Updated Jun 28, 2022 11:06 PM
If you find yourself straining to hear the rapid-fire dialogue in the latest Sorkin film or feel Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” score is lacking a little luster, it might be time to invest in a soundbar. Soundbars bypass underwhelming built-in TV speakers to deliver well-defined, wholly enthralling audio, a simple way to improve your setup. While you may not be able to immerse yourself in the latest spatial audio formats and streaming services that a more expensive model provides, a new soundbar is still a budget-friendly way to increase clarity, volume, and soundstage around your TV. If you’re done settling for mediocre sound, our selection of the best soundbars under $200 can help you strike the right balance between price and functionality so you can reap the eternal rewards of better home audio that fits your budget.
How we selected the best soundbars under $200
When recommending affordable technology, it’s important for us to focus on whether or not the product shines when it comes to basic functions rather than on special features or fancy design. Is that budget-friendly portable Bluetooth speaker actually waterproof? Does that cheap gaming monitor have a reasonable refresh rate? Will even the best soundbars under $200 truly sound better than a built-in TV speaker? The answer is yes. We specifically looked at the number of channels provided, frequency response range, connectivity, and expandability to inform picks that increase your experience without exceeding your budget. We consulted other experts, read first-hand user impressions, and took a look at some of the soundbars in our own homes to whittle down our list of models that let you venture into the world of soundbars affordably.
Things to consider when buying a soundbar under $200
From the width of your television to the width of the audio’s frequency range, where are our thoughts on how to approach picking your best soundbar.
Size and space
A good rule of thumb is never to purchase a soundbar that is longer than your television. Try to stick to the screen size as a guide even if you have a smaller TV; many soundbars (like the Roku Streambar) measure well under 18 inches. Your soundbar should sit directly underneath the screen or, if it’s mountable, it can be placed a few inches directly above. Suppose you move the soundbar too far above or below. In that case, you’ll risk messing with directionality, and you might not have an enjoyable experience watching the screen in front of you while hearing dialogue coming from somewhere else.
You have a little more flexibility when it comes to additional units, like a subwoofer or satellite speakers. Feel free to test out a few different locations based on room dynamics, but generally speaking, most listeners place their subwoofers at the front of the room or in a corner to the side of the television, and facing viewers. Just make sure to leave roughly 6 inches between the sub and the wall. One option for satellite speaker placement is to mount them behind viewers, close to ear level for enhanced surround sound. If you don’t have the room or equipment for that, you can place them next to the soundbar to widen the soundstage.
When it comes to understanding soundbar specs, the first numbers you’ll encounter will be available audio channels. The best soundbars under $200 will typically offer stereo sound—this means an independent left and right channel, also called a 2.0-channel system. Some 2.0 bars will utilize drivers to create what’s known as a phantom center that virtually creates the illusion of a sound source coming from the middle of a pair of stereo speakers. You may also find an affordable 2.1-channel soundbar, and that .1 indicates it will dedicate speakers solely to bass—either passive radiators or woofers in the main bar or an additional, standalone subwoofer. If you’re willing to spend a little more, consider selecting a 3.1-channel system that will incorporate a left, right, and dedicated center channel alongside the additional sub.
If you think you’ll want to experience more from your home system at some point, make sure you choose a soundbar that you can add to, like the Samsung HW-A450. That way, you’ll be able to experience 5.1 surround sound, which employs the left, right, and center channels, one subwoofer, and two additional speakers that act as surrounds, rears, or front fills for an even more immersive experience. This is really the way to go if you want to experience Dolby Atmos or DTS audio, which is downmixed by 2.0- and 2.1-channel systems.
Speaking of specs, here are a few other numbers and phrases you can look for to suss out your prospective soundbars:
Measured in hertz and kilohertz, this range lets you know the range of frequencies (lows, mids, and highs) the physical parts of speakers will support. You will commonly see a 20Hz – 20kHz range, which is the limit of human hearing for both highs and lows. This is certainly an ideal range; however, just because the model boasts a wide range doesn’t mean it won’t suffer from dips and peaks around specific frequencies. Most budget-friendly soundbars don’t have the room or power to support frequencies lower than 30Hz to 40Hz, which is why a 2.1-channel system with a separate sub can make a difference. For an in-depth understanding of the speaker’s success at accurately reproducing audio, you can take a look at a frequency response graph for the product, often created with third-party audio testing. (If you want to know more about how sound waves work, check out our primer.)
