Soundbars vs Big Audio: Sounding Out the Systems

Stuart Pritchard looks at the benefits of both systems with a view to matching the right system with a client's needs.

Okay, full transparency, the title of this article may be a tad misleading, as ‘Soundbars vs Big Audio’ might seem to suggest we reckon a soundbar could ‘take’ a full-on speaker system in a straight fight. But we’re not naïve. Not completely, anyway. No, what we’re really here to assess is what the latest of each offers the client and installer alike; and to do that, we’ve spoken to a trio of true audio experts, namely Stephen Rhead, installed solutions manager UK & Ireland at Sonos, Nick Fichte, business development director, Home & Yacht at L-Acoustics, and Des Ford at Meridian.

So, starting with soundbars, there’s no denying the soundbar has come a long way since Altec-Lansing introduced the very first one way back in 1998, and seeing as that was a bit of failure, nobody really bothered again until the early 2000s. However, as flatpanel TVs became more affordable, people realised that the weedy speakers those TVs contained were pretty much useless, emitting feeble sound with next to no bass, and so the time of the soundbar finally arrived. Of course, back then, it was all about that bass, but it was clear they could do more and the soundbar evolved to bring a balance of frequencies to enhance TV audio even higher, expanding on and exploiting the available technologies of the time, most recently adding up-firing speakers for use with Dolby Atmos content, thus creating that home cinema experience without the need for epic amounts of space.

Which brings us to today and the current slew of superior soundbars on the market. So, if you’re an installer specifying AV kit for a client, when does it make sense to stay with a smaller footprint and suggest a soundbar? Naturally, we asked Rhead at Sonos…

“I would say there are two main advantages for the consumer: cost and convenience. For a client with a modest budget, investing in a full-on speaker system at can be incredibly expensive. A soundbar offers a great entry-level alternative and, when installed as part of a home theatre set-up, can even achieve Dolby Atmos surround sound at an affordable price-point.

“The other advantage is convenience. A soundbar is simple to have installed in the home and very easy to equalise, especially if it’s a Sonos soundbar tuned via TruePlay. The client can also operate the soundbar with the same remote as the TV. And, of course, a soundbar is not just for TV – in low traffic areas such as a bedroom, clients can use one soundbar for both TV and music.”

But what’s the take from the loudspeaker side of things? This is a faux battle, after all! Nick at L-Acoustics: “Soundbars absolutely have a place. Because TVs are getting thinner, the audio quality is naturally poor if people just rely on the screen’s integral speakers. In these circumstances, soundbars provide a big lift to the performance. A soundbar may also be the first step on the audio journey for a client. It offers an upgrade path to a better sound performance from other solutions that, ultimately, reaches its zenith with a professionally designed and installed immersive loudspeaker system.”

A decidedly diplomatic view, and one that’s shared by Meridian’s Des Ford: “The aim of an immersive audio system is to convince the listener that they are hearing sounds which may have come from any direction. You don’t need a degree in engineering to imagine that a system with multiple speakers in various locations around the listener is a better starting point for achieving this. So far, so obvious. However, soundbars aren’t taking that argument lying down, and some of them are fighting back.

“For immersive audio formats, some soundbars create ‘virtual’ speakers to help represent a proportion of the sounds that contribute to the immersive experience. That is, they use a combination of audio processing and drive-unit orientation to convince the listener that sounds are coming from directions where no actual speakers are located. Audio processing aims to extract spatial cues that ‘tell’ the listener where the sound is coming from, and drive units may point towards the ceiling or walls, so that reflected sound reaches the listener in a way that seems to have emanated from the surfaces doing the reflecting.”

Single sound solution?

So, the soundbar, as it stands, can cunningly replicate the effect of a full speaker system – to a point – so how do you work out what kind of audio set-up is it best suited to different applications, and what are the benefits to the homeowner?

Sonos’ Rhead: “If we’re talking soundbars over home cinema, then the typical application for a soundbar would be a conventional living room in homes with a 65-in (ish) TV, or whatever it may be. They are equally suitable for bedrooms and kitchens where there might be a TV.  With the increase in home media rooms, soundbars become a product of choice because it makes for a very simple installation.

“At Sonos we design products with spatial audio formats in mind, with expertly positioned tweeters for creating Dolby Atmos surround sound experiences. In fact, with just one Sonos Arc – which includes a front firing tweeter and two upward firing side tweeters – clients can enjoy Dolby Atmos content. This can then be upscaled by wirelessly adding subwoofers and rear speakers for a 7.1.4 or 7.2.4 surround sound set-up.”

But what if TV is not a central concern? Fiche at L-Acoustics: “Small profile architectural loudspeakers are available which can pack a big audio punch, even where space is limited. At L-Acoustics, we offer a selection of professional audio systems that begin with a small 4-in coaxial loudspeaker, the X4i, which can be table mounted, go on-wall, in-wall or in-ceiling.

