Hard to believe, but soundbars used to be a novelty. The idea of merging stereo and/or subwoofer components into a single unit seems obvious in hindsight, and many people don’t need anything else when looking to upgrade their TV’s sound. A soundbar simplifies setup and wiring, and more advanced models simulate spatial audio formats like Dolby Atmos without the expense (or hassle) of satellite speakers.
Smart soundbars are becoming more common, with the natural appeal of killing two birds with one stone – amplifying TV sound while also placing a smart speaker in your living room or bedroom. Even models without built-in voice control still support varying degrees of smart home integration, e.g. B. Automations or casting technologies such as Google Cast and AirPlay.
I’ve had the opportunity to test out a few soundbars in my career, of which the Sonos Playbase was perhaps the best. But even with that positive experience and even better options these days, I think the next one I buy myself will drop most (or all) of the smart features. Here’s why.
Table of Contents
Do you own a smart soundbar?
Doing double duty is dubious for a smart soundbar
Bogdan Petrovan / Android Authority
For people like me, one of the biggest problems with a smart soundbar is having to share it with others. My wife and I have been together since 2014, and when at least one of us is off, chances are the TV is busy. Our son joined us in 2018 and is now old enough to launch apps himself.
If someone else is watching TV, a smart soundbar might as well be off-limits.
The problem is that it’s rude to ask Alexa or Google Assistant to set a timer on a soundbar when someone is watching, say, The Northman or Golden Girls, let alone hijack them with music or a podcast. Even the shortest requests will temporarily mute a person’s content. And regardless of who’s doing what on a TV, you might still have to yell or mute to hear voice commands, which isn’t ideal for a couple or family.
The Sonos Playbase doesn’t have a microphone, but it was still a potential source of conflict in our household as it was possible to inadvertently stream audio to it when we wanted to select different outputs. A “dumb” soundbar avoids any kind of social trap.
There are better places for smart speakers
Roger Fingas / Android Authority
Potential social issues aside, there are often more useful places to set up a smart speaker than next to your TV. If I hear something instead of looking at it, it’s probably in my office, kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. When our son was a baby, I sometimes put nap music on a speaker in the nursery. Whenever I get to building a home weightlifting gym, I want one there.
Often there is not much going on in a living room that really calls for voice control. Yes, some people like hands-free TV, or even kicking back on the couch for a ’70s-style listening session, but if you’ve got a decent smart TV or media streamer, all you probably need is a remote input. The main exception to this is customizing accessories like smart bulbs and thermostats, but of course not everyone has these. In my case, I’ve also had separate smart speakers for years, so while I have something like the Sonos Playbase might sound better, I always have the accessory controls on lock.
Often there is not much going on in a living room that really calls for voice control.
Hell, even general knowledge questions seem to make more sense away from the TV. When I’m in bed or having breakfast, I want to check the news, weather, or my calendar—not when I’m sitting down to watch a show.
Soundbars without direct voice support, like the Playbase, can actually cause more friction in the living room. Since the best way to control them without a TV (or a separate speaker) is with a phone, I can unintentionally fiddle with apps, whether to find content or change settings. That could happen with an interface like Apple TV or Google TV anyway – I’m picky about the media I consume – but at least it cuts out the middleman.
A matter of value
You can speak directly into the remote or say “Hey Google” to activate the soundbar’s microphone.
As anyone who has bought them can attest, smart soundbars are often expensive. For the price of a Sonos Beam ($443 on Amazon), you’re getting a traditional 5.1-channel surround setup or a Dolby Atmos system, albeit not spectacular. For the cost of a Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max ($1999.99 at Amazon), you can shake the earth and get neighbors to call the cops.
Additionally, as I’ve alluded to, features in Smart Soundbars can be redundant. Many modern televisions not only support Google Cast and AirPlay, but also direct control via smart home platforms such as Alexa, Google Home and/or Apple HomeKit. When it doesn’t, additional media streamers are often enough, and some TVs (like Amazon’s Fire TV Omni series) have built-in microphones, so you don’t even need a remote, let alone a smart speaker. As long as your TV is on, you probably have smart technology, so it often makes more sense to focus spending on improving sound quality.
What should you consider instead of a smart soundbar?
Chris Thomas/Android Authority
The side speaker grilles hide four side-firing channels.
While smart soundbars are becoming more common, there are still plenty of vanilla soundbars out there, albeit typically on the lower end of the performance spectrum. In fact, it suits my personal interests quite well at the moment – money is tighter than I would like. So if I were to buy anything now, it would be a 2.1 channel product like Vizio’s V214X-K6 ($182 on Amazon). It’s very affordable and if I really wanted to I could still connect my phone via bluetooth. I care more about bass and vocal clarity than smart features or even spatial audio.
One thing you should also always consider is the room size. In a small space, you don’t necessarily need anything more than a budget soundbar, especially if you’re in an apartment where a dedicated subwoofer might cause noise complaints.
A 2.1 channel setup with Bluetooth can be excellent for many people.
Others might want to step up the quality, in which case they should look at mid- to high-tier brands like Samsung and Klipsch. However, anything with spatial audio support usually comes with at least some smart features in tow. So don’t expect to save money if you want this feature. Just avoid setting up smart options if you can’t win anything.
If you’re looking for high-fidelity without the smart tech, you might have to bite the bullet and look for separate wired speakers. They’re more complicated to place and connect, but your ears will thank you in the end.
When should you buy a smart soundbar?
There are many ways to connect the JBL Link Bar to your TV and peripherals.
If money isn’t an issue, by all means get one – you’ll have access to smart features when they make sense and can ignore them the rest of the time. Most soundbars connect to TVs via HDMI (ARC/eARC) or optical connectors, so they are not dependent on smart platforms.
The best use of a smart soundbar is in homes without other smart speakers or in a single occupancy apartment.
If you’re trying to keep your spending under control, many mid- to high-tier bars now ship with at least Google Cast and AirPlay, so you might end up with a smart or semi-smart model regardless. However, when it comes to voice assistant products, the best use cases are 1) in a home where a soundbar is the only smart speaker – rarely used options are better than having none – or 2) in a single person’s apartment , since you don’t have to worry about someone else hijacking audio. In those cases, I’d still think twice about whether a dedicated smart speaker would be better.
In a few years, value for money could be totally debatable, assuming smart tech migrates down to the cheapest models. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I don’t feel the pressure to make my entire home theater setup as smart as possible.
frequently asked Questions
Some cinema purists might say so, but otherwise absolutely not. All smart TVs have internal speakers, and some of them are pretty decent if not spectacular right now. You can also buy separate speakers at any time.
Possibly, but I would normally advise against it. They don’t offer the best Roku or soundbar tech, so pairing a Roku Ultra or Streaming Stick 4K Plus with a different bar is probably better. If you insist on an all-in-one solution, you could do far worse.
Only partially. For TV audio, you generally need an optical or HDMI ARC/eARC connection. However, if you have an Apple TV 4K, you can set a Sonos speaker as a temporary wireless output. All Sonos speakers connect to Wi-Fi for independent music, podcasts, voice commands, and smart home functionality.
Some low-end soundbars are little better. However, most deliver noticeably improved volume, bass and clarity. They may be able to enable spatial audio formats like Dolby Atmos.