Sonos has made a name for itself with high-quality wireless audio products, but even as its built out its product line one area has remained untouched: the living room. The fit seemed natural — we even asked CEO John MacFarlane about the company's ambitions ourselves — and today the company is answering that question with the Sonos Playbar. It's a $699 soundbar that provides a complete audio system for your movies, TV, and games — as well as serving as a full-fledged Sonos music player unto itself. It's a product the company says could be transformative for its business — and may just help convince some users to ditch their home A/V receiver in the process.
The Playbar is nearly three feet wide, and its matte aluminum and fabric exterior houses nine different speakers — three tweeters and six midrange speakers. They're angled at 45 degrees, so you can mount the soundbar on your wall or lay it flat on a table beneath your television; a built-in accelerometer detects the orientation and modifies the output of the speakers accordingly. On its own, it's a three-channel audio system, with the bare minimum of connectors: power, two ethernet jacks, and a TOSLINK optical connector for hooking it up to your television (it recognizes Dolby Digital as well as standard two-channel audio). While you can control it with the Sonos Controller mobile app — it's a standard Sonos device, after all — the Playbar also recognizes most remote control codes, so if you just want to watch TV you should be set for volume control right out of the gate.
Make no mistake — this thing is loud
We heard the Playbar in a Sonos demo theater and were frankly extremely impressed. We started off with a clip from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, and the Playbar provided a wide and immersive field of sound, with low-end that had the floor rattling. Make no mistake — soundbar or no, this thing is loud. Switching to music provided a similar experience. Pink Floyd's "Money" was used to show off the stereo separation, and the rattle and clang of cash registers in the song's intro seemed to come from the corners of the room, well beyond the physical reach of the speakers themselves. A classical track — while not sounding like we were exactly in the room with the musicians themselves — revealed a lovely texture and clarity in the high end. Then again, for a $699 device with the Sonos name, one expects stellar sound quality.
The most impressive performance, however, came when the Playbar was paired with some of Sonos' other products. The Playbar can connect wirelessly to the company's Sub subwoofer for even more low-end — Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" was positively thunderous — but you can also add two Play:3 speakers into the mix. The result is a true 5.1 sound system — all without cables. We watched the train crash sequence from Super 8, and the result was one of the closest things to a true movie experience we've heard in a home theater. To be fair, the demo happened in Sonos' own room, so your mileage at home may vary — but we were excited by what we heard.
A true 5.1 system — without the cables
Sonos is also introducing a new version of its Controller app with several Playbar-specific features, such as a dialogue mode if you can't hear voices in the mix, and a "nighttime mode" to make it easier to listen at lower volumes. And as a Sonos player above all else, it can stream music from the multitude of services supported by the company, and will work as part of a Sonos multi-room set-up (in a nice touch, you can route the audio from your television to a Sonos speaker in another room if you need to step away).
Of course, at this kind of price point, this isn't a device for the casual music listener. In fact, if you're a new Sonos user and don't want to plug the Playbar into your router, you'll need to shell out another $49 for the company's Bridge device to set up its proprietary mesh Wi-Fi network. But as Sonos co-founder Tom Cullen sees it, the Playbar solves a problem nobody else has been able to tackle. "A lot of modern music lovers have a nice TV," he told us, but no competitors have solved the problem of providing great sound for that television while simultaneously offering access to such a multitude of music services.
Home theater is a software problem
The time is right for something like the Playbar, he says, because technological advances have obviated the need for dedicated devices like the home A/V receiver. Home theater, he says, is a software problem. "What looks like a hardware problem over time almost always becomes a software problem in this game," Cullen says, explaining that functions that are physical hardware features in something like a receiver — source selection, control, and the like — can be performed virtually in software as general computing technology has advanced. (One only needs to look at Sonos' own hardware controller, killed off by its smartphone apps, to see the principle in action.) With source-switching moving to TVs thanks to HDMI, Sonos can now step in and be that software-oriented solution.
The other advantage of the approach, Cullen says, is simplicity — something that's become increasingly important as consumers find themselves facing an overwhelming number of choices in everything from which music service they want to use to what video device they should use on a given night. "You can do anything, and that's actually a problem," he says. "Sonos continues to exist because we're bringing more precise access to what is otherwise an insane amount of abundance. There is no scarcity, so what it means is you have to make some hard choices to get to people what they want... So he who solves that for you, for your application, wins you."
The Sonos Playbar will be released on March 5th for $699 in the US, €699 in the EU, and £599 in the UK.