons. This means that compact "bases" are largely useless for large TVs, while smaller 40-inch TVs should still fit them.

Apart from limited availability, the second drawback of pedestal design is the base or lack thereof. The audio base lacks a separate subwoofer and struggles to produce the same type of deep bass as traditional sound bars with subwoofers can.

Do I need to use the remote control that comes with the sound field?

While most sound fields contain a remote control, they are pretty crummy quality-wise, and most manufacturers allow you to use your TV's remote control instead.

In theory, it's not a bad idea: no one wants another remote control to handle. In practice, it is sometimes more problematic. After you turn off the TV's internal speakers, some TVs may display an annoying status message when receiving volume remote commands, which will happen if you use your TV remote control to control your sound field. The easiest solution for the problem is to use your cable box's remote control with a volume control or purchase a universal remote control .

Do I need a sound bar with a front panel display?

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A legit front panel display is fine but not a must-have.

Sarah Tew / CNET

A surprising number of sound bars have no true front panel display, so you don't get much (or any) visual feedback on how high the volume is or which input you are on.

A front panel display is really good – especially if it is well hidden, as on the Zvox SB500 – but we do not think they are essential. Usually you turn the volume to a comfortable level and it doesn't matter if you are at "20" or "30." Some sound bars, and here we think of Vizio models, have a puzzling series of LEDs that should correspond to the input you are on, but are almost worse than no display at all.

What do I need to know more?

It's about it. For more in-depth info, go to our latest reviews of the best audio bars and dig in.

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