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The best soundbars for 2023: My 7 top picks for theater-quality audio at home

Soundbars from Polk, Roku, Samsung, Vizio and Zvox.
Soundbars from Polk, Roku, Samsung, Vizio and Zvox.

You've got the dazzling 4K TV, a feast for the eyes — but is it hard to hear? Does the sound seem weak or tinny? Do you have to crank the volume to distortion levels just to catch what Dame Prue Leith is saying on The Great British Baking Show? That's probably because the built-in speakers are small, low-powered and not even pointed in your direction. Thankfully, there's an easy fix: Adding a soundbar, which can dramatically improve volume, voices and overall audio quality — the better to catch Prue's saucy wit.

Quick Overview
  • Best value soundbar

    Vizio V-Series V214x-K6 2.1 Home Theater Soundbar

  • Best soundbar for streamers

    Roku Streambar Pro

  • Best soundbar for hearing loss

    Zvox AccuVoice AV355 Dialogue Clarifying Soundbar

  • Best Affordable Atmos Soundbar

    Bose Smart Soundbar 600

  • Best smart soundbar

    Sonos Arc Premium Smart Soundbar

  • Best surround soundbar

    Polk Audio MagniFi Max AX SR 7.1.2-Channel Soundbar

  • Best money-is-no-object soundbar

    Samsung HW-Q990B/ZA 11.1.4-Channel Soundbar with Wireless Dolby Atmos

See 2 more

Ah, but with so many options out there, what's the right soundbar for your living room? Time to find out. I recently tested seven models I consider some of the best soundbars on the market, then evaluated each one based on the following criteria:

  • Price, because everyone has different budgets

  • Ease of setup, because technology can be complicated

  • Ease of operation, because same

  • Features and connectivity options, because obviously you want the best bang for your buck

  • Sound quality, because, well, duh!

In making the selections for best soundbar, I also considered user ratings at stores like Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart. Although those scores don't always tell the whole story, they do help weed out the products that probably aren't worth your time or money.

How we test soundbars

Here's the thing: Every soundbar here sounds good, if not great. Obviously, overall audio quality is important, but I believe we're starting from a high baseline: Any of these products will noticeably improve your TV experience.

So instead of delving into subjective sound tests and confusing terminology, I focused on real-world considerations like these:

  • How good is the instruction manual? Is it clear and detailed, with print that's large enough to read without a magnifying glass?

  • How's the remote? Is it laid out logically, with reasonably sized buttons that are labeled clearly?

  • Does the soundbar have a useful front-panel display that shows volume levels and/or mode settings?

  • Speaking of modes, is it easy to switch between TV audio and Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (for listening to music)?

  • Are there any senior-friendly features like dialogue enhancement and voice controls?

All seven soundbars were tested with an Amazon Fire TV Omni Series QLED TV. I played movies such as Black Panther, All Quiet on the Western Front and Despicable Me, along with TV shows like Andor, Survivor and The Old Man. Let me just say it again: You can't go wrong with any of these.

Before I share my top picks, though, let me answer some commonly asked soundbar questions.

What the heck is a soundbar, exactly?

True to its name, a soundbar is basically a group of speakers contained in a long, low-profile cabinet. The advantage is that it can usually sit right in front of the TV, or below it if it's wall-mounted. There may be other speakers in the mix as well, including a subwoofer (which is very nice to have, as it provides the bass needed for more well-rounded sound) and, in some cases, side and/or rear speakers (aka satellites) to create a theater-like surround environment.

How much do you need to spend?

A lot or a little, it's up to you. As you'll learn below, the $150 Vizio V214x-K6 offers pretty amazing bang for the buck. So does the $179 Roku Streambar Pro.

Although I didn't cover super-low-end models here, it's possible to spend as little as $40-$45 on a soundbar and still get an improved TV listening experience. That said, I recommend investing a little more if you can, because quality speakers really do make a difference. Don't your ears deserve it?

What features are most important?

The most important "feature" is the soundbar itself; everything else is just gravy. That said, if you have aging ears, some kind of dialogue- or voice-boosting capability can make a big difference. Luckily, nearly every product here offers that in one form or another.

