Best Cheap Soundbars
$100 - $300Cheapism
$300 - $800Mid-Range
$800 and upHigh End
Published on By Ashwin Jagannathan
Once upon a time, a home theater systems seemed like a luxury. But our search of expert and user reviews turned up products from both "big names" and budget brands that deliver an enhanced home-viewing experience for less than $300. Not only have home theater systems with all the trimmings become less expensive, but these days consumers are increasingly moving away from the traditional home theater in a box and gravitating toward smaller speaker packages, particularly less expensive soundbars and sound bases, and then adding components as they see fit. While these home theater systems no doubt cut a few corners -- the speakers aren't as loud or crystal clear as high-end speakers, for example -- they're guaranteed to sound far, far better than a TV alone.
Yamaha YAS-106 Review
With two speakers and dual subwoofers built directly into the compact Yamaha YAS-106, it takes up little space while delivering surprisingly big sound.
Vizio SB3851-D0 Review
This 5.1-channel soundbar from Vizio with built-in Google Cast has what few systems in this price range offer: true surround sound. For under $300, consumers won't find better audio quality.
Vizio SB3821-C6 Review
Improbably, the audio quality of this 2.1-channel entry-level soundbar from Vizio outperforms systems that cost much more. It's slightly short on features, but it's a bestseller for a reason.
Sony HT-CT390 Review
With a wide range of connectivity options and a sleek, slim design that makes it ideal for wall-mounting, this 2.1-channel soundbar is among the most flexible in this price range.
Samsung HW-K450 Review
Although it offers an impressive array of ports and a modest price tag, the 2.1-channel Samsung HWK450 doesn't delivering some of the basics -- like a reliable Bluetooth connection.
Klipsch R-4B Review
This 2.1-channel soundbar offers high-end looks, but performance-wise it just doesn't quite stack up to other models with comparable prices. It can fill a small room, but its output and features are underwhelming overall.
Home Theater Systems Buying Guide
Home theater systems come in a variety of component combinations. Blu-ray players were once the star of the show, but the market has evolved and consumers -- particularly those looking for a device that can support 4K ultra-high-definition playback -- seem to prefer to choose a Blu-ray player separately, use a player they already own, or forgo the disc format altogether. Many home theaters, even the inexpensive ones, now support wireless Bluetooth connections for streaming music via an MP3 device or smartphone. Some also support Wi-Fi, which has a higher bandwidth capacity than Bluetooth and a wider range, allowing for content sharing across multiple rooms. A select few affordable models can even be found outfitted with built-in streaming platforms. While some more complex set-ups include multiple speakers, as well as a separate receiver for managing all the components, the current crop of cheap home theater systems is dominated by stripped-down affairs not intended for hardcore film fanatics or audiophiles. Their aim is simply to augment the overall sound experience for consumers who want a bit more "oomph" from their movies and music than a TV's built-in speakers can deliver.
Soundbar Brands.Companies like Vizio and LG, which make some of the best budget TVs, have also released some of the best soundbars available today. It might seem ironic that the same manufacturers that produce TVs with underwhelming sound out of the box have also made a big push into the home theater market. But as TVs have become flatter, there just isn't as much room for speakers that pack any real power. (Best Buy's Insignia soundbars don't live up to the promise of the house brand's TVs, however.) Heavy hitters in the consumer electronics industry like Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba, and Yamaha have also established themselves as major players in the home theater arena.
For consumers looking for budget home theaters, there are many cheap, minimalist options that perform admirably and save space and money. The Vizio SB3851-D0 (starting at $250) is one of the few soundbars under $300 that offers true surround sound, thanks to a couple of included satellite speakers. Added "smart" features -- namely, streaming via Google Cast -- also recommend it over a hard-to-find cousin, the Vizio SB3851-C0. For those who don't need Google Cast built in and don't have room for a freestanding subwoofer, much less extra speakers, the Yamaha YAS-106 (starting at $200) offers respectable sound and surprisingly solid bass. The bare-bones Vizio SB3821-C6 (starting at $140) cuts back on speakers and streaming capabilities but delivers excellent sound that surpasses far more expensive rivals. Soundbar shoppers looking for lots of versatility might turn to the Sony HT-CT390 (starting at $198), which can fit almost anywhere and offers a bevy of listening and connectivity options, in addition to solid audio quality.
The Klipsch R-4B (starting at $249) offers competent performance, but it's lacking in both features and audio quality compared with our top picks -- most of which are available for much less than this model. A similar critique can be leveled at the Samsung HW-K450 (starting at $218). Although many users stand by this soundbar, there are enough expert and consumer critics who judge the sound as really just average. Add to that a buggy Bluetooth connection, and there are better bargains to be found.
For those willing to splurge for a slightly more expensive -- but ultimately more impressive -- sound system, two relatively affordable models earn our endorsement. Like its cheaper cousin the YAS-106, the Yamaha YAS-203 (starting at $400) lacks true surround sound, but this stepped-up system does an admirable job of faking it. Its 7.1 channel virtual surround provides stellar, room-filling audio for movies and music. Rounding out the pack is the critically acclaimed LG SH7B (starting at $300). While it generally costs a bit more than the Yamaha YAS-203, this soundbar offers superior features and fantastic audio. The 4.1-channel system can also be upgraded with two additional speakers to create a soundstage with even more dimension.
Soundbar vs. Sound base.All our top picks are soundbars -- long, thin bars with built-in speakers that can be wall-mounted or placed in front of a TV. Another common type of cheap home theater is a sound base, also called a sound pedestal or sound slab. It's larger but more self-contained and designed for a TV to rest on top. Cheap soundbars tend to house two or five speakers and a subwoofer (thus the 2.1 and 5.1 abbreviations usually displayed on the packaging). Sound bases are one-piece units that generally include built-in bass drivers, so there is no need for an additional subwoofer. Although some say the larger size of the cabinet makes for larger sound, without a dedicated subwoofer, sound bases have some difficulty tapping the same lows as a soundbar, which can make them less satisfying for music playback. But their simplicity is a big part of what makes them a bargain. They're also a good alternative for those who do not plan to wall-mount a soundbar or worry that a unit in front of the TV might impede the remote control. They also suit apartment dwellers who don't want to deal with the clutter of extra components or subject neighbors to deep rumblings through vibrating floorboards.
Consumers set on a sound pedestal might consider the Zvox SoundBase 570 (starting at $299), which can support TVs up to 60 inches. From Zvox Audio, the small, independent company that first developed this type of unit, the SoundBase 570 is incredibly easy to set up: Its speaker slab -- which houses five speakers and a built-in subwoofer -- is the only component and requires just one connection to create powerful sound quality.
Home Theater Reviews: What We Considered
We relied on expert reviews for most of our information about budget home theaters, tapping tech sources that perform hands-on testing, such as CNET, TechRadar, PCMag, and Digital Trends, as well as commentary from dedicated audio enthusiasts at sites like Sound & Vision and What Hi-Fi? We also looked at comparisons by trusted consumer product specialists and searched user reviews for assessments of how these home theater systems fare once buyers actually get them home.
Not surprisingly, reviews by experts and consumers agree that a low-cost package is no match for a pricey home theater assembled one piece at a time or a total system with a price tag exceeding $800. Even so, it's generally agreed that entry-level systems are a big improvement over the poor sound quality that plagues even expensive HDTVs.
There isn't one specific feature that instantly elevates one soundbar or sound base over another, although the ability to deliver true surround sound comes close. Instead, buyers should look at the total package and how the various components contribute to audio quality. Even better, since each individual might have specific preferences when it comes to sound, it's best to give these setups a listen in person if possible -- many are available at multiple bricks-and-mortar stores, including warehouse clubs.
Overall, the systems we researched are easy to set up and use and receive positive marks for audio quality. Our picks are also sufficiently varied that most shoppers should find a package that will suit their budgetary and space constraints.
Speaker Configuration.The main purpose of a home theater system is to mimic the viewing experience in a cinema setting, making speakers a top priority. While expensive stand-alone speakers are held up as ideal, and true audiophiles haggle over minutia such as frequency response, impedance, and other technical details, frugal consumers need not worry about these specifications. A better and simpler place to start is with the number of speaker components.
Manufacturers and retailers signal the number of speakers and subwoofers in a home theater audio package with jargon such as "5.1 speaker system." This particular notation indicates that the system includes five speakers and one subwoofer; a "2.1 speaker system" has two speakers and one subwoofer. The term "channel" also refers to the number of speakers the system can support; a 7.1 channel audio system translates as seven speakers and one subwoofer. Obviously, the more speakers, the better, but a sound base that includes at least two speakers or a soundbar containing at least two speakers plus a separate subwoofer will make a noticeable difference.
Most of the soundbars highlighted here come with wireless subwoofers. Subwoofers generally provide more punch in those lower, deeper tones than systems that lack them, but there are exceptions. The Yamaha YAS-106 is one of the few soundbars we researched that doesn't have a separate subwoofer; instead it has two subwoofers built directly into the main unit. While it may not offer the same depth of sound as a soundbar with a separate subwoofer, the YAS-106 still manages to produce competent audio -- and "booming bass," according to an expert at Tom's Guide. The pedestal-style Zvox SoundBase 570 also lacks a subwoofer, but the bass from its specialized built-in drivers is impressive, and reviewers particularly praise its rendering of deep notes sans distortion.
