If you've bought a TV in the past few years, more than likely you've seen (or been offered) a soundbar.
These thin speakers sit in front or below a TV, and promise higher fidelity audio than is possible with just the TV’s speakers.
But do they? Are they worth the money?
Just so we're on the same page, a soundbar, also called a speakerbar, is a wide, typically thin and short (vertically) speaker with multiple drivers. They range in price from under $100 to over a $2,000. They connect to your TV (or cable box), and claim to improve the sound.
But don’t TVs sound OK?
Those three minutes of pure aural pleasure were such a welcome, unexpected break from unrelenting weeks of anxiety. If you also find yourself streaming movie after movie, trying to forget that we’re all living in a housebound, purgatorial half-life,
I can’t think of a better time to try a soundbar.
It’s entirely possible you never noticed your TV's terrible sound, especially if the TV is on as background noise, tuned to kid’s TV shows while you’re cooking. That was the case with me. For years, I played dinosaur documentaries and movies on a 10-year-old, 55-inch Panasonic with tinny, blown-out, built-in speakers.
It's easy to overlook. Many of the same people who carefully research a TV's specs fail to install a correspondingly great sound system. After all, you can walk to a showroom floor and compare one TV's screen size, weight, and inky blacks to another’s. But rich, immersive audio is a lot harder to evaluate.
Moreover, as great-looking TVs have gotten thinner, the speakers have gotten smaller and smaller. You'll be watching a beautiful 4K movie with tinny, back-mounted laptop speakers that are bouncing distorted sound waves off the wall.
“You need physics there to back up good quality sound,” says Mark Ely, Roku's vice president of retail strategy. “What that really means is, you need to have enough space to make great bass. You need wide separation between speakers to have a good stereo image. Those are compromised on today’s TVs.”
The change in our quality of viewing after installing the Roku soundbar was instantaneous. I could hear the dialog in The Witcher 3 videogame without relying on subtitles to understand the story! All this time, I thought everyone just had weird accents. Floorboards creaked; someone is breathing. Suddenly, a documentary became a multilayered environment, narration layered over a whole world of animal calls, trees rustling, and waves breaking gently on a beach.
Kevin Brennan, senior director of product management at Dolby, also offered a few other quick fixes to improve your room's acoustics.
Make sure the floor and walls aren't bare and reflective—a rug or art on the walls helps absorb sound. Make sure your soundbar is mounted or placed on the edge of a TV table, instead of sitting at the back or hidden under a trove of toys. You can add speakers to your sound system slowly, but if you're getting a soundbar, I recommend getting a subwoofer too.
Look, I know: Getting a soundbar is just a Band-Aid over a lot of other problems. It can't fix the fact that schools are closed, playdates are verboten, health care workers are in danger, and my parents don't know when they’ll next be able to see their grandchildren.
But the main point here is that you’re missing out if you’re just using regular old TV speakers. Soundbars are a cheap and convenient way to boost your movie-watching experience. You should get one. Of course, there are more complicated ways to solve that problem. You could do the whole home theater thing with floor speakers and little cube speakers on a stand and even an amplifier. You can also go super low budget and plug computer speakers into the back of your TV. They will probably sound better than the TV speakers! Just do yourself a favor and get some sort of speakers.
But for the past few weeks, it's made being trapped on the couch much more endurable, and even enjoyable, for me and my family. I’ve sat on my couch, leaned back, and listened to the pronghorn antelope gallop across sunny fields. My kids giggle in delight while standing in front of the subwoofer and feeling the heavy thud of a tyrannosaur’s footsteps tickle their shins. It’s a distraction from helplessly waiting. It’s not nothing. That seems good enough for now.