Are soundbars better than surround sound? Our expert gives their verdict

As ever, it depends on your situation

Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 Dolby Atmos soundbar
(Image credit: Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 Dolby Atmos soundbar)

“Are soundbars better than surround sound” isn’t as simple a question as it may seem. But if you want a short answer, then it’s no — at least in terms of sound quality. 

While an extremely expensive soundbar will likely beat a cheap surround sound system in terms of audio performance, generally speaking, the extra cost for a dedicated system is justified for audiophiles. The best surround sound systems will easily outclass a soundbar. 

But there’s more to an AV setup than just sound quality, and in areas such as price, convenience and, of course, physical footprint soundbars easily have the overall advantage. More on that in a moment, but first a quick explainer as to the two types of audio gear.

What’s the difference?

Surround sound systems provide exactly what the name suggests: sound that literally surrounds you from more than one source. The most common setup is 5.1 (which means one subwoofer for bass and five satellite speakers placed around you for directional audio) but this can go up to 11.2 and even higher. 

Soundbars, by contrast, are bar-shaped speakers that typically sit directly below the TV. They may have multiple speakers within the frame, but their positioning is limited, and the directional audio offered won’t be the same as having physical speakers around you. 

Note that some sound bars offer optional additional speakers to place behind you for more immersive audio, and this offers a tempting middle ground between the two. If that sounds appealing to you, make sure you plan before you buy, because it’s only possible with certain models.

Why choose a surround sound system?

In short: sound quality. Not only can soundbars only emulate the directional audio of multiple speakers positioned around a room, but in packing all the audio tech into a compact box, audio quality tends to suffer with more muddied sounds and a less impressive soundstage.

High-end soundbar audio quality has come along in leaps and bounds in the last decade, and if you spend a lot, you shouldn’t be disappointed. But as a general rule of thumb, a good quality surround sound system will beat a soundbar both for music and the immersion of a movie or video game. 

Why choose a soundbar?

Crudely, the answer to this could be “everything else”. That’s a bit harsh, but essentially soundbars exist to improve the audio of TVs without the inconvenience, be it financial, spatial or technical. They’re cheaper, take up considerably less space and can just be plugged in with no complex wiring or external amp required.

It’s also worth repeating that sound quality has come on immensely for soundbars in the last decade, and top-end models can impress even the most dubious of audiophiles. 

And while a soundbar will generally have weaker audio than surround sound systems (unless you’re comparing a high-end soundbar to a cheap surround sound setup), this isn’t necessarily true if you’re working with a small space. If a surround sound system doesn’t have big enough gaps between speakers, then the channels can be muddied — something which is less an issue with a soundbar, given they’re built with their compact form factor in mind. 

Also remember that certain mid to high-end soundbars from the likes of Sony, LG and Samsung support additional rear speakers that can be added at a later date to give you a kind of quasi-surround sound system. You can’t just add any, so you’re at the mercy of how much the manufacturer wants to charge, and not all soundbars support them, so be sure to do your research before you buy. 

So, are soundbars better than surround sound?

It really does depend on your situation, but for lifelong audio snobs, true surround sound systems beat the soundbar every time. Soundbars have come on a lot, but there’s simply no substitute for a carefully configured surround sound system tailored to your home theater.

But, realistically, that isn’t an option for everyone, and for most people the trade-off in sound quality for a soundbar is more than made up for by their key advantages: they’re compact, cheaper and simple to set up. They’re also far better suited to smaller spaces where much of the benefits of multi-speaker setups will be undone by their close proximity to each other.

To sum up: if you want to save money, time, and/or space, then the best soundbars are for you. If you value audio quality above everything else, then look into building a surround sound system to take your home theater to the next level.  

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. He often writes for T3 and Tom's Guide. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.