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)
- the TV
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 TV.
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 time.
*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.