Subwoofer vs. Soundbar – Basic Differences Explained

Audio and home theater enthusiasts rave over the various equipment that can be used to create a surround sound system. However, when it comes to subwoofer and Soundbars, is there one that is more deserving of your time, attention, and money?

Subwoofers and Soundbars are both pieces of sound equipment but serve highly different purposes. A subwoofer emits low-frequency audio signals (bass) tones, while a Soundbar has multiple audio channels and is used for high and mid-range frequencies. Soundbars can be used with subwoofers.

Also read: Can You Connect a Wired Subwoofer to a Soundbar?

Subwoofer vs. Soundbar

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Still, you might be wondering how you can incorporate both of these types of audio equipment into your surround sound system.

Can they be used as standalone devices, or do they need to be paired with the rest of your speakers?

Ultimately, these two function far differently, and learning what makes each of these devices unique can help you to gain a better understanding of how to incorporate them into your home theater’s sound system.

Subwoofer vs. Soundbar – Key Differences

If you are coming into the audio game with little experience, then you might look at a subwoofer and a Soundbar and assume that they are relatively similar.

However, with a little further exploration, you will be able to see that a Soundbar and a subwoofer- while both pieces of sound equipment- are used for far different purposes and, consequently, have far many differences between them.

Specifically, subwoofers and Soundbars differ in their frequency range, number of channels, quality of sound, power source, and overall purpose. While a subwoofer is specifically designated for low-frequency audio emission, a Soundbar is intended to serve a wide array, potentially the full audio scope.

Of course, there are many different models of Soundbars that will ultimately influence how the device functions as well as how it compares to a subwoofer.

Still, with some generalities, you can see how a subwoofer fits into a surround sound system in a much more specific way than a Soundbar otherwise would.

To gain a better understanding of the differences between a subwoofer and a Soundbar, let’s take a closer look.

Number of Audio Channels

Number of Audio Channels

The primary difference in functionality between a subwoofer and a Soundbar is the number of channels of audio that each device is intended for.

Specifically, a subwoofer is designed for one audio channel- to receive and emit the low-frequency audio signal that results in the resounding bass which traverses your home theater (or car).

Alternatively, a Soundbar is designed with multiple audio channels that can provide a wider range of frequencies. Interestingly, with a Soundbar, you will find that different makes and models come with many numbers of audio channels which could be anywhere between 2 and 7 channels.

What does this mean for your home theater sound system setup? The number of audio channels that a piece of sound equipment has (in this case, a Soundbar or a subwoofer) has is directly related to the number of speakers that the device has, the frequency ranges that the device can consequently receive and emit, and the overall quality of sound achieved.

In addition to this, the number of audio channels that the individual component has will also influence the number of other pieces of sound equipment that you will need to incorporate into your sound system.

For example, with a subwoofer, you are looking at one speaker that will work in conjunction with numerous other speakers, a receiver, and several components connecting them each together.

On the other hand, a Soundbar can serve as a portion of a surround sound system, or it can serve as its own sound setup as it can achieve a wide range of audio frequencies.

Of course, most audiophiles would argue that a Soundbar is not, in itself, an entire surround sound system, but many that have several channels of audio can emit high-quality sound from the tweeters, drivers, and can even be paired with a subwoofer.

Still, if you are looking for a high-quality Soundbar, the number of audio channels that you go with will likely reflect on the quality of the Soundbar. If you opt for a 2-channel Soundbar, for example, this will provide you with a far less robust sound system than a 5-channel Soundbar.

Finally, the minimum number of audio channels that you should consider if using a Soundbar for your entire sound system is a 3-channel Soundbar.

In this case, you will at least cover the front left, right, and center audio channels that are essential for streaming music and movies clearly and effectively. Then, you can pair this Soundbar with a subwoofer to complete a 3.1 audio channel sound system setup.

Frequency Range

The frequency range is another major difference between a subwoofer and a Soundbar. Directly related to the number of audio channels on each device, the frequency range is what allows your sound equipment to play the lowest to highest notes.

Looking into this more specifically, a subwoofer is solely designed for low-frequency audio emission. As a highly specialized piece of sound equipment, the subwoofer is able to achieve a perfect resounding bass that can provide the extra “thump” to sound effects on your favorite movies or the extra “bump” to your favorite newly released songs.

In this way, a subwoofer is able to transform sound systems to be of much higher capacity. While you can use a surround sound system setup without the low-frequency audio emission of a subwoofer, a true surround sound enthusiast would tell you that no system is complete without a sub.

Truly, the benefits of using a piece of sound equipment that is dedicated to bringing in the bass will heighten your audio experience far beyond what you might expect. This is just one of the many reasons that a subwoofer can even be paired with a Soundbar- to provide a more full-range of audio frequencies resulting in a robust overall sound quality.

Then, in contrast with the limited low-frequency audio range that a subwoofer is specifically designed for, a Soundbar (and its multiple audio channels) is designed for high-frequency, mid-range frequency, and low-frequency audio.

Of course, even the lowest that the Soundbar can go with a woofer will likely not reach the lowest point that a subwoofer can go.

In this capacity, a Soundbar is able to provide the sound for dialogue, most of the basic portions of audio that is streamed in your favorite show and can provide an adequate audio experience for listening to music.

Of course, when listening to music, you will likely be using a multiple channel stereo option, anyway, but the Soundbar is still able to achieve this pretty well.

Regardless, when you look at your entire sound system as a whole, you will want to consider what the lowest and highest frequencies that your system can hit are and if there are any major gaps in between these points.

This can help you to develop an effective system that can clearly play all portions of the audio that it streams without any distortion.

In doing so, you would use a subwoofer to fill a very specific hole in your sound system- namely, in providing low-frequency audio.

