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Soundbar speakers can pump up a TV's sound

Let’s be honest: While most people considering a soundbar want to better their TV’s built-in sound, many are willing to trade some sound quality for convenience. Otherwise, they’d consider separate components or a full-blown multispeaker surround sound system.

But what if you didn’t have to make that trade-off—and could gain a few unique features in the process?

That’s what we found in our latest Ratings of soundbar speaker systems, where the Sonos Playbar speaker topped all other models. The Playbar is an odd, though elegant-looking, sort of beast in that it’s not just a soundbar that can pump up your TV’s sound. It’s also a cloud-connected wireless speaker system that can pull in Web-based music services, such as Pandora and Spotify; sync with other gear connected to your home network, and team up with other Sonos speaker systems to create either a real surround-sound system in one room or a multiroom wireless sound system in your house.

Yes, at $700 it’s in the upper price tier for soundbar speakers. And that price will escalate rapidly if you feel the need for a bigger bottom end ($600 for the wireless Sonos subwoofer) and some extra speakers (Sonos Play:3 speakers, at $300 a pop).

You'll also need at least one Sonos component hardwired to your broadband via an Ethernet connection or you'll have to spring for a Sonos Bridge ($50). And did we mention there's no remote control? Instead, you use an app on your iOs or Android mobile device, so we hope you have one. (You can also control Sonos using an app on your Mac or PC.)

But once you get the Playbar set up for action—a fairly easy process—there's a nice payoff: very good sound quality. In fact, the Sonos is one of only a handful of soundbars we’d recommend for music as well as movies and TV shows. 

Get more guidance with our home theater and soundbar speaker buying guide.

But the Playbar also offers a versatility that’s hard to match, since it can stream audio content from devices connected to your home network, such as a computer, and directly from several Internet-based services, including Amazon Cloud Player, Pandora, Rhapsody, SiriusXM, and Spotify. 

While the Sonos requires an Internet connection for setup and for the Internet-based streaming services to work, it can be used solely as a soundbar speaker without an Internet connection. But the Playbar requires that your TV has an optical digital audio output.

Admittedly, not everyone wants all those options or to spend this much money. That's OK; we have another great and more affordable suggestion: the Sony HT-CT260. Priced at less than $300, this 2.1-channel soundbar system—which includes a wireless subwoofer—is less than half the cost of the Sonos but still manages to deliver very good overall sound, earning it a CR Best Buy recommendation. It also has Bluetooth for wirelessly sending music from a phone or tablet to the speaker.

If you're looking for an easy way to improve the sound quality of your TV, a soundbar may be just the solution. Make sure you check out our complete Ratings of home-theater and soundbar speaker systems to get the best model for your needs and budget.

—James K. Willcox

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