The simple home stereo is struggling in the digital world. Little black boxes and audio sources are proliferating under the TV, remotes litter the coffee table, and docks clutter the bedroom and kitchen. Countless inputs and apps, disparate interfaces, and way too many wires have mashed up into a home theater headache that’s barely keeping up with music after the CD. It’s not a pretty situation.
Sonos is finally making a serious move to the living room with its new Playbar soundbar, a category generally known more for compromise than for great sound. If you go the serious A/V receiver route, you’re still stuck spending a lot of time switching cables, adjusting inputs, and dealing with multiple software and hardware interfaces that were never designed to be seamlessly integrated. And even if you’ve gone that far, you haven’t even started to deal with the reality of music on your local network or streaming services like Rdio, Spotify, Pandora, or even internet radio. Do you stream over your Xbox? Apple TV? Roku? Which apps do you have to get to control it? How do you even get music to other rooms?
Sonos has quietly been selling its distributed audio systems for several years now, and while it’s generally pricier than a regular set of speakers, the company is known for excellent sound, easy setup, and a huge range of local and web audio sources. Sonos speakers aren’t just speakers; they’re networked devices that regularly receive updates with new functionality and services. Sonos has generally been better known for streaming music throughout your house than for watching movies on your couch; can its new $699 Playbar finally make the company a living room name?
The Playbar has an attractive design, mostly matte aluminum highlights around the mostly fabric exterior. It’s not as radical a take as last year’s Sub, but its subdued but professional-looking styling won’t draw your eye away from your TV. Inside are nine speakers; three 1-inch tweeters and six 3.5-inch speakers, each driven by its own amp. Similar to the Play:3, the Playbar has a built-in accelerometer that detects its orientation, and automatically tweaks the audio output depending on its positioning. The 11.9-pound Playbar measures 35.43 inches wide, 5.51 inches deep, and 3.35 inches deep; it's compact enough where I was able to place it under my TV without covering the screen at all. You can mount it above or below your TV — Sonos sells a $40 wall mount — or just set it in front of the TV.
Core to the Sonos system is its proprietary SonosNet mesh network, and the Playbar connects via two built-in Wi-Fi radios. It may sound complicated, but Sonos has largely hidden it out of view so you rarely, if ever, have to deal with it — streaming audio around your home or apartment just works.
Up until now, Sonos was barely usable in the living room — you could run audio from your home receiver or TV to its Connect:Amp, but it was neither cheap, simple, nor really advertised for this. Because you’re installing a networked device and not just a simple speaker, setup is a little more involved than plug and play, but I was up and watching Friday Night Lights episodes, streaming Rdio, and AirPlaying music from my iPhone via an Apple TV under five minutes. Unlike previous Sonos components, the Playbar is designed specifically for the living room. There’s no HDMI input on the Playbar; you can only hook it up to your TV via a TOSLINK optical cable for standard two-channel audio and Dolby Digital. Otherwise, the Playbar’s simply got a power connector and two Ethernet jacks. I have a Sonos Bridge set up, so I was able to bypass the need to hook the Playbar up with an Ethernet cord.
There’s no remote either, as Sonos has built in recognition for most TV remotes, and in testing, my Pioneer TV’s remote was recognized on the first try during setup (just follow a few simple directions on the app). Just point your remote at Sonos, push the volume up, and it works. Whenever you turn your TV on, even if you’re streaming audio on all of your devices, the soundbar detects the signal and switches to automatically play your TV’s audio output without the need to change input from Spotify to the TV. There’s no audio juggling between Xbox, Apple TV, or a Blu-ray player; you only need to switch between the inputs on your TV (assuming your TV has optical audio out; more on that later).
Unlike the Play:5, the Playbar doesn’t have a 3.5mm input jack, which means Apple TV routed through your TV is the only way to use AirPlay with a Playbar setup. On one hand, a new app update lets you stream music from iOS devices’ music libraries to Sonos (similar to AirPlay), but there’s a range of Android devices and other inputs that Sonos is leaving out. All wireless is great when every device supports it, but we’re not there yet.
All wireless is great when every device supports it, but we’re not there yet
The visual design of the Sonos apps feel about a year behind apps like Google Maps, Rdio, and even Apple’s Music app, and the OS X and Windows apps look like they’re optimized more for a tablet than a desktop. Playlist management hasn’t improved much over the past year, and integration with services is mostly one way. If you want to save a song or edit playlists from iTunes, Rdio, or Spotify, there’s no way to do it from within the Sonos app — you have to fire up the respective app separately. Sonos does offer its own playlist creation tools that let you mix and match songs, streams, and radio stations across services, but these are effectively useless when you’re on the go. And there’s still no support for SoundCloud or Google Music.
Sonos still has one of the best systems out there for listening to all of your music
In spite of all of this, Sonos still has one of the best systems out there for listening to all of your music. It’s one of the few devices that gives you access to your local music, Spotify, Rdio, Last.fm, Pandora, Deezer, Audible, Mog, Rhapsody, and many other services, all within one interface. AirPlay requires you stream from only one device and app, so if you’re moving from your phone to your computer to a tablet, there’s no way to easily manage audio while it’s playing. With Sonos, you can do exactly that, adding a song or two to your “global” queue from a tablet and an album from your phone, all while keeping an eye on it from your desktop app (apps are available for Mac, PC, Android, and iOS). And more importantly, tweaking playlists across devices never requires you to stop the music. Instead of managing an iPod in a bedroom alarm clock, plugging your iPhone into a dock in the kitchen, and using an Xbox to stream music in your living room, Sonos lets you control every speaker from a range of devices.
By itself, the Playbar shines with shows like 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights and a couple long evenings of Criterion films streaming from Hulu. Dialogue-heavy shows and most movies perform far better than on your TV’s built-in speakers, but the Playbar starts to struggle with action-heavy films and anything with a particularly bass-heavy soundtrack. There’s a fair amount of audio processing going on, and the Playbar does a commendable job by itself of virtually separating out different channels. Explosions coming from the right side of the screen really sound like they should, and it fakes surround sound about as well as any soundbar we’ve used. The Playbar also has a “speech enhancement” option and “night sound” (both enabled from the Sonos app). The former emphasizes the human voice, while the latter compresses the audio, quieting louder noises and bumping up the levels on quiet sounds and speech.
When it comes to music, listening to two Play:3s or even one Play:5 is hugely preferable to just the Playbar. Moving from an audio track playing on the Play:3s to the Playbar lets you immediately hear the soundbar’s mid-range and low-end limitations. Its audio processing also offers for an odd stereo separation that just doesn’t sound great for long-term listening. The Playbar’s rendering of Four Tet’s remix of The xx’s “Angels” completely lacks the song’s rumbling bass, and Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Mozart’s Sonatas for Piano & Violin comes across tepid and over-processed. It’s reworked and compressed enough that after an hour, it gave me a headache and I needed to jump back to regular old stereo.
Adding a $699 Sub to the mix significantly helps balance out the Playbar’s lack of low-end — for both movies and music — and two Play:3’s ($299 each) brings you to true 5.1 channel surround sound. But at $1,996 that’s not a cheap upgrade.
On connections and 5.1
First, note that Sonos requires you connect the Soundbar via optical cable — there’s no other way to plug in. If you have an older TV or cheaper one, it’s very likely that it doesn’t have an optical out port, which leaves you moving the cable between your cable box, Xbox, in a very clunky, non-wireless setup. It’s enough of a dealbreaker where you need to check your TV’s compatibility if you want an experience that doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out.
Briefly, Sonos can only accept a Dolby Digital signal as 5.1, which means that any DTS mix simply won’t work. Achieving 5.1 out of your TV is probably going to be a headache even if your Blu-ray player supports it, because many TV’s downgrade the audio signal output from Dolby Digital to a traditional stereo mix.
Essentially, if you have a TV that supports both Dolby Digital and optical out, setup and day-to-day playback will be a breeze. If not, you’re in for the usual frustrations of everyone else fumbling around with home theater equipment.
Sonos has never been that easy to explain to newcomers, even as the company has tried to simplify its message. A distributed audio setup that streams to any room in your house? A wireless streaming system that plugs into everything from Pandora to iTunes on your home computer? Wireless Hi-Fi? Pass someone a phone or tablet with the Sonos controller app, though, and they’ll quickly see that you can play Spotify in the bedroom, listen to Rdio in the office, and watch TV in the living room — or sync them all up to play the same thing. And the Playbar may be the Trojan horse Sonos has needed all along. Once you start using the Sonos apps in the living room, it’s tough to go back to messing around with AirPlay.
A year and a half ago, we noted that Sonos was confusing to first-time buyers. Then, as now, it’s still not clear whether you need the Bridge component (you don’t), but the Playbar makes up for the confusion with a very different offering. At $699, it’s obviously not cheap, but you’re not just buying better speakers. The Playbar cuts through the pain of juggling inputs by outsourcing it to the TV, and if you have an urge to listen to music in multiple rooms, Sonos looks like a much better option. If you already use Sonos, you likely have all of your music subscription services and local sources, and the Playbar seamlessly integrates into the mix. That said, if you have no need for a multi-room setup, it’s hard to recommend the Playbar over other similarly priced and cheaper soundbars, many of which come with a subwoofer and can be hooked up to an Apple TV or Roku without much trouble.
If you already have several Sonos components or are thinking about buying a multi-room system — and have the required optical audio connections on your TV — the Playbar has a lot to offer. No, you’re not pushing the limits with 6.1 or 7.1 here, but you are getting true 5.1 surround sound without the wires, which is welcome in any room. While I’m still left wishing Sonos would build in AirPlay support, there’s nothing else on the market for seamlessly playing and juggling audio sources throughout the house. Playbar does finally bring a Sonos foothold into the living room, and it’s a big audio quality upgrade with a minimum of hassle if your TV supports it. If you’re looking for a single room setup, the home theater space is the same as it ever was.