Sonos, perhaps the most established and recognizable name in wireless home audio, has unveiled its first soundbar speaker—and it’s a solid performer. The Sonos Playbar ($699 direct) delivers powerful digital surround sound with its included optical cable, and “wirelessly streams all the music on earth,” as the company puts it, using a free companion mobile app. It’s more complicated than that, as it turns out, and the system’s highly processed audio, while good for movies, isn’t for purists. If those caveats are fine with you, the Playbar is a sweet addition to any compact home theater setup, but even then, its high price may give you pause.
Design, Setup, and Connectivity
Measuring 3.35 by 35.43 by 5.51 inches (HWD), the Playbar weighs 11.9 pounds. It’s made entirely of plastic, but it’s finely crafted, with a smooth cloth grille that wraps around the rolled edges, and dark gray plastic accents along the bottom, back panel, and sides. The left side houses a pair of Volume buttons and a Mute button. The buttons are backlit, and there’s an extra status LED in between. The back panel is clean save for a recessed area underneath; there you’ll find the permanently attached AC cord, a pair of Ethernet jacks, and an optical input. There are also a pair of holes for wall-mounting the Playbar. Sonos also sells an optional $40 Playbar Wall Mount Kit that includes a bracket, six wall anchors, six screws, and a level.
The package includes a paper quick-start guide and CD-ROM that walks you through setting up music sharing and accessing your iTunes library. As a proper Sonos product, the Playbar supports wireless audio streaming, but it’s more complex than it appears. Unfortunately, the Playbar only works wirelessly if you already have a Sonos Bridge ($49) or other Sonos device wired into your router. For the Playbar to deliver wireless streaming, it needs to hook into SonosNet 2.0, an AES-encrypted peer-to-peer wireless network. If you don’t have a Bridge or other device, you’ll need to hook the Playbar up with a cable using the Ethernet port on the back panel. This is probably the biggest barrier to entry here; if you’re not already a Sonos customer, you may find that a lower-priced soundbar with Bluetooth streaming is a better value, or that you’d rather spend similar money on a system with an included powered subwoofer and superior audio performance, like the Harman Kardon SB 30
That said, one of the best things about the Playbar is the accompanying free mobile app for iOS and Android. For this review, I set the Playbar up using the optional Sonos Bridge the company sent us, and tested the Sonos app my iPhone 5. Once I configured the system through the Bridge, I really enjoyed using the app, which presents all of your music and a host of streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and preset playlists. I had no problem streaming music from my phone’s library and from Spotify through the Playbar. Skipping tracks, controlling bass and treble EQ, and switching the Loudness setting on and off were also immediate. If you have an existing Sonos system, you can also use the app to send music to different systems in the house at any time; the Playbar works as another node in the network for playing music sources.
At first glance, it appears the simplest way to get running is to just connect the Playbar to your TV’s optical audio output using the included cable. By doing that, you’ll get digital sound through any source that would normally play through your TV, such as a DVR, cable box, game console, or a Blu-ray player. Even then, though, you still have to set the Playbar up on your wireless network, because there’s no hardware remote control. While it’s probably safe to assume that anyone buying a Sonos wireless product has a smartphone capable of running the app, a redundant hardware remote would have been welcome—especially in a $700 system.
Performance and Conclusions
The Playbar packs nine Class-D amplifiers to power six midrange drivers and three tweeters. Sonos also sells the Sub ($599 direct), which is designed to pair seamlessly with the Playbar, as well as individual Play:3 ($299 direct) rear satellite speakers for genuine surround effects. It also features built-in DSP circuitry for equalizing the sound automatically.
Sonically, the Playbar shines with movies—to a point. To test the Playbar in movie mode, I connected the included optical cable to the back of a Sony LED HDTV and popped in the Blu-ray version of Tron: Legacy. During playback, the light cycles sounded suitably huge, with a spacious image that defied the restrictive borders of the speaker enclosure. Impacts and explosions during the first race scene were impressive and detailed, without crossing over into overly bright or strident. Voices sounded smooth and natural (except when they were supposed to sound computerized, which happens often in that movie).
One limitation is the unit’s digital signal processing circuitry, which begins to intervene rather heavily as you increase the volume. This is not an audio system for purists looking for the most natural sound. On the plus side, there’s a Night Mode that evens out dialog and special effects volume in order to boost clarity at lower levels.
With music, the Playbar fares just as well in a variety of settings, again, assuming you’re not looking for transparent, audiophile-level sound. I tested the Playbar with The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” our standard bass torture test track, and the Playbar handled it with aplomb, never distorting even as I turned up the unit to beyond-reasonable listening levels. The flip side: The level of actual bass went down as I turned the volume up. At moderate levels, though, Rage Against the Machine’s “Fistful of Steel” sounded good, with a gnarling electric bass and a thunderous kick drum, good (if not stellar) amounts of midrange detail, a modestly open high end, and a smooth overall presentation. Even then, though, the DSP-powered compression was always omnipresent.
By buying direct from the company, you get a 45-day return policy, free shipping, and unlimited tech support. Overall, the Sonos Playbar delivers on its promises, but in a world with easy Bluetooth and AirPlay wireless streaming, there’s some definite 2003-think in the way you set up and configure the Sonos system, and there are some sonic compromises as well.
Bargain shoppers looking for a single speaker solution should look at the Yamaha YAS-101, which doesn’t sound as impressive or go quite as loud as the Playbar, and lacks its flexible wireless streaming. But the YAS-101 does a great job on its own with movies and music in smaller rooms, and its hardware remote makes controlling the system easier out of the box. That’s assuming you really don’t want an extra subwoofer box; if you don’t mind one, the Sony HT-CT260 Home Theater Soundbar is our current budget Editors’ Choice; it delivers more output and also offers Bluetooth wireless streaming, although it’s not perfect sonically either. Our favorite high-end soundbar system is the Harman Kardon SB 30, which costs $100 more than the Playbar and lacks wireless streaming, but it sounds much more natural, and also includes a separate powered subwoofer for plenty of tight, crisp bass rumble.
|Wireless Remote Control||No|
|Type||iPod, Home Theater, Computer, Wireless, iPad, Soundbar, iPhone, Android|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc