If sound quality and immersive experiences are the top priorities in your home audio upgrade, home theater surround sound has the upper hand on soundbars for more than the obvious reasons. The popularity of soundbars comes from the sleek, wall- or furniture-mountable design, ideal for smaller spaces and minimal visual impact. And frankly, anything sounds better than TV speakers. Where soundbars lack compared to a 5.1 or other home theater surround sound array is in the ability to deliver a convincing full-range, head-spinning audio experience. When comparing home theater surround sound and soundbars based on sound quality alone, here’s what you need to know…

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Pinpoint soundstage accuracy across the front stage

When a screen is taking up all or most of your field of vision, sound should feel like it’s coming from specific points in front of you, and not just right at you. High performance front, center and left speakers are more adept at pinpoint imaging and spaciousness in the front stage compared to a do-it-all soundbar.

Dialogue intelligibility

You never want to be saying … ‘What did he say?’. We can all agree the human voice is an important part of any music or home theater experience. Having a dedicated center channel speaker to render dialogue and vocals with crisp clarity releases the full meaning and impact of every word. Up to 70% of audio content runs through the center channel at any given time and having a dedicated speaker to anchor the front stage between the front left and right main speakers makes a significant sonic difference.

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Accurate frequency response

Truthful reproduction of source content without any coloration or inaccuracies gets more difficult with challenging material. You want to crank it up? Home theater surround sound has more cabinet volume and more tweeters, drivers and woofers working to maintain pinpoint accuracy across the frequency spectrum. When you have a 5.1, 7.2, 11.4.4 or any home theater system with multiple loudspeakers performing in unison, the capacity to create accurate sound is greater at any drive level.

Deep and powerful bass

Soundbars are meant to be slim. If you’ve ever heard an amazing powered subwoofer, you know it won’t fit in a soundbar’s cabinet. To compensate, many soundbars come pre-paired with a ‘subwoofer’. The subwoofer you’re getting packaged with a soundbar or a 5.1 home-theater-in-a-box, is not a real subwoofer. Any subwoofer can play bass, but a real subwoofer delivers deep low frequency extension to the limits of human hearing and below with stunning power you can feel. A great subwoofer also maintains pinpoint accuracy and speed in transients at all drive levels. The ability to stop and start on a dime when a bass guitar string is plucked or to render every subtle and explosive detail as an action scene unfolds with no blurring or muddying of the soundstage. These are hallmark qualities that ‘throw-in’ subs simply can’t match.

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The sensation of sound coming from all around is a hallmark of truly convincing home audio experiences. The crack of a twig behind you, a jet soaring overhead, voices in a crowded room; these effects need to be conveyed with spatial imaging to emphasize what is happening off-screen and where sound is coming from all around you. Not surprisingly, placing surround speakers behind you is more effective than any soundbar gimmick or tinny throw-in speakers. Plus, with immersive new audio formats like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Auro-3D providing overhead ‘height effects’ to the soundfield, the potential for head-turning experiences is greater than ever.

Sweet spot adjustments

As convenient as they are, there’s not a lot of installation flexibility with a sound bar. It’s generally mounted on the wall or placed on furniture below the TV. This produces a single listening spot where the sound quality and dynamics are best. ‘Sweet Spots’ also exist with home theater systems, but they can be optimized more easily based on the placement and angling of multiple speakers relative to listening positions. With Soundbars, the installation is nearly always below the TV, so the sweet spot will always be the same.

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Theater-style presentation and impact

While slightly outside the realm of sound quality and audio performance, there’s something to be said for making a visual statement with a home entertainment experience. A home theater surround sound system shows you enjoy entertainment to the fullest. There’s so much hi-res music, streaming HD video, Blu-ray movies and concerts and on-demand content available now, why not unleash the full potential of what technology allows by hearing every detail and feeling every sonic moment? Once you decide on a home theater surround sound system, the fun begins. There’s 5.1, 7.1…dual subwoofers, height effects and countless ways to enhance the audio experience to breath-taking levels.

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