Sonos has a brand new speaker for the first time since 2013. The company has redesigned and refreshed some existing products in its popular lineup of multi-room audio speakers since then, but today marks the introduction of Sonos’ first wholly-new device since the Playbar. Yes, it’s called the Playbase, and yes, it’s another speaker meant to be paired with your television. The $699 Playbase, which starts shipping April 4th, has a relatively simple reason for existing: most TVs — Sonos says roughly 70 percent — aren’t wall-mounted. Those people, who just attach their TV to the stand in the box and call it a day, are who the Playbase is for. If your set is mounted, Sonos is still selling the Playbar at the exact same price point. This isn’t so much a successor as it is an alternative.
The Playbase supports TVs up to 75 pounds. If your TV stand sits beneath your set at the center, you can just put it directly on top of the Playbase. If not, for TVs that have legs on each side, the unit’s height (2.28 inches) should allow it to fit between them underneath the display in many cases.
It’s not an attention grabber in the grand scheme of your living room, but if you examine the Playbase up close, the design is pretty impressive. Weighing a little under 20 pounds, the Playbase feels like a solid, seamless piece of polycarbonate. It’s like a squashed, flattened Play:5. Tap on it with a knuckle and it’s not hollow. There’s no rattling inside. Sonos’ designers have structured the Playbase to withstand the weight of a TV “for years” and it feels every bit that sturdy. Up front is the Sonos logo, flanked by 43,000 individually-drilled holes that increase in size as they progress to the sides of the Playbase. The top surface is completely smooth and flat, featuring the same touch controls as the Play:5 speaker. Around back are three ports: ethernet, optical audio, and a power input.
The Playbase can join your existing wireless Sonos system for multi-room audio, and the company claims it to be “equal parts TV and music speaker.” Inside are 10 drivers: 6 of them midrange, 3 tweeters, and 1 flat-mounted subwoofer to cover the low end. Each is custom designed to maximize performance and deliver better audio playback than you’d expect from the speaker’s footprint. Sonos’ designers love talking about the “S port” inside (which carries airflow from the woofer, while also improving bass response and cooling) as just one example of the precise, thought-out engineering that went into the Playbase.
You can pair the Playbase with Sonos’ Sub subwoofer for another $700, add two Play:1 speakers ($200 each) for a proper 5.1 surround setup, or do both of those things for the best possible sound output. That quickly gets expensive, however, and at a recent press gathering at the company’s Boston offices, Sonos was happy to demonstrate how good the Playbase performs on its own merits without the added components. Sonos’ Trueplay feature, which optimizes playback for the room by analyzing its characteristics with your smartphone’s microphone, plays a big part in that.
And by itself, the Playbase did sound nice to my ears. Producer Giles Martin, who holds the position of “Sound Experience Leader” at Sonos, said he conferred with movie composers and music studio engineers alike to find the right balance for the Playbase. The takeaway is the same as with other Sonos gear: if you want to avoid Googling and researching, and if you’re willing to spend a decent amount of money for something that sounds very good, this — like the Playbar before it — will certainly rise to the top of any recommendations pile.
But home theater enthusiasts might be disappointed with some of the technical omissions. For one, the Playbase uses Dolby Digital for surround and doesn’t support DTS multichannel audio. Neither does the Playbar. Here’s what a company spokesperson had to say about that decision (emphasis ours):
For home entertainment, DTS content is only found on physical media such as DVD, Blu-ray and Laserdisc – no video streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu support DTS. Sonos is focused on modern listeners who predominantly stream and because most physical discs encode DTS at bitrates substantially similar to Dolby Digital, we have decided to not support DTS on PLAYBASE as we don’t believe it offers a better listening experience for the majority of owners.
So that could be one strike for certain buyers. Second, since optical is your only choice for audio input, there’s no HDMI ARC or CEC functionality to be found. Sonos reasons this by saying it went with the more prevalent, popular connector. “While newer HDMI standards such as HDMI ARC and CEC promise increased control functionality, they are unlikely to be found on TVs that are several years old and are still implemented in a fragmented way across newer TV models,” the Sonos spokesperson said. “We continue to monitor the state of HDMI audio implementations in the market for future roadmap products.” I consider that a slight inconvenience more than anything resembling a deal breaker.
But there’s yet another confounding design choice that Sonos made with the Playbase as the company readies support for Amazon’s Alexa and (hopefully) other voice assistants this year. It’s about to ship a brand new product without microphones built in. Instead, you’ll have to rely on an Echo or perhaps eventually a Google Home for relaying your questions and commands about what music to play.
That goes against what CEO Patrick Spence told The Verge in an interview earlier this year, when he said that Sonos products should “absolutely” include far-field microphones moving forward. The Playbase has been in the works for several years now — before voice became a major priority for Sonos — so that’s likely the reason it can’t respond to your Alexa queries out of the box.
Even so, the Playbase offers an attractive mix of features. No, the speaker-as-TV-stand idea isn’t new, and the $699 cost will immediately disqualify Sonos’ latest product for some people. Scoffing at that asking price is perfectly valid, regardless of how many hours designers spent obsessing over the details. But for that money you’re getting a speaker with an elegant, built-to-last design, and one that can easily stream your favorite songs from Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, and other services when it’s not being used to heighten the immersion of Netflix, Blu-rays, or video games. Other sound systems and soundbars can accomplish the same thing, but Sonos’ brand recognition will immediately put the Playbase in a strong position. It’s the other half of the company’s TV play. If your TV is wall-mounted, the Playbar is what Sonos would suggest. But for everyone else, now there’s this.
I’m still hoping Sonos will try something different and truly fresh soon — like a water-resistant outdoor speaker, or something you can take anywhere. But the company isn’t there yet. We’ll be giving the Playbase a more thorough listen soon. If you can’t wait, existing Sonos customers get first dibs on pre-orders starting today.