I like the looks of a sound bar rather than speakers, but wonder how much I'm giving up on sound.
Those sleek sound bar-style speakers you're talking about look good with a flat-panel TV, and require minimal space and wiring. Most models even offer built-in amplification, which means the only other gear you'll need is a DVD or Blu-ray Disc player and a subwoofer for deep bass roar and rumble. Some of models even include a subwoofer. In a nutshell, single-speaker sound bars can deliver room-filling sound without taking up much space.
This may be the solution for you if:
However, you don't necessarily have to give up good sound for that sleek look.
While some sound bars only deliver stereo sound, others create virtual surround sound. Now, they can't give you the same precise, enveloping sound you'd get from a system with five or more speakers. But they can offer more engaging audio than your TV speakers and give you a more complete sound experience.
They accomplish virtual surround sound by bouncing beams of sound off your walls, or with special processing that controls timing and volume to make sound effects seem like they're coming from different directions.
Before you get too much further, you need to ask yourself if you want stereo or surround sound.
Surround sound usually means at least five speakers placed strategically around the listening area, plus a subwoofer for deep, dramatic bass. But for a lot of folks, positioning speakers in the back of the room and running wire to them isn't practical. That's where sound bars that offer virtual surround sound can be especially handy. Of course, you won't get the level of precision you'd get with a conventional multi-speaker setup, but these sound bars can be surprisingly effective.
Sound bars that work as part of a full surround sound system let you combine sleek sound bar looks with the greater detail and accuracy of a conventional surround sound system. They're sometimes called "LCRs" because they provide left, center, and right channel audio from one cabinet. Note that you'll still need between two and four surround sound speakers, plus a powered subwoofer, to complete your surround sound system. You'll also need a separate home theater receiver to power the sound bar and your other speakers.
Or, you could just go with a sound bar that has a built-in amp to power it.