Alternatively, a high-quality Soundbar can be used to hit a much wider range of frequencies resulting in a cohesive sound stemming from multiple channels and speakers, respectively.

Quality of Sound

Of course, you are going to want to look at the quality of sound of any device that you incorporate into your sound system. Opting for a low-quality piece of sound equipment can take even the best portions of the remainder of your system and make them feel distorted and inadequate.

With this in mind, a subwoofer and a Soundbar provide entirely different qualities of sound simply because they are designed to produce sound for your system in a different way.

Of course, you can choose to invest in a high-quality subwoofer or Soundbar and achieve the results that you are aiming at. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how they fit into your sound system cohesively to truly determine the quality of sound they can provide.

When it comes to the quality of sound for a subwoofer, this device is essentially used to propel the quality of sound in your system from moderate to extraordinary.

Using this specialty device that focuses on low-frequency audio emissions only can help to provide a wider range of audio frequencies in your system which inevitably ups your quality of sound.

Now, of course, this is assuming that you are using a high-quality subwoofer that is well-paired and well-incorporated into the entire system. Still, under these assumptions, the quality of sound that a subwoofer is able to provide for the listener is superb.

On the other hand, Soundbars range very widely in terms of quality of sound. A lot of this is tied back into the number of audio channels that each Soundbar has as well as the resulting frequency range.

When using a Soundbar, you have to be very careful in the way that you rely on this one piece of sound equipment to, essentially, replace the other components in your sound system.

Because of this, it is essential to have an appropriate setup if you plan to use a Soundbar as a part of your sound system rather than making it the entire system in itself.

Since a Soundbar has a wide range of audio frequencies, it can technically be a standalone piece of sound equipment and still probably provide a higher quality of audio than the stock speakers in your TV.

Still, this comes back to the quality of Soundbar that you choose to invest in. As you are looking for high-quality Soundbars, be sure to consider the number of audio channels and frequency range as well as the output that the specific model you are looking at can achieve.

There are some high-quality Soundbars out there, but it is worth your time to look at the options you have available to replicate a high-quality sound system using a singular device.

Power Source

Another difference between a subwoofer and a Soundbar is the power source that these devices pull from. This can affect your sound system setup as you rearrange cabled connections and attempt to support each piece of sound equipment based on the amplification and power that it needs (or does not require from a cabled connection).

When it comes to a subwoofer, there will be two main options: passive or active subwoofers. Passive subwoofers will require an external amplifier considering they do not have a power source built into their inner workings. Alternatively, active subwoofers have a built-in amp and will not require an external source of power.

This means that if you are using a passive subwoofer in your home theater surround sound system setup, you will need to make sure you have a place to plug it into power.

With an active subwoofer, you will not have to worry about it in the same way (although you will still need to connect it to the receiver somehow).

On the other hand, a Soundbar will always require a source of power, but you can find wireless and wired subwoofers. Still, even some wireless Soundbars are not truly wireless considering they need to connect to a power source with an AC power outlet (or have to be fully charged before use).

You may also find that you are more interested in a wired Soundbar. In this case, you would know to expect the power source and receiver to be plugged into the Soundbar. So, at least in this instance, you would be able to welcome the need to arrange your home theater electronics accordingly.

Regardless of which option you go with, you simply need to recognize that each device (and model of device) will require some type of power source, but these will look differently depending on the make and model. Because of this, it is important to consider this for your overall setup for your surround sound system within your home.


Frequency Range

Finally, the main difference between a subwoofer and the Soundbar (as referenced in several points above) is the overall purpose of each device.

While we can acknowledge that both a subwoofer and a Soundbar are pieces of sound equipment, they serve an entirely different purpose in relation to an entire sound system that you might choose to set up in your home theater.

So, in relation to a home theater surround sound system, what is the purpose of a subwoofer? A subwoofer’s purpose in a home theater surround sound system is to capture and emit the low-frequency bass throughout the entire room. Each listener should have a robust feel and audio experience with a high-quality subwoofer.

Even more specifically, a high-quality sub in a home theater surround sound system is what will bring out the major sound effects as well as provide a high contrast of audio frequencies that allow for even greater clarity in audio. A subwoofer is to emit a single audio channel, and its physical design provides a high-capacity way for this to be achieved.

On the other hand, a Soundbar plays a much different role in relation to a home theater surround sound system. Some will argue that a Soundbar can be an entire surround sound system on its own.

While you will be able to achieve a wide range of audio frequencies on multiple channels within the same device, a Soundbar is not, itself, a surround sound system.

Still, this does not mean that a Soundbar cannot be incorporated into a surround sound system, because it can be. Of course, this would require adequate connections and an efficient setup, but it is still possible and is frequently done when other means are used to further amplify the sound that was once solely streaming from the Soundbar.

In this case, you will likely find that a Soundbar can be used alone in small to mid-sized home theater rooms and (assuming you have a high-quality device that has been set up well and adequately connected) can fill the space with the audio it produces.

Alternatively, a subwoofer is one piece of sound equipment that cannot act on its own as the sound system. If you were to attempt to use the sub alone, you would be sadly disappointed in the end result as the frequency range would be highly limited, and the overall sound quality would be undeterminable.

Still, if you are looking for a one-device-fits-all, high-quality Soundbars can be used to provide a wide scope of audio even if they are not quite as good as a professionally installed sound system made up of various pieces of sound equipment that are specific to their purpose.

If you are willing to take the time to learn and invest in an entire sound system, though, this will likely outrank the performance of a standalone Soundbar.

Either way, you can use a subwoofer to heighten the audio experience with or without a Soundbar considering it can bring in the deep bass that would otherwise be lacking from your sound system.

Whichever device you choose to invest in, be sure that you are aware of the wide array of qualities that make it unique and help it to function in the entire sound system you will be able to create.

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