Sound Pressure Level
Sound Pressure Level (SPL) essentially measures how loud the soundbar can get and is measured in decibels (dB). Generally, 100 dB is the loudest you’ll want to go and we’d be surprised if you even enjoyed listening at this level (it’s akin to a jet plane flying directly overhead). Most soundbars max out close to 95 dB and that’s plenty of volume for music listening, binge-watching TV, or immersing yourself in a John Williams “Star Wars” score.
When it comes to home audio, customization is key. Every room is different; furniture, surfaces, room size, and more each impact your sound, which is why tuning is key to keeping things sounding good. High wattage mixed with manufacturer-designed tuning can help you listen at loud volumes without distortion, ringing, or over-compression. Tuning requires equalization, which lets you cut and boost specific frequencies to improve clarity and control noise. Some soundbars will come with “EQ Presets” that often include certain modes designed to support specific content, like music, dialogue, movies, etc. An even better soundbar will include graphic EQ or controllable bass and treble so that you can make the adjustments you want based on your space and preferences.
Most soundbars currently on the market have multiple options for connectivity—the most popular being HDMI cables. Before buying a new soundbar, it’s important to understand your television’s connectivity capabilities, so you can ensure easy setup upon arrival.
HDMI, or High Definition Multimedia Interface, ports are a readily available way to transmit audio and visual information between a television and an external unit, like an A/V receiver or soundbar. When HDMI transmission first hit the scene, you needed one HDMI port and cable to send video and another to support audio, so if your TV was made before 2009, it will likely need a soundbar with an optical digital audio port too. Televisions made after 2009 can still utilize optical audio connections if the soundbar you’re looking at doesn’t support HDMI.
Post-2009, HDMI (e)ARC connections were made available, eliminating the need for a secondary cable creating a more efficient connection. HDMI ARC transmission is what most affordable soundbars rely on and is suitable for many TVs. Note that HDMI ARC can support Dolby Atmos, but an eARC connection through an HDMI 2.1 port/compatible cable is strongly preferred and you will need that eARC support for full Atmos audio encoded with uncompressed Dolby TrueHD audio. Unfortunately, a soundbar under $200 rarely has an eARC port, so even if it supports Dolby Atmos, you’ll need to upgrade if you want to access higher-quality surround sound. An HDMI output port allows you to simultaneously connect gaming consoles and Blu-ray players to your TV and soundbar.
Many soundbars on the market will also offer Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity so you can link to other devices, like your smartphone or laptop, and stream podcasts, audiobooks, or music. Some even offer AirPlay, built-in Chromecast, or Alexa for enhanced connectivity and control.
Dolby Digital is an audio codec that produces high-quality sound across a 5.1-channel scheme. It helps create immersive surround sound and has been used in film and television since 1992. You don’t need a 5.1 system to process Dolby Digital; a 2.1 system can process the audio by mixing down the signal formatting it to fit the soundbar’s channel configuration. You won’t get the full effect, but you won’t run into any streaming problems.
A step up from Dolby Digital is Dolby Atmos—a surround sound technology designed to create a realistic listening experience that puts you inside whatever movie you’re watching or video game you’re playing. Atmos can process over a hundred sonic “objects,” assigning them not just channels, but also heights to make it sound like arrows are raining down, bullets are whizzing past your ears, planes are flying directly overhead, doors are slamming shut right over your shoulder, etc. While true immersion is difficult to produce from a 2.0- or 2.1-channel system, Dolby Atmos-equipped soundbars are designed to process the audio and create a more immersive viewing experience through either physical surround speakers or virtualization that reflects sounds off the ceiling and walls.
