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

As I’ve written in the past, I like the ease of use and versatility of Sonos products, but they also sound darn good. In an average size living room, a PLAYBAR sounds clear, offers a wide dynamic range, and creates a very full audio experience. It’s a huge leap over anything you’ll get from your TV’s speakers. Using Tone Generator Pro, I was especially impressed with how deep the system could go, though better bass can be had from adding the Sonos Sub.

For most music listening, the PLAYBAR offered lots of detail, evident when playing Carsie Blanton’s album Buoy. It’s full of jazzy, sorta pop-ish songs that I can’t help but like and the guitar twang, toe taps and her lovely voice filled my living room nicely.

For movies and TV, the speaker delivers as well. Listening to The Walking Dead over the PLAYBAR versus my TV’s speakers brought extra dimensions of creepiness to the show.

While the PLAYBAR does create a decent three-dimensional illusion, it doesn’t give you a real Dolby Digital or DTS-like immersion on its own. When you up the system to 5.1, you get much more of a movie feel. At times I found the rear channels to be a bit more pronounced than you’d get from a properly balanced 5.1 system with a receiver, though I also find that many people like their rear channels turned up more than what they really should be. Most of the time the PLAYBAR did a very good job of steering sound around to the rear channels. When watching/listening to the horse stampede scene in Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with the added PLAY:3 speakers for surrounds, the whole room filled with horse clatter and vampire teeth gnashing.


So for all the coolness that the PLAYBAR offers, you do have to suffer through some tradeoffs. First, and I know this is hard for many people to believe, but not everyone owns a smartphone. If you don’t have a smartphone (or at least an iPod touch) than you can’t use the PLAYBAR—end of story (a control system such as Control4 is one workaround, but buying an iPod is cheaper).

Sonos went for simplicity by using an optical input as the only audio input for the system. That does make the speaker easy to set up, but it automatically imposes audio limits on a lot of TVs, including mine. While most TVs include optical as an audio return channel, many also down-convert that signal to stereo. That means that while your HDMI cable may be delivering Dolby Digital to the TV, the TV isn’t delivering that to the PLAYBAR. If you’ve set the system up for 5.1 (with a Sonos Sub and two PLAY:3s), then you still won’t get real Dolby Digital out of it. Will you notice? Actually, probably not. When playing movies and TV shows, the rear PLAY:3 speakers worked well, adding ambient sounds and panning effects where they seemed appropriate. However, when I tried to play speaker-specific test tones from a THX Optimizer Blu-ray, the rear channels played nothing because as far as the PLAYBAR was concerned, it wasn’t getting rear channel info from my TV’s optical output.

That last tradeoff won’t affect every user in the same way, because some TVs do pass on the full audio signal, but many don’t. Still, you probably won’t miss it anyway.

What I’d really like to see is HDMI inputs on this system, and then a single HDMI to the TV. Letting you hook up your source components—DVD, Blu-ray, etc.—via HDMI directly to the soundbar would take the TV’s audio idiosyncrasies out of the picture.

Is PLAYBAR for You?

If any of this sounds interesting (and it’s hard to believe it doesn’t), you’ll want to ask yourself whether the PLAYBAR fits into the way you use your TV and listen to music. I like that the system offers users the opportunity to assemble it as a 5.1 system, but the extra cost of that option might not justify the effort ($299 for each PLAY:3 and $699 for the subwoofer). PLAYBAR by itself is probably more than sufficient for most living room entertainment systems without taking up much space or tech know-how. At $699, the PLAYBAR is one of the more expensive soundbars you’ll run into, but certainly not the most expensive, and it’s the only one with built-in streaming and multiroom integration capabilities. It delivers everything it promises and the immense access to online music means you’ll never get bored with it. Make it part of a whole-house Sonos system, and your place will be the envy of the neighborhood for parties.

But, if you’re looking to outfit a dedicated home theater or listening room, then the PLAYBAR’s convenience tradeoffs aren’t going to be for you. A dedicated home theater receiver, quality stand-alone speakers, and some streaming media device (such as a Roku) will be better, though also more expensive and more difficult to set up. PLAYBAR is a great solution for people who want ease and abundance—and that sounds pretty good to me.


More about soundbars here.

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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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