Sound bars and surround-sound systems are both designed to augment and enhance television and DVD/Blu-ray sound. Sound bars are a newer product, made to carry forward the aesthetic of modern flat panels. Surround sound is a larger endeavour, incorporating more speakers that are placed in various locations around the room. Regardless of which you choose, either will improve standard television, movie and gaming sound.
Sound bars incorporate multiple small individual drivers. These drivers radiate sound in a manner that relies on the room and bar placement to reflect certain elements of the sound signal. This is critical to creating a "surround" field, using effectively one speaker. These bars commonly mount directly below a flat panel, using a proprietary bracket to make the appearance of the bar and TV seamless. Outboard components, such as Blu-ray and satellite/cable systems, plug directly into the sound bar for processing.
More familiar to most consumers is surround sound. This system uses a central receiver/processor that decodes and amplifies the signals coming from individual components. Typically larger in size, these systems also have more external inputs to accommodate a variety of devices. Five to seven speakers plus a subwoofer are strategically mounted around the environment to provide the surround field.
Sound bars often work best in smaller and narrower environments. In these cases, the side walls serve as reflection points for the surround-sound field. The major limitation with this is that many listeners will not have the same surround experience as the person sitting in the "sweet spot," since these reflections serve a small window. Surround sound's major limitation is that these systems normally require more room to set up and can take up valuable floor space. Many surround-sound systems sacrifice overall room aesthetics to provide bigger sound.
Connectivity and Capability
Sound bars are normally recommended when sleek cosmetics and simplicity override the desire for bigger, impactful surround. Surround-sound systems offer more inputs on the back and are normally more accommodating of a variety of speakers to fit different spaces. Sound bars normally have an external subwoofer jack to beef up the sound and add the low-frequency effects found on digital surround recordings. Surround-sound systems provide the ability to more accurately handle uncompressed formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, which is found on Blu-ray discs. This is due to the larger speakers and amplifiers that are typically used.