There’s something special about unboxing a new Sonos device – it’s as if Sonos has become a boutique manufacturer, where each product has been made especially for you. Of course that’s not the case, but the simple, minimalistic packaging and beautifully presented hardware helps to create that illusion.
It seems somewhat passé to compare any tech manufacturer to Apple these days, but the comparison is unavoidable. Sonos creates beautifully designed devices that are as much about lifestyle as they are about the technology inside them, and once you start using Sonos kit it’s very hard to imagine your life without it.
One of the reasons for Sonos’ success is that it’s a company that has never over extended itself. Although it has increased and evolved its range of products over the years, it has kept a very close eye on its key strengths and avoided jumping into new markets where bigger, stronger fish swim.
In fact, this latest product is probably Sonos’ biggest departure from its comfort zone of wireless music streaming, but it’s also a fairly natural evolution. The new Sonos PlayBar is, after all, still an audio device and it still wirelessly connects to the rest of your Sonos components, but its main purpose is to improve the sound from your TV.
Of course the concept of a soundbar isn’t anything new, they’ve been around for years – they generally appeal to consumers who want better sound than their TV can provide, but don’t want a full 5.1-speaker setup. But Sonos has designed the PlayBar to offer the best of both worlds – as with everything from Sonos, the PlayBar can live by itself or act as the basis for something bigger and better.
When you remove the PlayBar from its packaging you’ll notice that it looks fantastic. Following in the footsteps of the Sonos Sub that was launched last year, the PlayBar has a sleek and stylish look to it that should suit even the most modern and aesthetically pleasing TV – it certainly complemented my 9th Gen Pioneer Kuro nicely.
The PlayBar is quite compact considering how much kit Sonos has stuffed inside it – it didn’t look small in front of my 50in Kuro, but it equally didn’t look too big when placed in front of my 37in Panasonic Viera. The PlayBar is also very flexible when it comes to positioning, and can be placed in front of your TV or wall mounted beneath it – the device automatically detects its positioning and will configure itself accordingly.
Sonos has managed to squeeze a total of nine drivers inside the PlayBar, with the six woofers and three tweeters configured to deliver a clearer, fuller and more immersive sound than your TV speakers ever could.
At the rear of the PlayBar you’ll find a standard figure-of-eight power socket and an optical digital input. Sonos has worked on the assumption that your TV will have an optical digital output, which will then forward the audio from the TV and every source device connected to it, directly to the PlayBar.
During the setup procedure the PlayBar will also pair with your standard TV remote, so you can still use it to control the volume. However, this only really works if you’re also able to disable the internal speakers in your TV. I wasn’t able to do this within the menus of my Kuro, but I was able to physically disconnect the TV speakers, which amounts to much the same thing. The real beauty of this setup is that no one in your household has to do anything differently to watch TV – there’s no new remote to find, no inputs to select, everything just works as it did before.
You’ll also find a couple of Ethernet ports at the rear of the PlayBar, allowing you to connect devices to your home network wirelessly, even if those devices have no integrated Wi-Fi. This will be particularly useful if you have a Smart TV without built-in Wi-Fi.
But the real litmus test for the PlayBar is how good it sounds compared to the speakers inside your TV. In my living room the PlayBar had its work cut out for it, because Pioneer didn’t build any speakers into its Kuro TVs, instead choosing to offer an optional soundbar that attaches to the base of the screen. As a result, the sound produced is good, and far better than pretty much every flat screen TV I’ve heard with integrated speakers. Despite that, the PlayBar provided a clear improvement.
The PlayBar widens the soundstage considerably – it can’t fill the room and wrap around the viewer like a full, multi-channel surround sounds setup can, but it does pull positional effects away from the TV when necessary, increasing the feeling of being there.
But while the PlayBar creates a wider soundstage, it also locks dialogue to the screen, just like a dedicated centre channel would on a 5.1 or 7.1-channel system. It’s this expert handling of the dialogue channel that ensures you can keep track of what the actors are saying no matter how much carnage is going on around them. The PlayBar handled the battle at the end of The Avengers with aplomb, adding significant low frequency impact to the action, while keeping the dialogue and more subtle effects crystal clear.
In fact, it’s those subtle effects that are really brought to the fore by the PlayBar. Sounds that may have been lost or just come through muffled on your TV speakers and clearly conveyed by the PlayBar, as Sonos says in its own marketing blurb – it’s not about making your TV sound louder, it’s about making it clearer. Although to be fair, the PlayBar does a pretty convincing job in both areas.
Sonos is also well aware that you’re not always able to have your sound pumped up to the max. I have two young children and I only really get access to my own TV after they’ve gone to bed, so the last thing I want is to wake them up again. That means that if I keep the sound low enough so I don’t disturb them, I find myself straining to hear the dialogue.
