Hands On: Sonos PLAYBAR Soundbar
When is a soundbar more than just a soundbar?
March 04, 2013 by Grant Clauser

Most of today’s soundbars are one-trick ponies, offering an important upgrade over your TV’s built-in crappy speakers. Some do a decent job of creating a three-dimensional soundfield that simulates a 5.1 system, while some make hookup easy via one or two cables and wireless subwoofers. The new Sonos PLAYBAR does both, but goes far beyond being just a TV speaker replacement. The PLAYBAR may be the most sophisticated speaker product you can get, though it still won’t be enough for some people.

Sonos’ main product line is composed of a variety of speakers and connection devices designed to make multiroom music easy for anyone. With a Sonos system, you can access a wide variety of streaming music sources (Pandora, Slacker, Spotify, Rhapsody, etc.), as well as your own digital music selection, all over a wireless mesh network that covers your house. A basic Sonos system includes a gateway that connects to your Internet router and speakers and/or amplifiers to spread Sonos to the room(s) where you want music (read about the Sonos PLAY:3 speaker here and the Sonos Sub here). You can choose your music and set the volume through a remote app for either iOS or Android. In addition, control systems such as Control4 and URC’s Total Control also provide integration with the Sonos environment. 

The PLAYBAR is quite an advanced piece of engineering, being built around nine drivers—six midrange drivers and three tweeters, all custom designed in-house and manufactured by Sonos. The drivers are mounted on a 45-degree angle, allowing the speaker to be hung flat on a wall or rest on a tabletop with no change in the directionality of the speaker. Two of the three tweeters are mounted on the ends of the unit, at angles that help create a wide, enveloping soundfield. Each drive unit is powered by its own Sonos-designed class D amplifier. More than 20 different automatic tunings help create the PLAYBAR’s sound.

Setup and Play

Like the other parts of the Sonos family, the PLAYBAR is extremely easy to set up and use. Going from unpacking to use will take a person about 10 minutes. The speaker’s connection include an AC power cord and a digital optical cable for the audio. You can connect the speaker to your home network with an Ethernet cable to your router or wirelessly via a Sonos Bridge, if your router isn’t near the TV. The ideal user is someone who already has a Sonos system in the house and wants to add the PLAYBAR. In any case, once connected to the home network, Sonos sets up its own Wi-Fi network to speak to other Sonos components in the house.

The PLAYBAR doesn’t come with a remote, so you won’t be adding to your living room’s remote clutter. For most of the speaker’s tricks, you’ll need the smartphone app. However, for simply adjusting the volume, the PLAYBAR lets you use your TV’s existing remote via a built-in IR sensor in the speakers. The PLAYBAR’s app includes step-by-step instructions to set up that trick. Being able to use your TV’s remote (or your DVR remote, which is what I did) will be a big relief for people who were worried that they’d have to flip on an iPhone app every time they wanted to turn the volume down during commercials.

The Most Versatile Speaker

So what can a PLAYBAR do that other soundbars can’t? A lot, actually. In fact, its TV speaker capabilities are far from the most interesting thing about it.

First, the PLAYBAR can easily be laid flat on a table or hung on a wall (wall-mounting hardware costs extra). A built-in orientation sensor changes the system’s EQ to accommodate the speaker’s position. 

As I noted earlier, there’s only one audio connection in the system—a digital optical input—that connects your TV to the speaker. All your TV sources first need to be connected to your TV via whatever connection you prefer (most likely HDMI). This is convenient if you like the idea of one cable between your TV and the speaker, but there are some tradeoffs I’ll get to later.

The optical connection to the speakers does more than just let you listen to your TV audio over the soundbar. It also makes your TV audio part of a larger Sonos audio system, assuming the PLAYBAR isn’t the only Sonos component in your house. This means that if you want to listen to a baseball game both in your living room and another part of the house, you can direct the TV’s audio to another Sonos component, such as a PLAY:3 speaker. This feature is only available via the “Group” option, which means you can’t play TV audio on the dining room’s PLAY:5 and Pandora on the PLAYBAR. They have to be playing the same thing.

While that’s cool, you don’t get a PLAYBAR because you’re only interested in your TV’s audio. You get it because you want easy access to all that online content—and much of it (Pandora, Slacker, Songza, and TuneIn) is free. The smartphone app puts nearly any music you can possibly imagine at your fingertips. If you have other Sonos components, you can play the same music all over the house or different music in each room, all with the same single Internet connection. There’s even a cool AirPlay-like feature that uses Wi-Fi to stream your iPhone’s music to your Sonos system.

Within the PLAYBAR, TV audio takes priority. That means if you’re playing Pandora music and switch on the TV, the PLAYBAR automatically switches to the TV’s audio signal.

While most people will select a soundbar just to replace their TV’s speakers, some may still want the full 5.1 experience. The PLAYBAR actually allows for that. With a PLAYBAR you can add a pair of PLAY:3 speakers and even a Sonos Sub to create a 5.1 system. The Sonos app will walk you through the process and make the appropriate sound processing changes to direct the signal appropriately.

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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