Soundbars are the simplest and most effective way of improving your television’s audio but buying one needn’t cost the earth.
We’ve tested numerous models across a wide range of price points and this article covers what we consider to be the best budget soundbars on the market, all of which are available for under £300.
They may lack some of the bells and whistles offered by pricier models but all of the soundbars on this list have one thing in common: solid sound quality and an affordable price.
Before we jump into the entries, however, we’ll break down everything you need to know prior to purchasing a budget soundbar.
If you don’t know your 2.0 from your 2.1, are unsure of what connection options to look out for or simply want to learn more about the features you can expect to find incorporated into a budget soundbar, we’ve got you covered.
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How to choose the best budget soundbar for you
There are a number of things to consider when shopping around for the best budget soundbar. Top of your priority list should be sound quality. If a soundbar doesn’t significantly improve your TV’s audio there’s no point in spending your hard-earned cash on it.
Audio quality is affected by a number of factors, including the size and type of speaker drivers used, the audio formats supported and the number of audio channels a soundbar incorporates.
How many channels should a budget soundbar have?
The number of channels present in a soundbar is represented by two digits separated by a full stop. The first digit reflects the number of primary channels while the second indicates the presence of a subwoofer to handle low-end frequencies. So, a 2.0 soundbar possesses two audio channels – left and right – while 2.1 bars add a third via a subwoofer.
Subwoofers are sometimes built into soundbars but many come as separate units included in the price. Both types have advantages: soundbars with in-built subwoofers are more space-efficient, while standalone subs generally deliver fuller, more impactful bass.
Rarer at under £300 are soundbars with three or even five primary audio channels. A 3.0 or 3.1 soundbar features a central channel in addition to left and right ones and is generally better at delivering dialogue compared with its 2.0 and 2.1 counterparts. Meanwhile, 5.0 and 5.1 devices add a further two channels to create a surround sound effect and really ramp up the immersion.
Those additional channels are most commonly incorporated via rear speakers connected to the soundbar wirelessly or with cables. You do sometimes find “all-in-one” 5.0 and 5.1 soundbars where everything is housed within a single bar but you can expect to pay more than £300 for one of those.
How important is power output for a budget soundbar?
Most manufacturers state the peak and average (Root Mean Squared or RMS) output of their soundbars in Watts (W). Larger soundbars with more speaker drivers are capable of outputting bigger sound than their compact competitors but don’t worry too much about finding a bar with massive audio output.
The least powerful bar on this list, the Roku Streambar, is able to fill a reasonably sized room with sound.
What’s the best way to connect a soundbar?
Even budget soundbars offer a range of connectivity options and, generally speaking, the more ports present the better.
The easiest way to hook up a soundbar to your TV is by using an HDMI cable. Ideally, both your TV and soundbar will have HDMI ARC (audio return channel) ports and, assuming they do, simply connect the two to enable your bar to play audio from your TV and any devices connected to it. Some soundbars feature additional HDMI inputs, which are useful for connecting external devices like games consoles or a Sky TV box if all of the ports on your TV are already in use.
Aside from HDMI sockets, most budget soundbars also give you the choice of connecting via an optical digital cable (also referred to as TOSlink or S/PDIF). This is generally the simplest method of connecting a soundbar to a TV that doesn’t support ARC. Analogue 3.5mm inputs are less common than they once were but you’ll still find plenty of soundbars incorporating them.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity are becoming increasingly popular inclusions in soundbars and not just the pricey ones. Wi-Fi enabled bars like the Polk React allow for the use of voice assistants – in the React’s case Amazon Alexa – and can be incorporated into multi-room wireless speaker systems. Bluetooth is great for playing music and podcasts directly from your phone, laptop or tablet if you’re in the mood for a casual listening session.
Other things to consider before buying a budget soundbar
Think about what size soundbar suits your television setup best. You’ll want to make sure it fits on your AV cabinet and slots neatly in front or under your TV without obstructing your view or getting in the way of any infrared sensor your tele may have.
If you plan on wall-mounting your soundbar, ensure that your chosen device supports mounting and comes with the necessary accessories to facilitate this. Many do, but it’s worth checking.
EQ options and different audio modes are also worth keeping an eye out for. A lot of soundbars will let you tweak the bass and treble, while others offer audio presets tuned for watching specific types of content such as music, movies and sports. If you watch a lot of TV in the evening and don’t want to disturb the neighbours, a Night mode designed for low-volume viewing is particularly handy.
More advanced soundbars offer support for surround sound audio formats like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. These multi-dimensional, object-based codecs are capable of adding height effects to a soundbar’s soundstage for a more immersive audio experience but you’ll typically require additional speakers to make full use of them.
You may also come across DTS Virtual:X, which seeks to recreate a surround sound experience without the need for those additional speakers, making it a great inclusion in budget soundbars.
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The best budget soundbars to buy in 2021
1. Creative Stage 2.1: The best soundbar with a subwoofer under £100
Price: £80 | Buy now from Amazon
When it comes to low-cost soundbars, it’s hard to look past the Creative Stage 2.1. For a mere £80 you get a compact and lightweight soundbar plus a subwoofer to handle bass reproduction.
Given its low price, you’d expect the sound quality to be rather mediocre but the Stage 2.1 is no let down in the audio department. It’s an engaging listen no matter what you’ve got on the TV, with the sub packing a punch without disrupting the bar’s crisp articulation of mids and treble.
It’s not short on connection options either. You can hook it up to your TV using either the HDMI or optical ports located on the rear of the bar, stream music wirelessly over Bluetooth, connect analogue audio devices via the 3.5mm port and even use the USB-A port to play locally stored files.
If you’re willing to spend a bit more, the upgraded V2 model adds two sound modes to the package – “Surround” and “Clear Dialogue” – while updating the Bluetooth version to 5.0 and replacing the USB-A port with a USB-C one.
Key specs – Channels: 2.1; Total power output: 160W; Dimensions: Soundbar – 550 x 78 x 70mm (WDH), subwoofer – 115 x 250 x 420mm (WDH); Weight: Soundbar – 1.2kg, subwoofer 3.07kg; Connectivity: Bluetooth, 1 x HDMI (ARC), 1 x optical, 1 x AUX-in, USB-A
2. Denon DHT-S216: The best budget soundbar for virtual surround sound
Price: £199 | Buy now from Amazon
The Denon DHT-S216’s big selling point is its incorporation of DTS Virtual:X – an audio format that creates a sonic experience resembling surroun