Most modern smart TVs get by with relatively little to show in the audio department, focusing their energies instead on pushing pristine, ultra-high-definition, pixel-packing screens and impressive slim-line designs. Despite the best efforts of TV brands, the irrefutable laws of physics and the shrunken space for audio chambers result in anaemic, tinny and often awful-sounding speakers. For most folks, soundbars are the easiest way to amp up TV audio quality—they are simple, plug and play solutions without the complicated wiring and placement issues you would typically associate with a multi-speaker surround-sound system. Simple, no-brainer decision, right?
Yet, figuring out which soundbar to choose can prove to be complex, given the wealth of options and the confusing alphabet soup of connectivity and audio standards. We take a look at three recently launched soundbars across different price points, and offer some tips and tricks to choose the right one.
Sennheiser delivered a magnum opus with the Ambeo Soundbar Max when it launched in 2020 but its massive size and sticker shock prompted the German brand to launch the Ambeo Soundbar Plus ( ₹1,39,990), a toned-down model that captures the signature dynamic Ambeo audio in a more practical size and price category. As with any Sennheiser product, build quality and fit-and-finish are top-notch on the Ambeo Plus.
Weighing 6.3kg and measuring 105cm long/8cm high, it’s notably compact for its class and fits easily under 55-inch and larger TVs, yet it doesn’t scrimp on connectivity options. You get three HDMI ports, of which only one is 2.1 compatible with eARC support, so there’s no support for 4K/120Hz gaming consoles. This is alongside regular optical and RCA inputs, an ethernet port, Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi, and a USB socket for supplying power to a streaming stick like the Fire TV Stick. It supports Dolby Atmos playback, DTS:X, Sony 360 Reality Audio and MPEG-H formats.
Set-up is via the companion Smart Control app, which also helps calibrate spatial immersive audio, select presets for different content and control the soundbar if the remote isn’t handy. The Ambeo Plus has seven full-range drivers and two 4-inch subwoofers—two each face upwards for overhead immersive audio and two face diagonally outwards for a wider soundstage.
Don’t let its compact size fool you—the expansive soundstage and large, full-scaled sound fills the room like a pair of tower speakers on either side of the TV. Switch on the Ambeo effect and the speaker does well to “throw” sound around the room, giving the rather real effect of phantom side surround and front height channels—particularly in cinematic scenes and action sequences in House Of The Dragon and The King—but the lack of rear sound channels becomes apparent over time. This is a soundbar that shines when it is driven hard, both while watching movies and listening to music (over AirPlay, Chromecast and the like). Though it is a fully functional soundbar, Sennheiser does offer a wired/wireless Ambeo subwoofer ( ₹69,990) for the added bass and deep rumble effects in action/adventure movies. Arguably the best single chassis, Dolby Atmos soundbar, so long as the wallet accommodates.
Sonos may have earned its stripes for its multi-room speakers but the Ray soundbar ( ₹34,999) goes beyond serving purely as a budget-friendly gateway to the Sonos universe. This compact and low-profile soundbar is the perfect fit for smaller spaces (and budgets), where its bigger siblings like the Beam or the Arc would struggle to fit. For the savings, the Ray skips on the Dolby Atmos surround sound virtualisation of the Beam or the extra drivers of the Arc…and on HDMI connectivity altogether, connecting instead to your TV’s optical port. Set-up is via the Sonos app and you can pair the Ray with your existing TV’s infrared remote. If you are on an iPad/iPhone —no Android support yet—you can run the Trueplay tuning process to use your phone’s microphones to optimise the Ray’s sound for the room and its specific acoustics, including the way sound reflects off the walls and furniture. Dolby Digital and DTS formats are supported, and you can stream from a number of music services over Wi-Fi, but the Ray curiously lacks Bluetooth support (or a 3.5mm aux input, for that matter).
For its size and the fact that it packs only four drivers, it impresses in small to mid-sized rooms, with good stereo separation and clarity of dialogue, even if there is a heavy background score. The sonic signature is well- balanced and full but the bass is competent at best. For added rumble, you can consider the Sub Mini ( ₹54,999), a cylindrical wireless subwoofer that connects over Wi-Fi to the Ray or other Sonos speakers. While it greatly benefits the low-end and adds an extra bit of punch and dynamism without sounding boomy or overpowering, the pricing makes it a luxury add-on to the value-oriented Ray soundbar.
