There’s a simple equation that means the sound on your paper-thin television is never going to be amazing. That equation says that more speaker movement = better sound. Since this is easier to comprehend than gravity, and there isn’t a way around it, most people opt to flesh out their home theater with a nice soundbar to give them a little more audio dynamite to get their blood boiling and windows rattling. Since we believe in pumping more jams for less money, we think that getting a quality soundbar for under a couple hundred bucks is the way to go.
Choosing a soundbar is a tough proposition. When you attempt to save money, innumerable problems crop up that you need to be aware of before you spend the dough. First, make sure that it doesn’t block your television’s remote sensor. Also ensure it will interface easily with your TV for proper sound response. You’ll need to choose how many channels it has (more is better, but at this price level, 2 is fine.) Then decide if you want it to run actively – better sound, all-in-one approach – or passively – more flexibility and versatility. Or just get one of the 5 best soundbars under $200 and be done with it.
Pro: Incorporated DTS TruSurround
Con: Voice audio with bass background can get muddled at a distance
Pick-A-Size: Vizio is still the champ when it comes to providing high-quality, low-cost home electronics for the discerning consumer. While their relative youth still keeps their prices on the gentler end of the bell curve, it’s the options they put forth that makes the difference. Coming in with a 28-inch, a 38-inch, and 54-inch size options, the S3820W-C0 lacks a catchy name, but instead bring integrated bass with 98 decibels of power that can be setup in a snap for the most low-tech Luddites out there. It offers up less than 1% harmonic distortion, so even when you have it cranked up to 11 with room-filling explosions, the sound will stay clean and prevent speaker blow-out. You won’t get as much bass as a component system with a sub, but it doesn’t lack for a rich, warm bass with just enough bump to be enjoyable without turning muddy.
Polk Audio N1
Pro: Variable programmed audio modes
Con: Display lights are difficult to see
Stunning Figure: Soundbar designers seem to have mostly decided that they’re just going to make long, black boxes and little else. The N1 ventures away from that by offering a trapezoidal design that looks striking. More than just a nice body, the fine minds at Polk Audio took input from the sound designers who worked on Halo and Forza to create a better aural experience, particularly for gamers. Meant to go with the XBox One and 360, cinephiles will find that this 39-inch thumper can project well enough in a large space without being overbearing when put in a bedroom. Polk employs one of the best proprietary virtual surround systems to be found with their SDA Surround, which kicks out some serious resonance for this price point. Built-in streaming gives you CD quality audio, so this isn’t just another cheap Bluetooth speaker knock-off. You’ll find good, warm, clean acoustics whether listening to Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, or jams from your own collection.
JBL Cinema SB100
Pro: Subwoofer output
Con: Sensitive automatic shutoff
Plug and Play: When you get into the soundbars at this lower price point, one of the biggest hazards you encounter is complicated controls that lack intuition and require use of proprietary hardware. The SB100 has a clear understanding of the needs of the consumer and will interface easily with the majority of brand name televisions and universal remotes so you won’t need to do anything but hook it in and sync it up to get an audio boost. Includes a little virtual surround that isn’t bad, but don’t expect miracles. The lack of an HDMI connection is troubling, but using the optical sound interface, you’re usually able to circumvent it and receive quality sound without adding cables to the mix. If you want to expand or adapt this later on, you’ll find it can change with the wind, add on additional components, and take on a new role as a center speaker for a larger system with ease. The settings are as easy to adjust as the bar is to setup, so fiddle to your heart’s content until it plays nice with your TV and/or stereo.
Pro: Virtual 5.1 surround sound
Con: Strictly made for PC, not full room sound
Game On: A little on the gentler side of the sound spectrum for a living room soundbar, we found the Leviathan made its bones when paired with your gaming laptop or bumping frag rig setup in your multimedia room. At 20-inches, it’s not really big enough for a television, but when you put it on your office desk with a nice big monitor, you’ll see how well it enriches the sounds of gaming. The lack of ability to fill a room is the only real drawback to be found with the Leviathan. 5.1 Surround Sound sings like a dream when you’re up close and personal, while streaming from your device is handled with Bluetooth V4.0 Aptx, which enhances both range and clarity. The Dolby technology lets it change its stripes to become a center speaker should you feel like stacking your speakers later. Add in just enough bass response from the sub to give your guts a bounce during a deathmatch tourney, and you’ll see why this beats your gaming headset or desktop speakers anytime, anywhere.
LG Electronics LAS551H
Pro: Distortion is extremely limited, even at high volume
Con: Irritatingly bright display
Low Profile: If not the absolute best in component soundbar systems for under 200 bucks, then able to compete against anything in the price range. At 35-inches long and capable of pushing 320 watts, this is a completely wireless Bluetooth speaker that works like a much more expensive hunk of hardware. There’s no need to do anything beyond syncing it up and letting the waves wash over you since the automated levels do their work admirably. Using the bar itself to handle only the mids and highs keeps the bulk low while allowing you the addition of a hidden subwoofer to make your lows thunder. If you prefer the cleaner sound of HDMI cables, this has both an input and output that won’t interrupt your system’s flow or cause you to rely on inferior RCA plugs for sound. Oddly enough, it includes a USB plug which is helpful should you be seeking to use this in conjunction with a computer, and it lets you diagnose problems and run tests without slogging through impenetrable menus using just the remote as an interface.