Best soundbars 2020: top Dolby Atmos soundbars and budget soundbar picks

Don't settle for weak, tinny television audio. The best soundbars and soundbases sit in front of or under your telly to beef up its sound in stereo, 5.1 or Dolby Atmos – for a range of budgets

Best soundbars and soundbases
(Image credit: Vizio)

The best soundbars and the best soundbases let you improve a rather sorry scenario with television audio. Y'see, one unfortunate side effect of the best TVs now being about the thickness of a pencil is that they can often feel a bit short of volume, with dialogue being hard to pick out from a heady movie mix, and music coming across as tinny and, as musicologists would put it, 'crap'. 

You could get an AV receiver and surround sound speakers, but that tends to require both a suitable living room, and also a suitable amount of will to run cables everywhere and manage the whole shebang. And that will certainly isn't universal. Enter the soundbar and the sound base.

Modern soundbars range from simple units with a pair of stereo speakers with a bit more oomph than your TV can manage, right up to elaborate multi-driver systems that create virtual surround sound by bouncing audio around the room. Soundbases are similar, but are deep enough for your TV to sit on top of, rather than behind.

They also offer smarter features than ever – from support for Dolby Atmos 3D audio, to different processing modes designed for making things like speech more audible, to support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming – and there's a great range of sizes, so your audio output can match the size of your space.

What is the best soundbar or soundbase?

Our pick for the best soundbar for most people is the Sonos Beam, thanks to its reasonable price, excellent audio and great range of extra features, including multi-room streaming and built-in Alexa/Google Assistant. It's small, it looks great, and it handles music just as well as it does movie soundtracks.

The one downside to the Beam is that it's not equipped for Dolby Atmos or surround sound on its own. If you want more of a full cinema experience, the Samsung Q90R is our money-no-object pick, giving you two rear speakers in addition to the soundbar, with four up-firing Dolby Atmos drivers in addition to all the usual surround speakers.

If want that kind of experience, but for around half the price, go for the Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar, which still has rear speakers, and still has upfiring Atmos drivers. It's close to the Samsung for quality, but trims back a little on features.

Our pick of the best budget soundbars is the Sony HT-X500, which is astounding value given the way it uses clever processing to turn its stereo speakers into directional cinematic sound – and it's regular available well below its listed price. If you want to go even cheaper, get the Q Acoustics M4 – this puts all its effort into two quality stereo speakers and a bass driver, and the results sound far better than its low price tag suggests.

How to buy the best 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. 

First thing to bear in mind is they don't all supply surround sound – just as many soundbars deal only in stereo, so choose accordingly. Stereo is more reliable from a fixed unit; surround sound can be magical, or it can be a mess. Of course, it's excellent in all the soundbars we've chosen, but if you're look at others, keep that in mind.

Some have subwoofers built-in to the main unit, while others include separate woofers, often wireless (in that they connect to the bar wirelessly – they still need power). 

Many now also boast Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi to stream music wirelessly from phones. Some will also include microphones with support for Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

The main thing to bear in mind with soundbars is where to position them. If your TV is on a media unit, and you're planning to just plonk the soundbar in front of it, you may find it blocks your remote control, or even the bottom of the TV, depending on your TV's stand. Some soundbars are lower profile than others, so be sure to factor this is.

The alternative is to consider a sound base, as they sit right under the TV, acting as a mini stand. This means they can't block the remote's IR connection but it also makes them less ideal if you've got your TV wall mounted, or sat on a standard TV stand.

Another key thing to look out for is the number and type of wired connections on offer. HDMI ARC is our preferred option, because it's the easiest way to plug and play, and it means you don't need a remote just for your soundbar, because the TV passes all controls over the cable.

However, some soundbars and bases don't include it, using optical digital instead. And some older TVs don't have HDMI ARC connections, or will only have one, which may already be in use by another box of yours. So make sure that you choose a soundbar with the connection types that suit your TV.

