I’ve always enjoyed great sound quality when it comes to listening to music, whether it’s coming from one of our top turntables, audiophile headphones, or streaming wirelessly via one of the best Bluetooth speakers, for example. My passion for all things audio also translates into watching movies and I naturally embraced the surround sound movement with at least five speakers and a subwoofer scattered around the room when the home theater took took off more than 20 years ago.
In fact, I was so into multi-channel sound and the immersive experience at the time, that I dedicated a room in my house to surround sound and movies, and outfitted it with a flat screen TV. and a noisy subwoofer. At the time, this type of home theater setup with a first generation plasma flat panel – front LCD, OLED and QLED TV technology – sounded like pure science fiction, and to me and several friends at the time, staying indoors has become the new exit.
Several moves later and a change in priorities meant that my audio setup became simpler and smaller to fit the aesthetics of the house and meet with the approval of other owners. Plus, I no longer have the space for multi-speaker arrangements that eat up valuable living space, and the surround speakers look clunky and totally out of place in my property of yesteryear.
Despite the reduced size of my TV sound system, the screen itself is now almost twice as big as when I started. When I bought my newest television, I hoped that its sound performance would at least approximate the striking and captivating images produced by the screen, and deliver punchy sound to match the dynamic images of the screen.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case and, for me at least, there’s a huge disconnect between the big, bold images of the TV screen and the thin, sickly sound that comes from its speakers. I’ve tried fiddling with the EQ controls to optimize it for better sound output of course, but no matter what I do there’s no improvement on the delivery of the anemic, soulless sound.
I’m sure many will appreciate that as TVs have gotten slimmer, the built-in speakers have had to shrink to fit into smaller spaces. In such a confined space, this limits the size and amount of travel a speaker has to expel air to generate sound waves with sufficient energy across the entire frequency range.
I don’t underestimate the efforts of TV audio designers as there’s often a lot of sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) technology on board to help get the best possible sound output from the TV, but even the best screens in television are not free from thin and weedy sound.
Soundbars are pretty good at overcoming the poor sound quality performance that often results from the best TV screens, but for me they aren’t always the answer if sound quality with movie and music soundtracks at index high octane is ultimately your goal.
Don’t get me wrong: the majority of the best soundbars are a huge improvement in sound quality from a TV’s built-in speakers, and several models like the ones we reviewed from Sonos, Bose, and Bowers & Wilkins, also have Dolby Atmos to help bring an extra sonic dimension to the cinematic experience. But in terms of sheer sound quality, I found a compact hi-fi solution that sounds better than any soundbar I’ve heard so far.
Great TV sound without a soundbar
I recently listened to several soundbars at home in a wide range of different price points. At first glance, each is a remarkably elegant solution for upgrading TV sound compared to the slightly bulky arrangement of the alternative solution I’m about to provide, which comprises three separate components to take on tasks specific audio: a pair of passive bookshelf speaker amplifiers, an active subwoofer and the Sonos amp.
The Sonos Amp is something of a $699 masterstroke, to which you simply add a set of passive speakers. Not only does it integrate with other Sonos products on your home network for multi-room streaming, but the control app lets geeky audio fanatics like me adjust the audio so it’s perfectly synchronized with the image on the screen – a neat and terribly useful installation.
While not as powerful as some standalone amplifiers I’ve heard or as well-equipped as the best AV receivers, the Sonos Amp is compact and comes with a useful eARC/ARC HDMI port for handling audio from your TV, plus a range of other useful data ports and wireless connectivity options.
Music sounds better with you
I haven’t specified a particular pair of speakers to pair the Sonos amp with, because just about any pair of good speakers from a reputable audio brand will do – think hi-fi names like such as Q Acoustics, Klipsch or Bowers & Wilkins etc. In my book, if a speaker can handle voices and deliver music well, it should also sound great with TV sound.
I didn’t specify a subwoofer either, as it depends on your speakers. If your speakers are up to the job of delivering bass with music, you’re unlikely to need a subwoofer. Unless, like me, you like your movie soundtracks and TV series with lots of energy and high-octane gravitas, good sub-options can be found at SVS and OER. Both companies offer many quality models at different price points.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution and the combined price is around $999, but from what I’ve listened to so far, this Sonos Amp and speaker setup outperforms any soundbar. in terms of dialogue intelligibility with dramas and movies. Even without a subwoofer connected, a mid-sized bookshelf speaker should pump out enough bass to really blow you away on the couch with explosive effects, and the music from any movie soundtrack just sounds more real and ultimately more engaging in this arrangement.
You won’t get Dolby Atmos or any kind of pseudo surround effect to tickle your ears, of course, but with audio quality this good you really won’t miss those extra tricks because you’ll be too engrossed in what’s happening on the high quality screen and sound treating your ears.