This post was originally published in the October 21, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.
Around two decades ago, I bought my first Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround sound home theater sound system. The 5.1 number includes both left and right front speakers, a center channel, two rear surround speakers, and a subwoofer. Nowadays there is an option for 7.1 surround that adds two more side speakers, and options exist beyond 7.1, so be sure to research it.
With the 5.1 system, I loved demonstrating to my friends how sound could travel around you in a circle like the sound of a helicopter. Especially for movies, the sound can immerse you within the setting and truly make you feel like you are part of the action. Action is where dynamic surround sound excels.
Over the decades, I upgraded my systems and continued to enjoy my true surround sound.
Cut to five years ago when my first child was born. We had six months or so until our eldest daughter started crawling, and I knew that I’d have to find a way to make those speaker wires far less accessible to a curious toddler. We were renting an apartment in Washington D.C. at the time, and running wires through the walls wasn’t an option.
The alternative solution was to buy wireless speaker adapters so my rear channels and subwoofer could run without having wires tucked along the carpet. The wireless adapters were decent, but not great. Our speakers were baby proofed, but the rear sound would occasionally cut out. Overall, the wireless setup was worth it to maintain kid safety and a dedicated rear surround sound.
A couple years ago, we moved into our home in Southwest Minneapolis, Kingfield specifically. The house is over 100 years old and wireless signals just don’t travel as well throughout it.
On top of that, my home has a lot of wireless devices all competing for bandwidth — we have multiple smartphones, tablets, laptops, an extender, and WiFi IP cameras all running on wireless and competing now with the rear wireless adapters and the separate wireless subwoofer adapter. Needless to say, everything was starving for the WiFi bandwidth. The rear speakers were regularly cutting out and the subwoofer simply wasn’t even connecting wirelessly most of the time. It was a tough decision, but since I was not consistently receiving rear sound anyway, it was time to look at a different option for our sound system.
I decided to go the route of a soundbar (or sound bar).
Soundbars are just what they sound like — they are long, narrow speakers that are generally placed under the TV. They have multiple speakers built into them to produce multi channel sound. Some even come with wireless rear speakers and a separate subwoofer. Soundbars also have the receiver/amplifier built in, so there is a lot less equipment on your shelves. I opted for one with fewer speakers: it has front right and left speakers and a built in subwoofer that provides some light bass. On some soundbars, some of the individual channels have multiple (mini) speakers.
Based on the room it is being used in, soundbars can create a virtual 5.1 sound that bounces audio off of walls to sound more dynamic throughout the space.
It really does create a more full sound throughout the room. With that said, a soundbar in no way replicates the true sound of having speakers behind you. For the past couple of years, I have been quite content with this sound. It is a great option for limited space, simplicity, and a quick way to improve a TV’s natural sound. (Note: Whenever connecting to an external sound system or soundbar, remember to completely turn off your TV’s natural audio.)
Recently I set up a man cave and reconnected the older system I had with the full 5.1 surround sound, and it really does make a difference in sound quality. Having dedicated rear speakers creates such a full sound, and it really does immerse you further into the movie.
At the end of the day, optimal sound is not always the ideal for a particular room setup, and I stand by having a soundbar for the family TV room. It really does allow for simpler, yet still satisfying sound.
You have options! Based on your room, your environment, your use, and the level of sound you are looking to achieve, home theater systems can be tailored to meet your needs. Let me know what works for you.
Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.