Most high-end soundbars will have an HDMI passthrough, which can solve the the issue of your TV only having one port – this means you plug a console, set-top box or whatever into the soundbar, which passes the video onto the TV, while still receiving all audio from the TV.

The best soundbars and soundbases: ranked

Best soundbar: Sonos Beam

1. Sonos Beam

Best soundbar/speaker/home assistant… Such a versatile device

Reasons to buy
+Great sound, from a very compact speaker+Includes Amazon Alexa and AirPlay 2, too+Easy installation+Upgradable to multi-room and/or 5.1 system
Reasons to avoid
-Can get expensive if you embark upon said upgrades

Is it a fantastic-sounding soundbar! Is it a multi-room music speaker? Is it a home voice assistant? No, it's super Beam, doing all these things at once. The Beam is a compact soundbar (just 26 inches across) that looks great in fetching white or black, and is designed for the modern living room.

It connects to your TV over HDMI for no-fuss control, and instantly adds clarity and depth to all audio. And with its Wi-Fi connection, you can use the Sonos app to play music from streaming services in a multi-room setup with other Sonos speakers, while Apple AirPlay 2 support means you can use it for multi-room streaming of any audio played from Apple devices.

And you can choose to have Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant voice control on it, so you can use it to control your smart home or ask for information, like any Echo or Google Home device.

The only potential downside is that it doesn't offer any kind of surround sound option out of the box – via virtualisation or other means. But Sonos does offer the ability to turn it into a 5.1 system by adding other speakers from its range and configuring them within the app. There will still be no Dolby Atmos option, though.

If you're looking simply to upgrade the audio from your TV into something bigger, richer and clearer for elements such as dialogue, this is the soundbar we'd recommend for most people – it's easy to use, versatile and is a good size for TVs 42 inches and up.

Best soundbars: Samsung Q90R

(Image credit: Samsung)

2. Samsung HW-Q90R

The best soundbar for the full Dolby Atmos experience

Reasons to buy
+Incredible Atmos experience+Wireless speakers and subwoofer+Simple to install and set up
Reasons to avoid
-Just two HDMI inputs

This setup gives you not only a large soundbar at the front, but also a subwoofer and two wireless rear speaker units – in combination, it's a full surround system, but without all the messy cables between them. But it's not done impressing yet – the soundbar and both rear speakers also have upfiring drivers for Dolby Atmos height channels. 

Samsung describes the end results as a 7.1.4-equivalent configuration, and while it might not quite give you the full effect of seven speakers around you, it's damn close. And have four upfiring speakers really creates a dome of sound for movies with Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks – it's utterly enveloping.

For the cinematic effect, there's no better soundbar on the market, but you will pay for the privilege. It does have two HDMI inputs to make up for the fact that it will take up one port when connected to your TV, but at this price we'd expect four inputs, really. As flaws go, it's pretty damn minor, though…

Best soundbars: Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos

(Image credit: Vizio)

3. Vizio 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos Soundbar SB36512-F6

The best soundbar for affordable true Dolby Atmos

Reasons to buy
+Really strong Atmos experience+Excellent value for money+Very good sound all-round
Reasons to avoid
-Design is a little utilitarian-Rear speakers only semi-wireless

For those who want a surround experience but with the four-figure price tag, this is a slam-dunk. It's a 36-inch soundbar delivering the front channels and with two upfiring drivers for Dolby Atmos, a wirelessly connected subwoofer for bass oomph, and two rear speakers (though unlike the Samsung, these don't also have upfirers).

The rear speakers need to connect to the subwoofer via a cable each, which means this isn't quite as flexible as the Samsung Q90R, but if you can place the subwoofer behind you too (or under your sofa) then it's not a big problem at all.

Most importantly, the 3D effect in movies is still excellent, and certainly doesn't sound like it's coming from something half the price of the Samsung. There's a real sense of height, and soundtracks have lots of drama and detail from all angles. The speakers are also no slouch for music.

