Upgrading from Soundbar – What Should I Expect?
Maybe you had a problem understanding dialogue or maybe you just wanted better sound, but a while ago, you bought a soundbar. It’s been…fine. It’s louder, that’s for sure, and it made things sound a little better. But it is nothing like going to the movies. You’ve been reading about a “real” home theater system and you think you’re ready to upgrade from your soundbar. People online, however, have you concerned. They are saying that soundbars “suck” and that upgrading to “real” speakers will transform your life. That sounds farfetched to you. What can you reasonably expect? Let’s discuss!
First of all, people online can be crazy. As someone who has been in this industry for 20+ years, I’ve heard some claims that make me worry about the mental state of the original poster. When someone has their “mind blown” by an experience, it is because they went in with very low (or no) expectations and they were greatly exceeded. By telling you that “real” speakers will “blow your mind,” they are setting you up for disappointment. It’s not that a “real” home theater speaker system won’t be more impressive than a soundbar, it is that it won’t exceed such high expectations. Let’s cover what you will experience.
Soundbars are good at making sounds, but they are not great at making ALL the sounds. The range of human hearing is from 20Hz to 20kHz. Soundbars try to give you as many of those frequencies as they can. To hit their price points, they focus on the frequencies that humans can most easily hear. Generally, this means that they may have gaps in their ability to recreate certain sounds. Usually, the highest and lowest sounds will be missing as well as some sounds throughout the frequency range. You may not notice it because it’s hard to notice an absence. When you upgrade to your “real” speakers, you may find that you are hearing sounds your soundbar was omitting.
More Convincing Surround Sound
Obviously, a soundbar is designed with form over function. Soundbars sit under your TV. This is fine for vocals and sounds coming from the front of the room but isn’t so good for sounds coming from behind and above you. To try to recreate these sounds, the soundbars will use DSP and other techniques to trick your brain into experiencing the sounds from somewhere other than directly in front of you. This is usually hit or miss. Actually placing surround and Atmos speakers properly will be much more effective.
While a soundbar is convenient, all the drivers are crammed into a single enclosure. Placing more speakers at the front of the room will allow you to put separation between them. Sounds that are supposed to come from the far left or right will now come from seemingly out of the room. With a soundbar, they often will sound like they are coming from just outside the edges of the TV. Physically separating your front left and right speakers can create not only wider pans but also a grander and larger overall presentation of the sound. If you are wanting a more “wall of sound” like you experience at a movie theater, real speakers are the way to go.
Most soundbars are just that, a single speaker with a number of drivers that lives under your TV. Others will come with a separate box labeled “subwoofer.” As we’ve explained, that isn’t really a subwoofer, it is simply a bass module. It is designed to help recreate the lower frequencies that the soundbar isn’t physically capable of producing.
But it still isn’t getting the lowest notes. Instead, it is just rounding out some of the lower bass. To get ALL of the bass, you need a true subwoofer (preferably two). For the true movie theater experience, you’ll want to pressurize your room with bass. Those soundbar/bass module combos will never do that.
If we were to sum up the difference between a soundbar and real speakers it would be realism. As you upgrade your speakers, the point should be to experience a more convincing and realistic sonic presentation. Separate speakers will recreate more of the frequency range, at greater volume, and coming from the correct locations in the room. If all you want to do is hear your TV, a soundbar is a fine choice. If you want to experience a movie, you’ll want a full surround sound system. Of course, you’ll also need to set everything up properly. We’ve got a couple of articles to help you out with that: