My long tradition of getting behind with work covering new product launches ahead of the holiday season -- and therefore not finishing my holiday gift guide until the last possible moment -- continues. The guide is up over at techpinions.com.
Sonos sent over a pair of Play:1 speakers for review. In my review of the Sonos PLAYBAR I found too many setup limitations, but I absolutely love the Play:1's. A single Play:1 fills any small or medium sized room with rich, clear sound, and it serves as a perfect entry point to building a full multi-room, multi-source music system. My full report for Current Analysis clients is up; here's an excerpt:
Sonos notes that multi-room audio sales have been rising 80%
year-over-year, fueled by streaming music. With most consumer electronics
categories losing ground as consumers put more of their money into phones and
tablets, this niche has not gone unnoticed: Bose just announced a line of
app-driven WiFi/Airplay speakers (albeit without multi-zone capability), and
Samsung’s Shape is a direct Sonos clone. No matter: the Play:1 is half the
price of either competitor. Sonos sound quality is more than good enough, and
its proprietary WiFi-like mesh network works flawlessly, even in difficult
wireless environments. The Play:1 should not only help Sonos fend off Samsung
and Bose, it will reach down and pull buyers away from high end Bluetooth
speakers from Jawbone and Logitech.
Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way up front: Sonos has
lent me various components for review, and some are on long term loans. When
the PLAYBAR was first announced, I attended a demo and wrote an analytical
report for Current Analysis clients, but I was eager to get a unit for a full
review. Earlier this year Sonos sent one, along with a pair of PLAY:3’s for use
as surround sound speakers (much earlier
this year. Sorry!). I also pulled in a Sonos SUB in for a full 5.1 setup. Sonos
does not pay anything for consideration and HomeTheaterView doesn’t take ads.
Despite the disclaimers, I’ll be quite frank: I love Sonos.
I have recommended various Sonos products in my holiday gift guides for years.
Its products are not inexpensive, but they cost far less than most multi-room
systems, especially since Sonos components are designed to be installed without
any need for construction, consultants, or custom installers – anyone who can
follow simple directions and can plug things into an outlet can set up a Sonos
system. Similarly, anyone who can download an app and tap a touchscreen can
play music on a Sonos. This combination has helped Sonos establish itself as
the premier wireless, multi-room audio system on the market, beating back
challenges from Logitech, Bose, and countless iPod docks. Sonos has amplified
speakers in small (PLAY:3) and medium (PLAY:5) sizes that work in most
locations around a home, and units with and without amplification for
connecting to stereo systems (CONNECT) and speakers (CONNECT:AMP). A subwoofer
(SUB) was added last year, providing prodigious bass alongside any of the other
units. There are only a few areas of the house Sonos had not directly addressed:
the kitchen (though a white PLAY:5 sits in the
corner behind our sink – we just pray it doesn’t get wet)
the bathroom (or better, the shower)
the nightstand (where a clock/radio/Sonos
combination would be killer)
the backyard (Sonos has no weatherproof models or portable ones)
With the PLAYBAR, Sonos is tackling the TV, but its price
and design are polarizing: it’s perfect for a handful of situations and
completely inappropriate for most others. The price, $700*, is on the high end
of consumer soundbars. That’s a premium price point but hardly obscene; you
won’t find a $700 soundbar at Walmart, but there are five in that price range
at Best Buy along with several more that are even more expensive (though some
of those come with a subwoofer). This type of premium-but-not-audiophile
pricing is par for the course for Sonos (the SUB costs $700 and the PLAY:5 is
$400*), but it will price out consumers simply seeking better sound out of their
Sound quality is excellent, and on par with premium
soundbars in its price range – especially for music playback. That’s good,
because a key reason to buy the PLAYBAR is to use it as a zone in a multi-room
setup. The soundstage is wide, the midrange is clear with no sibilance, and
upper bass is punchy enough that most music and TV content sounds rich and full
throated. Still, a subwoofer is needed to reach the lowest tones. Action scenes
with vehicle chases, spaceship flybys, or explosions are simply missing the
aural impact they ought to have. The
PLAYBAR can play exceedingly loud without distortion, but the lowest tones that
convey dread or punctuate an explosion are gone. The Sonos SUB fills in the
missing tones, but at $700 it doubles the price of the system. The speakers at
the end of the bar are angled outward, helping stereo separation and providing
reverb (one of the reasons the PLAYBAR sounds so rich), but there is no
surround to the sound – Sonos has solid audio engineering chops, but there is
no psychoacoustic hocus pocus to try and fool your brain into thinking there
are speakers behind you. That is, unless you actually put speakers behind you.
By adding a pair of Sonos PLAY:3 (or PLAY:5) speakers, you can have a
reasonable facsimile of a wireless 5.1 system: the PLAYBAR handles the front
three speakers, the PLAY:3’s are in the rear, and the SUB handles the bass.
