Besides buying a whole new TV, upgrading your sound system is probably the most significant way to elevate your home viewing experience. And while soundbars have long been recognised as an excellent option for those not interested in a full-on receiver and a room full of speakers, not everyone has a metre and a half spare for a honking big bar beneath the telly, or the capability to wall mount.
For a little while I've been looking for the best soundbar you can get that's small enough to fit on just about any TV stand. So if space is a consideration for you, I have two recommendations.
The overall best of the bunch was the $599 Sonos Beam. It sounds incredible, is very simple to use and is a mere 65cm long. It uses HDMI ARC, so all you need to do is plug it into the corresponding port on your TV and it's working. Bass is substantial for such a small unit but not booming, while dialogue is crisp and clear.
Like other Sonos products it's also a Wi-Fi music speaker and has a lovely warm sound for radio or your favourite tunes. You can use mobile apps to fling it music from any of your services, or the Beam can also integrate with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa so you can ask with your voice.
It works well with other Sonos gear and you can even use a pair of Sonos Ones ($299 each) as wireless rear speakers for a full five-channel setup. I did this and it sounds incredible, but you're now at $1200 for the lot.
My biggest complaint about the Beam is that, unless your needs are very straightforward, it can be a bit too streamlined. There are no HDMI inputs here, meaning one less input on your TV for things like disc players or game consoles. My TV was already maxed out for ports so I connected the Beam with the included optical audio adapter, but then you lose the simplicity of HDMI ARC and could end up needing to use an app to control your volume (the Beam tries to learn your TV remote's IR codes, but my Samsung TV didn't play nice).
On the other hand if you just want the best cinematic performance you can get in a small form factor I'd recommend the Sony HT-X8500, which has great sound and is an incredible value for the $520 asking price. This is an 89cm, two-channel soundbar with gutsy built-in subwoofers, which also accepts cutting-edge object-based sound formats and does a decent job creating a big soundfield.
It's certainly not a replacement for an actual surround setup with an army of physical speakers, but this little soundbar can create the impression of sound coming at you from the sides rather than straight on. When fed a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X signal it will also attempt to create virtual height channels that sound as though they're coming from your roof. I couldn't really detect that in my home, but watching movies on Ultra HD Blu-ray the Atmos mix was taller and more cinematic than the 5.1.
The HT-X8500 does have an HDMI input, so you can get the most out of it without losing an input from your TV, and it will even pass through 4K HDR or Dolby Vision. It supports eARC as well, so if you have a brand new TV you should be able to pass advanced sound formats from any input or your TV's built-in apps to the soundbar.
As a mid-range bar the HT-X8500 is much less expensive than most Atmos-enabled systems, but it is missing some expected luxuries. For example there's no display on the front and no app connectivity, so setting up the more advanced modes requires you to remember what various combinations of LEDs mean (or have the manual close by). And there's no Wi-Fi option for listening to music, but there is good old Bluetooth.