You’re fed up, and I don’t blame you. Why should you have to put up with the thin, distorted sound from your TV any longer? As the picture in TVs has gotten bigger and better, the sound has gotten worse simply by comparison.
So it’s tempting to get a soundbar to put things aright. But I implore you, if you’re a music lover, don’t. You can do so much better with a stereo system. Much, much better.
What are your sound priorities?
Do you like listening to music? Not just having it playing in the background, but from time to time sitting down and simply focusing on it? Then we have a journey of delight in store for you. But that journey will be delayed by using a soundbar.
Don’t get me wrong. A soundbar will clearly and obviously improve the sound from your TV. And if all you want is enjoy some reasonable bass and better tonal balance from your TV programs, then you may well find a good soundbar just what you need. But here’s the thing: for the same price as a half-decent soundbar you can purchase a stereo sound system that will sound a lot better with your TV programs, and with movies as well. And it will simply kill the soundbar for quality when it comes to music.
You see, soundbars are designed with certain constraints. And those tend to work against their ability to deliver music with the purity it deserves.
Why a soundbar simply cannot provide true high-fidelity sound
The main problem with soundbars is that they have to be bars. That is, the very physical shape is very limiting. First, and most obviously, the width of the stereo image is either constrained to the width of the soundbar itself – what, one metre wide, or perhaps a little more? – or is artificially expanded by means of digital processing. The latter done well can be quite enticing, but can’t match having two real speakers physically two or three metres apart from each other.
Second, the size of the drivers is necessarily limited in a soundbar. Back when they first appeared, flat screen TVs (mostly plasma back then) tended to be on stands that placed the screen quite a distance above the surface upon which they rested. Soundbars, consequently, could be relatively “tall”. For example, the Yamaha YSP-4000 “Digital Sound Projector” – yes, it was a soundbar – was almost 200mm tall. Such a thing could not be used in front of a modern TV because it would block out much of the bottom of the screen. But the YSP-4000 was influential in the industry. Even with a 198mm height, it could not pack particularly large drivers. Instead, it packed in 42 smaller drivers, 40 of them were 40mm in size, the other two were 110mm. Truly deep bass was handled by a separate subwoofer. Those 42 drivers each had their own little amplifier and a DSP providing a tailored signal to each of them. The result? Not too bad, especially with movies, although when I reviewed this soundbar in Sound+Image magazine back in 2008, I noted that it was “not quite convincing with stereo CDs”.
And back in 2008, that soundbar cost $3K.
Much more recently I reviewed the Sennheiser AMBEO soundbar. (Yes, I used the name Thomas Bartlett on that site for, well … reasons.) That only packs thirteen smallish drivers! Again, DSP rules. Look, I’m not going to fib. The AMBEO is pretty amazing for what it is. And what it is, is the best soundbar on the market. But it will set you back $3999.
And for that kind of money you can set yourself up with a stereo system that kills the AMBEO for music.
And that’s not surprising. As audiophiles all well know, amongst the keys to a great musical performance are such things as a pure signal, free of electronic processing, and high-quality loudspeaker drivers, placed in enclosures specifically designed to draw the best performance from those drivers. Soundbars must use some DSP to make their drivers, which sit in an inappropriately-shaped enclosure, sound reasonable.
What do you need instead of a soundbar?
Soundbars of course have their amplifiers built in. Most high-quality stereo systems don’t, so you will need a pair of loudspeakers and an amplifier. There is a tremendous range of products in those categories, priced from a few hundred dollars up to, well, how much money do you want to spend?
You may also need a digital to analogue converter – a DAC – depending on your model of TV. Some don’t have an analogue output. And regardless of which model, a DAC is always a nice thing to have. The analogue output on virtually all TVs that have them is labelled “headphone”. The built-in DAC is not typically one that would qualify as an audiophile-level component, and the headphone amplifier no doubt detracts from the quality of the analogue signal that the DAC does produce.
Still, you have to start somewhere, and a stereo system being fed an analogue signal from a TV’s headphone jack is still going to sound better than a comparably-priced soundbar. And perhaps later you can add a DAC, and feed it the signal from the TV’s optical digital audio output.
And while we’re talking about inputs: once you have a stereo amplifier and speakers, you can add more components. Try plugging a turntable into a soundbar!
Choosing a suitable stereo for your TV
So, let’s look at some real-world stereo systems that we’d instantly choose over comparably-priced sound bars.
1. Entry level – Topping MX5 amplifier and DAC/Q Acoustics Q3010i speakers
This is a system that shows how you can get into true high-quality sound at a remarkably affordable price. Topping is relatively new player in electronics, but already has a massively high reputation for the quality of its DACs. Q Acoustics is a British loudspeaker company maker well-known for producing a lot of bang for the buck. The Topping MX5 includes an audiophile-level DAC so you can get the best possible signal from your TV.
- 2 x 35 watts into 8 ohms at less than 1% THD
- High quality headphone output: 1600mW into 32 ohms, 260mW into 300 ohms
- ESS SABRE DAC chip supporting up to 384kHz PCM and DSD256
- 3 x digital and 2 x analogue inputs plus Bluetooth
- 1 x 22mm tweeter, 1 x 100mm bass/midrange (each)
- 65 to 30,000 hertz +3dB, -6dB
- 6 ohms, 86dB sensitivity
- 253mm tall by 150mm wide by 252mm deep
- Topping MX5: $469
- Q Acoustics Q3010i: $399
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Topping MX5 and Q Acoustics Q3010i)
- Upgrade to higher performance with Q Acoustics Q3020i speakers: $549
2. A bit better – Cambridge Audio AXA25 amplifier/Q Acoustics Q3030i speakers
Topping is new, but Cambridge Audio has been around for decades. The headline output power from this pure analogue amplifier is a little lower than the previous package, but that only works out to be around 1.5dB less output. Meanwhile, the Q Acoustics Q3030i loudspeakers are 2dB louder for the same output. More importantly, the Q3030i speakers produce a lot more bass for a fuller, more authoritative sound. Since this system is analogue only, TV sound quality will partially depend on the TV’s analogue circuitry, so we’d suggest you consider adding the DAC option we mention below. That will also provide you excellent sound from other digital sources, including computers.
- 2 x 25 watts into 8 ohms (less than 0.15% THD from 20-20,000 hertz at 20 watts output)
- 4 x analogue inputs, including 3.5mm input on front panel
- 5V 500mA USB power provided on back panel
- Analogue record output
- 1 x 22mm tweeter, 1 x 165mm bass/midrange (each)
- 46 to 30,000 hertz +3dB, -6dB
- 6 ohms, 88dB sensitivity
- 325mm tall by 200mm wide by 329mm deep
- Cambridge Audio AXA25: $499
- Q Acoustics Q3030i: $659
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Cambridge Audio AXA25 and Q Acoustics Q3030i)
- Upgrade to higher performance with Topping D10s Desktop USB DAC: $159
3. Better yet – Yamaha MusicCast R-N303D Network Receiver/Dynaudio Emit 10 speakers
Yamaha is really old. Seriously. It began making musical instruments in 1887, more than 130 years ago. But it has managed to keep up to date. Now, to be clear, the R-N303D is not part of Yamaha’s audiophile-class stereo systems. They tend to start in the thousands of dollars. But it is a well-designed, reasonably high-powered stereo receiver that incorporates a DAB+ tuner for digital radio, and support for most of the popular Internet audio streaming services, and it has optical digital audio input, so you can plug your TV directly into it. I reviewed this unit for Australian HI-FI in 2020, concluding, “If I were once again a student in a room in Glebe, I would have given just about anything for a system based around the Yamaha RN-303D stereo receiver, especially if it were coupled with some decent quality speakers. With the network audio and DAB+/FM built in, all that's really needed are those speakers.”
And the Dynaudio Emit 10 are those speakers. This Danish brand produces amazingly dynamic loudspeakers, and the Emit 10 are a good way into it. The idea that a soundbar could compete with this combo is rather silly. (Note: the Yamaha is limited to 8-ohm or more loudspeakers, while the Dynaudio speakers are only a nominal 6 ohms. Don’t sweat. Just use with discretion.) There is a headphone output on the Yamaha. It has 460-ohms of inline impedance. That can make for an arbitrarily weird frequency response with many headphones, so best not to use it for that.
- 2 x 100 watts into 8 ohms (less than 0.2% THD from 20-20,000 hertz)
- 4 x line-level analogue inputs
- Analogue record output
- 1 x 28mm tweeter, 1 x 140mm bass/midrange (each)
- 64 to 25,000 hertz ±3dB, -6dB at 52 and 35,000 hertz
- 6 ohms, 85dB sensitivity
- 290mm tall by 170mm wide by 285mm deep
- Yamaha MusicCast R-N303D Network Receiver: $699
- Dynaudio Emit 10: $1299
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Dynaudio Emit 10 and Yamaha MusicCast R-N303D Network Receiver)
4. Approaching audiophile quality – Burson Audio Funk amplifier/Focal Chora 806 speakers
At this point we’re starting to leave soundbars of all kinds well in the dust behind us in performance terms. Burson Audio is Australian, and the Funk is its fully analogue stereo amplifier. It doesn’t have huge headline power output figures, but with suitable loudspeakers – such as the ones we’ve chosen to match with it here – there’s ample power. Certainly more than enough to beat anything much on the soundbar front. Focal is a high-end loudspeaker maker from France. Yes, the Chora 806 speakers are entry level models for the brand. But we note that this is a brand whose top-end models nudge half a million dollars a pair. And there’s some serious trickle-down technology in these models.
The Funk is pure analogue, so consider a quality DAC to go with it, such as the one from Topping that we’ve suggested below. And unlike many integrated amplifiers, the headphone output is first class, providing up to three watts of Class A power through a low-impedance headphone output.
- 2 x 35 watts into 8 ohms (0.35% THD); 2 x 45 watts into 4 ohms
- 1 x analogue input
- 35mm headphone output at front, 3.5mm headphone/microphone connection at front
- 1 x 25mm aluminium/magnesium alloy tweeter, 1 x 165mm slatefiber bass/midrange (each)
- 58 to 28,000 hertz ±3dB, 49 hertz at -6dB
- 8 ohms, 89dB sensitivity
- 431mm tall by 210mm wide by 270mm deep
- Burson Audio Funk: $899 (see Burson Audio Funk review)
- Focal Chora 806: $1350
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Burson Audio Funk Headphone & Speaker Amplifier and Focal Chora 806)
- Upgrade to higher performance with Topping E30 Desktop USB DAC: $239 (see also Topping E30 Desktop USB DAC review).
5. True power and authority – SMSL Audio VMV A2 amplifier/Dynaudio Emit 20 speakers
Haven’t heard of SMSL Audio? This is a company starting to make a splash in the area of high performance, high value audio gear. Which brings us to the SMSL Audio VMV A2 integrated amplifier. It does pretty much everything, with multiple digital inputs and a high-performance DAC, and with built-in Bluetooth with support for every existing high quality audio codec, including such newcomers as UAT (HiBy’s Ultra Audio Transmission, which runs at up to 1.2Mbps). And it has plenty of power to drive the marvellous Dynaudio Emit 20 loudspeakers. These sound more like quality floor-standing loudspeakers than stand-mount models. With this system, you can truly enjoy your music, at whatever level you want without any of the stress that a soundbar would exhibit.
- 2 x 100 watts into 8 ohms, 2 x 200 watts into 4 ohms
- 1 x analogue input, 4 x digital inputs including Coaxial, Optical, USB and AES/EBU
- Bluetooth with SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC and UAT support
- Subwoofer output
- 1 x 28mm tweeter, 1 x 140mm bass/midrange (each)
- 53 to 25,000 hertz ±3dB, -6dB at 42 and 35,000 hertz
- 6 ohms, 86dB sensitivity
- 370mm tall by 206mm wide by 325mm deep
- SMSL Audio VMV A2: $1349
- Dynaudio Emit 20: $1699 (see Dynaudio Emit 20 review)
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (SMSL Audio VMV A2 and Dynaudio Emit 20)
6. Glorious audiophile quality – Cambridge Audio CXA61 amplifier/Focal Aria 906 speakers
As I write, even this amazing system costs less than the price of the AMBEO which, as I mentioned above, I consider to be an exceptional soundbar. But in terms of sound quality, that soundbar isn’t even in the same ballpark. The Cambridge Audio CXA61 is for those who want traditional analogue Class A/B performance. But coupled with that is a high-performance DAC for all your digital sources, including your TV. And you get Bluetooth as well, with aptX and aptX HD for higher quality with compatible devices. The Focal Aria 906 loudspeakers come with the French company’s unique Flax-based cones in the bass/midrange drivers, and its inverted dome tweeters for a stunning performance.
- 2 x 60 watts into 8 ohms (less than 0.02% THD from 20-20,000 hertz at 48 watts output), 2 x 90 watts into 4 ohms (less than 0.02% THD from 20-20,000 hertz at 72 watts output)
- 5 x analogue inputs, including 3.5mm input on front panel, 4 x digital inputs including Coaxial, 2 x Optical and USB
- Bluetooth with SBC, aptX and aptX HD support
- Subwoofer output, Stereo Pre-outs, 1 x 3.5mm headphone output
- 1 x 25mm aluminium/magnesium alloy tweeter, 1 x 165mm Flax bass/midrange (each)
- 55 to 28,000 hertz ±3dB, 47 hertz at -6dB
- 8 ohms, 89.5dB sensitivity
- 390mm tall by 225mm wide by 280mm deep
- Cambridge Audio CXA61: $1899
- Focal Aria 906: $2000
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Cambridge Audio CXA61 Integrated Amplifier and Focal Aria 906)
So there you have it: while not using much more space than a soundbar, while delivering far better performance than similarly priced soundbars, you can find a great sounding system.
Most of the amplifiers can be mixed and matched. Or if you’re just starting out, and perhaps already have an older stereo amplifier available, it may be worth considering aiming at higher quality loudspeakers and then upgrading the amplifier in the future when funds permit.
Be inventive. Just avoid locking yourself into a soundbar.