The remotes included with the Roku, Polk, Samsung, Vizio and Zvox soundbars. (The Sonos Arc doesn't come with one.)
These are the remotes included with the Roku, Polk, Samsung, Vizio and Zvox soundbars. (The Sonos Arc doesn't have one.) They're all decent, but I like Roku's best. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

Does size matter? As with most speakers, the larger the soundbar, the bigger and better the audio quality is likely to be — one exception being the Bose 600, which manages to wring big sound from a smallish form-factor. From a décor standpoint, a compact soundbar might look a little awkward sitting in front of a big TV, and vice versa. But even if you're outfitting a smallish TV that lives in a smallish room, I'd opt for a large-ish soundbar, one that can stay with you if you decide on a TV upgrade someday.

Next, it's not critical, but if your TV has an HDMI ARC or eARC port (most modern ones do), I recommend choosing a soundbar that has an HDMI port as well. Among other things, that pairing simplifies controlling the soundbar's volume using your TV's remote — an important usability consideration. (Juggling multiple remotes is not my idea of fun.) You may be able to do this via an optical connection as well, but the HDMI option also helps you hear soundbar audio from any other sources connected to the TV, like a game console, streamer or cable box. It's necessary for Dolby Atmos as well (see below).

If you're looking for a fully wireless option, most modern soundbars support Bluetooth, though not all TVs do. My advice is to go wired, as you'll ensure the best audio quality and avoid possible audio-video synchronization issues. (You can still use the Bluetooth feature, and possibly Wi-Fi as well, for streaming music from your phone or tablet.)

What about a subwoofer and a satellite speaker? In many cases, you can add them later if you decide you want a more theater-like experience. For purposes of this roundup, I've chosen only those that connect wirelessly to the soundbar. They still need AC power, meaning extension cords may be required, depending on where you're placing everything. But in most cases, they'll connect and synchronize automatically, making this a fairly plug-and-play arrangement.

Finally, let's talk about Dolby Atmos, a feature that's often touted in TVs and sound systems alike. This rather magical technology adds "height channels" to the listening experience — basically another way to simulate three-dimensional sound. The Sonos Arc, for example, accomplishes this via a pair of up-firing speakers, the idea being to bounce audio off the ceiling in addition to pointing it at your face.

There are lots of variables involved here, including the source material (not everything on every streaming service is encoded with Dolby Atmos), the size and shape of your room, the capabilities of your TV and so on. So I'll put it this way: Atmos is a nice feature to have when it's available and set up correctly, but it's also costly and mired in these complexities. I'm not convinced it's a must-have for the average viewer.

Is a soundbar hard to set up?

A standalone soundbar is usually quite easy to install: Just plug it into an AC outlet and then connect it to your TV. However, if you're not electronics-savvy, take note that many of the products here arrive with very basic setup guides and limited instructions. Often you'll be directed to online manuals and/or videos, which can be challenging if you're viewing them on your phone.

For example, although the Sonos Arc is fairly easy to install, it comes with barely any printed documentation. You'll have to install the Sonos app and create an account to complete the setup process, and any additional help must be found online.

The Sonos Arc soundbar, shown here in white.
The Sonos Arc is one of the few soundbars available in white as well as black. It's also one of the prettiest soundbars you can get. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

In most installations, you'll need to adjust your TV speaker settings so the audio gets directed to just the soundbar. Some TVs will do that automatically when such speakers are detected, especially if there's an HDMI-eARC port. If not, it's usually pretty easy to find the necessary audio settings in the TV's menus.

Finally, there's often a step or two required to make your TV remote recognize the soundbar. For this you may have to consult both the soundbar and TV instruction manuals — and remember that one or both may live online. If you tend to struggle with tech stuff, consider researching all this before you make your purchase, the better to avoid obstacles or surprises during setup.