DTS:X, a multidimensional audio codec, can be considered Dolby Atmos’ competitor. Most soundbars under $200 do not support DTS:X but might employ DTS Virtual:X, which attempts to mimic multispeaker surround sound using digital signal processing that simulates directionality and creates a larger, more detailed soundstage impacting music, dialogue, and SFX alike.
Finding an inexpensive soundbar that supports well-developed surround sound technologies like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X can be difficult without expanding your budget closer to the best soundbars under $500 (or well beyond). So, if you are looking for a mind-blowing, 3D audio experience, consider saving a little bit more so you can invest in the necessary technology.
The best soundbars under $200: Reviews & Recommendations
Best overall: Roku Streambar Pro
Why it made the cut: The Streambar Pro is a great way to expand lackluster TV audio into 2.1, 3.1, even 5.1 as budget allows, with the added bonus of being a streaming device.
- Dimensions: 32.2 x 3.9 x 2.8 inches
- Channels: 2.0
- Connectivity: HDMI ARC, Bluetooth, Optical, Wi-Fi, AirPlay
- Very affordable
- Built-in 4K/HDR Roku streaming device
- Voice control, plus AirPlay and HomeKit compatible
- Expandable with standalone speakers and a subwoofer
- Dialog isn’t as clear as with higher-end models
- Just OK bass performance will make you want to buy the subwoofer
As a stand-alone soundbar, the Roku Streambar Pro already punches above its price tag. Four 2.5-inch drivers inside the 32-inch bar create a full, clear sound worthy of Michael Bay marathons. Dolby Audio support provides simulated surround sound effects and it’s extremely easy to set up via HDMI.
The Streambar Pro’s talents go beyond its out-of-the-box performance. The device includes a full-featured 4K/HDR Roku streaming device to handle all your streaming needs, providing access to apps including Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, Amazon Prime, and more (making it one of our favorite streaming devices). Plus, it seamlessly integrates with Roku’s Wireless Subwoofer and/or Wireless Speakers to make a true 3.1 or even 5.1 system with just a few minutes of automated setup. That makes the Streambar Pro a great starter soundbar for people who want to expand their system later without having to worry about compatibility. Don’t worry, though. Just because the soundbar is designed by Roku doesn’t mean it needs to pair with a Roku TV; it’s compatible with any 4K/1080p television that has HDMI ARC or optical outputs. The Streambar Pro works with Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant and is also compatible with AirPlay, so you can share photos, videos, and music from your Apple device. Bluetooth 4.2 rounds out the streaming options.
Its performance isn’t perfect. More expensive models will provide slightly clearer dialogue and deeper bass without a sub, but the Streambar Pro is a champ when it comes to versatility and affordability (there are sound modes to add a Bass Boost or Speech Clarity, as well as a volume-leveling Night Mode). You can also toggle the Virtual Surround mode on/off). We also appreciated the upgraded Roku remote, which includes several dedicated streaming app buttons for services like Netflix, as well as voice controls and a built-in headphone jack for solitary stream sessions.
Best compact: Vizio M21d-H8r
Why it made the cut: The M21d-H8r from Vizio is an all-in-one soundbar that incorporates six speakers, including dual 3-inch subwoofers supporting low-end frequencies without taking up extra space.
- Dimensions: 36 x 2.13 x 5.50 inches
- Channels: 2.1
- Connectivity: HDMI, HDMI ARC, Bluetooth, Optical, USB
- Compact design
- Onboard controls
- Preset EQ modes
- Bass is lacking for some
The Vizio M21d-H8r is a great soundbar for those who want to experience better low end but don’t have the space, or budget, to add a subwoofer. Featuring a two-way speaker design that includes separate tweeters and woofers as well as 3-inch subs for enhanced stereo sound, this soundbar will deliver a powerful sound without extra cabling or equipment. With a purported frequency response range of 50Hz – 20kHz, you’ll certainly be able to hear more low-end than 2.0 speakers can support, though you may not be able to feel the visceral bass that a separate subwoofer might provide. If feeling that cinematic rumble is super important to you, keep in mind that this model does not offer the option to add a sub later on. However, this all-in-one soundbar is about as good as you can get when it comes to standalone models.
