Best soundbar: boost your TV's audio and get music streaming, too

Is your TV pushing weak, tinny audio at you? Sounds like you might need a soundbar.

As televisions get slimmer they may look more attractive, but the audio quality is thin, too. A soundbar puts back some power and bass without the intrusive cables and clutter of a home cinema system. Though they don't all supply surround sound – just as many soundbars deal only in stereo, so choose wisely.

Some have subwoofers built-in to the main unit, while others include wired or wireless options. What most now have is Bluetooth and/or WiFi to stream music wirelessly from phones; some have Apple AirPlay, others NFC for pairing with Android phones.

Either way, the best soundbars make a play for being your new home cinema and music hub – and if that's what you're after, you'll want as many HDMI inputs as possible.

1. Yamaha YSP-5600

44 speakers, Apple AirPlay and Dolby Atmos/DTS:X

Power: 128W | Speakers: 44 | Dimensions: 1,100 x 212 x 93mm | Weight: 11.7kg | Inputs: 4 x HDMI, 2 x digital optical, 2 x digital coaxial, 1 x phono, 1 x RS232c | Outputs: 1 x subwoofer | Wireless: WiFi, Bluetooth, Apple AirPlay, MusicCast | Special features: 4K Pass-through, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X

Virtual surround sound
Apple AirPlay
Incredibly expensive
Overkill for small rooms

It was Yamaha that created the first soundbars a decade or so ago with its digital sound projectors, but the YSP-5600 (£1,600) is one of the most unique and exciting yet. Inside is a stunning 44 speakers – as well as two subwoofers – that together create 7.1-channel surround sound geared to the exact dimensions of a room.

The first and, so far, only soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the YSP-5600 is therefore unique in offering 3D sound, with six 'height' channel speakers on each side for something you didn't even know you wanted … the illusion of sound from above!

2. Sonos Playbar

A slick streamer, but a specialist purchase

Power: Not quoted | Speakers: 9 | Dimensions: 900 x 85 x 140mm | Weight: 5.4kg | Inputs: 1 x digital optical, 2 x Ethernet LAN | Outputs: N/A | Wireless: WiFi | Special features: Sonos Play:1 speakers can be connected as wireless rear speakers

Extends Sonos multiroom music
Can wirelessly connect Sonos Play:1 speakers
Subwoofer costs extra

If you're in love with Sonos multiroom, the chance to bring it to your home entertainment system via the Playbar (£550) might be irresistible. If you already have a couple of Sonos Play:1's hanging around your house, you can even bring them in to act as rear speakers to the Playbar's front, left and right speaker array. However, Playbar does't have HDMI, connecting to a TV via digital optical audio only.

Cue inconvenient and messy hook-ups depending on your TV. Music is simple to control using the excellent Sonos apps, with sound warm and precise, and only large rooms will benefit from the optional wireless Sonos Sub. Impressive, though it remains a bit of a specialist purchase, especially as Sonos users can't access Apple Music yet.

3. Arcam Solo Bar

High-end, HDMI-heavy 'bar

Power: 150W | Speakers: 2 | Dimensions: 1,000 x 130 x 110mm | Weight: 6.4kg | Inputs: 4 x HDMI, 1 x digital optical, 1 x digital coaxial, 1 x 3.5mm jack | Outputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x subwoofer | Wireless: Bluetooth aptX | Special features: control app, HDMI switching with 4K passthrough

Bluetooth aptX for high quality music streaming
Four HDMI inputs
Stereo sound only
High price

A soundbar with just two speakers? Such is the size of the Arcam Solo Bar (£650) that stereo sound is a powerful upgrade on your average TV, with the four subwoofers built-in delivering something genuinely different. It's got ins and outs galore, so much so that the Solo Bar can act as a switcher for all of your AV gear.

Powerful stereo sound and, thanks to compatibility with lossless Bluetooth aptX tech, a great option for streaming music, too.

4. Panasonic SC-HTB480

Good value stereo soundbar with wireless options

Power: 250W | Speakers: 2 | Dimensions: 950 x 153 x 110mm | Weight: 5kg | Inputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x digital optical | Outputs: 1 x HDMI | Wireless: Bluetooth, NFC | Special features: one-touch NFC pairing with phone, Panasonic music streaming app

Bluetooth & NFC
Includes wireless subwoofer
Stereo only
Ugly subwoofer

As a simple upgrade for a flat panel TV that lacks punch, the SC-HTB480 (£170) has more features than its price suggests. That the low price includes a HDMI input and a wireless (though ugly) subwoofer is great news, though don't expect room-filling surround sound; audio antics are restricted to stereo only.

However, the chance to stream music from phones and tablets – and via one-touch NFC for Android users – makes this a good value upgrade for small rooms.

5. Focal Dimension

An ultra-thin answer for big rooms

Power: 450W | Speakers: 5 | Dimensions: 1,155 x 115 x 115mm | Weight: 5.5kg | Inputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x digital optical, 1 x 3.5mm | Outputs: N/A | Wireless: Bluetooth aptX (via dongle) | Special features: designed for big rooms

Excellent design
Virtual surround sound
Bluetooth via a dongle
High price

Designed specially for 50-inch+ flat TVs, this svelte though very long soundbar (£800) from boutique audio brand Focal includes five speakers, one for each channel of surround sound.

