Yamaha YAS-106 Review

(From $200.00 Best)

With two speakers and dual subwoofers built directly into the compact Yamaha YAS-106, it takes up little space while delivering surprisingly big sound.

Pros: While Yamaha's YAS-106 soundbar (starting at $200; available on Amazon) lacks a stand-alone subwoofer, its performance is still strong. It doesn't match up to the brand's vaunted higher-end models in terms of sound quality, but it outperforms most other soundbars under $300 -- with the exception, perhaps, of the Vizio SB3821-C6 -- while allowing for easier setup and a smaller footprint overall.

A reviewer for The Wirecutter was pleasantly surprised that the sound output reached satisfying levels even in a large room, and a CNET expert says the Yamaha YAS-106 managed to create an impressively wide-reaching cinematic soundstage in "Surround" mode. Dialogue clarity in movies also appears to be strong, and this soundbar's music playback capabilities are nothing to sneer at either (although it takes some adjustment to achieve the optimum balance). Bluetooth connectivity and app control are welcome additions, and support for HDMI ARC is another major boon that places the Yamaha YAS-106 above some competitors.

Cons: In general, expectations should be managed somewhat when it comes to getting incredibly dynamic sound with this system. At this price, it's not going to deliver true surround sound, nor truly satisfying treble. Also, while the built-in subwoofers are said to provide surprisingly decent bass, reviewers agree that some users might still feel like the Yamaha YAS-106 could use a bit of a boost in this department. A separate subwoofer could be purchased and wired to the unit, but it would probably make more sense to upgrade to the Yamaha YAS-203 (although some connectivity options would be lost in the trade).

Features: The Yamaha YAS-106 measures 35 x 2 x 5 inches, and the single component can be wall-mounted. It's also as simple to set up as it is to operate: While the remote that comes bundled with the soundbar is pretty basic, it's well-designed and allows users to adjust a variety of settings at the touch of a button. Thanks to Bluetooth support, a smartphone app can be downloaded to control volume and other input. While this bar cannot provide true surround sound, it delivers a virtual approximation and can decode Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS formats.

Takeaway: For households where space and money are at a premium, the Yamaha YAS-106 is a surprisingly potent audio solution. Despite the many corners it cuts, it delivers home theater sound in a compact, low-cost package that's praised for its simplicity and a wealth of connectivity options.

Where to buy

Vizio SB3851-D0 Review

(From $250.00 Best)

This 5.1-channel soundbar from Vizio with built-in Google Cast has what few systems in this price range offer: true surround sound. For under $300, consumers won't find better audio quality.

Pros: The Vizio SB3851-D0 (starting at $250; available on Amazon) stands out from the crowded field of budget soundbars with one notable feature: true 5.1 surround sound. Thanks to the rear satellite speakers included with the system, this model doesn't need to rely on technologies that simulate "virtual" surround sound to create an immersive audio experience. Experts from both TechRadar and The Wirecutter conclude that the Vizio SB3851-D0 outperforms a vast majority of soundbars in its price range, and given its multiple components and "smart" functionality, there's probably no better buy for consumers on a budget. This soundbar system is said to be adept at handling a wide variety of content -- from action-packed movie audio to multiple music genres -- and to offer all-around balanced performance that should be more than acceptable to all but the true audiophile. The Vizio SB3851-D0 is also versatile design-wise: It can be mounted on the wall and pairs well alongside TVs of almost any size.

Cons: While reviewers agree that, overall, the Vizio SB3851-D0 produces respectable sound -- with truly stellar dialogue quality, according to The Wirecutter -- its ability to reproduce finer audio details does, of course, fall a little short compared with high-end systems. A reviewer at Sound & Vision admires how the Vizio SB3851-D0 infused life into the instruments and vocals on some of his favorite tracks but notes some lack of clarity in music playback. More important, he reports audible struggles from the subwoofer when dealing with heavier bass loads, and a few user reviews on Amazon echo this complaint. Finally, there are grumblings from both consumers and experts concerning the limited functionality of the included remote and Vizio app.

Features: This long and lean soundbar measures 38 x 3 x 3 inches and comes with a wireless subwoofer and two satellite speakers that connect with cables to the sub. It supports both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and it also features built-in Google Cast, so that content can be streamed from a mobile device via apps like YouTube, Pandora, and more. Wi-Fi generally provides a higher bandwidth and greater streaming distance than Bluetooth, so this is a particularly welcome feature, as is the included Ethernet port. The Vizio SB3851-D0 includes both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding software, in order to get the most out of Blu-ray movies. An HDMI input and HDMI ARC output round out the package.

Takeaway: Those seeking to upgrade their TVs' sound performance on a budget need look no further than the Vizio SB3851-D0. Offering "smart" streaming options, true surround sound, excellent movie playback overall, and a price tag under $300, it doesn't get much better than this soundbar from the ever-affordable Vizio brand.

Where to buy

Vizio SB3821-C6 Review

(From $140.00 Good)

Improbably, the audio quality of this 2.1-channel entry-level soundbar from Vizio outperforms systems that cost much more. It's slightly short on features, but it's a bestseller for a reason.

Pros: The Vizio SB3821-C6 (starting at $140; available on Amazon) is the cheapest of the home theater setups that made our top picks, but it performs as well as, if not better than, many systems that cost significantly more. This 2.1-channel soundbar generally offers well-balanced audio throughout the spectrum, reviewers say. According to experts and users, it delivers much bigger sound than expected and above-average dialogue clarity.

While the The Wirecutter, recently replaced the Vizio SB3821-C6 with the upgraded Vizio SB3821-D6 in its soundbar lineup, the C6 touts the same great sound, sleek looks, and Bluetooth support as the newer D6. The only thing it lacks is "smart" functionality. For consumers who can do without internet connections and built-in streaming, the Vizio SB3821-C6 is likely a better buy -- as its best-selling status on Amazon suggests. And those who value Wi-Fi and built-in Google Cast would do better paying just a bit more for the Vizio SB3851-D0 to get true surround sound as part of the package.

Cons: While user reviews on Amazon largely praise the surprising audio quality considering its price, some aren't quite as satisfied with the bass output and performance in the mid-range, and some complain of distortion at higher volumes. In addition to these more subjective gripes, many ding the Vizio SB3821-C6 for noticeable delays when switching between inputs, annoying default settings, and a hard-to-decipher display (it relies on LED lights to indicate various modes). More important are several reports of defective models that required replacement, although Vizio seems to be fairly responsive in this respect.

Features: The wall-mountable Vizio SB3821-C6 measures 38 x 3 x 3 inches and features a wireless subwoofer alongside its two-speaker cabinet. Setup is generally simple and straightforward, and the unit comes with a basic remote. While the list of features isn't too expansive, this model does have Bluetooth support for streaming music from a smartphone or tablet -- a welcome extra. It also supports both Dolby Digital and DTS for movie playback. A lack of HDMI ports could be a problem for some, but these additions are generally found only on newer, more expensive, models.

Takeaway: For consumers looking for an entry-level soundbar that can enhance their TV's audio on the cheap, the Vizio SB3821-C6 fills that role with aplomb, and reviews suggest it performs much better than competitors near the same price.

Where to buy

Sony HT-CT390 Review

(From $198.00 Good)

With a wide range of connectivity options and a sleek, slim design that makes it ideal for wall-mounting, this 2.1-channel soundbar is among the most flexible in this price range.

Pros: The Sony HT-CT390 (starting at $198) is among the slimmest soundbar options available, and makes an especially good fit for wall-mounted TVs. Its virtues aren't limited to design, either: It produces sound that's much more impressive than a TV's speakers can deliver; it's a cinch to set up and can be positioned to lay flat; and it provides an array of connectivity options not found in many soundbars in this price range.

A reviewer from Top Ten Reviews lauds the Sony HT-CT390 for an easy-to-read display that includes text instead of relying solely on LED light indicators to represent settings and commands. Moreover, the reviewer notes that this soundbar is very good at rendering dialogue, and voices don't get lost even in big action scenes. User reviews on Amazon generally express satisfaction with the wireless subwoofer's bass output, as well as the improvement in sound sharpness and clarity provided by the Sony HT-CT390. Another plus: a variety of modes that can be matched to the type of content being viewed, and a "Nighttime" setting to tone down the sound or give neighbors a break from the subwoofer.

Cons: Although the Sony HT-CT390 certainly is an improvement over the sound from a standard TV, it doesn't deliver the highest, most refined audio quality among the competition. The Top Ten Reviews expert notes an overall "tinniness" that he attributes to the soundbar's overemphasis on high tones. Also, despite its 300-watt power, this reviewer found that the HT-CT390 was not as loud as other models tested. Some user reviews echo the sentiment that the sound from this bar is overly soft, and there are also several complaints of sound-syncing issues between the Sony HT-CT390 and TVs; some say a high-speed HDMI connector cable can help in this respect.

Features: This soundbar measures 35 x 2 x 5 inches and comes with two built-in speakers and a wireless subwoofer. The HT-CT390 offers excellent options for listening to music, including Bluetooth connectivity, near-field communication (NFC), and an app for controlling the system via smartphone. It also offers HDMI ARC support and has a USB port thrown in for good measure. Rounding out the feature list are both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding capabilities.

Takeaway: Any wow factor that the Sony HT-CT390 lacks when it comes to sound, it makes up for in its vast array of connectivity options – a real rarity in this price range. It's thin profile and multiple positioning options also make it good choice for smaller spaces like apartments or even dorm rooms.

Where to buy

Samsung HW-K450 Review

(From $220.00 Think Twice)

Although it offers an impressive array of ports and a modest price tag, the 2.1-channel Samsung HWK450 doesn't delivering some of the basics -- like a reliable Bluetooth connection.

Pros: The 2.1-channel Samsung HW-K450 (starting at $220) is a substantial upgrade to TV speakers for a relatively modest price. Surprisingly for an entry-level soundbar, the Samsung HW-K450 boasts an array of ports and includes HDMI ARC support. Buyers who have a compatible Samsung TV can ditch cables and connect the soundbar wirelessly using Samsung's "TV SoundConnect" system. An included wireless subwoofer pairs automatically. An expert with Trusted Reviews praises the audio clarity, especially when reproducing movie dialogue, noting that the virtual surround effect creates an expansive sound stage -- at least in the front. The reviewer adds that the subwoofer produces competent bass, despite its chintzy appearance.