Connectivity options include an HDMI input, HDMI-ARC output, optical audio, one USB port for thumb drive connectivity, and a 3.5mm aux port to connect a voice assistant device like an Amazon Echo Dot. It can decode Dolby Digital and DTS audio while also supporting DTS Virtual:X. You can also connect other smart devices like your phone or laptop via Bluetooth for music streaming. The M21 comes with four EQ presets—Game, Movie, Dialogue, and Music—to enhance and support specific content. It also comes with TruVolume, which regulates volume while you watch, so you want to have to reach for the remote every time an upsettingly loud commercial comes on. Onboard controls allow you to control power, Bluetooth pairing, volume, and input, while the LCD screen-equipped remote adds EQ settings, listening modes, and more to the control list.
Best all-in-one: TCL Alto 8i
Why it made the cut: The TCL Alto 8i is one of the few soundbars that includes subwoofers and supports Dolby Atmos for under $200.
- Dimensions: 39 x 2.6 x 5.2 inches
- Channels: 2.1
- Connectivity: HDMI, HDMI ARC, Aux, Bluetooth, Optical, USB
- Dolby Atmos support
- Built-in subwoofers
- Wall mountable
- No voice assistant support
- Minimal sound enhancement features
The TCL Alto 8i is a 2.1-channel system with built-in dual subwoofers, bass/treble calibration, and front-firing drivers to support powerful, immersive audio. With a tested frequency response range of 50Hz – 20kHz, paired with the adjustable bass and treble, you’ll likely be satisfied with the overall sound quality the Alto 8i can offer. The three EQ presents include Music, Movie, and TV to enhance your listening experience across different programs. Each of these presets can support Night mode, which you can activate to balance the volume for controlled, quiet viewing. Like any all-in-one unit, the bass response isn’t as thunderous as one with an additional subwoofer; however, it will likely be a valuable upgrade for your TV’s built-in speakers.
The 8i’s claim to fame is providing the necessary technology to process Dolby Atmos content via HDMI ARC. While this doesn’t mean this soundbar can deliver magic in the form of hyper-detailed, spatialized audio from just 2.1 channels, it can process Atmos content with additional immersive support from Dolby Virtual Surround mode. Alongside HDMI ARC, you can utilize optical audio, Full HDMI In, Aux, USB, HDMI Out, and Bluetooth to connect; it is also equipped to passthrough all relevant 4K bandwidth signals. The included remote is not universal but does control EQ presets, inputs, and the bass/treble adjusters.
Finally, the 8i features one small but mighty gamechanger in the form of wall-mounting holes with openings for power and inputs. Unlike many other budget-friendly soundbars, this unit doesn’t have to take up any console or credenza space.
Best with subwoofer: Samsung HW-A450
Why it made the cut: What the Samsung HW-A450 lacks in HDMI ports it makes up for in EQ customization and sound quality, particularly for binge-watching your favorite television shows
- Dimensions: 33.9 x 2.1 x 3.0 inches
- Channels: 2.1
- Connectivity: Bluetooth, Optical, USB
- Graphic EQ
- Sound Quality
- Wireless sub
The A450 is a cut above the rest when it comes to bringing to life the rumble of movies, shows, and games. While it’s true that this model does not include any HDMI ports—meaning it cannot support Dobly Atmos, nor can it be used as a hub between different devices—an optical connection can support Dolby Digital and DTS audio (though any surround sound content will be downmixed, true for any 2.1-channel system). What it does include, however, is a wireless subwoofer that gives all content a boost. If you decide you want to experience 5.1 surround sound, optional rear speakers with wireless connectivity are available to add. Bluetooth support also means you can easily stream additional content. With a frequency response of 40Hz – 20kHz and a 93 dB SPL, this soundbar supports clean audio, an impressive dynamic range, and a neutral profile that you can customize. Graphic EQ and adjustable bass/treble allow you to customize your listening experience or choose from five EQ presets, including Game, Standard, Surround Sound, Bass Boost, and Adaptive Sound, enhancing dialogue while implementing background music equalization and volume control. You can access these settings via the included remote, which is not universal but does include a “One Remote” feature that will allow you to control compatible Samsung TVs.
