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Putting together a surround sound system for your home theater used to require a set of big, boxy speakers, stereo receiver, and intricately connected cables. That’s still an option, but you can save a lot of space by getting a sound bar system that supports surround sound instead.
These systems are typically smarter than traditional home theater equipment and take up significantly less space. The trade off is that home theater sound bar systems that support surround sound can’t create as immersive an experience because the front right, front left, and center channel are all built into the bar. This eliminates the ability to space every speaker in your home theater system equidistant from one another, and point them directly at a “sweet spot.”
That said, I’ve heard a couple of sound bar systems that support surround sound, and they perform really well. Your experience depend heavily on the size and shape of your room, and the surround sound mix of the album, TV show, or movie you put on. Under the right circumstances, a surround sound home theater based around a sound bar will produce excellent results, especially compared to a pair of stereo speakers.
What Are the Best Surround Sound Home Theater Sound Bars?
There are many factors to consider when choosing the best surround sound home theater sound bars for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Speaker style: There are two types of surround sound home theater systems based around a sound bar.
The first uses the bar in place of a center, front right, and front left speakers, a pair of wireless satellite speakers for the back left and back right, and a subwoofer.
The second type supports Dolby Atmos, a next-generation surround sound standard that relies on speakers pointed both forward and upward, so you hear audio from multiple angles. This guide includes sound bars in both styles.
Ports: A soundbar’s inputs (otherwise known as ports) are what allow you to connect it to your TV. The most common ports found on soundbars are HDMI and Optical inputs, which are both found on all TVs released in the past ten years.
Smart home integration: Some soundbars can be connected to a smart-home platform from Amazon and Google that allow them to do a lot more than just play music. These soundbars allow you to control accessories like smart lightbulbs, so you can change the mood lighting in your home theater system to add ambiance to your movie night or gaming session.
Bluetooth support: Your soundbar will always be connected to your TV with a cable, but many of the options on this list support Bluetooth. This lets you connect your phone, tablet, or computer to the soundbar and stream music to it wirelessly, which is nice if your home theater setup is in a living room or common area and you want to play DJ for yourself or guests.
1. JBL Bar 5.1
JBL’s Bar 5.1 offers a more streamlined take on the surround sound sound bar system.
It comes with four components: the sound bar, two wireless satellite speakers, and a wireless sound bar. JBL differentiated this system by making the two satellite speakers totally wireless. They run on rechargeable batteries that run for 10 hours. To charge them, snap the speakers onto either side of the sound bar.
The sound bar has three HDMI inputs, one optical input, one analog input, a USB port, and support for Bluetooth. This wide array of ports means you can connect multiple gadgets to the bar at once, and Bluetooth support allows you to use this sound bar as a wireless speaker for your phone, tablet, or computer.
It’s a little disappointing that JBL spent time making the physical design of this system sleek, but didn’t build any smart features into it. JBL’s Bar 5.1 is the right pick if you want a more traditional surround sound experience in a package that can get more compact when you need it to be.
2. Polk Audio MagniFi Max SR
Polk’s MagniFi SR is a traditional 5.1 surround sound sound bar system with a built-in Chromecast. It comes in four pieces: The sound bar, a pair of wireless satellite speakers, and a wireless subwoofer. The satellite speakers aren’t totally wireless, and must be plugged into outlets to work.
This system supports Polk’s SDAaudio technology, which the company developed to help better recreate the experience of being in a movie theater. Its Voice Adjust technology allows you to control the volume of the center speaker without interrupting the others, so you can hear dialogue more clearly. Finally, Polk programmed this sound bar system with multiple EQ (equalization) modes that optimizes its sound for movies, music, and sports.
The MagniFi Max SR has a generous amount of ports: Three HDMI, one optical audio, one 3.5mm aux, and an Ethernet input. Polk was equally generous when it comes to wireless technology, the MagniFi Max SR supports both Blueooth and has a Chromecast built inside, so you can stream music to the bar from virtually any app.
If you want a smarter take on the traditional surround sound sound bar, Polk’s MagniFi Max SR gets our recommendation.
3. Sonos Arc
The Arc is Sonos’ latest sound bar, and it’s full of the latest audio and smart home technology. You can use it on its own, or pair it with a Sonos Sub and two Sonos One speakers to create a cutting-edge surround sound system.
On its own, the Arc is capable of decoding Dolby Atmos, a new surround sound format that’s far more sophisticated than previous versions of surround sound. The drivers (the part of a speaker that creates sound) in the Arc are pointed forward and upward, so when you play a movie, TV show, or album that supports Dolby Atmos, different sounds will be routed through the different drivers. The result (under the right circumstances) is that you’ll hear sounds coming from in front, in back, and above you. For the best experience with non-Atmos surround sound, you’ll want to pick up the other components I mentioned to create a multi-speaker system.
Sonos pioneered the connected speaker, so it’s no surprise the Arc is very smart. It supports both Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant. If you choose to set these features up, you can control the sound bar’s basic functions (play, pause, volume up, volume down) using only your voice. These assistants can also be used to control your smart home accessories, and answer questions like “what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” The Arc doesn’t support Siri, but it does support AirPlay 2, an Apple-developed standard that lets you wirelessly stream high resolution audio and video.
This reliance on wireless connectivity and smart features is good because the Sonos Arc only has one HDMI input. You’ll need to connect all of your home theater gear to your TV or projector, and then connect the Beam to its HDMI ARC (audio return channel) port. If that’s something you’re willing to do for the sake of having a cutting-edge piece of home theater gear, the Sonos Arc will serve you well.
Note: Because it’s so new and popular, the Arc tends to go in and out of stock, so check back often if that’s the case.