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Monday, March 27, 2023

Just Get A Soundbar Already

If there’s one thing a global pandemic is good for, it makes you count your blessings. I’m grateful my family is healthy, and I’m thankful I still have my job. I’m also glad—and it’s a small enough thing—to live in the golden age of streaming.

There’s so much content available now, from free library ebooks to critically-acclaimed TV shows and films. I now spend every evening frantically bobbling from book to show to movie, trying to distract myself from the end of the world. I was particularly excited to watch Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., a bubbly, colorful confection about very rich, very pretty people whose biggest problems in no way resemble mine.

Earlier in what had been a very long week, I opened and plugged in Roku’s smart soundbar, wireless speakers, and subwoofer. After Emma. ended (My review: Lovely, very good), the credits started rolling and I started to stand up. Then the opening chords of Johnny Flynn’s “Queen Bee” started.

I sat back down again. Through the subwoofer, the warm, rich strains of the cello vibrated in the still air of my living room. Johnny Flynn’s affectless monotone was crisp, clear, and cheery. The hair on my scalp stood up. What was happening? Was I getting an ASMR response from a song?

Those three minutes of pure aural pleasure were such a welcome, unexpected break from unrelenting weeks of anxiety. If you also find yourself streaming movie after movie, trying to forget that we’re all living in a housebound, purgatorial half-life, I can’t think of a better time to try a soundbar.

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It’s entirely possible you never noticed your TV's terrible sound, especially if the TV is on as background noise, tuned to kid’s TV shows while you’re cooking. That was the case with me. For years, I played dinosaur documentaries and movies on a 10-year-old, 55-inch Panasonic with tinny, blown-out, built-in speakers.

But when my coworkers discovered this state of affairs, they sent me Roku’s smart soundbar as an act of mercy. It was easy to install and plugged directly into my TV’s HDMI port. There are quite a few other soundbars we recommend too, like Vizio's soundbar and subwoofer combo. Resident WIRED audiophile Parker Hall also recommends this one from Yamaha, which comes with a built-in subwoofer.

It's easy to overlook. Many of the same people who carefully research a TV's specs fail to install a correspondingly great sound system. After all, you can walk to a showroom floor and compare one TV's screen size, weight, and inky blacks to another’s. But rich, immersive audio is a lot harder to evaluate.

Moreover, as great-looking TVs have gotten thinner, the speakers have gotten smaller and smaller. You'll be watching a beautiful 4K movie with tinny, back-mounted laptop speakers that are bouncing distorted sound waves off the wall.

“You need physics there to back up good quality sound,” says Mark Ely, Roku's vice president of retail strategy. “What that really means is, you need to have enough space to make great bass. You need wide separation between speakers to have a good stereo image. Those are compromised on today’s TVs.”

The change in our quality of viewing after installing the Roku soundbar was instantaneous. I could hear the dialog in The Witcher 3 videogame without relying on subtitles to understand the story! All this time, I thought everyone just had weird accents. Floorboards creaked; someone is breathing. Suddenly, a documentary became a multilayered environment, narration layered over a whole world of animal calls, trees rustling, and waves breaking gently on a beach.

“Is that a bird?” my 3-year-old said excitedly while jumping up and down on the sofa, catching the sound of distant animal calls. “Is it a crow?” Who knows? We spent an afternoon looking up what dinosaurs might have sounded like (and being a little disappointed, unfortunately).

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Like a lot of art, great sound design isn’t hard to appreciate once you’ve experienced it. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to install. Roku’s soundbar connects easily and wirelessly to Roku’s TV speakers and new subwoofer, which made it easy to figure out how to place them in my living room.

The soundbar has a Roku built in, which may be redundant if you already have a Roku-enabled smart TV or another streaming device. Features like improved dialog clarity and automatic volume leveling will work, even if you use it with another streaming device. I’ve been using ours with an Apple TV.

Kevin Brennan, senior director of product management at Dolby, also offered a few other quick fixes to improve your room's acoustics. Make sure the floor and walls aren't bare and reflective—a rug or art on the walls helps absorb sound. Make sure your soundbar is mounted or placed on the edge of a TV table, instead of sitting at the back or hidden under a trove of toys. You can add speakers to your sound system slowly, but if you're getting a soundbar, I recommend getting a subwoofer too.

Look, I know: Getting a soundbar is just a Band-Aid over a lot of other problems. It can't fix the fact that schools are closed, playdates are verboten, health care workers are in danger, and my parents don't know when they’ll next be able to see their grandchildren.

But for the past few weeks, it's made being trapped on the couch much more endurable, and even enjoyable, for me and my family. I’ve sat on my couch, leaned back, and listened to the pronghorn antelope gallop across sunny fields. My kids giggle in delight while standing in front of the subwoofer and feeling the heavy thud of a tyrannosaur’s footsteps tickle their shins. It’s a distraction from helplessly waiting. It’s not nothing. That seems good enough for now.

Read WIRED's guide to the Best Soundbars to see our picks.

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