One of the main user gripes about the 2.1-channel Samsung HW-K450 is that its wireless subwoofer seriously underperforms. Reviews from quite a few buyers, like this Amazon customer, suggest the bass levels are more than a little underwhelming and require quite a bit of tweaking. On the other end of the spectrum, the Vizio SB3851-D0 takes sound quality on a budget to the next level by providing a 5.1 speaker system out of the box that offers truly admirable movie playback and a spacious soundstage that should more than satisfy a wide range of music enthusiasts.
Surround Sound vs. Virtual Surround.Home theater audio comes courtesy of up to three types of speakers: satellite speakers, a center channel, and a subwoofer. While a freestanding subwoofer can be placed anywhere in a room, a center channel's main job is to emphasize dialogue and should be placed very near the TV. To achieve true surround sound, which requires a minimum of five speakers, front satellite speakers are placed to the right and left of the center channel and rear satellite speakers are placed behind and to each side of the listener -- usually at the back of a sofa or in the rear corners of the room, depending on its size. Add more speakers, and the dynamics of the soundstage increase. (Audio experts at Dolby.com provide an excellent guide to speaker placement for 5.1 systems and beyond.)
Like the center channel in a multi-speaker system, soundbars and sound pedestals are designed to fit directly below or above the TV. Since many cheap home theater systems lack the rear speakers necessary to achieve the full effect of placing the listener at the center of the soundstage, they use audio processing technologies to create virtual surround sound, giving the impression that the speakers are playing across a broader swath of the room than expected given their relatively small size.
The Sony HT-CT390 has a virtual surround system, S-Force Front Surround, that promises to fill the room but seems to negate that premise in its very name. The Zvox SoundBase 570 sports proprietary PhaseCue virtual surround technology, which allows users to set its "surround" output at three levels, but while this technology is capable of expanding the sound field considerably, according to review sites such as PCMag, it doesn't quite succeed at placing the listener at the center of its bubble.
For those willing to shell out for a higher-end 2.1-channel system, Yamaha's YAS-203 is one of the most lauded soundbars featuring virtual surround sound. The company boasts that the bar's Air Surround Xtreme processing transforms this modestly equipped system into a virtual 7.1-channel setup. A CNET reviewer concurs that the manufacturer got it right and raves about the massive soundscape and impressive depth. The 4.1-channel LG SH7B is said to deliver equally substantial sound, while pulling ahead of the Yamaha in terms of connectivity options. It can also be upgraded to a true surround system with the addition of two satellite speakers.
When it comes to immersive sound quality, especially for movies (or even gaming), true surround sound almost always beats a system with virtual surround capabilities created with technical trickery. As advanced as a virtual surround setup may be, it can never put sound directly behind you. With true surround sound difficult to find in a high-quality system under the $400 mark, budget brand Vizio has made a name for itself by offering several home theater systems that augment their central soundbar and subwoofer with two additional satellite speakers. Although it lacks some of the bells and whistles of the Yamaha YAS-203 when it comes to support for various audio processing formats, the 5.1-channel Vizio SB3851-D0 earns our topmost recommendation for its ability to affordably deliver room-filling sound.
For consumers who aren't invested enough in feeling as if they're smack dab in the middle of the action, Vizio's no-frills SB3821-C6 2.1-channel soundbar offers much of the sound quality of the SB3851-D0, just without the surround setup. It's more than $100 cheaper than the SB3851-D0, and experts at The Wirecutter have said that the SB3821-C6 sounds better than any other soundbar to be found for under $200.
Power and Performance.The one speaker specification that often attracts the attention of consumers is the watts, which indicate how much power the speakers can handle and, subsequently, the maximum volume to expect. This number is not so clear-cut, however. Manufacturers use two common measurements: peak power and RMS. Peak power is the maximum the speakers can take in one blast. RMS power is the amount the speakers can support over a period of time. The peak power rating is higher than the RMS rating, but the RMS rating is more telling. Unfortunately, manufacturers don't always specify which measurement they're providing. If it's not specifically identified as RMS watts, assume the number of watts refers to peak power.
Some home theater systems don't have watts listed in the specifications at all. Among the ones we researched that do, the numbers vary widely. Not surprisingly, the most expensive system, the LG SH7B soundbar, has the highest total power at 360 watts. On the lower end of the spectrum, the amplifier on the Zvox SoundBase 570 has an output of just 65 watts. Both Vizio and Klipsch list their speakers' output by decibel level instead of watts.
Remember, however, overall audio quality is hard to suss out based on numbers alone. Experts consistently say watts and decibel levels certainly aren't the most important specs to look for. Take the case of Vizio versus Klipsch: While the inexpensive Vizio SB3821-C6 reaches 100 dB and gets high marks for its sound quality, critics say the more premium Klipsch R-4B struggles to fill a room, even at 106 dB.