Cons: A reviewer for the U.K.'s Expert Reviews disagrees, citing muffled dialogue as a significant drawback, especially during action-packed sequences. Lackluster bass is another shortcoming. The reviewer concludes that this soundbar isn't a versatile option for music; although it seemed adept at simple rock and pop reproduction, it struggled with more complex genres like classical music. Individual instruments sounded muddled and blurry instead of clear and distinct. Customer reviews on Amazon are similarly mixed when it comes to the audio capabilities of the Samsung HW-K450. More problematic are multiple reports of issues with Bluetooth connections that lead to audio skipping when wirelessly streaming music to the soundbar. That snag alone is a dealbreaker for many users.

Features: The Samsung HW-K450 measures 36 x 2 x 3 inches and can be wall-mounted. It has an optical input and HDMI ports, as well as audio and USB inputs. In addition to pairing wirelessly with compatible TVs, the Samsung HW-K450 can be controlled via smartphone using the Samsung Audio Remote app. It can manage both Dolby Digital and DTS decoding.

Takeaway: While the Samsung HW-K450 is a competent soundbar on paper -- with a slew of input options at a modest price -- its struggles with audio quality and Bluetooth connections make it hard to recommend over cheaper, better-performing soundbars like the Yamaha YAS-106 or Vizio SB3851-D0.

Where to buy

Klipsch R-4B Review

(From $249.00 Think Twice)

This 2.1-channel soundbar offers high-end looks, but performance-wise it just doesn't quite stack up to other models with comparable prices. It can fill a small room, but its output and features are underwhelming overall.

Pros: Like many other soundbars in this price range, the Klipsch R-4B (starting at $249) features two speakers and a separate subwoofer, but it stands out with a real wood enclosure and higher-end looks. Some might say this soundbar offers higher-end sound, as well. An expert reviewer from CNET reports that the Klipsch R-4B delivers solid sound clarity and depth, along with fairly powerful bass, but doesn't quite reach the same heights as some competitors in its class.

Cons: According to CNET, the Klipsch R-4B performs much better with movies than it does with music -- partly because it has too much treble onboard -- and just doesn't fill a room as well as peers like the Yamaha YAS-203. Moreover, it lacks some features that have become standard in more recent soundbars in its price range and which can even be found among several of the cheaper models we looked at. It does not have HDMI ports and also does not support DTS sound (DTS has less compression than Dolby Digital, and this can make a difference in creating a more expansive soundscape when movies -- especially Blu-ray discs -- support it).

Features: The Klipsch R-4B measures 40 x 3.5 x 3 inches and can be mounted on the wall. While it lacks some advanced connectivity support, it does have both analog and digital optical ports. There's also a USB port, and Bluetooth is available for streaming music from a smartphone or tablet. But there's no app to support remote control via these devices (a feature that might be particularly useful based on Amazon reviews expressing disappointment with the physical remote provided and its tendency to break after minimal use). The Klipsch R-4B does not have true surround sound capability, but does offer a virtual surround mode.

Takeaway: Ultimately the Klipsch R-4B, though competent, doesn't fully stack up to the other affordable models we looked at. The sound is more than decent but can't compete against slightly more expensive setups, and the limited feature set makes many less expensive options emerge as much better values.

Where to buy

Buying Guide

Once upon a time, a home theater systems seemed like a luxury. But our search of expert and user reviews turned up products from both "big names" and budget brands that deliver an enhanced home-viewing experience for less than $300. Not only have home theater systems with all the trimmings become less expensive, but these days consumers are increasingly moving away from the traditional home theater in a box and gravitating toward smaller speaker packages, particularly less expensive soundbars and sound bases, and then adding components as they see fit. While these home theater systems no doubt cut a few corners -- the speakers aren't as loud or crystal clear as high-end speakers, for example -- they're guaranteed to sound far, far better than a TV alone.

Home Theater Systems Buying Guide

Home theater systems come in a variety of component combinations. Blu-ray players were once the star of the show, but the market has evolved and consumers -- particularly those looking for a device that can support 4K ultra-high-definition playback -- seem to prefer to choose a Blu-ray player separately, use a player they already own, or forgo the disc format altogether. Many home theaters, even the inexpensive ones, now support wireless Bluetooth connections for streaming music via an MP3 device or smartphone. Some also support Wi-Fi, which has a higher bandwidth capacity than Bluetooth and a wider range, allowing for content sharing across multiple rooms. A select few affordable models can even be found outfitted with built-in streaming platforms. While some more complex set-ups include multiple speakers, as well as a separate receiver for managing all the components, the current crop of cheap home theater systems is dominated by stripped-down affairs not intended for hardcore film fanatics or audiophiles. Their aim is simply to augment the overall sound experience for consumers who want a bit more "oomph" from their movies and music than a TV's built-in speakers can deliver.

Soundbar Brands.