Best value soundbar
VIZIO

Vizio V-Series V214x-K6 2.1 Home Theater Soundbar

$130$180Save $50
Proof positive that you don't need to spend a lot to greatly upgrade your sound, Vizio's compact speaker and subwoofer deliver impressive oomph.
$130 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: B-

  • Ease of operation: B-

  • Overall performance: B

  • Value for price: B+

Vizio makes some of the top-rated soundbars in the biz, budget and fancy alike. The V-Series V214x-K6 falls squarely in the former category, with the lowest price tag in the group. Despite that, it's a solid pick, offering bright, nicely balanced sound quality and perks like a dialogue mode and virtual surround. Just be prepared for a few setup and usability challenges.

I was initially delighted by what I encountered upon opening the box: a QR code inviting me to "scan for a full introduction to your product," followed by the name and email address of an actual person (!) you can contact for help. Unfortunately, that code merely leads to Vizio promotional videos on YouTube; I couldn't find anything specific to setup.

But then I looked at the quick-start guide, which also has a QR code (and, to its credit, large print and clear illustrations). Surely that would take me to detailed setup instructions? Nope: It opened Vizio's V214x-K6 product information web page in my mobile browser, again with no obvious access to setup instructions or a complete instruction manual. (The latter lives online, but I had to search for it. The same is true, unfortunately, with a lot of the active soundbars here.)

The Vizio soundbar and subwoofer are fairly compact, making them easy to fit in just about any space.
The Vizio soundbar and subwoofer are fairly compact, making them easy to fit in just about any space. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

Fortunately, setup was fairly easy. The V241x-K6 doesn't have an HDMI port, so I connected the included optical cable to the soundbar and then to my TV. I plugged the soundbar into an AC outlet and did likewise with the wireless subwoofer. The latter automatically powered on and connected to the soundbar with no intervention from me. Easy-peasy.

I did have to manually disable the TV's built-in speakers and configure the TV remote to control the Vizio's power, volume and mute. Whether you'll be able to do likewise depends on the age and capabilities of your TV, but the soundbar can also "learn" commands from most TV remotes.

Speaking of which, Vizio's remote is logically organized with reasonably sized, clearly labeled buttons. (However, the labels are printed on the actual buttons, meaning they'll almost certainly wear off over time.)

Without a printed instruction manual, it's challenging to understand the vertical line of tiny LEDs near the left edge of the soundbar. Volume is straightforward enough: As you raise or lower it, the line grows or shrinks accordingly. But toggling between various modes, like standard and virtual surround, causes either the whole bank of LEDs to light up or only some of them. It's not obvious when a particular mode is enabled or disabled; I frequently had to refer to the online manual for a reminder.

It's a little easier with the input selector, which cycles through the four available options — optical, AUX, Bluetooth and USB — with an audio prompt and colored LED indicating which one is selected.

I tested the Vizio with lots of different content and found it a vast improvement over the TV's built-in speakers. It's perfect for a smaller rooms, but may struggle a bit in larger ones. In my modestly sized basement, I had to crank the volume pretty high if I wanted a loud, theater-like experience.

As noted above, the V241x-K6 includes a virtual surround-sound mode (DTS: Virtual X) and a dialogue-boost mode. The former does indeed make the sound feel "bigger" overall, though the difference isn't earth-shattering. Similarly, I noticed only subtle differences between dialogue and movie modes.

That's not too surprising given the size and price point of this setup. Even so, it's a superb budget soundbar, one I can easily recommend.

Best soundbar for streamers
Roku

Roku Streambar Pro

A solid soundbar with a premium streaming box built in, the extras-laden Streambar Pro features Dolby Audio, a fantastic remote and more. It's light on bass, though, so consider adding a subwoofer.
$179 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: A

  • Ease of operation: A

  • Overall performance: B+

  • Value for price: A

Wait, Roku makes soundbars? Yes; in fact, the company best known for its streaming sticks has crafted a winner in the Streambar Pro. It's affordable, expandable and stocked with a secret weapon: Roku!

In other words, this soundbar is also a streaming device, nearly on par with the Roku Ultra. Whether or not that's appealing depends on a few things. Are you currently using an old, slow Roku device you'd like to upgrade? Are you unhappy with the streaming software that's built into your TV? The Streambar Pro gives you the full Roku experience, effectively bypassing whatever you're using currently.

That means you get not only 4K HDR Netflix, Hulu and all the other channels, but also a souped-up remote with voice controls, a headphone jack, custom shortcut buttons and a lost-remote finder feature. The remote should be able to control your TV's power, volume and mute settings as well.

The Roku Streambar Pro remote, shown here with wired earphones plugged in.
The Roku Streambar Pro comes with the same remote as Roku's premium streamer. It features a headphone jack, programmable buttons and a lost-remote finder. (Photo: Roku)

The Streambar Pro integrates nicely into your smart-home setup, with support for Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. ("Home servant, turn on the TV and play the latest episode of Severance!") It also works with Apple's AirPlay 2 (which lets you mirror your Apple device to your TV) and HomeKit. There's even a screensaver mode, Photo Streams, you can populate with your own photos, effectively turning your TV into a giant digital photo frame.

Setup is extremely easy, thanks in no small part to Roku's excellent quick-start guide; it's detailed and novice-friendly (although it doesn't really explain voice commands; you have to venture online to learn about that). All you do is connect the Streambar Pro to your TV, ideally via an HDMI eARC port, and walk through the onscreen setup steps. Then pause to enjoy a fun little demo at the end.

Indeed, nice touches like these are part of why Roku is my preferred streaming environment. It continues to offer a friendly and uncluttered interface that's easy to navigate. However, in my tests, the Streambar sometimes stuttered and even locked up when playing content from Apple TV+ and Netflix. No problems with any other streaming services; just those two. Every so often, I find myself needing to reset the soundbar to overcome this issue.

On its own, the Streambar Pro delivers really nice Dolby-powered audio with nifty spatial effects (like sound that seems to move in tandem with what's happening onscreen). But it's definitely light on bass, unsurprising given the lack of a subwoofer. My advice: Spring for the Roku Wireless Subwoofer ($180). And for the absolute best experience? Tack on the Roku Wireless Speakers ($150) to use at the rear for a true 5.1-channel surround setup. (Note that you can bundle one or both of these at the time of purchase and save a few bucks.)

With or without those add-ons, the soundbar offers a couple notable usability features. First, as mentioned above, the remote has a headphone jack for plugging in wired headphones, which is great for private listening. But the Streambar also offers "Direct private listening," which lets you pair your favorite Bluetooth headphones or earbuds.

There's also Auto Speech Clarity, which dynamically identifies dialogue and increases the volume relative to other audio. This works quite well, maybe not with the same punch as the Zvox AV355 (see below), but I definitely noticed an improvement.

For the record, I own not only the Streambar Pro, but also the subwoofer and satellites, and I absolutely love it. But if you're not into Roku or don't want to change your existing streaming interface, look elsewhere.

Best soundbar for hearing loss
ZVOX

Zvox AccuVoice AV355 Dialogue Clarifying Soundbar

Although it lacks a few features (most notably Bluetooth), no other soundbar is as good at making speech sound louder and more natural. For anyone with even a little hearing loss, it's the best choice.
$198 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: A

  • Ease of operation: B+

  • Overall performance: B

  • Value for price: B

No surprise here: As we age, our hearing gets worse. Certain frequencies drop off, which is why it can be difficult to pick out dialogue in movies and TV shows. (Actually, there's more to that than just hearing loss, but either way, it's frustrating.)

Zvox's AccuVoice soundbars are utterly amazing at boosting dialogue, such that you'll no longer have to crank the volume to maximum (thereby sending others fleeing the room) to hear what's being said. The AV355 in particular offers 12 distinct levels of "voice boost," which is probably an overkill number, but it's hard to argue with the results.

The soundbar itself is fairly compact, at just 24 inches wide, which makes it a better fit for medium/small rooms and TVs. It has something fairly rare in this group: a big, bright amber LCD that illuminates a numeric volume level, the selected audio input and a few mode settings. I really appreciate that, as I can see at a glance exactly what I'm getting when I click the remote.

The Zvox AV355's amber LED displaying a mode setting.
The AV355's large, easy-to-read display lets you see volume levels at a glance. It's a small thing, but very welcome. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

Unfortunately, a few readings are confusing, like "IN1d" when selecting the optical input. It stands for "Input 1 — digital," but good luck remembering that digital and optical are the same thing. Thankfully, the manual makes easy work of deciphering the display; Zvox deserves kudos for including a printed poster with reasonably sized print and clear illustrations. It's one of the best I've seen, with plain-English instructions for just about every aspect of the soundbar's setup and operation.

Speaking of setup, there's no separate subwoofer included, so you just need to connect the AV355 to your TV and you're done. Because it lacks an HDMI input, you'll want to use the included optical cable (though RCA and mini stereo connections are also available, helpful for older TVs). I had no trouble programming the Fire TV Omni Series to control the soundbar, but the latter can also "learn" from most other TV remotes as well.

I'm a fan of Zvox's large, flat remote, which has just a smattering of clearly labeled, very tactile buttons (another senior-friendly design choice). With it you can toggle between the AV355's three virtual-surround settings and its 12 AccuVoice levels. Actually, there are six of the latter, but you can hold down the AccuVoice button for a few seconds to switch to SuperVoice mode, which also has six levels.

As you cycle through either of these modes while watching TV, you'll notice that the dialogue keeps getting louder (and clearer) while background sounds fall away. You'll have to experiment to find the setting you like best. SuperVoice is designed specifically for those who have hearing loss. Luckily, I'm not currently among them, so I can't say for certain how much it helps. But both AccuVoice and SuperVoice alike made noticeable improvements in the volume and clarity of speech.

And the AV355 is a solid soundbar overall, albeit one that would benefit from a bass-boosting subwoofer. I can't say I noticed much difference in the different surround-sound modes, but those are overridden anyway when you engage AccuVoice.

I do feel this is a little on the pricey side, especially compared with the less expensive likes of the Roku and Vizio models, which have more features. But you're paying for that special technology to boost voices. If that's your priority, there's arguably no better soundbar to choose.

Best Affordable Atmos Soundbar
Bose

Bose Smart Soundbar 600

Despite its compact size and relatively low price, the Bose 600 can really fill a room. It's packed with features and exceeds the close-rival Sonos Beam in a few key ways.
$449 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: B+

  • Ease of operation: B-

  • Overall performance: A-

  • Value for price: A-

It bears repeating: A soundbar equipped with Dolby Atmos will get you closer to a movie-theater experience than one without, and the Bose Smart Soundbar 600 is one of the most affordable models to include that enviable capability. Its main rival, the 2nd-gen Sonos Beam, costs $50 less, but I think the Bose soundbar is the better buy. Whereas the former relies on audio processing to simulate Atmos audio, the latter includes actual up-firing speakers.

Setup is fairly easy, but take note that it's entirely phone-based. In fact, the printed instructions found in the box offer little more than "Plug it into an outlet, then install the Bose app." This is fine for app-savvy users, and I had a trouble-free time walking through all the setup steps, but I do wish Bose had included some basic connectivity info in print form. As it stands, you'll have to venture online to find a full instruction manual. At least it's thorough and easy to follow.

Speaking of connectivity, the 600 includes HDMI-ARC and optical ports, with cords for each, and uses both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for wireless features. Those include Apple AirPlay 2, Chromecast and Spotify Connect, along with voice features courtesy of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant (though the latter requires a separate Google-compatible device).

The speaker is relatively compact, measuring just over 27 inches across. That size belies the power beneath the hood: Few soundbars of this size can fill a room so effectively. It's not the prettiest black slab I've seen, but the design is simple and unassuming. What I don't like are the barely visible LEDs used to indicate volume adjustment. When you make a change, a razor-thin light flickers briefly — and that's it. There's nothing that shows the actual volume setting (no dots, bar, numbers or the like), nor even anything to indicate power status.

I get that Bose wants this to seem cool and streamlined, but as a user I like to tell at a glance if something is on or off. Likewise, I want to know where the volume is set, even if it's an arbitrary representation. The Sonos Beam is similarly short on status indicators.

At least the Bose 600 comes with a physical remote. It's not great — a little flat slab with some confusing, unlabeled buttons (good luck deciphering them without the aforementioned online manual) — but it's still preferable to no remote at all. Although you'll probably end up using your TV clicker to control volume, at least you won't have to open the Bose app every time you want to switch modes.

This may not be the most user-friendly soundbar in the group, but, wow, does it deliver. Whether you're watching Atmos-encoded content or not, you get the effect of sitting before a wall of sound. There's a fullness and balance here that's really remarkable for a speaker of this size. Dialogue seemed especially clear; I think the 600 fared a little better here than the Roku and Vizio models.

However, while it produces a wonderfully wide field of sound overall, there's no surround to speak of, simulated or otherwise. And, unsurprisingly for a standalone soundbar, the 600 is light on bass. If you decide you want more oomph, you can add the Bose Bass Module 500, a wireless subwoofer. But it's $499, bringing your total investment to around $1,000. At that point, you'd be better off with something like the Polk MagniFi Max AX SR (below), which includes not only a subwoofer but also surround speakers, and for a lower total cost.

No, the Bose Smart Soundbar 600 is for viewers who want a compact but powerful soundbar, one that can double as a music box and even group with other Bose speakers around the house (Sonos-style). Usability could be a little better, but overall I really like this product.

Best smart soundbar
Sonos

Sonos Arc Premium Smart Soundbar

Hold onto your wallet: The Arc is one of the most expensive soundbars around. It's also one of the best, with good bass, amazing Dolby Atmos and your choice of Alexa or Google voice assistants.
$880 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: B+

  • Ease of operation: B

  • Overall performance: A

  • Value for price: B-

If Apple made a soundbar, it would be the Sonos Arc. From the luxurious packaging to the sleek design to the sky-high price (which, unfortunately, recently increased by $100), everything about this smacks of a premium product. And that's fine if you can afford it, because the Arc delivers truly amazing audio, thanks to some high-tech tricks.

Available in white or black, it spans a whopping 45 inches. That wide frame accommodates 11 separate speakers, including two dedicated to Dolby Atmos. Setup is...different. There's a small three-step guide (yep, literally three) in the box. Step one is power; step two, connecting to your TV's HDMI ARC port (the aptly named Arc offers no other connectivity options). Step three is all about the Sonos app: Install it and follow the instructions. And that's literally all the help you're going to get in print.

Fortunately, the app — available for Android and iOS — makes the rest of it pretty easy. After the hassle of creating a Sonos account (sigh, another password to create and record), the app should automatically detect the Arc and walk you through a few setup steps. The coolest one: tapping your phone on the top of the Sonos speaker to share Wi-Fi and other info so you don't have to enter it manually.

The Sonos Arc shown beneath a 65-inch TV.
The Sonos Arc is a big soundbar, one that comes without a remote. You'll use your TV remote instead, along with the Sonos app for adjusting various settings. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

This is a good spot to mention that the Arc doesn't come with a remote. It's designed to work with the one that came with your TV; the Sonos app helps you choose and configure it. (In the case of the Fire TV Omni Series, I instead used the TV's audio settings to select the Sonos soundbar. Same end result, easy-peasy.) The app also does the heavy lifting with regard to accessing modes (such as Speech Enhancement), settings and so on.

For example, you'll use it to choose a voice assistant: The Arc doubles as a smart speaker, with your choice of Alexa or Google. This is less about controlling the TV and more about using the soundbar for music, podcasts, home automation and other smart speaker-y things. (In the not-uncommon case of your TV also having Alexa built in, as mine does, it can actually slow things down to have two microphones listening at the same time. I would disable TV Alexa in favor of Arc Alexa, as the latter has the better mics.)

If you choose one of these assistants, however, you'll lose out on the Arc's own Sonos-based voice controls, which include options like enabling and disabling Speech Enhancement. As versatile as this soundbar is, it suffers a bit in terms of simplicity and usability. Anyone uncomfortable with app-based controls might want to consider a different setup.

Thanks to onboard Dolby Atmos, the Arc can fill a room with great sound like no other standalone soundbar. Particularly impressive is how much bass it produces without a separate subwoofer. You may not feel that thump, but you'll hear it. The simulated immersive surround sound is often very impressive as well, especially in action scenes.

It's worth noting that the Arc can't serve as a traditional Bluetooth speaker the way other soundbars here can. Instead, it joins your home Wi-Fi network, which does offer some advantages (like support for multiroom speaker setups and Apple AirPlay) but may frustrate Android users. Because external audio services (Amazon Music, Spotify, etc.) are controlled by the Sonos app, you may lose out on certain features of those services.

The Sonos Arc is a superb product, one that looks gorgeous and outperforms all other standalone soundbars. But, wow, it's expensive, and probably better suited to Apple/iOS users than to the Android crowd. And despite its singular, streamlined design, it's just a touch more complicated to use than it should be.

Best surround soundbar
Polk Audio

Polk Audio MagniFi Max AX SR 7.1.2-Channel Soundbar

Though priced the same as the Sonos Arc, Polk's system includes a massive subwoofer and wireless surround speakers. It's easy to use and sounds incredible, a top pick if you can afford it.
$699 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: A

  • Ease of operation: A-

  • Overall performance: A-

  • Value for price: A-

There's an interesting dichotomy between the MagniFi Max AX SR system and the Sonos Arc. Polk's system includes not only a soundbar, but also a standalone subwoofer and two wireless satellites (not to mention a remote). It's $899, the exact same price as the soundbar-only Arc. Assuming your budget allows for such a hefty home-theater investment, which should you choose?

Simple: If you want deep, deep bass and true surround sound, the MagniFi system is the obvious pick. It's a beast of a system, with a subwoofer that will shake the floors and a soundstage powerful enough to bug the neighbors. It's also a breeze to set up, though a few functions might prove a little confusing.

The soundbar itself boasts an amazing 11-speaker array, just like the Arc, so it's a big, heavy item. It's nothing, however, compared to the subwoofer, a mammoth that dwarfs the ones from Vizio and Roku. If you're hoping to shoehorn this into a corner or behind a couch, make sure you have enough space. The satellites are a fairly standard size, wider than they are tall, but provided without any kind of wall-mount hardware or floor stands.

The rear side of the Polk Magnifi, showing all the available ports.
Polk's soundbar wins the port wars, with an impressive four total HDMI inputs. Overkill for most users, but very welcome for audiophiles. (Photo: Polk)

Polk's quick-start guide is easy to follow and nicely illustrated, culminating with three options for setting up Wi-Fi: Google Home, Amazon Alexa or Apple AirPlay. This is great, not only because you get to choose the smart-home platform that suits you best, but also because there's no extra app required, no new account to register. I chose Alexa and had a very easy time completing setup.

Unfortunately, although the guide clearly identifies each button on the remote, it doesn't explain any of the corresponding features: sound modes, height adjust, etc. You can probably figure out most of these through experimentation — a smartly designed remote coupled with an easy-to-read front-panel status display leaves little room for confusion — but it's too bad Polk neglected to include a proper instruction manual. What's more, the scan-for-more-information QR code merely leads you to the Polk home page, not one specific to the MagniFi AX SR. That leaves you to hunt for a manual yourself, and when I visited the support page, I couldn't find one. I actually had to do a Google search to locate it.

Any lingering irritation about that gets blown away when you watch, say, Top Gun: Maverick (which you'll want to do over and over). Polk's system is robust, delivering loud, well-balanced surround sound with serious bass and electronically enhanced dialogue. In fact, the MagniFi comes close to the Zvox AV355 in offering multiple levels of VoiceAdjust volume. But here you can also lower the dialogue presence below normal if you find that preferable for some reason.

One small issue did crop up during testing: Whenever I started streaming a new movie or TV show, there was a brief delay — just a second or two — before the audio kicked in. This didn't happen with the other soundbars. It's hardly a dealbreaker, but I did find it irksome.

That wrinkle aside, the Polk MagniFi AX SR is absolutely superb. It's versatile and easy to use, and it can blow the doors off even a large home-theater space. If big bass, satellite speakers and Dolby Atmos are on your list of must-haves, this is the system to get.

Best money-is-no-object soundbar
SAMSUNG

Samsung HW-Q990B/ZA 11.1.4-Channel Soundbar with Wireless Dolby Atmos

Yeah, it's that good — at least once you get past setup and master all the settings. After that: pure home-theater bliss. Who needs the multiplex?
$1,698 at Amazon
  • Ease of setup: B-

  • Ease of operation: B-

  • Overall performance: A+

  • Value for price: B+

Did you win the Powerball? Or score an inheritance from crazy old Uncle Leo? Then by all means splurge on Samsung's utterly spectacular Q990B soundbar setup. It's expensive and somewhat annoying to use, but also unrivaled at plunking you into a veritable dome of immersive sound. This is how you home theater.

It's not, however, how you make life simple. Samsung's woefully incomplete printed documentation is made worse by small print; I suspect novices will experience a lot of head-scratching (and squinting). There's an easy-to-miss QR code you can scan for access to a much more complete online manual — but as with other soundbars, you have to manually search for it once delivered to Samsung's main support page.

Even within that manual, there's barely any mention of Samsung's SmartThings app, which is required to get the soundbar connected to your Wi-Fi network. (Also required: a Samsung account.) Whether you need that Wi-Fi connectivity or not, get the app; it greatly simplifies choosing sound modes, toggling features and adjusting settings.

You can do all that with the remote, of course, but there's one problem: A very small digital display in the front of the Samsung soundbar makes mode selection incredibly tedious, as text crawls across it just a few letters at a time. And in some cases you only see whether the mode is on or off; you then have to press up or down to toggle it and wait for that message to crawl through. The app makes all this much easier.

The Samsung Q990B system before getting installed.
She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts. Samsung's Q990B packs a whopping 22 speakers to fully envelope you in audio bliss. (Photo: Rick Broida/Yahoo)

Even then, there's a learning curve here as you try to, for example, figure out the differences between Active Voice Amplifier and Voice Enhancement. Meanwhile, should you also enable Adaptive Sound, which promises "enhanced voice clarity"? So many options, so hard to know what to use and when.

Thankfully, there are rewards for persistence. The Q990B packs a jaw-dropping 22 speakers into its 11 sound channels, with four of those channels (two in front, two at the rear) up-firing for Dolby Atmos purposes. This is a really powerful system, one that's also stocked with three HDMI inputs, built-in Alexa, Apple AirPlay 2 support and much more. If there's a feature missing here, it probably hasn't been invented yet.

Much as I was befuddled by the various sound modes and options, I can't argue with the results. Every single movie I watched, whether it had Atmos sound or mere 5.1 surround, made me feel like I was in a theater. In Star Trek (2009), for example, I noticed audio cues I'd completely missed before, like little throwaway comments in the background or sounds from Enterprise ship systems. The immersiveness here is just unrivaled, and once you get accustomed to it, it's hard to go back. (Maybe I'll just ignore that UPS driver who comes to pick up my loaner system.)

The remote's a little weird, with a tiny volume rocker switch in place of the usual up/down buttons and some confusingly labeled buttons. (Granted, that rocker is easier to find in the dark, as it sticks out just a bit.) But my guess is you won't use the remote much, if at all.

Aside from could-be-longer power cords for the satellite speakers, my only real complaint here is that Samsung's vaunted "wireless Dolby Atmos" feature, which extends Atmos capabilities to the rear speakers, works only if you own a Samsung TV. The same is true of a couple of other features, which I don't consider essential, so less of a big deal. Luckily, even without a Samsung TV, the audio seemed to envelop me; I'm not sure how it could have been improved by a rear speaker with Atmos.

Bottom line: I'm not saying you can't be happy with any of the other soundbars in this group, but if you want true theater-quality audio and have the means to afford it, look no further.

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