Our Sound Quality Score And Tests
Soundbars

Updated
What it is: How accurately the soundbar reproduces audio. When possible, soundbars are tested using a direct HDMI connection to the test PC. Otherwise, a direct optical connection or HDMI ARC through a TV is used for testing.
When it matters: When you want a deep and powerful bass, clear dialog/instruments, a large soundstage, and a loud and artifact-free sound for movies, video games, music, and TV shows.
Score components:
Score distribution

You can use your soundbar to listen to lots of different types of audio content, including TV shows, music, and movies. All audio content is mixed and arranged to sound a certain way, but not all soundbars can reproduce this content with fidelity. Our sound quality tests show how accurately a soundbar can reproduce audio content as intended by the audio engineer.

We perform several different tests to get a better understanding of a soundbar's sound quality. This includes stereo frequency response, stereo frequency response with calibration, stereo soundstage, stereo dynamics, stereo total harmonic distortion, center, surrounds, height, and sound enhancement features.

Test results

When It Matters

Sound quality is important for all listeners. Regardless of the type of audio content you like, you'll want a soundbar that can reproduce all of the frequencies found within your audio content. For example, if you want to feel the deep thump and rumble in action-packed scenes, it's important to get a soundbar with an extended low-bass.

That said, your personal preferences can also play a role in the sound quality tests that matter most to you. Movie fans will want a soundbar that offers immersive surround and Atmos performances, while TV enthusiasts will want to check out the center channel. If you need to turn up the volume to fill up a large space, you may want to prioritize the stereo dynamics performance of your soundbar. You can also see what sound enhancement features the soundbar offers if you want more control over how it sounds.

Our tests

We conduct our sound quality tests in a room that's 18' (L) x 16' (W) x 9' (H), with one couch and minimal sound treatment to better represent a typical living room. We place the soundbar on a table, and they're both positioned 7.5 feet away from our microphone array. We also test the soundbar when it's 6.5 feet and 8.5 feet away from the microphone array to get a better understanding of the sound profile from different places in the room. We use a laser measuring tool to ensure that the microphone array, table, and soundbar are at the appropriate distance from the side walls, as well as the subwoofer and the satellites if they're included in the setup.

Some soundbars come with a room correction feature that automatically optimizes audio reproduction based on the unique acoustic characteristics of the room you're listening in. If a soundbar comes with this feature, we turn it on for our sound quality tests to better represent the typical user experience. Also, if a soundbar has a selection of different EQ presets to choose from, we set it to the preset that's closest to our target curve.

Stereo Frequency Response

What it is: The average, in-room frequency response (spectral balance) of the soundbar. This shows how extended the bass is, and how well-balanced and accurately dialog and instruments are reproduced by the soundbar.It is measured with a 2-channel stereo signal at a moderate volume at 48 different positions in the room. On the raw frequency response graph, the blue line is the average response, and the gray lines represent each of the 48 measurements.
When it matters: When an accurate sound reproduction with a deep bass and clear dialog/instruments is desired. Frequency response has the biggest impact on the perceived accuracy and quality of sound, but doesn't show how loud or large/wide the sound is.
Score distribution

Our stereo frequency response tests show how accurately the bar can reproduce sound at each frequency. Whether you like to listen to music, movies, or TV shows, it's important to get a soundbar that can reproduce all of the frequencies found in your audio content, from the low-bass to the high-treble. For example, if you like to feel the deep thump and rumble in bass-heavy music and action-packed movies, you'll want a soundbar with an extended low-bass. 

The frequency response graph allows us to get a better understanding of the soundbar's sound profile. A more neutral, balanced sound profile is considered suitable for most types of audio content. However, depending on your personal preferences and the types of audio content you want to listen to, you may prefer a different sound. Some listeners prefer a more bass-heavy sound profile that adds extra thump and punch to the mix or a v-shaped sound that adds some brightness and sparkle to instruments and vocals. 

You can learn more about our stereo frequency response tests here.

Stereo Frequency Response With Preliminary Calibration

Our stereo frequency response test is designed to test the soundbar with its default, out-of-the-box sound profile. However, many soundbars come with sound customization features like EQ presets or bass and treble adjustments that let you adjust its sound more to your liking. If you prefer a different sound, you may want to see how effective these features are at customizing the audio reproduction.

For this test, our testing team measures the bar's stereo frequency response after calibrating it. We use the bass and treble adjustments to try and get the bar's frequency response closer to our target curve if they're available. If not, we try to calibrate the bar using the subwoofer level adjustment feature. Our results show the settings that get the bar's slope closest to zero while also improving or matching the overall stereo frequency response score.