Companies like Vizio and LG, which make some of the best budget TVs, have also released some of the best soundbars available today. It might seem ironic that the same manufacturers that produce TVs with underwhelming sound out of the box have also made a big push into the home theater market. But as TVs have become flatter, there just isn't as much room for speakers that pack any real power. (Best Buy's Insignia soundbars don't live up to the promise of the house brand's TVs, however.) Heavy hitters in the consumer electronics industry like Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba, and Yamaha have also established themselves as major players in the home theater arena.

For consumers looking for budget home theaters, there are many cheap, minimalist options that perform admirably and save space and money. The Vizio SB3851-D0 (starting at $250) is one of the few soundbars under $300 that offers true surround sound, thanks to a couple of included satellite speakers. Added "smart" features -- namely, streaming via Google Cast -- also recommend it over a hard-to-find cousin, the Vizio SB3851-C0. For those who don't need Google Cast built in and don't have room for a freestanding subwoofer, much less extra speakers, the Yamaha YAS-106 (starting at $200) offers respectable sound and surprisingly solid bass. The bare-bones Vizio SB3821-C6 (starting at $140) cuts back on speakers and streaming capabilities but delivers excellent sound that surpasses far more expensive rivals. Soundbar shoppers looking for lots of versatility might turn to the Sony HT-CT390 (starting at $198), which can fit almost anywhere and offers a bevy of listening and connectivity options, in addition to solid audio quality.

The Klipsch R-4B (starting at $249) offers competent performance, but it's lacking in both features and audio quality compared with our top picks -- most of which are available for much less than this model. A similar critique can be leveled at the Samsung HW-K450 (starting at $218). Although many users stand by this soundbar, there are enough expert and consumer critics who judge the sound as really just average. Add to that a buggy Bluetooth connection, and there are better bargains to be found.

For those willing to splurge for a slightly more expensive -- but ultimately more impressive -- sound system, two relatively affordable models earn our endorsement. Like its cheaper cousin the YAS-106, the Yamaha YAS-203 (starting at $400) lacks true surround sound, but this stepped-up system does an admirable job of faking it. Its 7.1 channel virtual surround provides stellar, room-filling audio for movies and music. Rounding out the pack is the critically acclaimed LG SH7B (starting at $300). While it generally costs a bit more than the Yamaha YAS-203, this soundbar offers superior features and fantastic audio. The 4.1-channel system can also be upgraded with two additional speakers to create a soundstage with even more dimension.

Soundbar vs. Sound base.

All our top picks are soundbars -- long, thin bars with built-in speakers that can be wall-mounted or placed in front of a TV. Another common type of cheap home theater is a sound base, also called a sound pedestal or sound slab. It's larger but more self-contained and designed for a TV to rest on top. Cheap soundbars tend to house two or five speakers and a subwoofer (thus the 2.1 and 5.1 abbreviations usually displayed on the packaging). Sound bases are one-piece units that generally include built-in bass drivers, so there is no need for an additional subwoofer. Although some say the larger size of the cabinet makes for larger sound, without a dedicated subwoofer, sound bases have some difficulty tapping the same lows as a soundbar, which can make them less satisfying for music playback. But their simplicity is a big part of what makes them a bargain. They're also a good alternative for those who do not plan to wall-mount a soundbar or worry that a unit in front of the TV might impede the remote control. They also suit apartment dwellers who don't want to deal with the clutter of extra components or subject neighbors to deep rumblings through vibrating floorboards.

Consumers set on a sound pedestal might consider the Zvox SoundBase 570 (starting at $299), which can support TVs up to 60 inches. From Zvox Audio, the small, independent company that first developed this type of unit, the SoundBase 570 is incredibly easy to set up: Its speaker slab -- which houses five speakers and a built-in subwoofer -- is the only component and requires just one connection to create powerful sound quality.

Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table

(from $250.00)
Speaker Configuration 5.1 (3 internal speakers, 2 satellite rear speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 101 dB
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 38 x 3 x 3 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital, DTS
Ports HDMI, HDMI ARC, (output), digital optical, digital coaxial, 3.5 mm, USB, Ethernet
Wireless Connections Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi (includes built-in Google Cast and Vizio SmartCast streaming and app control)
Surround Sound True surround sound
(from $200.00)
Speaker Configuration 2 internal speakers, 2 built-in subwoofers
Power/ Sound Output 120 watts
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 35 x 2 x 5 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS
Ports HDMI, HDMI ARC, (output), digital optical, 3.5 mm
Wireless Connections Bluetooth 2.1 (Home Theater Controller app)
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $140.00)
Speaker Configuration 2.1 (2 internal speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 100 dB
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 38 x 3 x 3 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital, DTS
Ports Analog, digital optical, digital coaxial, 3.5 mm, USB
Wireless Connections Bluetooth
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $198.00)
Speaker Configuration 2.1 (2 internal speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 300 watts
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 35 x 2 x 5 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital, DTS
Ports HDMI ARC (output), digital optical, 3.5 mm, USB
Wireless Connections Bluetooth 4.2, NFC (SongPal app control)
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $220.00)
Speaker Configuration 2.1 (2 internal speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 300 watts
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 36 x 2 x 3 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital, DTS
Ports HDMI, HDMI ARC, (output), digital optical, USB, 3.5 mm
Wireless Connections Bluetooth Hi-Fi (Samsung Audio Remote app control)
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $249.00)
Speaker Configuration 2.1 (2 internal speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 106 dB
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 40 x 3.5 x 3 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital
Ports Analog, digital optical, USB
Wireless Connections Bluetooth
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $299.00)
Speaker Configuration 5 internal speakers, 1 built-in subwoofer
Power/ Sound Output 65 watt
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 30 x 3.5 x 14.5 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital
Ports 2 analog, 2 digital optical, digital coaxial, 3.5 mm
Wireless Connections aptX Bluetooth
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $400.00)
Speaker Configuration 2.1 (2 internal speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 200 watts
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 35 x 3 x 5 inches
Audio Formats Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS
Ports Analog, digital optical, coaxial
Wireless Connections aptX Bluetooth (Home Theater Controller app)
Surround Sound Virtual surround
(from $300.00)
Speaker Configuration 4.1 (4 internal speakers, 1 wireless subwoofer)
Power/ Sound Output 360 watts
Cabinet Dimensions (W x H x D) 42 x 2 x 3 inches
Audio Formats LPCM, Dolby Digital, DTS
Ports HDMI, HDMI ARC, (output), digital optical, 3.5 mm, USB, Ethernet
Wireless Connections Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi (includes built-in Google Cast and LG Music Flow streaming and app control)
Surround Sound Virtual surround

Home Theater Reviews: What We Considered

We relied on expert reviews for most of our information about budget home theaters, tapping tech sources that perform hands-on testing, such as CNET, TechRadar, PCMag, and Digital Trends, as well as commentary from dedicated audio enthusiasts at sites like Sound & Vision and What Hi-Fi? We also looked at comparisons by trusted consumer product specialists and searched user reviews for assessments of how these home theater systems fare once buyers actually get them home.

Not surprisingly, reviews by experts and consumers agree that a low-cost package is no match for a pricey home theater assembled one piece at a time or a total system with a price tag exceeding $800. Even so, it's generally agreed that entry-level systems are a big improvement over the poor sound quality that plagues even expensive HDTVs.

There isn't one specific feature that instantly elevates one soundbar or sound base over another, although the ability to deliver true surround sound comes close. Instead, buyers should look at the total package and how the various components contribute to audio quality. Even better, since each individual might have specific preferences when it comes to sound, it's best to give these setups a listen in person if possible -- many are available at multiple bricks-and-mortar stores, including warehouse clubs.

Overall, the systems we researched are easy to set up and use and receive positive marks for audio quality. Our picks are also sufficiently varied that most shoppers should find a package that will suit their budgetary and space constraints.

Speaker Configuration.

 The main purpose of a home theater system is to mimic the viewing experience in a cinema setting, making speakers a top priority. While expensive stand-alone speakers are held up as ideal, and true audiophiles haggle over minutia such as frequency response, impedance, and other technical details, frugal consumers need not worry about these specifications. A better and simpler place to start is with the number of speaker components.

Manufacturers and retailers signal the number of speakers and subwoofers in a home theater audio package with jargon such as "5.1 speaker system." This particular notation indicates that the system includes five speakers and one subwoofer; a "2.1 speaker system" has two speakers and one subwoofer. The term "channel" also refers to the number of speakers the system can support; a 7.1 channel audio system translates as seven speakers and one subwoofer. Obviously, the more speakers, the better, but a sound base that includes at least two speakers or a soundbar containing at least two speakers plus a separate subwoofer will make a noticeable difference.

Most of the soundbars highlighted here come with wireless subwoofers. Subwoofers generally provide more punch in those lower, deeper tones than systems that lack them, but there are exceptions. The Yamaha YAS-106 is one of the few soundbars we researched that doesn't have a separate subwoofer; instead it has two subwoofers built directly into the main unit. While it may not offer the same depth of sound as a soundbar with a separate subwoofer, the YAS-106 still manages to produce competent audio -- and "booming bass," according to an expert at Tom's Guide. The pedestal-style Zvox SoundBase 570 also lacks a subwoofer, but the bass from its specialized built-in drivers is impressive, and reviewers particularly praise its rendering of deep notes sans distortion.

One of the main user gripes about the 2.1-channel Samsung HW-K450 is that its wireless subwoofer seriously underperforms. Reviews from quite a few buyers, like this Amazon customer, suggest the bass levels are more than a little underwhelming and require quite a bit of tweaking. On the other end of the spectrum, the Vizio SB3851-D0 takes sound quality on a budget to the next level by providing a 5.1 speaker system out of the box that offers truly admirable movie playback and a spacious soundstage that should more than satisfy a wide range of music enthusiasts.

Surround Sound vs. Virtual Surround.

Home theater audio comes courtesy of up to three types of speakers: satellite speakers, a center channel, and a subwoofer. While a freestanding subwoofer can be placed anywhere in a room, a center channel's main job is to emphasize dialogue and should be placed very near the TV. To achieve true surround sound, which requires a minimum of five speakers, front satellite speakers are placed to the right and left of the center channel and rear satellite speakers are placed behind and to each side of the listener -- usually at the back of a sofa or in the rear corners of the room, depending on its size. Add more speakers, and the dynamics of the soundstage increase. (Audio experts at Dolby.com provide an excellent guide to speaker placement for 5.1 systems and beyond.)

