Wireless subwoofers? Bluetooth? ? Of all the features available on a , one of the most requested by CNET readers is audio. Like its rival audio format, Atmos differs from normal surround by adding height to your and movies.
Dolby Atmos soundbars are now more affordable than ever, especially compared with a and surround sound speakers. These soundbars are also more compact and easier to set up than a home theater system, with the trade-off being they can’t provide the same level of performance.
The Vizio is my favorite Dolby Atmos soundbar for under $500 — it offers both dedicated height channels and surround speakers, and quality sound into the bargain. Most competitors at the price can only offer virtual surround, or even just simulated height speakers. Soundbars like the and lack up-firing speakers and use digital processing to mimic overhead effects. As competent as these are there’s no substitute for physical height speakers.
While you can easily stop at the $500 mark, there are benefits to be had from the more expensive models: improved sound quality, music streaming and voice assistants like Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. For example, the $900 is an all-in-one soundbar which offers great sound, exquisite build quality and excellent multiroom capabilities.
These are my favorite Atmos soundbar options from $400 and up, periodically updated as I review new products. Be aware: Some of these products are currently on backorder, so check back periodically if a specific model is out of stock.
The Vizio M512a improves on its predecessor in almost every way: it looks better, it sounds better, and it’s easier to use. While it keeps Bluetooth capability it does lose the ability to stream over Wi-Fi. If you’re looking for the most cost-effective way to add Dolby Atmos to your television this is the one.
Read our Vizio M512a-H6 review.
The Polk Signa S4 is the cheapest soundbar with Dolby Atmos onboard yet, but it doesn’t sacrifice performance to get that price down. This is a 3.1.2 channel soundbar with a host of useful sound modes and Bluetooth streaming. The wireless soundbar and dedicated heights help it belt out Atmos soundtracks, and it sounds great with music too.
Read our Polk Signa S4 review.
If you like a bit of “high tech” in your tech then look to the Vizio Elevate. This is a 5.1.2 soundbar system that uses motorized drivers to switch between Atmos and normal surround sound. It’s not just a gimmick — it also sounds good! In addition, the Elevate includes everything else you want from a modern soundbar, including multiple HDMI inputs and Wi-Fi music streaming.
Read our Vizio Elevate P514A-H6 review.
The Sonos Beam Gen 2 may only offer simulated height speakers, but it’s the best Atmos I’ve heard yet from a system of this kind. If you can’t afford the step-up to the Sonos Arc or want to keep things compact, the Sonos Beam offers a lot for the money.
Read our Sonos Beam Gen 2 review.
If you want the best Dolby Atmos sound from a single bar but balk at paying $1,000 or more, the Sonos Arc is for you. This soundbar is a bit quirky, as you’ll need a 2019 or newer 4K TV to make the most of it, and yet it still performs better than most. The Arc offers a bunch of great features too, including a choice of voice assistant and Sonos’ excellent streaming architecture.
Read our Sonos Arc review.
Want the ultimate Atmos audio home theater sound system experience with just a single box? It may be a grand more than the Sony but the Sennheiser Ambeo standalone soundbar offers the best immersive sound we’ve ever heard. Google Chromecast and Bluetooth connectivity are built in for a seamless experience. The Ambeo’s lack of a subwoofer, while still sounding full, should be especially attractive to apartment dwellers.
Read our Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar review.
How I test
At CNET I test audio equipment from compact soundbars though to surround sound speakers systems, but regardless of the device my methodology is largely the same. I always compare products against one or more reference devices which offer the best performance at a similar price.
When it comes to soundbars I want to see how well a system performs with music as well as with movies, as most people will want to do both. I watch from a handful of test scenes from 4K Blu-ray or streamed from a 4K streaming service (Vudu, for example) and evaluate aspects such as bass performance and dialog clarity. I also use a and evaluate any streaming features such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It’s systems that can perform well with both types of entertainment that inevitably score the highest.
Other soundbars I’ve tested
Check out my for more about the features and things you should consider when looking for a new system.
- : Very cute, minimalist system which provides real Dolby Atmos from two boxes. However, I found that its performance doesn’t match the $500-$600 asking price with a surprisingly over-bright sound.
- : An excellent soundbar with HDMI connectivity and multiroom music streaming. While music is where this soundbar shines, the system falls down due to its higher price of ownership and expensive peripherals.
- : This Bose is a great soundbar, and it pairs well with the company’s headphones for late-night listening, but it’s simply not as robust as the .
Do I need HDMI 2.1 to listen to Atmos?
Dolby Atmos can be played over a normal HDMI ARC connection with streaming services which use the Dolby Digital Plus codec, and when it works it’s great. If you want the full-blooded Dolby Atmos experience then you may need to upgrade to a new TV with an HDMI 2.1 port, as it will enable higher quality Atmos streams from Blu-ray players and gaming consoles.
Is a Dolby Atmos soundbar worth paying extra for?
If you’re a gamer or enjoy watching the latest blockbusters, then yes, a Dolby Atmos soundbar is worth paying more for. But you need to make sure that you have a TV with an HDMI ARC port (for Dolby Digital Plus) and a Dolby Atmos-capable source such as the Xbox Series X or the latest Roku streamers.
Which connection is best for a Dolby Atmos soundbar?
The short answer is HDMI. The long answer is that there’s two ways to get Atmos into one of these speakers — the first, and best, is to have a TV with an eARC port (HDMI 2.1). This port is a feature of many new TVs and enables Atmos information to be fed from your TV (via either smart apps or another connected device) to an external speaker. Normal HDMI ARC will work for some streaming services that offer Dolby Atmos.
On the other hand, if you have an older TV and an Atmos source such as a Blu-ray player, you’ll need a soundbar that has more than one HDMI port. The Vizio M512a enables you to connect external devices directly by HDMI.
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