 Sonos Arc with Sub + One SL Speakers Frequency Response Small

Out-of-the-box, the Sonos Arc with Sub + One SL Speakers has a bright sound profile with a slope of 1.42

 Sonos Arc with Sub + One SL Speakers Frequency Response Calibrated

With its bass set to +1 and its treble set to -1, the same soundbar has a much more neutral, balanced sound profile with a slope of -0.12

Stereo Soundstage

What it is: Soundstage is the perceived size and width of the sound created by the soundbar. This score is given subjectively and the evaluation is performed by a team of three testers. A soundstage that is too small, diffuse, unnatural, or exaggerated will be penalized. When evaluating soundstage we take into account the width and focus of the sound.
When it matters: When you want to feel immersed in a large, wide and natural soundstage with good instrument separation. Having a good soundstage is critical for music, movies, and video games, but not for speech/dialog like watching the news.
Score components: Subjectively assigned
Score distribution

The soundstage is the imaginary three-dimensional area that makes up the height, width, and depth of your audio as it's reproduced by the soundbar. For example, if you were at a concert and closed your eyes, you would still be able to pinpoint where each instrument was coming from in the space around you. A good soundstage performance allows you to feel immersed in your audio and helps you accurately locate where sound objects like voices, footsteps, and instruments are coming from in the sound image. However, if your soundbar struggles in this regard, sound may seem like it's coming from a more general area in front of you.

Our stereo soundstage score is subjectively evaluated by a group of testers. Keep in mind that we perform this test with the soundbar in a stereo setup, so if it's possible, surround channels aren't active for this test.

You can learn more about our stereo soundstage tests here.

Stereo Dynamics

What it is: How loud the soundbar gets and whether its sound quality degrades at loud volumes.
When it matters: If you tend to listen at loud volumes or if your environment is large, crowded, or noisy, it's important to have a soundbar that can get loud.
Score components:
Score distribution

If you like to listen to music at loud volumes, you'll want to take a look at our stereo dynamics test. For this test, we evaluate how loud a soundbar can get when it's pushed to its maximum volume. This can be especially useful for listeners who want to turn up the volume to fill up space in a large room or at crowded parties. We also test to see how the soundbar performs when it's pushed to its max volume. Too many compression and pumping artifacts could make your audio quickly louder, then quieter, which could take away from your listening experience.

You can learn more about our stereo dynamics tests here.

Stereo Total Harmonic Distortion

What it is: The amount of subtle, unwanted frequencies (harmonics) produced alongside the intended frequencies by the soundbar.
When it matters: When clean and pure sound reproduction is desired. Harmonic distortion is relatively difficult to hear, so it should only matter to those who care about the fidelity of sound reproduction.
Score distribution

Total harmonic distortion, or THD, evaluates the number of unintended frequencies reproduced alongside the intended frequencies of your audio content. Essentially, this measurement compares the audio content as it's been mixed by the engineer to the output reproduced by the soundbar. It's important for listeners who want their soundbar to maintain the fidelity of sound reproduction so that their content sounds clear and pure. Ideally, your soundbar has a very low amount of THD at both normal listening volumes and max volume, as this means that your audio content is reproduced the way it was intended by its creator. Most soundbars see a jump in distortion when they're pushed to louder volumes, but this may not be very noticeable with real-life content.

You can learn more about our stereo total harmonic distortion tests here.

Center

What it is: How accurately the soundbar reproduces audio with a 6-channel file that only has signal on the 3rd (Center) channel. When possible, soundbars are tested using a direct HDMI connection to the test PC. Otherwise, a direct optical connection or HDMI ARC through a TV is used for testing. Center is tested using the preset we selected and not with the full preliminary calibration.
When it matters: When a deep and powerful bass, clear dialogue/instruments, a large soundstage, and a loud and artifact-free sound is desired from the center channel. This only matters when the content is multi-channel (e.g. 5.1), like most movies and video games, but won't matter for stereo content (like most music) since they don't have a discrete center channel.
Score distribution

While our stereo sound quality tests are designed to test the bar's left and right channels, some soundbars come with an additional third channel known as the center channel. A discrete center channel can significantly improve the quality of dialogue in TV shows. We also test for the center channel's frequency response, dynamics, and total harmonic distortion performances.

That said, not all soundbars offer a discrete center channel. In these cases, the soundbar may use its left and right channels to simulate a phantom center channel. Unfortunately, this doesn't sound as clear or as real as the audio reproduced by a discrete center. A phantom center can be especially disappointing for listeners who like to listen to a lot of dialogue-centric content like TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks since it won't make the voices in your content sound very clear or crisp.