Like the center channel in a multi-speaker system, soundbars and sound pedestals are designed to fit directly below or above the TV. Since many cheap home theater systems lack the rear speakers necessary to achieve the full effect of placing the listener at the center of the soundstage, they use audio processing technologies to create virtual surround sound, giving the impression that the speakers are playing across a broader swath of the room than expected given their relatively small size.

The Sony HT-CT390 has a virtual surround system, S-Force Front Surround, that promises to fill the room but seems to negate that premise in its very name. The Zvox SoundBase 570 sports proprietary PhaseCue virtual surround technology, which allows users to set its "surround" output at three levels, but while this technology is capable of expanding the sound field considerably, according to review sites such as PCMag, it doesn't quite succeed at placing the listener at the center of its bubble.

For those willing to shell out for a higher-end 2.1-channel system, Yamaha's YAS-203 is one of the most lauded soundbars featuring virtual surround sound. The company boasts that the bar's Air Surround Xtreme processing transforms this modestly equipped system into a virtual 7.1-channel setup. A CNET reviewer concurs that the manufacturer got it right and raves about the massive soundscape and impressive depth. The 4.1-channel LG SH7B is said to deliver equally substantial sound, while pulling ahead of the Yamaha in terms of connectivity options. It can also be upgraded to a true surround system with the addition of two satellite speakers.

When it comes to immersive sound quality, especially for movies (or even gaming), true surround sound almost always beats a system with virtual surround capabilities created with technical trickery. As advanced as a virtual surround setup may be, it can never put sound directly behind you. With true surround sound difficult to find in a high-quality system under the $400 mark, budget brand Vizio has made a name for itself by offering several home theater systems that augment their central soundbar and subwoofer with two additional satellite speakers. Although it lacks some of the bells and whistles of the Yamaha YAS-203 when it comes to support for various audio processing formats, the 5.1-channel Vizio SB3851-D0 earns our topmost recommendation for its ability to affordably deliver room-filling sound.

For consumers who aren't invested enough in feeling as if they're smack dab in the middle of the action, Vizio's no-frills SB3821-C6 2.1-channel soundbar offers much of the sound quality of the SB3851-D0, just without the surround setup. It's more than $100 cheaper than the SB3851-D0, and experts at The Wirecutter have said that the SB3821-C6 sounds better than any other soundbar to be found for under $200.

Power and Performance.

The one speaker specification that often attracts the attention of consumers is the watts, which indicate how much power the speakers can handle and, subsequently, the maximum volume to expect. This number is not so clear-cut, however. Manufacturers use two common measurements: peak power and RMS. Peak power is the maximum the speakers can take in one blast. RMS power is the amount the speakers can support over a period of time. The peak power rating is higher than the RMS rating, but the RMS rating is more telling. Unfortunately, manufacturers don't always specify which measurement they're providing. If it's not specifically identified as RMS watts, assume the number of watts refers to peak power.

Some home theater systems don't have watts listed in the specifications at all. Among the ones we researched that do, the numbers vary widely. Not surprisingly, the most expensive system, the LG SH7B soundbar, has the highest total power at 360 watts. On the lower end of the spectrum, the amplifier on the Zvox SoundBase 570 has an output of just 65 watts. Both Vizio and Klipsch list their speakers' output by decibel level instead of watts.

Remember, however, overall audio quality is hard to suss out based on numbers alone. Experts consistently say watts and decibel levels certainly aren't the most important specs to look for. Take the case of Vizio versus Klipsch: While the inexpensive Vizio SB3821-C6 reaches 100 dB and gets high marks for its sound quality, critics say the more premium Klipsch R-4B struggles to fill a room, even at 106 dB.

Another ding against the Klipsch R-4B: The dialogue clarity leaves something to be desired, despite its "Voice Enhance" mode. The cheaper Yamaha YAS-106 also seems to deliver better dialogue via its "Clear Voice" technology while creating far-reaching sound that belies its low price and the mere 120 watts under its belt. The Sony HT-C390, with its "ClearAudio+," offers a variety of sound modes (including game and music) and a feature designed to make sure listeners don't miss key plot points when surrounding noise threatens to obscure spoken words.

Audio Format Support.

Home theater systems usually support many audio processing formats that can significantly enhance sound quality. Look for Dolby Digital, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS, and DTS-HD, which use digital augmentation to enrich the sound for music and movies. Most of the soundbars we've reviewed support one or more of these codecs, but generally speaking, the more formats that are supported, the better. Having more options allows home listeners to take advantage of the format that best suits the media source at hand. (See our features comparison chart for formats supported by the soundbars we chose.)