Best budget: Roku Streambar
Why it made the cut: For under $100, the Roku Streambar is a functional way to improve audio on a budget.
- Dimensions: 14 x 2.4 x 4.2 inches
- Channels: 2.0
- Connectivity: HDMI ARC, Bluetooth, Optical, Wi-Fi, AirPlay
- AirPlay and Wi-Fi compatible
- Integrated Roku player
- Extremely compact
- Bass is lacking
- Volume is a bit limited
Ultimately not that much larger than some burrito-sized Bluetooth speakers, like the JBL Charge 5, the Roku Streambar is an affordable way to enhance audio and access special features. With a tested frequency response of 93Hz-17kHz, the Streambar is ideal for watching television shows or streaming other dialogue-based programs, like podcasts or audiobooks. This soundbar can get quite loud despite its small stature, delivering a powerful sound from four 1.9-inch full-range drivers. As we’ve mentioned before in Bluetooth speaker reviews, size can impact sound and it’s unreasonable to expect such small units to deliver heart-pounding bass. However, if you have the means to expand, you can upgrade the Streambar by adding a wireless subwoofer or satellite speakers.
Connectivity options include optical audio, HDMI ARC, USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Apple AirPlay. Even if your television doesn’t have an HDMI input port, you can use the Streambar’s built-in Roku source to access streaming features and apps like Netflix and Hulu. EQ presets include Normal, Bass Reduction, Bass Off, and Bass Boost. You can also access Volume Mode settings, including Leveling and Night Mode, to wrangle raucous commercials and keep things quiet in the evenings. Speech Clarity can help isolate voices, and you can choose from Off, Low, and High settings depending on your needs and taste.
Q: What does a soundbar do?
A soundbar is a self-contained speaker system that connects to a television and replaces tinny built-in speakers, producing high-quality audio to improve your viewing experience. At its simplest, a soundbar is a slender, rectangular cabinet that houses at least two speakers to support stereo sound. More advanced soundbars can produce immersive surround sound and offer options to physically expand its channel system with an additional subwoofer or two satellite speakers. Soundbars can also act as a hub or switch connecting Blu-ray players and gaming consoles to the television. Some models just pass on the raw audio they are given, while others can internally process digital surround sound technologies from Dolby and DTS.
Q: Do you need a subwoofer with a soundbar?
No, you need need a subwoofer to use a soundbar. Some 2.1-channel soundbars include passive radiators or bass-dedicated woofers in the main unit. However, adding a sub is a good idea if you want to get the most from low-end heavy scores and theatrical rumbling effects. Generally speaking, an all-in-one model won’t be able to accurately produce low frequencies as well as a dedicated sub so, while you can certainly make do without one, the added unit could enhance and intensify your listening experience.
Q: Where should a soundbar be placed?
A soundbar should be placed directly under your television, resting on top of the credenza that supports your TV. When in doubt, measure the space you have between the TV and the furniture below to ensure the bar you select will fit. If your soundbar is mountable, it can go above or below the television. A mountable unit with upward-firing speakers should always be placed away from any obstructions as they use the architecture of your room, including the ceilings, to produce immersive audio. Never put a soundbar inside a console cabinet, on the floor, or behind your TV to avoid issues with the image and audio syncing.
Final thoughts on finding the best soundbars under $200
Upgrading your home theater’s audio doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. With your expectations in the right place, you can easily find a soundbar under $200 that will enhance and improve your favorite movies and shows. Before you buy, consider the size of your television, desired connectivity options, and dealbreaker special features you know you need. From there, turn toward the future to try and anticipate whether or not you’ll want to expand your system to include more speakers for a better experience with DTS:X or Dolby Atmos audio. No matter what, securing a budget-friendly soundbar will instantly up the enjoyment of your at-home viewing.