“Alternatively, for larger spaces where more power and bandwidth are required, we have the newly launched X6i, X8i as well as Soka, which is also available as an in-wall solution. We have companion in-wall subwoofers to complement these products, ranging from dual 6.5-in or a single 10-in subwoofer, or even 12-in, allowing a professional integrator to design a sound system to any desired immersive layout.”

And when it comes to space being deemed an issue, Ford has a very similar thought process: “Keep the speakers off the floor and get them into the walls and ceiling. Many customers have no idea what can be achieved with high-performance installation speakers. Similarly, although the concept of a subwoofer is now more widely known, it’s often news to find out that a bona fide sub can be discreetly hidden away.

“Of course, the challenge can be proving the worth of these things. Naturally, this is best achieved by demoing. That’s not as easy as plugging in a soundbar or even hooking-up a pair of bookshelf speakers, but the prize on offer makes the effort worthwhile – and that prize is a two-way win: the installer makes a bigger sale, and the customer achieves fantastic performance.”

Clash of classes

What we surmised from the start, and which has now been clarified by our assembled experts, while today’s soundbars are extremely impressive in the audio quality they offer, it’s unfair to expect them to compete with big audio sound systems, unless, as Rhead at Sonos points out, they’re a part of a big sound system. But given the rapid evolution of technology, do we foresee a day when a solitary soundbar can give a loudspeaker surround system a run for its money?

Ford at Meridian gives an excellent answer: “To continue to improve performance, the designers of soundbars constantly draw on ongoing technological developments in the world of audio reproduction. However, the designers of immersive systems using multiple speakers are also benefitting from similar progress, and they are applying improved techniques to their offerings. It stands to reason that, if it is assumed both sides of this audio arms race are moving at a similar pace, multi-speaker systems will consistently stay ahead. Hence, with all other things being equally good, a higher speaker count provides more realistic immersion.”

Fichte, however, is having none of my nonsense: “It’s just not possible to compare the immersive audio performance of a soundbar which only has limited amounts of small drivers to the experience you receive from a fully-fledged loudspeaker system in a spatial audio layout. The client who wants to genuinely lose themselves in an amazing immersive audio experience with all the rich detail, depth and emotion it brings should always choose a complete immersive loudspeaker solution that takes into account the size and geometry of the space, as well as the needs and wishes of the user.”

Can’t really argue with any of that, so let’s look instead at the advantages each option offers the savvy installer.

Making your mind up

Back to our initial scenario: you’re an installer specifying audio kit for a client, now we know which option works best for differing clientele, but what opportunities does each option offer for you?

Rhead at Sonos has two very strong points as to why installers should embrace the soundbar solution: “For installation companies in the medium sector, a soundbar can be a gateway product for multi-room audio and media room installs. If the client wants a soundbar for the TV, well how about one in the kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom, or even outside? It provides that add-on possibility to offer additional products and services.

“As well as audio there is an opportunity to grow your smart home business as a whole... with soundbars. The ‘Works with Sonos’ certification is provided to third-party products that integrate seamlessly via our API with the Sonos app. This opens the conversation for installers to talk about other smart home services, for example Rako lighting control which can be a simple to install add-on and can be operated via the same Sonos interface. The humble soundbar can be the catalyst for generating layers of additional revenue and attracting new customers.

“At Sonos, we offer three different soundbars for different applications and budgets. Ray enhances the sound of a small TV, while Beam – a Dolby Atmos soundbar – is suitable for a 55-in TV or smaller. The Sonos Arc is a true Dolby Atmos soundbar suitable for 55-in TV’s or larger and can be installed as part of a surround sound system up to 7.2.4.”

Meridian’s Ford, meanwhile, states the case for the speaker system when it comes to installer benefits: “Loudspeaker systems require more input from an expert. As immersive systems proliferate, the potential for additional speakers increases, and the need for good planning and execution of cable runs and mounting solutions increases accordingly. As more customers require this form of expertise, you can elevate your status and therefore your value.”

Fichte concludes by explaining how L-Acoustics is a strong believer that the primary goal for every integrator should be to provide a great experience for the client, as many clients can explain what they want to experience, but they don’t know what equipment can give them that experience, which, of course, is why they turn to a professional integrator.

“A soundbar might be a place of entry,” says Fichte, but when people experience truly immersive sound through a bespoke system like L-Acoustics can offer, that raises the bar much, much higher. It also makes for a much happier client and is a far more profitable business for the integrator.”

In conclusion

All’s fair in love and war, as it is with soundbars and full speaker solutions; within the hallowed halls of custom installation, there’s a place for both, depending on the client’s needs and expectations. For the installer, the soundbar can open up new possibilities with their client, while loudspeaker systems can deliver that all-immersive audio regardless of room size; as long as the client is satisfied, that’s all that matters.

In a nutshell, then, it was never a case of ‘Soundbars vs Big Audio’, but rather ‘Soundbars & Big Audio’.

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