There are some other corners cut compared to the Samsung – you only get a single HDMI input as well as the HDMI connection to the TV, and the build is not as luxurious. But the sound quality is there, and that's what gets it a strong recommendation from us.

Best soundbars: Sony HT-X8500 Dolby Atmos

(Image credit: Sony)

4. Sony HT-X8500

The best budget soundbar with virtual Dolby Atmos

Reasons to buy
+Impressive virtual surround+Dolby Atmos & DTS:X support+HDMI passthrough+Excellent value
Reasons to avoid
-Can't compete with real Atmos

We're seeing this soundbar regularly discounted at the moment, which is making it a hell of a bargain. It's the closest direct competitor to the Sonos here, but where the Sonos is concerned with simple rich audio plus a host of multi-room features, this aims to go more cinematic.

Despite being a simple stereo setup inside (with integrated subwoofer, which really does deliver impressive bass), Sony's digital processing claims to replicate a 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos surround system. Let's be clear that it doesn't achieve this, nor would we ever expect it to – but it does add a ton more directionality to the sound to give movies and TV that extra bit of magic.

And while the lack of upfiring speakers mean it can't achieve the true overhead effect of Dolby Atmos, it does add height to the presentation, so it sounds like it's coming from a wall of sound in front of you, rather than blasting out of a small bar. And it's really, really nice – distinctly more cinematic than a TV's speakers, in an immediate and obvious way. And it will upmix stereo or regular 5.1 sources with extra height.

It's also the only soundbar this cheap to have an HDMI passthrough, meaning that you won't lose an HDMI port by plugging it in. For the current price, this is easily one of the best soundbar buys.

Best soundbars: Q Acoustics M4

(Image credit: Q Acoustics M4)

5. Q Acoustics M4

The best budget soundbar for pure value

Reasons to buy
+Excellent music/movies all-rounder+Bluetooth included
Reasons to avoid
-It is only stereo-No HDMI

There are bigger-sounding soundbars, sexier ones and fuller-featured ones but the M4 offers absolute simplicity and great sound with both music and movies. There's no HDMI connection here, so it uses optical instead (though there's also a 3.5mm jack). For music, you can also use aptX Bluetooth to stream to it directly.

The lack of HDMI is a shame, since it stops it being controlled from the TV directly  – a newer version, the Q Acoustics M3, does have HDMI, and is excellent, but is priced dangerously close to the Sonos Beam, which we prefer (though if you see the M3 on offer, we absolutely recommend it). Q Acoustics has tried to make sure that the M4 is controlled directly over infrared by the majority of remote controls, so it's still easy to set up and control.

The really great thing about the M4 is that it nails all three of the things you want a soundbar to do. It provides a volume and clarity boost to TV, gives an exciting and powerful leg-up to movies, with effects and music widescreened, without losing dialogue. And it also delivers exceptional clout with musical sources.

It's quite deep, thanks to a built-in subwoofer, but that's not much of a flaw. And it's the cheapest soundbar here, even more so than the Sony when it's on offer. For the price, you won't get better sound.

Best soundbase: Sonos Playbase

6. Sonos Playbase

The best soundbase option

Reasons to buy
+Sonos multi-room streaming+Excellent sonics in general
Reasons to avoid
-Sonos' app is irritating-No HDMI

This soundbase sits under your telly looking handsome, but it can also put out anything from a subtle and nuanced performance to a veritable tsunami of sound through its umpteen drivers.

Being a Sonos product, the Playbase is compatible with its other, multi-room speakers, and can also be used in a surround configuration with speakers in the same room.

Setup is a bit of a pain as you have to roam the room waving your phone around to 'tune' it, and even after you've done all that, the sound stage is not quite as wide as you'd expect. That is quibbling though, really. The Playbase is the smartest and best soundbase option, if you're looking for this kind of product over a soundbar.

