It's no secret that the audio quality on most TVs is dire. Not only are the speaker drivers vastly underpowered, they face in the wrong direction. It's a bit like going to see Beyoncé perform at Wembley stadium and finding her standing on stage with her back to you, singing into a megaphone.
Buying the best soundbar is the easiest way of giving your TV some much-need sonic steroids as virtually all screens have the option of being used with an external speaker.
Soundbars come in many shapes and sizes, and range in price from under £100 to over £1,000. Cheaper models have basic connections (including a digital optical socket, which is essential), more expensive ones add superior HDMI inputs, wireless audio streaming (eg Bluetooth and AirPlay), better power, more refined speaker drivers, and decoding of Blu-ray sound formats.
Design is also important, with some models able to sit in front of your TV on a stand, others may need a separate shelf or to be wall mounted. Whatever your budget though there are some cracking good acoustic upgrades to be had that can give your TV the sound it deserves.
1. Q Acoustics Media 4
Simple, no-nonsense TV connections with a superbly consistent sound
Possibly the best soundbar around, the design is maybe a tad dull but construction is rock-solid. Socketry eschews HDMI and the single optical input can't handle Dolby Digital (remember to set your TV to output PCM audio). There are no sound modes to mess around with and what you hear is what you get: simply a broad, powerful and refined soundstage. Vocals are rich and warm but most impressive is the built-in subwoofer, which is surprisingly potent and yet nuanced. Equally good Bluetooth audio seals the deal.
2. Yamaha YSP-2500
Home cinema enthusiasts look no further for versatility and sublime sounds
If hard core home cinema sound is more your thing the Yamaha YSP-2500 certainly trumps the Q Acoustics Media 4. Festooned with cutting-edge tech (its HDMIs are 4K compatible), the YSP-2500 uses 16 tiny beam drivers (and a separate wireless subwoofer) to deliver convincing surround sound from Blu-ray DTS HD MA and Dolby True HD bitstreams. There are multiple sound modes to experiment with (do try the excellent iOS/Android app). It sounds first rate with all sources, even ropey old repeats on Dave.
3. Sonos Playbar
Turns your multi-room audio system into wireless surround sound
Like the Q Acoustics Media 4, the Sonos Playbar is a non-HDMI device that uses optical to hook up to a TV. Used simply on its own it delivers a massive sonic boost to your TV listening but operating it requires use of a smartphone or tablet app. The benefit though is that it can seamlessly segue in to a Sonos wireless system, and can even act as the front three speakers in a 5.1 setup with two Play:1s acting as rears.
4. Focal Dimension
Flexible design and pure power, ideal for larger rooms
Uniquely versatile, the Focal Dimension can operate as a soundbar or as a soundbase, with its optional £329 plinth-style subwoofer. Fashioned from extruded aluminium, build quality is insanely good. The HDMI socket count is a bit low but it can decode hi-res Blu-ray soundtracks. It has hugely impressive power and its six channels have finely honed levels of clarity with a performance that's more polished than the contents of Roger Federer's trophy cabinet.
5. Canton DM 50
A soundbase that combines ease of use with great sonics
Aside from a pointless pseudo-surround mode, the Canton DM 50 stands out among all soundbases thanks to its neat design, top notch build quality and exceptional sound quality, both with regular daytime TV, complex movie soundtracks and music streamed by Bluetooth from a phone. Its scrolling display appears through the front grille when powered up and the base is a pleasure to operate thanks to a logically designed, slick looking menu and a willingness to accept volume commands from your TV's remote.
6. Samsung HW-H750
Excellent connectivity, valve amplification and audio streaming
The HW-H750 is a compelling combination of the cutting-edge with the traditional. Its valve amplifier (which can be seen glowing behind a window) gives sound a pleasing warmth without losing clarity, while its wireless sub handles low-end rumble with aplomb. It's a highly versatile model with HDMI and Bluetooth plus it can hook on to a Samsung multi-room system and/or successfully play numerous hi-res audio files streamed over a home network.
7. Monitor Audio ASB-2
One for Apple AirPlay fans. No lack of audio quality either.
It isn't pretty, and the Monitor Audio ASB-2 so unapologetically tall that it will require a dedicated shelf or wall mount. That said, it has some top drawer acoustic tech under the hood and betters the Samsung HW-H750 with DLNA, AirPlay and AirStream Direct (no router required) but lacks the more commonly used Bluetooth. You can hook up a separate subwoofer but the ASB-2 alone is capable of filling smaller rooms with a pleasingly resonant and meaty soundfield.
8. Sony HT-CT770
Dolby decoding and a low profile for tight spaces
Only 5cm tall, the Sony HT-CT770 is a good fit for placing in front of contemporary TV screens that sit low down on their stands. It's also got a decent spec including HDMIs and a Dolby Digital-friendly optical input. Build quality is reasonably good and the unit creates a powerful sound that has admirable room-filling qualities, albeit up to medium levels of volume. Bluetooth is on board but music isn't a patch on the Q Acoustics Media 4.
9. Toshiba SBM1W
Compact yet highly capable, and a low price tag to boot
The SBM1W earns a place in our top 10 courtesy of a mightily impressive performance, despite its shoe-box dimensions and ultra-low price tag. Connectivity isn't too bad, with two types of digital input – optical and coaxial – plus analogue in and Bluetooth. It has a switch to compensate for off-axis placement and although the soundfield isn't the broadest around its sonics, aided ably by the tethered subwoofer, are immeasurably superior to regular built-in TV speakers.
10. Humax STE1000BSW
World's thinnest soundbar does a surprisingly good job
Just 2cm deep and 6.6cm tall (on its stand) the STE1000BSW is a real eye-catcher and has plenty to recommend it including a remote that puts other manufacturers to shame. Operation is simple enough once you've learnt what status each LED light colour means and it has a selection of DSP modes that deliver unexpected results. Vocals can sound a bit thin and loud bass causes reverberation. That said, it's surprisingly powerful and does a good job with most sources, especially when wall-mounted.