When Sonos unveiled its $699 Playbase speaker last month, the company was pretty straightforward about why the product exists: most people don’t mount their TV to the wall. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d never buy Sonos’ Playbar (or any soundbar for that matter), but it probably hurts the odds substantially — so much so that Sonos felt compelled to make a second speaker for your TV. And that speaker is the Playbase.
Just like the Playbar, it’s an easy-but-expensive recommendation for people who want better sound than what their TV can do on its own. Just like the Playbar, the Playbase can instantly become part of your existing Sonos multi-room music setup. It works with dozens of streaming services, and music sounds just as good coming out of it as any blockbuster action sequence.
But the Playbase has the same limitations and questionable future-proofing as the Playbar, despite shipping four years later. It only uses optical audio. It doesn’t support DTS surround sound. It’s expensive — and that’s even before you consider adding in a Sonos Sub or two Play:1 speakers for a 5.1 arrangement.
The Playbase is a short (2.3 inches tall), hefty (nearly 19 pounds) slab of carefully manufactured plastic that houses 10 drivers inside. It’s designed to be low profile and disappear beneath your TV, which you’ll ideally be able to plop right on top of the Playbase unit itself. If your TV has legs on each side, the Playbase should be able to fit beneath the screen, but definitely check the measurements. I chose the white version mostly for photography purposes; almost everyone should get the matte black speaker unless you want something that’s white and eye-catching near your TV screen, which is a weird thing to want. Plus, my white model did manage to (quickly) pick up a few scratches on the top that couldn't easily be removed. Can I safely take a Magic Eraser to this? Asking for a friend.
Sonos says the Playbase can safely hold TVs up to 77 pounds, and I believe that. The Playbase feels solid. Knock on it with your hand and nothing echoes or reverberates. Every inch of space inside is being used for something, even if the impressive inner workings are something you’ll never get to see. You just see Sonos’ logo, touch controls on the top (identical to those on the Play:5), and lots of tiny holes drilled into the front. Around back are three ports: ethernet, optical in, and power. Most people likely won’t have to plug anything into the ethernet jack since the Playbase works reliably well over Wi-Fi for music streaming.
The Playbase's design is solid and sturdy
Setup worked flawlessly for me. You open the Sonos app, plug the Playbase in, and follow a few screens to get started. Sonos guides you through the steps of turning off your TV’s built-in speakers and programming your regular remote to control volume on the Playbase, which takes just a few seconds. You’ll also choose which room to include the Playbase in if you’ve already got other Sonos speakers to group it with. Anyone with an iPhone can try to enhance the Playbase’s output by using the "Trueplay" feature of the Sonos app, which has you walk around the room and uses your phone’s microphone to optimize the sound profile for your surroundings. Unfortunately, Trueplay doesn’t work on Android, so I tested the speaker without any room adjustments.
Within the Sonos app, you can alter bass and treble to your liking. There’s also a "TV Dialog" settings area if you encounter any audio delay / lip sync issues. My testing of the Playbase was largely free of these annoyances, but Walt Mossberg ran into some during his time using another review unit. With the Playbase (and Playbar), you get two useful modes that other Sonos speakers don’t: Night Sound enhances quiet noises but suppresses louder ones to preserve the sanity of people you live with come bedtime. There’s also a Speech Enhancement toggle, which does exactly what it says. That’s pretty much it; the menus are simple by design.
I tested the Playbase using the optical out on my Vizio TV, but also plugged it directly into my PS4 and Xbox One S at various points since some older TVs will only send out stereo sound over optical. If you buy the Playbase standalone, the speaker will mix down 5.1 surround sound for optimal performance from its three-channel audio comprised of ten drivers: six midrange, three tweeters, and one woofer. One advantage over the Playbar is definitely low end response; the Playbase’s flat, long design gives it the upper hand at boomy bass. It’s a noticeable difference, but no substitute for the Sub if you want your audio to really thump.
It's equally good at music and blockbuster action sequences
The soundstage is extremely wide and dynamic, easily filling my entire living room and providing a great balance of clarity and oomph. Nothing is harsh or muddled. My tests included a Blu-ray of Guardians of the Galaxy, Rogue One on Amazon Video, Captain America: Civil War on Netflix, Sunday night’s Wrestlemania 33, a lot of cable TV in general, and several hours of streaming music via Spotify. You get some feel of surround from certain content, where it does very much seem as though sounds are coming from the left or right side of the room. Overall, the Playbase definitely outperforms soundbars in the $300 to $500 range, but it should, and I’m not sure the superior audio will be enough to justify its $700 price for everyone.
Still, there are other tricks that might. One cool thing if you’ve already got other Sonos speakers is the option to play TV audio elsewhere in your house. It makes for a great way of keeping up with sports or awards shows or interviews or anything else you’d usually try not to walk away from. My Play:5 is also in my living room, but I like knowing this feature is there if I feel like moving it. On the music side, the Playbase more than holds its own. I cranked Kendrick Lamar’s "Humble" and Justin Townes Earle’s "Champagne Corolla" without any distortion or "Am I breaking this thing?" concern. The Playbase can easily handle living room / party duty and gives you flexibility to move your other Sonos speakers to different rooms. It'll always pump out TV audio by default, but switching to music is as simple as searching for an artist or song in the app (or Spotify) and hitting play.
So far all I’ve done is praise the Playbase while reminding you of its premium price tag. But Sonos has made questionable decisions in its years-long effort to make this product. For one, there are no microphones inside the Playbase, so whenever Sonos rolls out support for Alexa, you’ll still need an Echo to control the speaker with your voice. Only a few months ago, Sonos’ CEO admitted that the company has been slow to innovate and fell behind the industry (and Amazon) on voice. So what happened here, exactly?
Second, Sonos has disappointed some home theater enthusiasts with what’s seen as a stubborn choice not to support DTS surround sound. The PR line is that most streaming services don’t use it and Sonos is focused on a wider audience. Sorry, Blu-ray audiophiles; you’re not the priority. There’s also no HDMI connectivity, a head-scratcher of a decision that limits what the Playbase will be capable of in the future. For $700, both should probably be there. In some ways, the Playbase is technologically inferior to receivers and other home theater components a third of its cost.
But not everyone will care. Nilay pretty much already nailed who the Playbase is for: "Someone who already has a Sonos system and doesn’t mind paying a huge premium to add another Sonos-integrated speaker under their TV." This is for the existing Sonos customer who is willing to pay a lot of money to improve their TV’s bad speakers with something that sounds excellent and fits into the Sonos ecosystem. The pitch is a lot harder to make if you haven't already bought into the Sonos world. A standard soundbar or bargain 5.1 surround system will do the same job, albeit with less flexibility and without the same effortless user experience. Personally, I’m more excited about whatever comes after the Playbase. This feels like a long-in-the-pipeline Sonos product for a certain consumer: people with unmounted TVs. It's one hell of a living room speaker.
But next comes the real gamble.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge.