Sonos Playbar soundbar review

posted on Monday, 27th May 2013 by Steve May

Hi-fi  Wireless  Streaming  Loudspeakers 

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When it comes to wireless music systems, Sonos is ubiquitous. The company has become the default choice for consumers eager to embrace the convenience and versatility of streaming audio and wireless multi-room music. It was inevitable then that the system should have become a staple of independent AV dealers and installers, even though there are arguably more CI friendly performance solutions available.

It's not difficult to see its appeal. The Sonos system is astonishingly well designed, offering almost bullet-proof setup, and for the most part sounds darn good. The arrival of the Playbar expands the reach of the brand to the booming TV audio market and beyond into the realms of multichannel home cinema. Given the boom that the soundbar market is enjoying on both sides of the pond, it's a smart move. When not tied up with TV audio duties, the Playbar can function as just another wireless music speaker on an existing Sonos network.

Sonos Playbar: Build quality and features
At 90cm wide, the Playbar is an ideal match for larger flatscreens. It can stand tall or lie flat; an in-built accelerometer detects orientation, easing back on bass if it's near a wall. A wall mounting kit is available. The enclosure is a good deal larger and heavier than the majority of mass-market soundbar solutions, and build quality should be considered exceptional. The Playbar employs nine drivers, six mid-woofers and three tweeters, two of which are directed edgewise, each powered by its own digital amplifier. This driver complement is hidden from view behind a fabric grille. Connections include a pair of Ethernet jacks and a digital audio input. The latter is your only local input, with the TV itself acting as a source component switcher. There is no HDMI input.

Installation takes but minutes. Once the Playbar is on the network, installers need only connect it directly to the screen by a digital optical cable, then download the Sonos Controller app, available for iOS or Android (there is no dedicated remote). There's an illuminated volume control on the left hand edge of the bar, although this'll not get too much use.

The setup is predicated on being able to disable the internal speakers of the connected TV - however this function is not universally supported, and could be an issue if you're installing the Playbar with a legacy screen. Naturally the speaker shares the same streaming functionality in terms of music as any other Sonos speaker on a network, so it's not a TV-only product.

Sonos Playbar: Performance
Parked beneath a TV, the Playbar proves to be both rich and rewarding. There's a roundness to its sound which many of the mass market 'bar solutions just can't match. While there's no option for fancy DSP deliberations, a Night Mode to compress dynamics is available should users not want to disturb the rest of the house. While Sonos won't be drawn on the actual power output available, there's enough volume here to comfortably fill the average living room. Specifiers should note that the Playbar looses a lot of its mid-range sweetness when cranked up high though. The soundfield is pleasingly wide, and we didn't feel there was a need to add a sub for mainstream TV audio replay.

As a core component in a Sonos wireless home theatre system, its limitations become more apparent. To create a 3.1 (pseudo 5.1) system, we partnered the Playbar with a pair of Play:3 active speakers, used for surrounds, and the glossy Sonos subwoofer. The system links over the 5GHz band, but to maintain backwards compatibility with the original Play:5 active speaker and Connect amplification, the Playbar also has a 2.4 GHz radio onboard. The Sonos app provides a quick and effective way to pair speakers.

In multi-channel mode, the use of a digital optical feed as the source input creates obvious problems though. While most modern TV should be able to extract a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix when delivered via HDMI and squirt it out via the digital optical output (it's a component of Dolby Digital Plus), there could be issues. If your customer is using Sky as a primary source, there would be little point utilising the Playbar as part of a wireless home theatre, as the broadcaster currently does not deliver 5.1 over HDMI on its Sky+ HD boxes (although this is due to change), just stereo. An alternative setup could integrate the Playbar directly with the optical output from a Sky+ HD box.

The Playbar doesn't work satisfactorily with Blu-ray either. Without HDMI, lossless multichannel doesn't get a look in. And while there's a Dolby Digital decoder onboard, DTS support is absent. With DTS HD Master Audio pretty much the defacto standard for BD, this literally leaves the Playbar lost for words.  

All of which is a shame, as when fed Dolby Digital 5.1 the multichannel Sonos package proves to be rather enjoyable. The Playbar itself creates a brawny front soundstage, the steering is effective and the sub plummets appreciably. It's curious though that Sonos chose not to adopt an ARC (Audio return Channel) HDMI connection, alongside the optical input, as this would have improved its versatility no end.

Sonos Playbar: verdict
For existing Sonos owners, eager to bolster their TV audio, the Playbar is a solid proposition. It sounds terrific, solving the inadequacies of onboard TV speakers at a stroke, with the considerable bonus that it doubles as an additional speaker within a wider Sonos audio network when it comes to streaming music. 

Configured as part of a wireless Sonos home theatre solution, the Playbar is far less compelling. The shortcomings of the package outweigh the benefits of ease of installation. Consequently, it's difficult to believe that many will find the £1755 retail tag for a 3.1 system a decent deal. There are better solutions available.

The Sonos Playbar is available now.
Retail Price: £599
Sonos Playbar, Play:3 active speakers and Sonos subwoofer: System retail price £1755

Also read:
Sonos launches soundbar. kickstarts Wi-Fi cinema
Big boost for wireless music as Sonos plans promo blitz
Habitech launches Sire SS1 Sonos control processor

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology journalist, who also writes for T3, TechRadar, Home Cinema Choice and ERT (amongst others).

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