Which is Better: Surround Sound or Soundbars?

No home theater setup is complete without the right sound equipment. While surround sound systems are better than soundbars, we break down why you might choose one over the other.

The technical ability of soundbars has improved immensely in recent years, but modern surround sound systems are also at the top of their game. Depending on your home entertainment setup, we recommend surround sound for the best at-home audio experience.

If you’re still on the fence about which speaker type is best for your living situation, we’ve got your ears covered. Keep reading for our complete breakdown of the soundbar vs. surround sound debate.

Surround sound vs. soundbar pros and cons

Surround sound

Enveloping sound experience
Clearest dialogue playback
Powerful bass
High cost
Complicated setup
Larger space requirements

Soundbar

Affordable pricing
Easy installation
Ability to mimic surround sound
Low impact in larger rooms
Generally weaker bass
Non-adjustable sweet spots

Why surround sound?

Get surround sound for a home theater with mind-blowing sound.

Sure, surround sound systems can be bulky and difficult to set up, but if you want an incredible home theater, this isn’t the place to cut corners. Just like it says in the name, the sounds of your favorite shows and movies will surround and immerse you, transporting you to Star Wars’s Tatooine or Game of Thrones’s Westeros.

Why a soundbar?

Get a soundbar for a sleek-looking improvement on your TV’s default sound.

If you find the phrase “audiophile” a little pompous but still want something better than your TV’s built-in speakers, a soundbar is the right choice for you. Soundbars work best in smaller spaces like apartments or bedrooms, and they use tricky virtual sound techniques to give you a miniature surround sound experience.

Best surround sound system: Onkyo HT-S3800

Features

  • Six-piece surround sound system
  • Built-in Bluetooth
  • Included receiver

Onkyo, a trusted name in surround sound, offers this all-inclusive speaker system at a steal. It’s a 5.1 channel system, which means it comes with five speakers—front-left and -right, center, two surround—and a subwoofer. It also comes with a stereo receiver, so you don’t have to hunt down another compatible model.

The back panels of the equipment have clear labels on every connection. Combined with the moderate number of speakers, this makes setup a simpler task, so you can probably forgo professional installation.

We recommend this system because it’s a friendly gateway for new home theater buyers. Everything you need is included right in the box. There are certainly more sensitive—and expensive—speakers on the market, but if you’re just starting out in surround sound, we recommend you start here.

If you’re looking for something with a bit more power, check out our article on the best sound systems for your TV.

Best soundbar: VIZIO SB3820-C6

Features:

  • 100 dB
  • Deep bass modules
  • Built-in Bluetooth

This sleek little guy is the perfect companion to a TV 42″ or larger, based on its 38″ length. It has a maximum decibel level of 100, which is about as loud as a jackhammer. And the deep bass modules do a pretty good job in smaller rooms, but it has a subwoofer output if you want a bit more oomph.

Some customers have complained about needing a separate remote to turn it on and off, but many newer TVs, especially those from VIZIO, can integrate with it so you need only the one remote.

Overall, this soundbar will be a great addition to the TV in your bedroom or small living room. It even comes with mounting hardware so you can hang it on the wall if you like. And with the low price, there’s really no excuse for you to keep using your TV’s tinny built-in speakers.

The ins and outs of surround sound vs. soundbars

Installation

Because surround sound systems have so many speakers and wires, just getting everything connected can bring up issues. On top of that, it will take extra work to mount speakers and hide wires. If you’re not feeling confident about accomplishing all that work on your own, you’ll need to hire a professional.

On the other hand, soundbars have fewer wires. And rather than positioning multiple speakers around the room, you can just set a soundbar beneath your TV. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, it’s a lot less hassle.

The Winner: Soundbars

Room size

You don’t need a very high decibel level to fill a small room up with sound. Because of that, a soundbar with only a couple of built-in speakers is a good match for small living rooms or bedrooms.

But if your house has an enormous theater room, a soundbar just isn’t going to cut it. The bigger the room, the more powerful speakers you’ll need. If your place is especially big, you may also want to consider going with more speakers, like a 7.1 channel system (seven speakers and a subwoofer) rather than the standard 5.1 system.

A small room can still benefit from the great sound that comes from a surround sound system, but make sure the speakers aren’t so bulky that you’ll be tripping over them.

The Winner: Surround Sound

Stereo imaging and sweet spots

Stereo imaging is used to refer to the immersive audio experience you get with surround sound, where the sound is coming from different directions and distances all around you. Dialogue usually comes from right in front of you, so it’s the easiest to hear—and background music stays in the background.

Some expensive soundbars can mimic this with multiple speakers set at different angles inside the bar. The sound bounces off walls and comes at you from different angles, but it’s not truly surround sound.

This also brings up the idea of “sweet spots.” A sweet spot is a place in your room where the audio sounds the best. With surround sound, you can adjust the direction your speakers face and get sweet spots wherever you want.

Soundbars aren’t so easy to manipulate—you’ll most likely get the best sound in front of the TV, at a specific distance from the screen that will vary by soundbar.

The Winner: Surround Sound

Bass

If you want to experience sound with more than just your ears, you’ll want to turn up the bass so you can feel the music. No surround sound system is truly complete without a subwoofer to bring the bass to life.

On the other hand, soundbars aren’t usually equipped with a subwoofer for bass. If bass is important to you, but you don’t want to go with surround sound, get a soundbar you can hook up to a separate subwoofer.

The Winner: Surround Sound

Final take

For a full audio experience, you’ll want to go with a surround sound system. But if you just want to experience some nicer audio than your TV’s built-in speakers can provide, pick up a soundbar and take your TV watching to the next level. You’ll be able to tell the difference right away.

Methodology

Our home entertainment experts spent over a dozen hours researching and testing surround sound systems and soundbars to determine their overall advantages and disadvantages. We compared individual speaker setups based on their price, TV and internet compatibility, and ease of installation.

To learn more about our methods, check out our How We Rank page.

Surround sound vs. sound bar FAQ

Can soundbars do surround sound?

Some of today’s best soundbars have an expanded frequency range and include immersive surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. This allows soundbars to have a simulated surround sound effect when used in smaller spaces.

Can you connect a soundbar to a surround sound setup?

Soundbars are generally meant to be an all-in-one loudspeaker that provides smart TVs with a more dynamic sound. We don’t recommend adding a soundbar to an existing surround sound setup because this could blend front-facing audio channels and result in poor sound quality. If you already own a soundbar and are looking for a more immersive surround sound experience, you’ll want to find surround sound speakers that are compatible with your soundbar.

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