You can learn more about center channel sound here.

Surrounds

What it is: How accurately the soundbar reproduces audio with a 6-channel file that only has signal on the 5th and 6th (Left Surround/Right Surround) channels. When possible, soundbars are tested using a direct HDMI connection to the test PC. Otherwise, a direct optical connection or HDMI ARC through a TV is used for testing. Surround is tested using the preset we selected and not with the full preliminary calibration.
When it matters: When a deep and powerful bass, clear dialogue/instruments, a large soundstage, and a loud and artifact-free sound is desired from the surround channels. This only matters when the content is multi-channel (e.g. 5.1), like most movies and video games, but won't matter for stereo content (like most music) since they don't have discrete surround channels.
Score distribution

Surround sound is becoming more and more popular for movies found on Blu-ray discs, streaming platforms, and other content. Our surrounds test evaluates how accurately the soundbar reproduces audio on its fourth and fifth channels, also known as the surround channels. We also test for the surround channels' frequency response, dynamics, and total harmonic distortion performances.

Soundbars with a 5.1 setup and above come with discrete surround channels specifically designed to reproduce surround content clearly and accurately. These discrete channels may be built into the bar, or they may be located on satellite speakers that you can place anywhere in your room. Other bars have front-firing or side-firing speakers that create a phantom localization to represent surround objects in the soundstage. However, a phantom surround isn't going to sound as clear or as real as a discrete setup.

Unfortunately, soundbars with fewer than five channels don't offer a discrete surround localization. Instead, they may have to downmix surround content into stereo to play it. This doesn't offer a very immersive listening experience, as sound may seem like it's just coming from in front of you rather than from speakers placed all around you. 

You can learn more about our surround 5.1 tests here.

Height (Atmos)

What it is: How accurately the soundbar reproduces audio with an Atmos file that has one object placed in the middle of the ceiling. When possible, soundbars are tested using a direct HDMI connection to the test PC. Otherwise, HDMI ARC through a TV is used for testing. Height is tested using the preset we selected and not with the full preliminary calibration.
When it matters: When a deep and powerful bass, clear dialogue/instruments, a large soundstage, and a loud and artifact-free sound is desired from the height (Atmos) channels. This only matters when the content is Atmos (like most recent movies and video games), but won't matter for stereo or surround content (older music and movies) since they don't have discrete height (Atmos) channels.
Score distribution

Dolby Atmos is an object-based surround sound format often used for movies. It's considered a more immersive listening format, as it allows audio engineers to assign sound objects like voices and footsteps to a more specific place in the sound image. Not all soundbars we test are capable of decoding audio in this format. However, if a soundbar supports Atmos content, we test for it, alongside its frequency response, dynamics, and total harmonic distortion performances.

For this test, we compare the soundbar's height channel performance to home theater setups, which often come with dedicated down-firing speakers that you can install in your ceiling to improve the listening experience. While soundbars don't come with down-firing speakers, they may come with up-firing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling and back down toward you to simulate height. Other soundbars may downmix Atmos content into surround or stereo formats, which unfortunately doesn't sound as immersive.

You can learn more about our height channel tests here.

Sound Enhancement Features

What it is: Digital features and effects that will allow you to customize and modify the sound of the soundbar to some extent. This may include room correction, dialog enhancement, EQ, and bass/treble adjustment.
When it matters: When you want to adjust and customize certain aspects of the sound of the soundbar to make it more to your liking.
Score distribution

Our sound quality tests are designed to test how the soundbar performs out-of-the-box. If you prefer a different sound, it can be helpful to find a soundbar with lots of sound enhancement features. These tools allow you to customize a soundbar's sound more to your liking, so you can add more thump and punch in the bass or more brightness and sparkle in the treble. Depending on the type of audio content you like to listen to, you may want a soundbar with certain sound enhancement features. For example, a dialogue enhancement feature can make voices in TV shows and podcasts more clear and crisp, while a virtual surround mode can help expand the soundstage when you're watching movies. 

You can learn more about sound enhancement features here.

Conclusion

Audio engineers and producers arrange audio content like music, movies, and TV shows to sound a certain way. Our sound quality tests evaluate a soundbar's ability to reproduce that content accurately, whether it's pushed to loud volumes or played on different channels. Ultimately, sound quality impacts how your audio content is perceived when you listen to it, which can either add or detract from the immersiveness of your listening experience. Depending on the type of content you want to listen to as well as your personal preferences, you may want to pay more attention to certain sound quality tests that we perform.

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