Soundbars were born out of necessity. HDTVs got thinner, and quality built-in speakers were sacrificed as a result. A full home theater, with an audio-video receiver and separate speakers, provided the only option for sound that matched the quality of the picture. Unfortunately, home theater systems take up a lot of space and clutter up your house with a lot of unsightly, hard-to-keep-track-of wires.
The soundbar solved that problem by integrating multiple speakers – and the electronics to process surround sound – into one unit. While early soundbars opted for convenience over quality, the latest units wrap both qualities together in simple bundles.
Even within similar looking soundbars, a wide range of options exists. The best for you depends on what you value most: quality, convenience, or price – or, more likely, some combination of the three.
With soundbars, surround sound is usually about illusion: These contraptions try to make your ears think they hear sound coming from where it isn't. When it comes to this particular form of magic, the Yamaha YSP-4300 is David Copperfield to everyone else's Gob Bluth.
The unit has 22 separate speaker arrays that can be manipulated to create a sound experience that works in the room you have. The YSP-4300 can adjust the arrays and balance the sound to where you will sit most often. The result is an encompassing aural experience. The wireless subwoofer helps round out the sound, filling in the low-end effects.
All the arrays in the world wouldn't mean much if the sound didn't soar. But the YSP-4300 is the real deal. You get crisp detail in vocals and effects, and a decent rumble from the subwoofer, too. The unit is best for movies; music can lack richness.
This soundbar is a true receiver replacement, too. It can process the latest Dolby encoding technologies, including Dolby TrueHD. To accommodate all your devices, it includes four HMDI inputs, two digital optical inputs, one digital coaxial input, an analog input, and even a USB input for good measure. If you're looking for an all-in-one soundbar and can afford the hefty price tag, this is the one to buy. [$1,900; yamaha.com]