Last Updated on April 12, 2023 by Barry Gray
I recently purchased a new TV after watching Black Friday deals go by for a few years. Now we can enjoy movies in glorious 4K, but the audio is somewhat lacking. If you are in the same boat and can’t decide between a soundbar and traditional ceiling speakers, then allow me to share my fresh knowledge with you.
Soundbars’ significant advantage over traditional surround sound setups is that they are easy to set up and convenient to move. Conventional speakers generally offer better sound quality and a wider sound stage but are fixed items that are difficult to install and move.
You may think you should get a traditional speaker setup because you value sound quality over convenience. Still, there are other factors you need to consider before spending a lot of money on something you could possibly regret.
The Differences Between Soundbars And Ceiling Speakers
The obvious significant difference between soundbars and traditional setups is that the latter uses a physical speaker for each audio channel. In contrast, the soundbar combines these channels into one or four physical units.
In the case of higher-end soundbars, the two rear and base channels are separated into two standalone speakers and a subwoofer, respectively. This means that you are getting a physical speaker for each of those channels and won’t compromise on sound quality.
When you start moving into the realm of Dolby Atmos and want those added speakers above you, the difference between the two becomes interesting.
Complete home theatre systems add physical speakers either fixed to or neatly hidden inside the ceiling to achieve the down-firing sound. On the other hand, soundbars use interesting technological methods to achieve simulated ceiling channels.
They do this by having dedicated speakers inside the soundbar that fire toward the ceiling at an angle that will “bounce” the sound to the top of the listener. Pretty cool, in my opinion.
Individual Speakers Have Better Sound Quality
There’s no doubt that soundbars have seen a ton of research and development being poured into the space. This has resulted in giant leaps forward in audio technology and quality.
However, the sound quality of separate speakers has also seen improvements, and it is unlikely that we will ever see a soundbar outperform a dedicated home theatre system.
Keep in mind that dedicated ceiling speakers have bigger sound chambers and can be arranged in such a way to perfectly optimize the space of the room they are covering. This all equates to better, more dynamic sound quality.
Furthermore, while I am excited about the sound-bouncing technology of Dolby Atmos soundbars, they have their limitations. Firstly, any deformity or texture on the ceiling will interfere with the sound wave.
Secondly, the projection angle will be fixed, which means that you need to plan your seating set up around the angle your speaker is firing at and not plan your speakers around your seating setup.
You may just find yourself looking like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, territorially searching for “your spot” where that audio is sweetest.
Soundbars Are More Convenient
Suppose you are a super audiophile with a dedicated room where you bask in the glory of cinema, and that room is not due to be expropriated and turned into a baby room. In that case, you are free to consider dedicated ceiling speakers.
However, if you are just looking for a solution that provides really decent audio and your setup is more fluid, I strongly urge you to go the soundbar route.
Ceiling speakers are fixed items that require mounting and cabling. This means that if you have to move your setup to a different room, or even if you just move your room around, you will need to rewire and remount those bad boys. It’s a big job.
What’s more, if your ceiling doesn’t have a crawl space (like mine), it means dropping the ceiling panels to get the speakers in or out. It’s a REALLY big job.
Enter the soundbar. Basically, a plug-and-play alternative. Many soundbars even feature wireless sub-woofers that only require a power source cable but don’t need a physical connection to the soundbar itself.
Unfortunately, most of the 5.1 options aren’t genuinely wireless because those satellite speakers also require a power source cable. If that doesn’t work for you, there are options like the JBL 5.1 system with battery-powered satellite speakers that dock onto the soundbar, and you only remove them when you need to use them.
However, you look at it, soundbars are just far more convenient, easy to set up, and even easier to move around. If you are struggling to find that sweet spot, you can just move the bar slightly until it hits you just right.
Traditional Home Theatre Systems Are Customizable
Customizability is not a universal concern in the audio world. Many people just want a good-sounding solution that will last.
However, a large group of audio enthusiasts purchase a system and then slowly upgrade or add to the speakers as the funds become available. This is one of the real benefits of opting for dedicated ceiling speakers in a home theatre system. You can start off with just the basics and upgrade as you go along.
With most soundbar systems, you are limited to the system you buy. Or, if you are lucky, you are limited to the brand you buy with very few options to customize or upgrade.
Which Is More Affordable?
With the major differences out the way, I am sure you are asking the golden question, “Which one is cheaper?”
I don’t think you will be surprised to know that you can get a decent soundbar system for a bit cheaper than a proper home theatre system. At least in the budget range.
However, once you start looking at the ultra-high-end of the spectrum, the lines between the two begin to converge, with the likes of the Sonos Arc actually costing more than some traditional home theatre systems.
Keep in mind that traditional systems, especially ceiling speakers, will have added installation costs (or headaches if you DIY), whereas most soundbar systems don’t have any installation worries.
The audio quality of soundbars has seen dramatic improvements over the last decade, but it is unlikely that it could ever overtake a traditional home theatre setup with dedicated speakers. However, they are still worthy competitors, offering solutions that bounce sound off the ceiling, negating the need for dedicated speakers.
While dedicated ceiling speakers will offer better sound, they are part of more expensive systems to purchase, harder to install, and not easy to move. Soundbar systems are generally cheaper and can be moved easily. So, if you have a dedicated theatre room, go with speakers. If not, you should consider a soundbar.