Dolby Atmos is among the latest advances in sound technology, and it's used to present a 3D or globe-like effect, with sounds appearing to come from all sides, including from above. The format requires an overhead speaker or an Atmos-equipped soundbar with speakers capable of firing upward. DTS:X works similarly, and compatible Blu-ray discs have recently become available. While it's difficult to find an Atmos-equipped soundbar for less than $1,000, DTS:X is designed to make even cheaper soundbars sound better. Perhaps this technology will be within reach for frugal cinephiles in the near future.

Connectivity.

Today's home theater systems don't require many inputs. All a soundbar or sound pedestal needs is a digital optical port that relays sound from the TV to the home theater system. Many also have an analog audio input for TVs that lack a digital optical output. In addition to these basic connectors, however, most systems include a handful of extra inputs and connections.

HDMI ports have become more commonplace on soundbars, although the Vizio SB3821-C6, Zvox SoundBase 570, Yamaha YAS-203, and Klipsch R-4B do not support HDMI. A slightly different feature, HDMI ARC, allows users to control a soundbar's power and volume with the TV remote if the TV also supports ARC. It's a handy feature for reducing the number of remotes cluttering a coffee table. The Zvox SoundBase 570 and Yamaha YAS-203 can be paired with a TV remote using technology that "learns" the alternate controls' features and programs the units to respond.

More important, HDMI and HDMI ARC connections allow for the highest quality, multi-channel source audio to be routed through the bar -- audio that might be reduced to a stereo signal if sent directly to the TV. The soundbar then forwards the video signal from the original component (say, a Blu-ray player or gaming console) along to the TV. (Digital Trends has a full explanation of the benefits of both HDMI and HDMI ARC connections.)

Most home theater systems have a 3.5-millimeter (or mini-stereo) input to connect an MP3 player directly, although corded connections to music sources are becoming increasingly unnecessary. Bluetooth connectivity is a common feature in home theater systems released in the past two to three years. The Zvox Soundbase 570 and the Yamaha YAS-203 support the aptX Bluetooth codec, which is said to improve sound quality -- theoretically, anyway. The Sony HT-C390 also includes NFC, or near-field communication. Thanks to these connectivity options, users can also download apps to turn their smartphones into remotes for many home theater systems.

The Vizio SB3851-D0 and LG SH7B have Wi-Fi in addition to Bluetooth. This allows music to be streamed at higher bitrates than Bluetooth, or from a few rooms away, due to greater bandwidth. Both of these models also come with Ethernet ports and Google Cast built in.

Ease of Setup.

One of the primary advantages of choosing a soundbar or sound base instead of a home theater system with multiple stand-alone speakers is that they take up less space, don't fill a room with wires, and are infinitely easier to set up.

Pedestal soundbars, like the Zvox SoundBase 570, have a single component and simply have to be plugged into the TV. The Yamaha YAS-106 soundbar is also a single unit that should take just minutes to get up and running. The systems that come with subwoofers in addition to the main soundbar pair wirelessly with this added component, so there's nothing to plug in. The two extra satellite speakers that give the Vizio SB3851-D0 its surround sound capabilities simply plug into the wireless subwoofer.

While installing these systems is dead simple (wall-mounting gets a little more complicated, of course), syncing is not always quite so easy. According to reviews on Amazon, the Samsung HW-K450, with its apparently unreliable Bluetooth connection, makes streaming from mobile devices sometimes untenable. Set-up issues have forced some users to forgo an HDMI connection in favor of the optical cable. The Vizio models are generally said to be quick and easy to install, but reviews are a bit more mixed on getting the Vizio SmartCast app on the SB3851-D0 up and running. According to some user reviews on Amazon, the Sony HT-CT390 requires the optical cable alongside the HDMI ARC connection to function properly. Some also complain of sound syncing issues, although a high-speed HDMI cable somewhat alleviates that problem.

Additional Products We Considered

Zvox SoundBase 570 Review

(From $299.00 )

Pros: The Zvox SoundBase 570 (starting at $299; available on Amazon) stands out as one of the best sound pedestals in its price bracket, according to a range of reviewers. An expert at PC Mag lauds the excellent audio for movies and music. In particular, the reviewer was impressed by this sound base's ability to produce deep bass notes without distortion, despite its lack of a dedicated subwoofer. Zvox's AccuVoice technology, which replicates technology found in hearing aids, also garners praise for its ability to improve dialogue clarity and intelligibility. A reviewer from Sound & Vision gives the Zvox SoundBase 570 a similarly enthusiastic endorsement, saying that the system's PhaseCue virtual surround technology adds breadth and depth, if not true surround, to the soundstage. The Zvox SoundBase 570 even passed muster when rendering the much more complex nuances of classical music.

Cons: The PCMag reviewer points out that the Zvox SoundBase 570 has a slightly larger footprint than some other pedestal-style soundbars, although users don't seem particularly bothered by its size and heft. There's also a general sentiment among experts and consumers that this system requires more than a little fiddling to deliver optimum sound, and many report making constant adjustments between modes. Some find the highest "surround" setting way too overpowering for most content. While the dialogue-boosting technology is generally well-received, the Output Leveling feature, intended to prevent ads from getting too loud, is said to muffle dialogue once the show resumes.