Sony tends to deliver the goods when it comes to audio and the 3.1-channel, Dolby Atmos/DTS:X-capable HT-S2000 ( ₹42,990) soundbar is no exception. The 2.62ft-long soundbar isn’t discreet—it took up a substantial amount of cabinet space below the rather large 75-inch Xiaomi QLED TV. A metal grille hides the five forward-facing drivers, with a tiny, scrolling display to indicate volume level or selected source. It’s around the rear that you encounter the S2000’s primary trade-off—rather bare-bones connectivity.
There’s one HDMI eARC port, one optical port and a USB-A port for local music playback, and that’s it. No wired or wireless connection (only Bluetooth), ergo neither any smart capabilities nor the ability to stream better audio quality music over Chromecast/AirPlay.
Where the S2000 redeems itself is in expansion options and performance. Using the companion app, you can pair the soundbar to SA-SW5/SA-SW3 subwoofers or the SA-RS3S rear speakers, all of which are optional purchases that you can make later to add more bass or wireless rear speakers. By itself, the S2000 offers a clean, balanced audio profile, with clear vocals and mids and a pleasing bass courtesy a pair of woofers built into the soundbar. It skips on features like an equalizer, so there’s no customising the sonic signature. With Dolby Atmos content, the soundbar does a reasonable job with the surround effect and an expansive soundstage, but the virtualised recreation of height was just passable. Spend the extra bit— ₹84,980 for the S2000, a subwoofer and rear speakers—and you will get a system that prioritises sound quality over additional bells and whistles.
Soundbars save space, money and wiring headaches while delivering rather well on surround sound and immersive Atmos audio, but if you have the space and budget, a home theatre with dedicated speakers (centre, left/right and two rear) and a subwoofer is definitely the way to go.
How much space you have in your TV cabinet or for mounting on the wall below your TV, along with the size of your TV, will dictate the size of the soundbar you can consider. Of course, room size is an important factor as well—compact soundbars like the Ray work well for bedrooms and small living rooms, while the Ambeo Plus can serve massive household spaces.
Let’s start with ARC/eARC, which in a nutshell allows you to connect your soundbar to your TV using a single HDMI cable, and the TV routes audio of all connected devices – streaming sticks, game consoles – directly to your soundbar. The eARC standard, which is part of the HDMI 2.1 specification and thus requires 2.1-compatible TVs and soundbars, supports improved bandwidth for higher-quality Atmos content.
Optical ports, on the other hand, are point-to-point, connecting your TV to your soundbar reliably, but lack the bandwidth to transport Atmos content (only Dolby Digital and DTS, like the Ray). In general, if your TV is recent, go for the preferred ARC/eARC option, instead of optical or auxiliary ports. Bear in mind, a soundbar connected over HDMI robs your TV of a port, so some soundbars compensate by offering more than one input, which turns them into mini-AV hubs. Just remember that the soundbar should have the ‘pass-through’ feature to send the higher quality (4K HDR, for example) signals to your TV.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support is great if you want to stream from your phone/tablet or directly from streaming services with better sound than Bluetooth. Wi-Fi soundbars often also support whole home audio, and bring in support for Apple’s AirPlay 2 and Google’s Chromecast. USB ports are often used for firmware updates, but some soundbars support plugging in a thumb drive to play downloaded tracks directly on the soundbar.
Think of channels as how many individual physical speakers the soundbar is trying to replace. Basic two-channel soundbars are left-and-right, three add a center, five add in rear speakers and seven contain additional information for surround audio. Dolby Atmos/DTS:X soundbars add in upward firing speakers for the element of height and three dimensionality – the next time you see a soundbar labelled as 7.1.2, know that the ‘7’ represents the channels, ‘1’ a subwoofer (or an equivalent low-frequency driver) and ‘2’ represents the number of upward-firing Atmos speakers. Obviously, the more, the better – as long as the content you’re watching pushes out that additional information (Netflix, Prime Video label Atmos content). It comes down to your budget as well – while it's worth considering an Atmos soundbar for future proofing, most TVs would benefit immensely even without Atmos support.
Most soundbars are capable of holding their own without a subwoofer, but a dedicated subwoofer certainly adds the extra rumble and thump that action movie watchers will appreciate. If you’re already stretching your budget for a soundbar, consider options that allow you to add a subwoofer later.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, posts @2shar.