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Why Dolby Atmos-enabled sound bars are still a good choice

While sound bars are better than integrated TV speakers, they haven’t always lived up to their reputation. With Dolby Atmos becoming increasingly common, it’s worth revisiting sound bars to see how much better they are than they used to be. A lot of them are on sale right now, so now’s a great time to get one.

We sat down with resident tech expert Jaime Vazquez to get his thoughts on how and why a Dolby Atmos sound bar is a good investment right now with the current discounts.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is a proprietary audio protocol designed for use with home theater systems, such as 7.1-channel surround sound. The protocol separates an audio track into separate streams similar to traditional surround sound. It also adds height channels and data that tells each stream which direction it’s supposed to come from.

Typically, you need satellite speakers mounted above viewers’ heads to take advantage of Dolby Atmos. As Vazquez noted, “The speaker knows where all the other speakers are. You have a much more customized experience because you’re getting things relative to your listening space, as opposed to hoping that the soundtrack matches your room.”

Instead of overhead speakers, Atmos-enabled sound bars leverage multiple drivers pointed in different directions to simulate spatial audio. Vazquez continued, “The big deal with sound bars now is that they got a lot better at bouncing sound around a room. They now are really good at faking surround sound.”

Why Dolby Atmos is worth it

For a few years, Dolby Atmos seemed like more of a marketing stunt than a useful home theater technology. This was largely because media, such as movies and TV shows, must be specifically mastered to support the protocol. 

According to Vazquez, “It used to be that Atmos was a feature that was primarily found on Blu-ray discs and the Apple TV. But, the deal is now that if you have the gear, you can log into your Netflix, HBO Max or Paramount+ and give you the surround-sound experience.”

Previously, Dolby Atmos was more for early adopter tech enthusiasts. Now, it’s more worthwhile to be able to play back Dolby Atmos content because of the streaming services that support it. There’s not a single, specific reason why Dolby Atmos sound bars are priced so well right now. Overall, manufacturers are taking advantage of the standard’s increased adoption and offering a wider range of Dolby Atmos sound bars, and they are putting older and more basic models on sale.

How Dolby Atmos sound bars work

Affordable sound bars usually have just two or three full-range speakers, while a quality Dolby Atmos-enabled model will have more. “Typically, a Dolby Atmos sound bar has speakers firing in all directions to mimic the surround-sound effect. Whereas if you’re looking at a 2.1- or a 3.1-channel model, that’s just stereo, not surround,” Vazquez said.

Additionally, acoustic refinements and increased driver efficiency have led to better sound quality, especially in the low end. To sum it up, Vazquez said, “sound bars have hit the sweet spot of reliably being able to produce quality surround effects at an affordable price.”

How to pick a Dolby Atmos sound bar

Vazquez recommends a sound bar that comes with additional satellite speakers. At the top of the line, sound bar setups like the Samsung HW-Q950A boast several drivers in the front in addition to full-range satellites and a powerful subwoofer. The Vizio M512a-H6 costs considerably less, is outfitted with 11 speakers in total and approaches full-on surround sound systems in performance.

However, Vazquez advises caution when looking for an especially affordable solution. “There’s a big gap between budget-friendly and high-quality sound bars,” he said, “and some budget models give the whole category a bad name.” There are exceptions. The TCL Alto 8i delivers decent simulated spatial audio at a low price.

Sound bar features to consider

  • Number of inputs: “If you’re a gamer or have multiple devices to plug in, you’ll need more than one input into the sound bar,” Vazquez noted.
  • Audio/video connections: Many sound bars let you route the audio and video connection directly through the unit itself, but not all of them do. For some, you’ll need to use the audio return channel function to drive the sound bar. Make sure that your TV supports ARC or eARC before buying a sound bar that doesn’t allow for direct audio input.
  • HDR pass-through: If your sound bar does accept direct connections, make sure it supports HDR10 or, ideally, Dolby Vision pass-through to take advantage of modern dynamic contrast.
  • Wireless subwoofer: You can’t get a cinematic experience without a dedicated sub.
  • Built-in apps: Premium sound bars often include features that tailor the output to the shape of the room, while others have built-in streaming platforms. The former is a great way to improve the audio experience, but most users won’t need the latter.

Best Dolby Atmos sound bars

Samsung HW-Q950A

Samsung HW-Q950A 

It’s a high-end sound bar that sounds better than many full-featured surround-sound systems. Sold by Amazon

Vizio M512a-H6

Vizio M512a-H6

With two satellites, a subwoofer and consistently accurate sound, this midrange Vizio model is the perfect blend of price and performance. Sold by Amazon

TCL Alto 8i

TCL Alto 8i

There aren’t any other sound bars in its price range that perform as well. Sold by Amazon

Vizio M51ax-J6

Vizio M51ax-J6

It is more affordable than most and offers particularly impressive bass, although it doesn’t have much in the way of sound enhancement or room correction features. Sold by Amazon

Polk Audio Signa S4

Polk Audio Signa S4 

Seven internal drivers help this moderately priced option deliver powerful simulated surround sound without the inconvenience of installing satellite speakers. Sold by Amazon

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money. 

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