Features: The Zvox SoundBase 570 houses five speakers and a built-in subwoofer. It measures 30 x 3.5 x 14.5 inches and weighs a whopping 19 pounds. The pedestal is intended to hold TVs up to 60 inches; it can be used with models that weigh less than 125 pounds and have bases not larger than 28 inches wide and 13 inches deep. While it supports aptX Bluetooth for improved audio streaming, it lacks HDMI ports (wired connections can be made via multiple analog, digital optical, and coaxial inputs).

Takeaway: For those who lack the space or patience to set up a multi-component soundbar, the Zvox SoundBase 570 is an excellent and affordable alternative. According to reviews, overall sound quality and even deep bass tones won't be sacrificed with this simpler, subwoofer-less system.

Where to buy

Yamaha YAS-203 Review

(From $400.00 )

Pros: While it's not exactly "cheap," the 2.1-channel Yamaha YAS-203 (starting at $400; available on Amazon) has long set the standard for affordable sound bars, thanks to its combination of impressive audio performance, simple yet clever design, and solid feature set.

An expert from Digital Trends lauds the Yamaha YAS-203 for its audio capabilities, pronouncing the soundbar equally adept at playing movies and music and praising its overall balance and ability to render clear and nuanced sound. A reviewer from CNET largely agrees with this assessment and singles out the "huge" soundstage the small bar achieves despite its lack of true surround sound (with no rear speakers). The soundbar's ability to decode both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks helps in this regard.

Cons: The Digital Trends reviewer does point out some minor flaws, such as occasional distortion in upper-midrange frequencies. This soundbar with wireless subwoofer is also unable to achieve the spacing of true surround sound, which is understandable given the physical restrictions of the setup. The CNET expert is less than enthusiastic about Yamaha's Clear Voice feature, which claims to improve dialogue clarity but didn't seem to produce any noticeable differences. Similar complaints are made by a number of reviewers on Amazon, and there's much grumbling there from customers, like this one, who overset their expectations for the system based on the wealth of positive feedback it has received. Bottom line: The Yamaha YAS-203 can deliver truly high quality audio; it just can't be expected to produce the same sound as multi-speaker systems costing hundreds of dollars more.

Features: The 35-inch Yamaha YAS-203 should fit most moderately sized TVs. At slightly over 3 inches high, this soundbar is a little bit taller than many comparable models and might block some TVs' remote sensors -- but it remedies that problem with an IR repeater built into the back of the device. That feature allows the remote to work even when the sensor is blocked. While this soundbar lacks HDMI ports, and instead offers analog, digital optical, and coaxial inputs, it does come with stepped-up aptX Bluetooth. Mobile app functionality for iOS and Android allows users to control the soundbar with a smartphone, and there's also a feature that allows the bar to accept commands from a TV remote.

Takeaway: While it's too pricey to earn a place among our top picks, the Yamaha YAS-203 remains a truly impressive soundbar. Those willing to shell out a bit more for greatly augmented (if not world-changing) audio in a compact and relatively affordable package should be well-served by this long-standing favorite.

Where to buy

LG SH7B Review

(From $300.00 )

Pros: While this soundbar is a more recent addition to the field, thanks to an array of welcome connectivity features and powerful audio, the LG SH7B (starting at $300) has already established a stellar reputation. A reviewer for CNET raves about performance "a cut above its competitors" and even proclaims that the movie playback abilities are at least on par with the vaunted Yamaha YAS-203, if not better in some respects. The subwoofer is said to provide strong, solid bass, and overall the system proved dynamic, performing well in hands-on testing with a variety of content, including multi-instrumental music.

A reviewer for PC Mag also has mostly positive things to say about the audio quality, including particular praise for the clarity of dialogue even in the midst of high-action movie sequences. Easy setup and versatility when it comes to placement and connection options help the LG SH7B win high marks across the board.

Cons: While the CNET expert concludes that the LG SH7B performs well enough on the music front, the PCMag reviewer has some gripes. Because most of the audio is played through the soundbar itself, rather than the subwoofer, music with pronounced low bass notes can occasionally sound distorted. A reviewer from TechRadar agrees that the music playback might not suit aficionados, but it should be adequate for the average consumer. The same might be said for the bar's virtual surround capabilities, which fail to deliver a truly wide audio field; but here, again, reviewers encourage consumers to temper their expectations based on the price and type of product.

Features: The 4.1-channel LG SH7B comes bundled with a wireless subwoofer. Its long and lean cabinet measures 42 x 2 x 3 inches and can be laid flat or wall-mounted. An LED display sits behind a black metal grille on the front of the soundbar, with the physical controls resting on the back. In addition to the standard digital optical input, it supports HDMI ARC connections, and even has a USB port. While most soundbars in this price range are compatible with Bluetooth, the LG SH7B goes the extra mile by offering Wi-Fi; there's also an Ethernet input. Since Wi-Fi offers greater bandwidth than Bluetooth, this is no small addition. Other welcome extras include built-in streaming options -- LG Music Flow for multiroom playback and Google Cast.

Takeaway: The SH7B soundbar from LG gives Yamaha's budget frontrunner a run for its money. While the music capabilities seem somewhat lackluster, strong movie audio and stepped-up connectivity options make this a worthy alternative for the everyday listener.

Where to buy