Speakers and Receiver or Soundbar: Which Should You Choose?
You’re kind of stuck. You’ve got a TV with sound so bad it is distracting. A little research online tells you that you are not alone. Lots of people complain about the speakers in their TVs. The next logical step seems to be a soundbar. But there are tons of people that say that those suck too! The next “step up” appears to be an AV receiver and a couple of speakers. But do you really want to go down that path? What is best for you, a soundbar or a couple of speakers and a receiver? Let’s break it down!
There are tons of soundbar options out there. From the budget to the very, very expensive. These seem very attractive since they are a single purchase and seem to be easier to set up.
Advantages of Soundbars
When you are trying to decide between a soundbar and some speakers and a receiver, your very first question should be about space. Do you have space on the sides of your TV for a couple of speakers? If you don’t, then the form factor of a soundbar is really your only option. Decision made!
If you do have space, then you’ll have to weigh some pros and cons. In favor of the soundbar are the size and shape. They don’t take up a lot of room and are often designed to be placed on the cabinet directly in front of your TV. Usually, you can use ARC or eARC to send the audio from your TV’s internal apps back down to the bar. This makes setup fairly easy. Lastly, there are lots of very inexpensive solutions out there.
Disadvantages of Soundbars
If what you want is more volume from your TV, a soundbar is fine. If what you want is good sound, well…soundbars aren’t really the solution. Their form factor means that they simply can’t produce really quality audio. They are too small for good bass, they rely on full-range drivers so they don’t have a very flat response, and those same drivers often distort at even moderate volumes.
The real problem that we have with soundbars over speakers and a receiver is that they overpromise. Most soundbars promise a full surround experience. That’s just not the case. Most rely on DSPs that adjust the phase of the sound to create the illusion of surround. They rarely work. And buying a more expensive soundbar? That doesn’t mean the surround effect will be any more convincing or the sound quality much better. Sounbars are a major compromise. They are a step above your TV speakers, but not a large one. But if all you have space for is a soundbar, they are better than your TV’s speakers. That’s usually the best we can say.
Speakers and AV Receiver
If you have enough space to the sides of your TV for speakers, you have more options. Of course, you’ll also need space for the AV receiver, but that should be a given. While a basic AV receiver and set of speakers will cost more than a budget soundbar, they can cost less than a premium soundbar.
Advantages of a Stereo System
The biggest advantage of buying speakers and a receiver over a soundbar is upgradeability. A receiver and a pair of speakers are the heart of a full surround sound system. Soundbars rarely can be upgraded or added upon. With an AV receiver, you can add a center speaker, surround speakers, subwoofers, and even speakers on your ceiling for Atmos. You don’t have to, but you can. Each component can easily be replaced if something were to break or if you wanted something of higher quality. You can’t do that with a soundbar.
For the enthusiast, the most important advantage of a stereo system is sound quality. A decent pair of bookshelf speakers will outperform all but the most expensive soundbars (and maybe even those). These speakers have dedicated tweeters, midrange, and sometimes bass drivers. You can get more volume with less distortion. You can move them around so that you get a wider soundstage with more convincing left-to-right movement. And those DSPs that the soundbars use for simulated surround? An AV receiver can do that just as well (if not better).
The last main advantage is the ease of use. Once you set everything up, your AV receiver becomes the heart of your system. You can plug all of your sources into it and controls everything without relying on ARC or eARC. It allows you to easily adjust lipsync, adds room correction functionality, and has tons more features than a simple soundbar.
Disadvantages of a Stereo System
If money is at a premium, a stereo system might not work. The entry-level stereo system is going to cost more than the entry-level soundbar. Even buying on the used market, you are still going to spend quite a bit more if you want anything that can work easily with your newer TV.
Complexity is also a problem. You’ve got wires to run, sound modes to understand and select, and multiple remotes to manage. For some, just understanding what gets plugged in where is almost too much. Soundbars are much more plug-and-play than even the least complicated AV receiver and speaker option.
Lastly, there is the form factor. In all of technology, I don’t know if there is a product that is more divisive than the lowly speaker. Some people seem to think that the presence of a speaker in a room is the worst thing that can happen. I don’t know why, but it is the case.
While we definitely prefer the speakers and receiver solution over a soundbar, there are times when a soundbar makes more sense. My parents, for example, simply refuse to have bookshelf speakers in their home theater. When I did convince them to try them out, they kept moving them so that they were less noticeable. Less noticeable and in ways that completely hamstrung their ability to provide good sound. The solution? A soundbar. It was aesthetically pleasing enough and too large to move around too much (not that they didn’t try).
The purpose here isn’t to convince you to buy one over the other. We hope that you take away a better understanding of what you are getting into with your purchase. It’s okay to buy one over the other. Just realize what you are gaining and losing by your purchase.