Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.
Most of the 200-plus sets in our TV ratings earn no more than a decent score for sound. That’s fine for routine sitcoms, talk shows, and the like. But for movies and TV dramas, you might want a bit more sonic oomph.
You can buy a TV with an Excellent rating for sound quality, but you may have to pay more and perhaps buy a larger TV than you really want.
An easy fix is to add a sound bar to the TV of your choice, and below we've listed several great options from our sound bar ratings, which are visible to CR members.
But first, some background. Most sound bars have several speakers in a thin enclosure that can be mounted on a wall or placed on a shelf above or below the TV. Pedestal-style sound bases can support the set.
Sound bars are often sold with a wireless subwoofer to help with bass, and a few have rear speakers for surround sound. Many have Bluetooth, letting you stream music from a phone. And some advanced models offer access to streaming video and music services.
More companies are getting into the act. Roku, for example, says it will offer its first sound bar speaker that will work with any TV—not just Roku TVs—this fall, at a price of $180.
Roku is also making a similar, though not exactly the same, model for Walmart, under the retailer's new Onn electronics brand. It will sell for $129. Both models will have a Roku 4K streaming player baked into their innards, and offer a wireless subwoofer as an option. We plan to test the sound bars later this year and add them to our ratings.
Sound Bar Shopping Advice
Here are a few tips to consider when you're shopping:
• Make sure you can return or exchange the sound bar. Speakers may sound very different in your home than they do during an in-store demo.
• Determine how many channels of sound you want. To simply enhance your TV sound, 2.1 channels (two front channels and a separate subwoofer) will do nicely. But if you want true surround sound, choose a 5.1-channel system with rear speakers.
• Decide whether to spring for Dolby Atmos or dts:X. These newer immersive surround-sound technologies can give movies with specially encoded soundtracks a more dramatic, lifelike effect. This is usually accomplished by using speakers that include upfiring drivers to add a sense of height to the sound.
“When done well, especially with models that have front and rear height-enabled speakers, listeners can really get a three-dimensional sound experience,” says Rich Fisco, who leads electronics testing at CR. Some sounds, such as a helicopter flying overhead, can appear to be coming from above the listener.
Here are a few top picks for sound bar speakers at various prices. Members can get detailed test results for all of the 52 tested models in our sound bar ratings.
Bargain Pick: Creative Stage 2.1
It's hard to find a decent-sounding sound bar speaker for under $100, but the Creative Stage 2.1 makes that possible.
It's light on features, but this budget 2.1-channel system delivers Good overall sound, so casual listeners will likely find that it works well for both music and movie soundtrack playback. It lacks some features usually found in pricier models, such as compatibility with voice-enabled digital assistants, and the ability to stream directly from any online music service.
However, it does have built-in Bluetooth for streaming music from a portable device, as well as a wired subwoofer. In this model, though, it's passive, meaning it lacks its own separate amplifier the way most of our tested models do.
Midprice Pick: Sonos Beam
Despite its small size, the new Sonos Beam delivers very good sound quality, plus a choice of black or white color schemes.
It has a lot of features at a price several hundred dollars below the company's Playbar and Playbase models, which are both also highly recommended. The Beam has Alexa—Amazon's digital assistant—built in, so you can control it, other Sonos speakers, and additional Alexa-powered devices using voice commands.
The Beam also includes support for Google Assistant and Apple AirPlay 2.
Splurge Pick: Samsung HW-N950
This pricey, highly rated, full-blown 7.1.4-channel Dolby Atmos system delivers very good sound quality.
The main enclosure has side-firing speakers, and both it and the rear speakers have upward firing drivers to create the sense of height when playing content with Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks.
The system has built-in WiFi for music streaming, as well as Bluetooth for beaming music from smartphones and other compatible devices. You can control the sound bar's volume with voice commands when it is used with an Amazon Alexa-enabled device, such as an Echo smart speaker.
What Makes a Great Speaker?
Do you know the difference between good speakers and excellent speakers? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Elias Arias explains to host Jack Rico the art of identifying quality devices.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.