Over the last month, I've had the opportunity to try out several different audio products that offer significant sonic improvements to the overall sound quality experience you get from even the best TV's speakers. Some were stereo-only designs, while others were immersive multi-channel Dolby Atmos soundbars.
These devices all target different price budgets and setups, but the thing they all had in common is that they delivered a better experience when viewing my favorite TV shows and movies.
I've listed each of the models below so that the only choice you have to make is to decide which option is right for your needs and pocket. Read on to find out which of the 5 best TV sound upgrades I've heard is right for you, and be sure to also check out our best soundbars list.
Why do TVs often sound so bad?
I'm sure many will be able to appreciate that as TVs have gotten thinner, the built-in speakers have had to shrink to fit inside the tiniest of spaces. In such a confined space, this restricts the size and amount of travel a speaker driver has available to push out the air to generate soundwaves with sufficient energy across the full range of frequencies. As such, the market for add-on speaker systems has become something that we almost take for granted, and even the best TVs don't always offer the best sound quality. Although, of course, there are exceptions.
I'm not underestimating the efforts of the TV's audio designers as there's often plenty of sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) tech onboard to help get the best TV sound output possible, but even the best TV screens aren’t exempt from sounding thin and weedy.
I've listened to several soundbars at home recently across a broad range of different prices. On the face of it, each is a remarkably elegant solution to upgrade TV sound, but there are other options out there that you may also want to consider.
What are the 5 best TV sound upgrades?
Best TV sound upgrade under $300
1. Sonos Ray soundbar
Designed for screens under 55-inches or second-room TVs, the Sonos Ray soundbar makes a great starting point to upgrading your TV sound. Listening to the Sonos Ray connected to my own TV via the supplied optical digital audio cable (there's no HDMI port) was a very rewarding experience that sounded great straight out of the box.
There's also Trueplay to optimize the sound to your particular room, as well as EQ adjustments for those that wish to tinker with the sound balance. But the Sonos Ray never puts in anything less than a rewarding and satisfying performance. Plus, if you already have a Sonos speaker or two dotted around the house and are looking to integrate a TV soundbar into a wider multiroom setup, then the Sonos Ray is likely to charm and delight you with its flexibility and integration possibilities.
Read the full Sonos Ray review.
Best TV sound upgrades around $1,000
The following options are a considerable step up in price from the entry-level Sonos Ray above. For the greater asking price, though, you get better balanced sound across a wider range of frequencies that can handle big movie soundtracks with real conviction, as well as deliver natural-sounding dialog that doesn't have you reaching for the rewind button to listen again to what's being said. You also get decent music playback capabilities so that your TV speaker system can double as a great-sounding music system that will get your toes tapping.
2. Sonos Amp (plus speakers)
If you're unfussed by pseudo surround tickling your ears from a sleek soundbar sat beneath the TV screen, then you may want to consider a simple but effective traditional stereo 'hi-fi' setup. The Sonos Amp (costing $699 from Adorama) is a two-channel stereo amplifier rated at 2x 125W, to which you simply add a pair of passive speakers such as the Q Acoustics 3020 bookshelf speakers ($279 via Amazon).
The Sonos Amp carries HDMI ARC, and analog audio inputs to hook up traditional hi-fi components. Plus, the Amp integrates with other Sonos products on your home network for multi-room connectivity. The Sonos control app enables you to adjust the audio so that it's perfectly in sync with the picture on the TV screen, which is helpful.
We haven't reviewed the Sonos Amp at Tom's Guide, and my own time with it suggests that it's not as impressive as some dedicated audio amps I've heard in music setups. Nevertheless, this is a remarkably neat solution that sounded impressively integrated with all kinds content with my main TV, and is easily partnered with your own choice of passive speakers to get the sound you desire.
3. Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 soundbar
If you're looking for more than stereo sound and you want all the latest surround sound tricks and format handling as well as the ability to play music, the Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 soundbar should be top of your list. A brilliantly immersive speaker system that's superb at handling all kinds of TV and movie soundtracks, as well as doubling as an effective music system, it has few rivals when it comes to integrating both worlds. It's more costly than the Sonos Arc, but if it’s sound quality you prize, the Panorama 3 is worth every penny.
Powered by a total of 400 watts of Class D amplification, the Panorama 3 can deal with those big dynamic shifts so beloved of cinema the world over without breaking sweat and is expressive and articulate where music is concerned too. It's extremely well judged and coherent with all kinds of music and movie content, while Dolby Atmos content projects well beyond the confines of the speaker cabinet, and in all directions. There’s real width to the soundstage the Bowers & Wilkins establishes, and there’s a proper sensation of movement as effects pan from one side of the stage to the other.
Read the full Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 review.
Best TV sound upgrades: High-end alternatives
Oaky, we're blowing the budget now, but both these options are seriously worth your consideration if you want the ultimate sound quality for your movies and music. You'll experience gut-wrenching movie effects and soaring musicality with either of the options below. Their price tags may be high, but if you value sound quality above all else, these universal speaker options will not disappoint.
4. Sennheiser Ambeo soundbar
Sennheiser's Ambeo is a 13-driver monster soundbar, and its performance is the best I've heard. We haven't reviewed the Ambeo at Tom's Guide yet, but I've been lucky enough to spend some time with it over recent months and I've been consistently impressed with the weight and scale this big soundbar brings to movie soundtracks as well as music.
It's not the most attractive to look at though. It measures almost 50-inches long, stands over 5-inches tall, and weighs around 40 pounds, which all means it can easily obstruct the bottom of the TV screen if it's not mounted on a separate shelf. Despite its weight, it can be wall mounted though.
Immerse yourself in the Ambeo's gloriously rich sound and it's easy to overlook any concerns regarding its bulk or inelegant styling, as it fills the room with the full power of high-octane movie effects, while also delivering dialog that sounds natural and entirely understandable.
It's expensive, of course, but you get top-drawer features including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X for surround sound audio, as well as Sennheiser’s own Ambeo ‘virtual 3D’ sound system and compatibility with Sony's 360 Reality Audio spatial tech. The 5.1.4 channel configuration is rated at 500W and connectivity options include three HDMI 2.0 inputs, one HDMI eARC output and Ethernet. There's even a dedicated subwoofer output channel should you want to hook it up to a wired subwoofer and completely blow yourself away while watching action movies.
5. KEF LS50 Wireless II active speakers
Unlike the Sennheiser, the KEF LS50 Wireless II speaker system has completely desirable aesthetics as well as great sound. Again, we haven't reviewed this active speaker system in Tom's Guide, but I've had plenty of experience with it at home partnered with the matching KC62 compact sub. Essentially a fully integrated streaming music system, the KEF can also do TV sound thanks to an HDMI port with ARC at the back of one speaker, making it a practical alternative to a soundbar where the speakers can be placed either side of a screen. You can control TV sound either by the set’s remote, KEF Connect app or supplied remote handset.
The KEF's room-filling capabilities belie the dimensions of the compact stereo speakers and the soundstage from its Uni-Q speaker drivers is quite simply spectacular. It achieves almost tactile 3D imaging of a movie or music soundstage, and a strong sense of depth that stretches beyond the speakers and into the room. You don't get format handling for the likes of Dolby Atmos soundtracks, but you do get some of the best stereo TV sound I've heard and music playback performance credentials that really are second to none at the price.
Next: 5 luxury music systems I've tried that deliver great sound in style.
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As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.