Another ding against the Klipsch R-4B: The dialogue clarity leaves something to be desired, despite its "Voice Enhance" mode. The cheaper Yamaha YAS-106 also seems to deliver better dialogue via its "Clear Voice" technology while creating far-reaching sound that belies its low price and the mere 120 watts under its belt. The Sony HT-C390, with its "ClearAudio+," offers a variety of sound modes (including game and music) and a feature designed to make sure listeners don't miss key plot points when surrounding noise threatens to obscure spoken words.
Audio Format Support.Home theater systems usually support many audio processing formats that can significantly enhance sound quality. Look for Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, and DTS-HD, which use digital augmentation to enrich the sound for music and movies. Most of the soundbars we've reviewed support one or more of these codecs, but generally speaking, the more formats that are supported, the better. Having more options allows home listeners to take advantage of the format that best suits the media source at hand. (See our features comparison chart for formats supported by the soundbars we chose.)
Dolby Atmos is among the latest advances in sound technology, and it's used to present a 3D or globe-like effect, with sounds appearing to come from all sides, including from above. The format requires an overhead speaker or an Atmos-equipped soundbar with speakers capable of firing upward. DTS:X works similarly, and compatible Blu-ray discs have recently become available. While it's difficult to find an Atmos-equipped soundbar for less than $1,000, DTS:X is designed to make even cheaper soundbars sound better. Perhaps this technology will be within reach for frugal cinephiles in the near future.
Connectivity.Today's home theater systems don't require many inputs. All a soundbar or sound pedestal needs is a digital optical port that relays sound from the TV to the home theater system. Many also have an analog audio input for TVs that lack a digital optical output. In addition to these basic connectors, however, most systems include a handful of extra inputs and connections.
HDMI ports have become more commonplace on soundbars, although the Vizio SB3821-C6, Zvox SoundBase 570, Yamaha YAS-203, and Klipsch R-4B do not support HDMI. A slightly different feature, HDMI ARC, allows users to control a soundbar's power and volume with the TV remote if the TV also supports ARC. It's a handy feature for reducing the number of remotes cluttering a coffee table. The Zvox SoundBase 570 and Yamaha YAS-203 can be paired with a TV remote using technology that "learns" the alternate controls' features and programs the units to respond.
More important, HDMI and HDMI ARC connections allow for the highest quality, multi-channel source audio to be routed through the bar -- audio that might be reduced to a stereo signal if sent directly to the TV. The soundbar then forwards the video signal from the original component (say, a Blu-ray player or gaming console) along to the TV. (Digital Trends has a full explanation of the benefits of both HDMI and HDMI ARC connections.)
Most home theater systems have a 3.5-millimeter (or mini-stereo) input to connect an MP3 player directly, although corded connections to music sources are becoming increasingly unnecessary. Bluetooth connectivity is a common feature in home theater systems released in the past two to three years. The Zvox Soundbase 570 and the Yamaha YAS-203 support the aptX Bluetooth codec, which is said to improve sound quality -- theoretically, anyway. The Sony HT-C390 also includes NFC, or near-field communication. Thanks to these connectivity options, users can also download apps to turn their smartphones into remotes for many home theater systems.
The Vizio SB3851-D0 and LG SH7B have Wi-Fi in addition to Bluetooth. This allows music to be streamed at higher bitrates than Bluetooth, or from a few rooms away, due to greater bandwidth. Both of these models also come with Ethernet ports and Google Cast built in.
Ease of Setup.One of the primary advantages of choosing a soundbar or sound base instead of a home theater system with multiple stand-alone speakers is that they take up less space, don't fill a room with wires, and are infinitely easier to set up.
Pedestal soundbars, like the Zvox SoundBase 570, have a single component and simply have to be plugged into the TV. The Yamaha YAS-106 soundbar is also a single unit that should take just minutes to get up and running. The systems that come with subwoofers in addition to the main soundbar pair wirelessly with this added component, so there's nothing to plug in. The two extra satellite speakers that give the Vizio SB3851-D0 its surround sound capabilities simply plug into the wireless subwoofer.
While installing these systems is dead simple (wall-mounting gets a little more complicated, of course), syncing is not always quite so easy. According to reviews on Amazon, the Samsung HW-K450, with its apparently unreliable Bluetooth connection, makes streaming from mobile devices sometimes untenable. Set-up issues have forced some users to forgo an HDMI connection in favor of the optical cable. The Vizio models are generally said to be quick and easy to install, but reviews are a bit more mixed on getting the Vizio SmartCast app on the SB3851-D0 up and running. According to some user reviews on Amazon, the Sony HT-CT390 requires the optical cable alongside the HDMI ARC connection to function properly. Some also complain of sound syncing issues, although a high-speed HDMI cable somewhat alleviates that problem.