The PlayBar deals with this problem in two ways. The Night Sound mode will curtail very loud sound effects, such as explosions or gunfire, while enhancing more subtle effects and dialogue. There’s also a Speech Enhancement mode, so if you do find yourself struggling to hear the dialogue over the sound of aliens getting their butts kicked, you can remedy the problem.
The PlayBar did a fine job of improving the sound of pretty much everything I pumped through it over the past week or so. It proved to be particularly impressive when I fired up the Blu-ray of Skyfall, managing to give the action set pieces real impact, while also adding to the tension of scenes such as the assassination in Shanghai.
With a price of £599, the PlayBar sits midway between high-end soundbars and entry level models, but it’s important to remember that this is a far more versatile device than any other soundbar on the market. As well as taking care of home cinema duties, the PlayBar is a Sonos ZonePlayer, and can be used just like any other Sonos device on your network.
So, by putting a PlayBar in your living room, you’re also putting a wireless music streamer there, and a very good one at that. When you consider that a Sonos Play:5 will set you back £349, you could argue that the home cinema functionality of the PlayBar is only costing you £250, making it quite the bargain.
It’s also worth noting that the PlayBar is undoubtedly Sonos’ best all-in-one speaker, providing a far clearer, fuller and louder audio experience than a Play:5. I pumped all manner of music through the PlayBar and it didn’t disappoint. Christy Baron’s interpretation of Ain’t No Sunshine was beautifully rendered, with that lonely bass line coming through rich and strong and Christy’s aching vocals flowing over the top as smooth as silk.
If I was to be picky, I’d say that the PlayBar isn’t quite as adept with rock, but that could be said about pretty much every all-in-one audio device, wireless or otherwise. In fact, the PlayBar proved to be better than most when faced with the likes of Foo Fighters, Soundgarden or Temple of the Dog.
It’s clear that the PlayBar is an extremely versatile audio solution, but it has one more trick up its sleeve – its talents can also be improved upon. There’s no doubt that the PlayBar sounds good in isolation, but if you pair it with a Sonos subwoofer it raises the audio bar to a new level. What you end up with is essentially a 3.1-channel system, and the result is a louder, stronger and generally more immersive sound experience.
With the Sub paired with the PlayBar action scenes become the bombastic spectacles that the director intended, with explosions that you can feel through the floor and musical scores that rock the room. The effect on music is equally impressive, providing more thumping bass but not at the expense of clarity.
The only downside is that the Sub costs as much as the PlayBar itself, so you’ll be looking at spending close to £1,200, but if you can afford it, I can assure you that it’s worth the money. The PlayBar and Sub really is a match made in heaven. Plus, the fact that the Sub wirelessly pairs to the PlayBar means that you can put it anywhere in the room, making it far more versatile than a traditional subwoofer would be.
That’s not all though. As well as pairing the Sub with the PlayBar, you can also add a pair of Play:3 speakers, creating a full 5.1-channel surround sound system. The beauty of this setup is that there’s no need to run any cables from your TV or the PlayBar to the rear speakers, which is what often puts consumers off the idea of a full surround setup.
What might put consumers off, however, is the cost. Since by the time you add in a pair of Play:3s, you’re talking about a £1,700 surround sound system. That’s not to say that the full Sonos setup doesn’t sound good, because it does, very good in fact. But if you have £1,700 burning a hole in your pocket, you can splash out on a very good surround sound system, and one that supports lossless formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio.
But comparing the Sonos PlayBar system to a traditional home cinema setup is kind of missing the point. As already mentioned, the PlayBar is far more than a soundbar for your TV, but most importantly it can be built upon in a modular fashion. If you can only afford the PlayBar you won’t be disappointed, but unlike most other systems you can add to it later.
The option to save up and add the Sub is compelling, and if you choose to augment your system with a couple of Play:3s later on you’ll be very happy with the result. As has always been the way with Sonos, you can start small and grow your system over time, making the PlayBar the perfect cornerstone for your living room.
Sonos doesn’t launch products too often, but when it does pull back the curtain on something new, it’s almost invariably worth the wait. The PlayBar seems like a natural progression for the company, and it’s clear that a lot of thought and planning went into its design.
As a standalone soundbar it’s an impressive piece of kit, but the PlayBar is so much more. If you already have a Sonos system, it will act as a new ZonePlayer for your living room – and if you’re used to listening to a Play:3 or Play:5 you’ll be very impressed by the sound from the PlayBar.
Add to that, the fact that you can augment the PlayBar over time and make it an even better sound solution. Stump up the cash for the Sub and it will take your movies and music to another level, and if you want that full surround sound experience, a pair of Play:3s will round the package off nicely.
At £599 the PlayBar isn’t an impulse purchase, but it’s not expensive either - not for the level of sound quality and functionality it provides. If you already have Sonos in your home and are currently listening to the built-in speakers on your TV, adding a PlayBar to your system is a no brainer. If you don’t already have Sonos in your home, you may as well start with the PlayBar.