From the way things are going multichannel home theater speaker systems will be on the endangered species list in a few years. Sound bars epitomize the "good enough" direction the market has taken, and most folks are happy with them, mostly because they sound better than the speakers built into their TVs. That's easy, but how do sound bars fare compared with a bona fide 5.1-channel subwoofer/satellite system? For this shootout I wanted to keep the budget in check, so I used MonoPrice's 8247 sub/sat system, and compared it with a couple of entry-level Vizio sound bar/wireless sub systems. The MonoPrice system sells for $84 on the company's Web site.
Trust me on this, you don't have to be an audiophile to hear the difference between a 5.1-channel system and a sound bar. Surround plays a large role in movie sound, and in terms of filling a listening room there's absolutely no comparison. The 8247 totally creams the $250 Vizio S4221 w-C4, or any sound bar, regardless of price on that score. The sense of room-filling envelopment is complete with the 8247, with sound bars the sound remains on the front wall. Using a sound bar's "surround" processing doesn't change that, it just throws a wider and sometimes deeper stereo image. If you watch a lot of sports, action movies or anything with special effects, you'll be missing bona fide surround sound with sound bars. Don't kid yourself that it's not a big difference, it is.
Next, the bass. The 8247's little sub delivers a surprising amount, and it can definitely fill small and moderately sized rooms with bass that makes movies like "Black Hawk Down" and "Iron Man 3" come alive. The smaller $160 Vizio S3821 w-CO system couldn't match the 8247's low-bass gusto, and the 'bar couldn't touch the 8247's satellite speakers' dynamic punch. The larger $250 Vizio S4221 w-C4's bass was more or less on par with the MonoPrice 8247 system. Even so, the S4221 w-C4's dynamic "slam" for explosions lags behind the 8247.
Sound bar systems are usually self-powered and can't be used with a receiver; the 8247 must be partnered with a receiver, and that has to be included in the bottom line cost. I found 5.1 channel receivers starting at around $140 on Amazon, so the good news is that even with a receiver you can buy a surround system for under $230! One other advantage of going with the 8247 is that you can, down the road, upgrade to a better sub or sats. That's rarely an option with sound bars, there's no chance to ever make them any better than what they are. I used the 8247 as an example to keep the price as low as possible, but stepping up to the $249 MonoPrice 10565 sub/sat system will produce a sizable sound quality bonus. It's definitely worth considering if you have the cash.
Oh, there is one "big" drawback with the 8247 or 10565: you have to run wires to all the speakers and sub, and that might be a deal breaker for some of you. That's fine; the new $399 Pioneer SP-SB23W is our current favorite 'bar in its price class. As good as it is, it still can't match the 8247 for room-filling sound. As always, the choice is yours.