When it comes to soundbars, there are plenty of features you’ll want to look for, but by far the most popular and oft-requested by CNET’s readers is Dolby Atmos audio. Like DTS:X, Dolby Atmos differs from standard surround sound by adding height to your music and movies for a more dynamic and immersive sound and better listening experience. The best Dolby Atmos soundbar options are able to deliver exceptional audio quality that fills your room.
Dolby Atmos soundbars are now more affordable than ever, especially compared with a traditional Atmos receiver and surround-sound speakers. These soundbars are also more compact and easier to set up than a home theater system, with the trade-off being they can’t provide the same level of performance.
The Vizio M512a is my favorite Dolby Atmos soundbar for under $500 — it offers both dedicated height channels and surround speakers, and quality sound into the bargain. Some competitors at the price — such as the Sonos Beam Gen 2 and Sony HT-G700 — can only offer simulated height speakers, while you can hear the difference that the dedicated height speakers of the Bose Smart Soundbar 600 make.
Though you can easily stop at the $500 mark, there are benefits to be had from the more expensive models: improved sound quality, music streaming and voice assistants like Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. For example, the $900 Sonos Arc is an all-in-one soundbar that offers great sound, exquisite build quality and excellent multiroom capabilities.
If you want a soundbar with Dolby Atmos audio, read on. These are my favorite Atmos soundbar options from $400 and up, periodically updated as I review new products. Be aware: Some of these products are currently on backorder, so check back to see if a specific model is once again in stock.
The Vizio M512a improves on its predecessor in almost every way: it looks better, it sounds better, and it’s easier to use. While it keeps Bluetooth capability it does lose the ability to stream over Wi-Fi. If you’re looking for the most cost-effective way to add Dolby Atmos to your television this is the one.
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The Polk Signa S4 is the cheapest soundbar with Dolby Atmos on board yet, but it doesn’t sacrifice performance to get that price down. This is a 3.1.2 channel soundbar with a host of useful sound modes and Bluetooth streaming. The wireless soundbar and dedicated heights help it belt out Atmos soundtracks, and it sounds great with music too.
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If you like a bit of “high tech” in your tech then look to the Vizio Elevate. This is a 5.1.4 soundbar system that uses motorized drivers to switch between Atmos and normal surround sound. It’s not just a gimmick — it also sounds good! In addition, the Elevate includes everything else you want from a modern soundbar, including multiple HDMI inputs and Wi-Fi music streaming.
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Many companies have tried making a compact, affordable soundbar that can also play Atmos, but arguably only one company has so far succeeded. The Bose Smart Soundbar 600 offers dedicated height speakers in a compact soundbar, and its sound quality is top notch. The speaker also adds in multiroom music and the Alexa voice assistant as well.
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If you want the best Dolby Atmos sound from a single bar but balk at paying $1,000 or more, the Sonos Arc is for you. This soundbar is a bit quirky, as you’ll need a 2019 or newer 4K TV to make the most of it, and yet it still performs better than most. The Arc offers a bunch of great features too, including a choice of voice assistant and Sonos’ excellent streaming architecture.
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Want the ultimate Atmos audio home theater sound system experience with just a single box? It may be a grand more than the Sony but the Sennheiser Ambeo Max standalone soundbar offers the best immersive sound we’ve ever heard. It includes both Google Chromecast built-in and Bluetooth for streaming connectivity. The Ambeo is able to sound full without a subwoofer and this should be especially attractive to apartment dwellers.
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How I test
At CNET I test audio equipment from compact soundbars though to surround sound speakers systems, but regardless of the device my methodology is largely the same. I always compare products against one or more reference devices which offer the best performance at a similar price.
When it comes to soundbars I want to see how well a system performs with music as well as with movies, as most people will want to do both. I watch from a handful of test scenes from 4K Blu-ray or streamed from a 4K streaming service (Vudu, for example) and evaluate aspects such as bass performance and dialog clarity. I also use a number of test music tracks and evaluate any streaming features such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It’s systems that can perform well with both types of entertainment that inevitably score the highest.
Other soundbars I’ve tested
I have tested the following soundbars in the CNET audio lab against models of a similar price. Each if these soundbars are worthy in their own way, but aren’t quite as recommendable as our main picks.
- Sonos Beam Gen 2 ($499) The Beam may only offer simulated height speakers, but it’s the best simulated Atmos I’ve heard yet. The Sonos Beam also offers a lot of features, while the Bose Soundbar 600 and Vizio M512a-H6 deliver even better Atmos performance for the same money. Read CNET’s review of the Sonos Beam Gen 2.
- Bose Smart Soundbar 900 ($899): This is a great Bose soundbar, and it pairs well with the company’s QuietComfort headphones for late-night listening, but it’s simply not as robust as the Sonos Arc. Read CNET’s review of the Bose Smart Soundbar 600
- LG QP5 Eclair ($599): Very cute, minimalist system which provides real Dolby Atmos from two boxes. However, I found that its performance doesn’t match the $500-$600 asking price with a surprisingly over-bright sound. Read CNET’s first take.
- Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 3 ($999): An excellent soundbar with HDMI connectivity and multiroom music streaming. While music is where this soundbar shines, the system does cost more than the Arc and the peripherals are expensive.
- Sennheiser Ambeo Plus ($1,500): A cut-down version of the $2,500 Sennheiser Ambeo Max which offers many of the same features including Chromecast built-in and voice assistance. I found the sound was enveloping and music to be more nuanced than some of the cheaper ‘bars. Yet, at its retail price of $1,500 it’s not quite $600 better than the Sonos Arc, nor is surround sound as convincing as the Max. Read CNET’s first take of the Sennheiser Ambeo Plus.
Check out my soundbar buying guide for more about the features and things you should consider when looking for a new system.
Do I need HDMI 2.1 to listen to Atmos?
Dolby Atmos can be played over a normal HDMI ARC connection with streaming services which use the Dolby Digital Plus codec, and when it works it’s great. If you want the full-blooded Dolby Atmos experience then you may need to upgrade to a new TV with an HDMI 2.1 port, as it will enable higher quality Atmos streams from Blu-ray players and gaming consoles.
Is a Dolby Atmos soundbar worth paying extra for?
If you’re a gamer or enjoy watching the latest blockbusters, then yes, a Dolby Atmos soundbar is worth paying more for. But you need to make sure that you have a TV with an HDMI ARC port (for Dolby Digital Plus) and a Dolby Atmos-capable source such as the Xbox Series X or the latest Roku streamers.
Which connection is best for a Dolby Atmos soundbar?
The short answer is HDMI. The long answer is that there’s two ways to get Atmos into one of these speakers — the first, and best, is to have a TV with an eARC port (HDMI 2.1). This port is a feature of many new TVs and enables Atmos information to be fed from your TV (via either smart apps or another connected device) to an external speaker. Normal HDMI ARC will work for some streaming services that offer Dolby Atmos.
On the other hand, if you have an older TV and an Atmos source such as a Blu-ray player, you’ll need a soundbar that has more than one HDMI port. The Vizio M512a enables you to connect external devices directly by HDMI.
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