Why does my amazing flat screen TV sound rubbish when I'm watching TV? Do I need a soundbar to improve it?
These are a couple of questions that we are often asked, so let's have a look at answering them.
1. Most large flat screens from the big boy manufacturers look incredible in terms of picture quality, but sound pretty average. There are certainly a few exceptions, but the general rules for a new smart TV are that it needs to be very thin and very pretty, and should only show the screen and the smallest bezel possible with the best picture they can achieve. This therefore means that there is very little room for speaker drive units in the TV, and of course they are going to be facing backwards from it, so you'll be getting a reflected sound from your TV.
Gone are the days where your big old CRT television was sitting in the corner with lots of space around the tube for speaker drive units to make your TV sound quite good; if anything when we went to the first flat screen LCD's, I would suggest that audio very much took a back seat.
2. Many broadcast programmes are produced in a variety of audio formats nowadays: most HD broadcasts are now produced in Dolby Digital, but much of the SD content still only has a stereo soundtrack. Most Netflix or Amazon content is as a minimum of Dolby Digital or better, so your TV needs to decode this content and do its best with whatever speaker array it has. A soundbar is only going to be trying to deal with sound exclusively, and with undoubtedly better audio processing circuitry on board this should go a long way towards helping with your sound issues.
Just a quick note at this point to say that many of the soundbars that are thrown in with TV packages are not very much better than the TVs themselves, so be careful and think about how important your sound to go with your TV is.
If you are prepared to spend £1500-£3000 on a big new OLED Smart TV, are you prepared to spend £400-£800 on a soundbar to get the best out of it?
If you were going to buy a cinema system, perhaps you would spend between £1500 and £10000 on your speakers, home cinema amp and cables, and then again a nice screen or projector to match the video to your audio system.
So why is it that if a soundbar is the only option for audio in your TV system, the first thought is: is a few hundred quid enough?
Now for many years, my go to soundbars have been the Sonos Beam and the Sonos Arc. Both are packed with features and great sound quality, as well as their well known multiroom aspects and the ability to create a full wireless 5.1 system.
Now this is not to say that the Sonos bars are not still great options, but they have crept up a bit in price recently so I thought it would be good to look at some other options.
I have spent a good last week playing with the Harmon Kardon Citation Multibeam 700:
As Harman's entry level soundbar it comes in at £449, just beneath the price of the Sonos Beam, and with 5 bass units and 2 tweeters it certainly does a great job of standing on it own two feet.
It's dead easy to set up using the Google Home app and the wonderful touchscreen display on the top of the speaker, and it has full music streaming capabilities and integrated Bluetooth, along with Arc support and even an optical input for older TV's.
Adding the Citation Sub S takes the Multibeam to another level: with just a couple of buttons touched, it is added to the system and adds depth and scale whilst also allowing the soundbar to breathe and give a better dynamic range, without the bar having to do as much in the bass department.
With a wide variety of media, from standard TV sources to streamed movie and series content, this combination is just really impressive and a massive step up over the standard TV audio. Even though alongside the soundbar I have a full sized multichannel AV system set up and ready to go, I never felt the soundbar was letting the side down enough that I had to switch back to the big AV system. Sure it's not as good as the Arcam/KEF combo I have set up, and it doesn't place things in the image as well or deal with the scale and dynamics of a massive Cinematic experience, but it is very good at being a soundbar and giving a nice wide immersive soundstage where vocals are clear and crisp, and you feel involved in what you're watching.
Over the next few weeks I'm also going to be having a listen to several other soundbars within the price range, so I look forward to hearing what some of our other manufacturers have to offer.
In conclusion, a soundbar is a great solution to get better audio from your TV. If a home cinema or stereo system is not an option then you can get really good results from a soundbar, with the option of expanding to a wireless 5.1 system later on.