Unfortunately, this system will cost $2,000, and simply doesn’t sound as good
as the best discrete 5.1 home theater systems in or even below that
price range. The Sonos system is easier to hook up as the sub and the rear
speakers are wireless (they only require power cords, not speaker cable), but I
found that employing six good individual speakers is better for home theater. Critically,
Sonos offers no room correction and cannot be used with an A/V receiver (more
on this later). The setup distance ranges for the speakers are ridiculously
large. I was only able to set up the surrounds as being between 2 feet and 8
feet away. That meant that one speaker three feet from my head was absurdly
loud, while its counterpart seven feet in the other direction sounded silent in
comparison. The sound was discrete, but not as clear as my reference system of
ancient Carver speakers, which benefit from larger drivers and more physical
stereo separation. This is especially apparent in terms of discrete panning in
the front, where the PLAYBAR is, well, just a soundbar. I also still wish that
it was easier to manage the bass level of the SUB on the fly (see my mini review of
the SUB at the end of last year's holiday gift guide).
The folks at Sonos spent a lot of time focusing on setup,
though there are some serious drawbacks to their approach. Like any Sonos
speaker, it requires a Bridge ($50) or a direct Ethernet connection to the
router in the home. Any existing Sonos system will already have this (or will
have located a Sonos speaker near the router), but it means that the PLAYBAR
isn’t plug-and-play for someone simply looking for a soundbar. I think this is
a mistake; with all of Sonos’ emphasis on simplicity with the PLAYBAR,
shouldn’t it be ideal for consumers new to the brand? Sell them a PLAYBAR, then
let them expand to other rooms.
The PLAYBAR can be mounted flat against the wall or sit on a
cabinet; internal sensors adjust its sound output accordingly. Just as clever,
Sonos built in an infrared passthrough, so you can use your existing TV remote
to control volume from the PLAYBAR – even if you have the PLAYBAR sitting in
front of the IR sensor on the TV.
Setup is incredibly simple, but incredibly limited: you need
to connect an optical audio output to the PLAYBAR. That’s it. The idea is that
most consumers connect their cable box directly to their television, most
modern televisions have optical audio output jacks, and, viola! We’re done. This
is brilliant except when it isn’t. What if your HDTV does not have optical
audio output? You’ll need a new TV. TVs also do not decode advanced surround
sound modes, so if you were planning on the full PLAYBAR + PLAY:3 + SUB system,
it will not be able to take advantage of the best audio track on a Blu-ray disc
(another reason the Sonos combination does not sound as good as a traditional
A/V receiver + speaker system). What if your TV only has two HDMI inputs –
which is incredibly common – and you have more source components, so you use an
A/V receiver? The Sonos isn’t for you either.
In fact, this was the exact scenario I encountered when
trying to test the PLAYBAR: my TV does have an optical audio output, but has
just two HDMI inputs. I cover digital home devices, so I have [a lot of] source
components, and at any time seven of them are connected to a very expensive A/V
receiver, which does not have an optical audio out. Few A/V receivers do. Now,
I know that my setup is absurd; I evaluate connected devices for a living.
Still, it is not at all difficult to imagine a consumer who is considering
spending $700* on a soundbar wanting to connect it to a set top box, a game
console, and a Blu-ray player. Many gamers have two or three consoles.
The PLAYBAR is a long bar packed with amplifiers and
speakers. Unlike other soundbars in this price range, it claims no fancy
electronics or engineering designed to simulate surround sound, cancel
crosstalk, fight standing waves, or make you a sonic sandwich. If your room is
somewhat narrow and has reflective surfaces, the PLAYBAR speakers are angled to
bounce surround channel sound to the side. In the wide hotel room where I first
heard it demo’d it sounded good; in my somewhat narrow home theater it was
actually a little better. The PLAYBAR does not produce real surround sound, or
even especially good fake surround sound, but it is rich and immersive sound,
and the center channel dialogue always remains clear.
That makes the PLAYBAR perfect for
…people who own or are assembling a Sonos system
…who don’t want a full home theater system or need a
soundbar for a secondary TV,
…and that TV has optical audio out
...and has enough inputs for all the source components
Are there people like that? Sure. If you’re one of them, I
can easily recommend the PLAYBAR. It sounds good, and it is easy to install. But I suspect that Sonos has cast the net too narrowly this
*Corrections 9/16/13: This review accidentally overstated the pricing of two Sonos components. The PLAYBAR is $700, not $800, and the PLAY:5 is $400, not $500. The corrected pricing does not change the analysis or recommendations.
Time flies. I was looking for something I had posted a while ago and discovered that this site has been live and somewhat regularly updated since October 24, 2004. So I'm about a month late noticing, but this site is an eight year old! We're a tween!
While her advice is not new, Adrienne Maxwell has about as strong a pedigree to say it as anyone. She's written and edited home theater magazines at the highest levels. And while she can geek out with the best of them -- I've met her at trade events and can confirm this firsthand -- she, well, she's a girl. I'm not suggesting that men can't write about women's issues, but that women do bring inherent credibility to the discussion.
Read the comments. I love the practical advice on hiring women as salespeople so that the firm can pitch men and women with gender-appropriate messaging/messengers.
OK, now go back and read my column - it stands up pretty well despite its age and my gender.