So, you just sold your client the latest and greatest flat-screen TV. Now what? If your client wants better sound than TV speakers can offer – and they really should – the next decision is to decide between a soundbar or discrete speaker system. When it comes to sound quality, you can’t beat the soundstage and immersion of a good-quality 5.1 (or higher-channel count) system, but not everyone has the space or budget. The good news is that today, many of the latest soundbars offer high-end fidelity and aesthetics to match the latest flat-screen TVs, but don’t take up any floor space or break the bank. Whatever the case, it’s important that customers avoid blindly buying any speakers off the store shelf or online. Just like a car, TV, or other expensive electronics, audio is an investment worth testing out. The best way to help your client choose a soundbar system (or any loudspeaker system, for that matter), is to demonstrate different makes and models within their budget and then allow them to decide which they prefer.
My customers often ask me what they should listen for when auditioning soundbars and theater systems. In my opinion, when evaluating audio, it comes down to five different things to listen for. Here’s what I go over with them:
You should never be distracted by the sound of audio equipment. When listening to any kind of content, ask yourself: Does it sound ‘real’ to you? Is the sound balanced, with no emphasis on any frequencies – high notes, low notes, and everything in between? A good-quality soundbar system should sound like the real deal and make you forget it’s even there. It should never sound harsh, irritating, or distracting.
2. Detail and Resolution
Are the low-level sounds just as clear and intelligible as the loud sounds? Are the soft sounds audibly realistic, too? Can you hear the subtleties? Maybe it’s the flutter of an insect’s wings, a clock ticking on the far wall of the room, the nuanced texture of a delicately orchestrated score, or a car driving by outside. Just as in real life, you should be able to unravel low-level information in the background, not just what’s happening in the foreground.
Is there an easily discernable contrast between soft and loud sounds? This is an area where most audio systems falter. Real acoustic events such as the human voice, musical instruments, natural sounds like a breaking twig, or the slam of a book dropped on a tabletop contain a high level of acoustic energy when compared to silence (the absence of acoustic energy). We call the difference between the loud sounds and silence “dynamics.”
In real life, this rapid change from silence to sound gives these acoustic events life and snap, even on softer delicate sounds such as carefully plucked classical guitar strings. Dynamics give the sounds, even the softest ones, clarity.
When listening, ask yourself: When called for, does the system play both soft and loud with ease? Is the system still “lively”-sounding, even at extremely low listening levels? During loud passages, it shouldn’t feel like the speaker is pushed too hard or distorted, no matter what content you throw at it. And the soft moments should be just as engaging and lively as the loud ones. It’s thrilling to be engaged in a noisy action scene, but you should also be able to make out soft details and quieter dialogue without having to adjust the volume.
4. Bass Response
Can you feel – not just hear – the low notes in your core? In real life, the lowest-frequency sounds contain a lot of acoustic energy, causing us to feel as well as hear them. The right soundbar systems will ensure that explosions, double-bass notes in jazz music, and a jet engine flying overhead are visceral as well as audible. This tactile part of sound reproduction adds to the realism. And, most importantly, a good soundbar system should be able to reproduce those deep bass moments, effortlessly.
Do you feel as if you’re in a real three-dimensional space? In real life, we experience sounds all around us, above us, and even sometimes below us. A good audio system should capture the “open” and “enveloping” qualities of natural sounds.
When listening to an audio system, does it seem as though all the sound is coming from one centralized spot (i.e., right in the middle, under the TV)? Or, is the sound “open,” and seems to come from wall to wall, floor to ceiling? Do any of the sounds seem to come from the sides, or even behind you?
With modern soundtracks, a good soundbar system can fully envelop you in sound, even with just three channels anchored to the front wall, causing you to forget that you are listening to audio equipment at all. The sound should not seem to emanate from the soundbar itself. Rather, it should feel unrelated to the soundbar and take on an open 3D quality that’s more like real life itself. It won’t seem as though you’re watching a movie or concert video; you’ll feel like you are in the scene of the film or at that live performance.
Choosing the right soundbar system is a very personal decision, and it’s important to allow your clients to try before they buy. A soundbar with the qualities described here will not only thrill them, but also transport them from their family room (or other space) right into the middle of whatever movie scene, video game, or live concert they are watching. The best soundbar system will do that for the listener every single time they sit down and turn it on.