Consumers have finally realized that TVs on their own have terrible sound. As our TVs get keep getting flatter, the built-in speakers have to keep shrinking in order to keep up. This also means that the built-ins run up against simple physics, there’s just no way to make the sound good without using up more space for acoustics. If you’ve bought a TV (here’s mine that I recommend) or already have one, you’ve likely been at least interested in a sound system. There are options ranging from compact sound bars to complex surround sound systems. I prefer the old-school way of using a receiver and two speakers, and it sounds fantastic! In the end, it was free since I used equipment I had laying around my house.
Why soundbars give me pause:
While sound bars offer a compact package that can fit into your entertainment system without having to move things around to make space, they run into size limitations just as TVs do that can hamper the sound. Ultimately this means that the speakers inside the bar are much smaller than what would be in a regular bookshelf-sized speaker. The other issue is that the speakers are all going to be very close together, which can give more of a mono-channel type of sound. With regular speakers, you can space them further apart, giving a much better sound stage. While two speakers is hardly surround sound, you might be surprised at how much more immersive the sound is when they are properly spaced apart.
Usually no equalizer
Since there is no receiver, this means you usually won’t have as much control if you want to tweak your sound profile. Usually, you are limited to presets such as “movie mode” or “music” from the TV software, and maybe a bass and treble adjust. If you want to take it a step further, you need a dedicated receiver. It is worth mentioning that a receiver/amp is needed for non-powered speakers, but you can get powered speakers that could connect directly to the TV. In this case, you would not have a dedicated equalizer either but might have a bass and treble control.
While you can get soundbars that are cheap, you will get cheap sound. There are premium options such as the Sony HT-A5000 5.1.2, but I find $800 for a soundbar to be too much for me (my TV cost that much!). Spending a lot of money on a sound bar feels like buying a really expensive linoleum floor, or a top of the line Hyundai car that cost as much as a Mercedes.
If you wanted to upgrade your system to have more speakers or a subwoofer, you could be limited by a soundbar. While there may be some inputs on the sound bar, the setup will be complicated and not worthwhile. Check here for a better explanation. Some soundbars offer the ability to add components, but only from the same manufacturer. For instance, you can buy a Roku soundbar, and then add Roku speakers later on.
I find sound bars to all kind of look the same; they are all black and rectangular. When you are buying speakers, you can frequently get black, matte white, wood color, and many other options. While the receivers are all usually black boxes, I find this to be less of an issue since it’s small and tucked away.
There are a million examples but here’s something that would look cool under a TV:
Here’s what I did: 2-channel analog sound system
I decided instead to hook up a receiver and two speakers to my TV, and it sounds great! I had a really old receiver that I’ve been using on and off for years that I bought used from a record store for $40. It’s almost 30 years old and still works great.
What does a receiver actually do? Well a lot, but in my case it is what powers my speakers (amp), gives me extra settings, and provides a means to connect to other devices (outputs). This means that I could connect to the TV, and then use the other outputs if I wanted for things like a computer, record player, or anything else that can make sound. You can even plug in an electric guitar into the front of this thing!
The only downside is there is no remote, so I have to manually power the receiver on and off with the button on the device. Luckily I can use the TV remote to control the volume once I set the volume on the receiver to a good baseline volume.
The receiver has multiple RCA audio outputs you can use, so I could add other devices as well. While there is no “TV” output on the receiver, you can use anything. For stuff like this, I usually use “aux” or “CD” audio inputs. The easy way to hook up to the TV is to connect to the headphone jack (this is the analog out) on the TV using a 3.5 mm Aux Male to 2 RCA Male Adapter. This is not just for headphones, and in fact I’ve never even heard of someone connecting wired headphones to their TV.
Note: Lots of TVs nowadays don’t have headphone jacks/analog out! If yours doesn’t, then you are locked out of this option and have to run sound through HDMI using Arc or E-Arc, or an optical out. This is one reason I chose my TV. If shopping for a TV, look for one that has a “3.5mm input” or headphone jack which is the same thing.
For speakers, I used a pair of Philips FWB-M530/17 bookshelf-type speakers that someone gave me, which actually sound really loud and clear despite not being in the best condition. They aren’t for sale anymore but can be purchased for about $20 used. I would prefer something where the speaker wires were actually removable, as these don’t have accessible terminals. However, I can swap these with any speakers at any time so I’m in no rush. This is another aspect of the setup that I like, I can change and customize it at any point.
What about Bluetooth / digital audio / other fancy stuff?
While my setup has none of these things, they also aren’t exclusive to soundbars. You can get a receiver with Bluetooth so that you can also use your setup for playing music. Modern receivers will also have more up-to-date audio standards such as E-Arc if you want to go that route. I simply wanted what was cheap and easy. I could even add Bluetooth if I wanted by plugging in a Bluetooth adapter like this one to my receiver.
There are newer and better options, but I was able to set up a 2 channel sound system for my TV with stuff I had lying around the house and spent no money in the process. If I had a subwoofer I easily could have added that for a 2.1-channel system, but my setup has plenty of bass.
When should I use a soundbar?
While I’ve been piling on soundbars, there are some times when they make sense. If you don’t have space for a receiver and speakers, then get a soundbar. Ultimately, a sound bar will have much better audio quality than TV speakers so if that’s your only feasible option then you will still be much happier than you would be with nothing!
Sometimes new products are made that seem better, but in the end it turns out that the old way of doing things was actually better. With TVs, I find that using regular analog RCA sound with a couple of speakers and a receiver sounds great, negating the need for a soundbar, surround sound, or even more modern standards such as E-Arc. As a final bonus, it’s often cheaper to setup a system this way, especially if you’re buying used components or have some already.