Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
The number of soundbars entering the market has been growing at an astounding rate, so I was not terribly surprised to hear that Sonos was entering the fray. The Sonos Playbar (Sonospeak for soundbar) can compete with other soundbars as a powered three-channel soundbar, but it has one feature up its sleeve that puts it in its own category. Unlike every other soundbar available, the $699 Sonos Playbar has a built-in Sonos receiver. I suspect that most of you are familiar with Sonos, but for the few of you who are not, Sonos is a music streaming system, consisting of hardware and software that allows the wireless streaming of music from your computer system or a variety of online streaming sources. While there is now a huge number of these systems available on the market, Sonos has a combination of robustness, feature set, and ease of use that keeps it at the top of this market. For more information, please see our prior review of the Sonos Play:3.
The Playbar is a three-channel active soundbar that can be expanded to a 3.1, 5.0, or 5.1 system with the addition of other Sonos items. While the channel options are pretty commonplace, the Sonos Playbar's streaming and network capabilities and the way Sonos implements the additional channels puts it in its own class. The ability for the Playbar to play any music you have stored on a network computer or from a large number of compatible streaming services via the Sonos system gives the Playbar unparalleled flexibility and ease of use.
The Sonos Playbar measures roughly 35 inches wide by 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches. I cannot really say if it is 3.5 inches high and 5.5 inches deep or vice versa, as the Playbar can be set up either way. The front and top sides of the Playbar are wrapped in black fabric with silver/gray aluminum and plastic accents and panels. Regardless of setup orientation, your view of the Playbar will be primarily that of black speaker cloth with an accent panel containing a silver strip at the bottom and a small IR receiver window toward the right. If the wide side is facing forward, the accent strip will have the Sonos logo in the center. With either orientation, the listener is provided with a clean-looking and unobtrusive speaker, which is fine by me. The last thing I want below my television is something that would provide a visual distraction. The wide side has a pair of feet; each foot has a keyhole mount to allow wall-mounting without any additional hardware. The narrow side that would face the back or bottom has a recessed panel to connect the AC cable, optical digital input, and a pair of Ethernet ports. Lastly, the side panels are mesh grilles trimmed in the same silver/gray color trim rings. One side has the traditional Sonos control panel, consisting of a volume-up/-down rocker switch and a mute button (which can also function as a play/pause button thanks to a recent software update) separated by a small status light.
The clean and simple exterior hides a complex interior with nine separate drivers, each with its own channel of Class D amplification, an accelerometer to determine orientation, a wireless receiver, and sound processing circuitry. The Playbar has a pair of 3.15-inch aluminum midrange drivers and a one-inch titanium dome tweeter for each of its three channels. All nine drivers are mounted on a rigid 45-degree baffle. The angle of the baffle allows the Playbar to be used with either the narrow or wide side facing the listener.
I connected the Playbar to an older 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV, placing it on a shelf immediately below the television with the narrow baffle facing forward. The only physical connections that had to be made were a power cable and the optical digital audio (Toslink) connection between the television and Playbar. I have had a Sonos system up and running in my house for about two years now, so the software was already running on my computer. I simply opened the Sonos application on my iPad and added the Playbar to my Sonos system. The Sonos application then walked me through setting up my television's remote to control the Playbar's volume, and I turned off the television's internal speakers.
Some other setup options are available in the Sonos application, including options for "Speech Enhancement," "Night Sound," loudness, lip-sync delay, IR signal light, and IR repeater. I initially left all these at their default positions but turned off the white status light on the side panel, as it was bright enough to be distracting in a dark room.
Read about the performance of the Sonos Playbar soundbar on Page 2.
I began my listening session by using the Playbar as a traditional soundbar with television broadcasts. Listening to the morning news show I have been watching for a few years (KTLA out of Los Angeles) and have heard many times through a variety of speaker systems, I quickly noted that familiar voices had pronounced bass through the Playbar at lower volumes. The bass emphasis caused the voices of the male anchors to be somewhat muddy. This emphasis was reduced to a more balanced level as I increased the volume, and the male vocals became clear again. However, turning up the volume to make voices intelligible is not always an option, especially when others are sleeping. Thankfully, Sonos' Speech Enhancement option works very well. Activating Speech Enhancement reduced bass and boosted the center channel and vocal frequency range, making voices very easy to hear. During my time with the Playbar, my wife and I watched our normal television shows, including Blue Bloods and Hawaii Five-0, among others. Here we sometimes engaged the Night Sound and found it to be effective in reducing loud peaks without rendering the softer passages inaudible, but it could also make some voices sound thinner, so we left it off most of the time.
When watching Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks, Blu-ray) with my son, I noted that the Playbar had decent low-frequency extension. Bass was noticeably fuller and deeper than the television's internal speakers, reproducing much of what the internal speakers only imply. While the Sonos certainly did not provide the seat-shaking experience of a full-size speaker, I never felt that I was missing part of the soundtrack. I did not have the Sonos subwoofer in my system to review; however, I have listened to a Playbar setup that included the Sonos Sub on a few occasions, and I found that it not only increased low-frequency extension, but also provided a greater amount of clarity in the midbass. Sonos explains that the system reconfigures its equalization and crossovers when the Sub is connected. Pretty clever. Even without the subwoofer, we were able to watch the movie at reasonably high volume without any bottoming out of the woofers. This does come at a price, though. I found that, as the volume increased, so did the amount of sound processing. This processing included compression and a shift in the tonal presentation, most noticeably in the reduced bass output. The rest of the frequency range is also affected, but to a lesser degree.
We also watched Iron Man (Paramount, Blu-ray). This time I had a pair of Sonos Play:3 speakers set up to act as surrounds. Connecting the Play:3s as surrounds was simple and straightforward. I placed them in position and plugged them into the wall. Then, using the Sonos application, I was able to designate which speaker was in which position and the approximate distance between them. The Sonos application then reconfigured the speakers to work together. The whole process, from the time I had the speakers plugged in, was under five minutes. The Sonos system is compatible with Dolby Digital but not DTS signals. The Iron Man Dolby Digital soundtrack, played back through the complete Sonos system, had an enhanced sense of space when compared to the Playbar on its own. The lateral image appeared to extend a couple of feet out from each side of the television. The surround channels were properly synced to the Playbar, with no sign latency or delay from the wireless transmission system. When I later watched some of the same scenes without the Play:3 speakers in the system, the soundstage still extended laterally beyond the television, but not quite as much as before.
The prominent bass response of the Sonos Playbar was well suited to music, such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" from the album The Heist (Macklemore, CD saved as FLAC file). The bass notes were reproduced with authority, but the more subtle bass notes on Mumford & Sons' "Little Lion Man" off of Sigh No More (Glassnote, CD saved as a FLAC file) seemed to be a bit blurred, and I found myself using the Sonos application's tone control to turn the bass response down a notch.
I use the music examples above to try to convey the bass response that the Playbar provides; in short, it is slightly boosted and loose. I have not commented much on the rest of the frequency range, because it did not stand out, which is not a bad thing. During my many hours of listening to television, movies, and music, there were no signs of harshness or abnormalities that would distract the listener from the source material.
When using the Playbar as part of a 5.1-channel system, the most notable downside is going to be the lack of DTS support. This can often be circumvented by selecting an alternate soundtrack, but it's annoying nonetheless.
I would have said that the inability to use non-Sonos speakers in the surround position would be a downside, but Sonos has announced a software update that will allow a Connect Amp to drive the speakers of your choice in the surround positions.
The loose bass at low volumes reduced the clarity of male voices unless the Speech Enhancement circuitry was engaged. This was less noticeable in the systems I listened to that incorporated the Sonos Sub, and I would prefer that the default equalization (without the subwoofer) be more like the with-subwoofer equalization.
A small annoyance was the "Speakers Off" message that popped up on my TV screen every time I adjusted the volume. While this is not a problem with the Playbar itself, perhaps this could have been eliminated if the Playbar came with its own remote that could control the (non-audio) television functions, rather than the other way around.
Competition and Comparison
My limited listening experience with the GoldenEar SuperCinema 3D Array and B&W Panorama 2 soundbars indicates that there is some room for improvement with the Sonos. Both of these more expensive soundbars ($1,000 and $2,200, respectively) provide more detail and image depth, although I do not recall the GoldenEar's bass response being as strong as the Playbar's. Notably, neither of these competitors has any streaming capabilities, and the GoldenEar is a passive soundbar requiring outboard amplification.
Vizio's less-expensive S4251w-B4 soundbar includes surround speakers, a wireless subwoofer, and some streaming capabilities for only $330. I have not heard this setup, but I understand that the sound quality is significantly better than the rock-bottom price would suggest. Check out our Soundbar category page for other soundbar reviews.
The Sonos Playbar has a lot going for it, which makes it an easy recommendation. The combination of solid sonic performance and easy-to-use streaming capabilities makes it a winner for just about anyone. If you want to be able to stream music to your soundbar, the Playbar is a must-audition product. That said, if streaming is not a feature that you will ever use, there are many competitive options. The Playbar still remains competitive, but loses the advantage of its signature feature. The Sonos Playbar's ability to wirelessly connect to a Sonos subwoofer and surround speakers eliminates some of the competition, and the increased performance that comes with the automatic optimization of the crossovers and equalization when the Sonos Sub is utilized further elevates the Playbar among the competition.
I enjoyed my many hours of listening to music, television, and movies through the Sonos Playbar. The sound quality is an enormous improvement over my television's internal speakers and allowed me to become much more engaged with what I was watching. This improvement in sound quality, in addition to the streaming capabilities, makes the Playbar a great addition to a bedroom or other room that's too small to accommodate a traditional speaker setup.