There's no arguing about sound quality, but at this high price there should be more flexibility; one HDMI input is poor return, as is the need to buy a dongle for Bluetooth (thought it does deal in lossless aptX streaming). A wireless subwoofer also costs extra (£400).

6. Samsung HW-J8500

A curve-ball for the brand-loyal

Power: 350W | Speakers: 9 | Dimensions: 1,450 x 185 x 60mm | Weight: 5kg | Inputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x 3.5mm jack, 1 x optical digital, 1 x USB | Outputs: N/A | Wireless: WiFi, Bluetooth, Samsung's Wireless Audio Multiroom | Special features: Curved design, wireless subwoofer

Curved, shallow design
Connects to TV via Bluetooth
Single HDMI input
Works best with other Samsung gear

As a rule of thumb, soundbars from the makers of TVs are best avoided. Not only is build quality fairly basic compared to boutique brands, but the reason for soundbars – TV's weak and puny audio – is their fault to begin with. Still, if you do happen to have a 65-inch curved TV from Samsung, the incredibly long HW-J8500 (£450) is your best 'bar option.

Forgetting the curve – this is an advanced soundbar with plenty of features; a wireless subwoofer, support for lossless music files, and the chance to hook-up to a Samsung TV via Bluetooth makes this a cable-light experience.

7. Bose CineMate 15

Easy set-up and a universal remote

Power: Not quoted | Speakers: 4 | Dimensions: 305 x 85 x 70mm | Weight: 670g | Inputs: 1 x digital optical, 1 x digital coaxial, 1 x phono | Outputs: N/A | Wireless: N/A | Special features: Acoustimass subwoofer & universal remote control included

Easy set-up
Universal remote included
No music wireless streaming
Wired subwoofer

Though it's far from the most advanced or best value soundbar available, the CineMate 15 (£550) is nevertheless an easy to set-up and great-sounding way of boosting your TV's audio. It uses four speakers inside the soundbar and Bose's own TrueSpace processing to create something akin to surround sound, while the CinemaMate 15 is one of the few around to include a subwoofer.

It's wired, not wireless, but more responsive for it, while the universal remote gives it a unique reason to buy.

8. Yamaha YSP-1400

Great value digital sound projection

Power: 76W | Speakers: 8 | Dimensions: 1,100 x 133 x 96mm | Weight: 4.3kg | Inputs: 1 x digital optical, 1 x digital coaxial, 2 x phono | Outputs: N/A | Wireless: Bluetooth | Special features: Home Theater Controller app

Great value
Smartphone control
No HDMI connection
5.1 only

The one-box YSP-1400 (£400) is one of the best value soundbars around. Why? Because it's a digital sound projector. Less advanced than its more expensive sisters, the YSP-1400 nevertheless bounces sound beams off the walls of your room to precisely position its eight speakers, which then create powerful virtual 5.1-channel surround sound.

There are two built-in subwoofers as well as Bluetooth for basic music streaming from any phone or tablet. However, it connects to a TV via digital optical, which isn't as easy as HDMI.

9. Monitor Audio ASB2

A streamer's dream with Apple AirPlay, DLNA and UPnP

Power: 160W | Speakers: 4 | Dimensions: 1,005 x 180 x 167mm | Weight: 11.53kg | Inputs: 3 x HDMI, 1 x digital optical, 1 x digital coaxial, 1 x 3.5mm jack, 1 x phono | Outputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x subwoofer | Wireless: WiFi, Apple AirPlay, DLNA, UPnP, Airstream Direct | Special features: can be wall-mounted

Powerful, precise audio
Apple AirPlay, DLNA and UPnP
Overkill for small rooms
High price

More of an audio hub than merely a soundbar, British hi-fi and home cinema brand Monitor Audio's effort (£450) has four speakers and two subwoofers inside that create powerful 3D spatial effects. It's packed with HDMI ins and outs, too, for switching other AV gear.

However, as good as it is with cinema, the ASB2 specialises in wireless music; compatible with Apple AirPlay, DLNA and UPnP, music can be wirelessly streamed with ease from any computer, phone or tablet – and in lossless audio formats, too – whether or not there's a WiFi network.

10. Philips HTL3160B

3.1-surround & one-touch pairing for Android phones

Power: 201W | Speakers: 3 | Dimensions: 950 x 51 x 69mm | Weight: 1.7kg | Inputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x digital optical, 1 x digital coaxial, 1 x USB, 1 x 3.5mm jack | Outputs: N/A | Wireless: Bluetooth, NFC | Special features: one-touch NFC pairing

NFC & Bluetooth for music streaming
Wireless subwoofer included
3.1-channel only
Best suited to small rooms

With NFC inside, this small and lightweight soundbar (£200) can pair with Android phones via a tap for wireless music streaming, though the HTL3160B's three speakers make it little more than a rudimentary upgrade for a TV whose speakers are struggling.

Packed with choices for connecting a TV and other gear – including HDMI – the HTL3160B has a 3.5mm jack for connecting any audio gear. Pushing value even further, it also comes with an external wireless subwoofer.