Best soundbar: Sony HT-ST5000

7. Sony HT-ST5000

Best Dolby Atmos soundbar

Specifications
Connections: 2x digital audio, analogue stereo, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Dimensions: 1180 x 80 x 145 mm
Weight: 8.2kg
Features: Dolby Atmos; Chromecast built-in; High-Res Audio capable
Reasons to buy
+Outstanding spatial imaging+Terrific with music and movies alike
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive, but no rear speakers

The HT-ST5000 is way up at the premium end of the soundbar range, with Dolby Atmos and a simulation, at least, of 7.1.2 surround sound.

Build quality is exceptional. While there’s a fabric cover to complement the hairline finish, we suggest you remove it and just drink in those drivers. Mmm-mm. 

Left and right are two gorgeous coaxial speakers with gold-rimmed high frequency tweeters, while a step-down coaxial flanked by mid-range quartet sits dead centre. On top are up-firing Dolby-enabled speakers for Dolby Atmos and height duties. Sony describes all this as a 7.1.2 proposition.

Of course, it isn't actually surrounding you with speakers – there are no rear units like the Samsung Q90R. The surround effect is all virtual, based on Sony clever processing, and the effect is truly impressive, giving movies a real sense of the sound coming from different angles. It's helped by the use of 'real' Dolby Atmos upfiring speakers, adding convincing height.

But it can't really match what it's like to have real speakers behind you, and and especially with the extra upfiring speakers of the Q90R system. However, if you don't have the space or will to set up rear speakers, this is the closest you'll get to a surround setup from a single bar. It really is impressive.

With Atmos soundtracks the system paints a huge, highly precise canvas, with those upfiring drivers tantalisingly hinting at a canopy of immersive sound. It punches hard too. The sub drops to 31.5Hz, and is more than able to pulverise your popcorn. With a claimed power output of 800W, the system suits all musical genres too, supporting a full fist of Hi-Res Audio codecs up to DSD. 

Connectivity includes four HDMIs, plus optical digital audio and stereo minijack inputs, so it's very well equipped.

Best soundbar: Bose Soundtouch 300

8. Bose Soundtouch 300

A virtual surround soundbar that can be upgraded with rear speakers

Reasons to buy
+Attractive styling+Easy to upgrade to 5.1
Reasons to avoid
-Gets expensive if you do so

The Soundtouch 300 is a good-looking machine that's easy to setup via HDMI ARC. It's also fully featured, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth audio streaming, and the sonic performance is seldom less than impressive. 

We'd take the bars and bases above it if that was where the Soundtouch 300's charms ended, but add a Bose subwoofer and a pair of its tiny satellite speakers and you have very easy, true 5.1 surround, and that really sparkles. Unfortunately, you'll need to spend about twice as much as you did on the soundbar to achieve that, which pushes it into high-end territory, hence why it sits lower than the Vizio and Samsung options. However, we do like that that you can buy the soundbar now and then grab other options only when you want (and can afford them).

The only other thing we didn't like is that setup involves strapping a microphone to your head and then moving around the room, to tune the sound. We'd really rather keep some dignity while setting up a soundbar.

Best soundbase: Q Acoustics M2

9. Q Acoustics M2

Excellent-value soundbase sibling to the M4 soundbar

Reasons to buy
+Affordable and easy to setup
Reasons to avoid
-We prefer the soundbar

This sounds very similar to the Q Acoustics M4, but has a few handy tweaks – the most obvious is that, as a soundbase, you can place your TV on top of it. But it also has HDMI, so your TV can control it directly, which makes it ultra simple to install and use.

And, as you can see, it's an incredibly low price. That does mean there's no HDMI passthrough, so you're losing an HDMI port on your TV to connect this. But if that's not a problem, and you prefer the extra height of a soundbase, we thoroughly recommend this – it's just an instant upgrade for your sound to a rich, clear stereo system made by a cutting-edge hi-fi company.