Buying a soundbar for your entertainment system can take your sound experience to the next level but you may not always be pleased with your investment. This is because soundbar specs can be extremely misleading to the average consumer.
Manufacturers may deliberately do this in the hope that you will buy their products based on specs alone. They may also fail to provide all the useful information regarding the product adding further to the confusion.
With that said, it is important to understand the various soundbar specs.
Most people will buy a soundbar based on the following specs;
- Frequency range
- Number of channels
Before making a purchase decision, you will need to fully understand these specifications, not forgetting that budget plays a huge role in what we shop for.
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What soundbar wattage do I need?
High-quality sound can change your watching experience by a great deal and wattage contributes to how loud the sound be.
Wattage is the measure of how much power the soundbar’s built-in amplifier can output. The amplifier drives the speakers affecting SPL (sound pressure level) depending on the soundbar driver’s sensitivity.
Sensitivity is how loud a speaker is at one meter with one watt of power. More on that below.
Not all manufacturers will give information on how many watts the built-in amplifier can output.
Granted, the speakers will have a power rating and this is how many watts they can continuously draw from the built-in amplifier without distortion. If you drive the soundbar’s speakers too hard way above the power rating, the sound may get distorted, the speakers heat up which could blow the drivers.
Note: Not all soundbars will have a built-in amplifier. A soundbar with a built-in amplifier is known as an active/powered soundbar while a soundbar without a built-in amplifier is known as a passive soundbar. I will give you more information on types of soundbars later in this post.
Speaker power rating brings me to my next point, sensitivity.
What is sensitivity in an active soundbar?
Sensitivity is the measure of how well a soundbar’s speakers can convert watts to decibels (dB). It is also defined as the sound pressure level per wattage at one meter or SPL/W/M. On the other hand, decibels measure how loud the soundbar is at a given distance.
Each time you increase your soundbar’s volume, the wattage is increased increasing the decibel level. Soundbars have sensitivity ratings and this will measure how many decibels the speakers will output at 1 watt. There will also be a rating of how loud the speakers can get before they start to clip/distort.
The most important thing to remember is that to increase SPL by 3 decibels, the wattage needs to be doubled.
High-quality soundbar drivers have higher sensitivity ratings and will be louder than other soundbars at the same wattage.
Most soundbar speakers will have a sensitivity rating of between 85dB and 91dB.
Below is a table to help you translate watts to decibels for a sound with a sensitivity rating of 85dB and 91dB;
|Sensitivity rating||85 dB/W/M||91 dB/W/M|
|Number of watts||Loudness in decibels||Loudness in decibels|
If you love listening to high levels without distortion, do not get a soundbar will a sensitivity rating of below 85 decibels.
How loud is a soundbar at 85 decibels?
Most people may not understand how loud 85 decibels is, but below is another table to help you understand different dB levels;
|Decibel level||Loudness level|
|10dB||Normal breathing or rustling leaves|
|40dB||Light train or refrigerator hum|
|70dB||Toilet flushing or dishwasher|
|80dB||A leaf blower or heavy traffic|
|130dB||Live rock band|
Understanding frequency range
In a soundbar, the frequency range is the difference between the highest and lowest frequency that the soundbar speakers can produce. Frequencies are measured in Hertz (Hz) and typically, most speakers have a frequency range of between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz (20KHz) which is the range of human hearing.
- 20 Hertz to 200 Hertz represents the low frequencies or the bass frequencies (bass). Reproduced by the woofers or sub-woofers.
- 200 Hertz to 2,000 Hertz (2kHz) represents the mid-range frequencies (mids). Reproduced by mid-range speakers or woofers.
- 2,000 Hertz (2kHz) to 20,000 Hertz (20kHz) represents the high frequencies (highs/treble). Reproduced by the tweeters.
In most cases, a soundbar may struggle with playing the lower bass frequencies and in this case, you may need a sub to play those lower frequencies. Other soundbars will also come with a sub-woofer as one package.
However, a high-quality soundbar should be able to proportionally balance between the bass, mids, and highs but it is recommended to get a sub for the bass.
Number of channels
When you are shopping for a soundbar, you will often come across numbers such as 2.1, 3.1, and 5.1.
2.1 stands for 3 channels, the left channel, the right channel, and a subwoofer channel. 3.1 is 4 channels for the right speaker, the left speaker, the center channel, and the sub channel. 5.1 stands for 6 channels, the front left and right channels, the center channel, the left, and right surround channel, and a subwoofer channel.
As I mentioned above, most soundbars will have a connection (wired or wireless) for the sub-channel. 5.1 channel soundbars are surround sound soundbars and they often come with 2 wireless satellite (small) speakers for the left and right surround and a sub.
More advanced soundbars may be specified as 5.1.4 and this is similar to 5.1 channels but with 4 extra height channel speakers for Dolby Atmos and DTS-X. The height channels help to create an enveloping surround sound effect and can be installed in the ceiling or on the wall close to the ceiling.
What else should I consider when buying a soundbar?
1. The type of soundbar
There are 2 main types of soundbars namely;
- Has built-in processing and amplification.
- Easy to set up and cheaper.
- It not expandable.
- Can be mounted on the wall or placed on a cabinet.
- Requires external processing and amplification to power the speakers.
- Usually connected to a receiver in most cases.
- Has a bigger footprint and requires more cables.
- Is more customizable but costlier.
- Can be mounted on the wall or placed on a cabinet.
What is a sound base?
There is also a sound base that works similarly to active soundbars but it is also used as a pedestal for TV. It is placed on top of a cabinet but under the TV. A sound base has more depth and bass than a soundbar but not as good as a dedicated sub.
However, a sound base cannot be used with bigger TVs with feet at both ends.
Soundbars come in different sizes from 12 inches long to 60 inches long. In most cases, bigger soundbars will have louder levels as they have more/bigger drivers that can be fitted in the cabinet.
Some people may want to match the length of the soundbar to that of the TV, depending on preference. You should note that TV size is measured diagonally and to match the size of the soundbar to that of the TV, you should use the TV’s horizontal length.
Apart from wired connections, most soundbars will have at least one wireless connection usually Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is used to connect the soundbar with a sub or extra surround speakers. It can also be used to connect the soundbar to your devices such as smartphones, tablets, PC, and so on. Bluetooth should not be a big determining factor because you can always add a Bluetooth adapter for the soundbar.
Wi-Fi is another great wireless connection option that can be used with a smart home assistant such as Alexa and Google Assistant and for music streaming services.
But arguably the most important connection is HDMI and to be specific HDMI ARC. HDMI ARC (audio return channel) will allow audio and video to be sent to and from your TV.
Other connections are USB, Optical cable connection, and Coaxial cable connection.
Which soundbar specifications will be good for me?
You cannot judge the quality of a soundbar based on the specs alone because as I mentioned earlier some manufacturers may make false claims about their product hoping that you buy the product based on the specifications alone.
If you are buying your soundbar from a physical store, I would recommend listening to different soundbars and hear which one sounds the best to you. However, if you are shopping online, check various reviews before deciding. This will give you insight into what you can expect about a certain product.
With that said, the specs of certain soundbars are equally as important but it cannot be your only determining factor.