Note: At the time of the review, the Sonos Playbar was available for £599, but post-Brexit prices have nudged that up to around £699 in most stores.
Sonos has established itself as the king of multi-room audio, and has traditionally been focused on providing sound for music lovers rather than film fans. However, given that the humble soundbar is the fastest-growing piece of kit in the audio market, the company has decided that's its time to turn its talents towards home cinema.
The Sonos Playbar bucks a number of Sonos trends. It’s not entirely locked into the closed world of Sonos wireless, it can be used as part of a surround set-up and will even plug into your TV. At £699 the Sonos Playbar isn’t the cheapest way to upgrade your sound system, but it isn’t half clever and convenient.
Sonos PlayBar not for you? Check out our round up of the best soundbars to buy
All of Sonos’s recent speakers, such as the Play:3, are designed to be used exclusively within the walled garden of the Sonos wireless system. This gives you access to music libraries on your computer, along with a fairly wide array of music streaming services that includes Spotify and Deezer. The Sonos Playbar offers all this, but is also designed to plug into your TV, to replace its weedy internal speakers.
This helps to explain the Sonos Playbar’s design; with a super-slim profile of under 9cm, the Playbar is designed to sit under your TV, either mounted to the wall or laid flat on a table. And at 90cm wide, it is designed to live happily under TVs of 42-inches and larger.
Although it wants to more-or-less melt into the background of your lounge, the Sonos Playbar is still a good-looking and fantastically well-made speaker. The parts of the bar that aren’t covered by the smooth, soft fabric grille are made of aluminium – whereas many lesser soundbars are constructed of plastic. At 5.4kg, the Sonos Playbar isn't particularly light, however build quality is fantastic.
Like every Sonos product, the Playbar has very limited connections. There are two Ethernet ports, the power socket and the all-important optical input. Where every other TV-related audio gadget has moved to HDMI, the Sonos Playbar uses an optical audio input – make sure your TV has an optical output before buying.
Plugging in the Sonos Playbar is delightfully simple, but setting the thing up is a little more involved. For starters, if you’re not going to plug the Playbar directly into the router, you’ll need a Sonos Bridge, which acts as the Playbar’s entry point into your home wireless network.
You’ll also need to install the Sonos app onto a smartphone or tablet to pass through the set-up wizard. Sonos tries to make the set-up process as beginner-friendly as possible, but there’s a lot more legwork involved than in your average soundbar.
This is in part because the Sonos Playbar also lets you replace your TV’s remote with the Sonos app. The Playbar features an IR blaster, letting it transmit the same signals as a remote control, and part of the set-up is telling the Playbar exactly what sort of remote it needs to emulate. You can skip this part if you prefer, though.
This functionality could arguably have been implemented more easily with an Arc-enabled HDMI port, which can pass on remote-style commands. But then not every TV has an Arc HDMI port. Every approach has its issues.
Once fully set-up, your TV and the Sonos Playbar can be fully controlled using an iPhone, iPad or Android device. The Sonos app works well, and intuitively integrates wireless music services like Spotify and Napster, and TV audio. The Sonos interface does lack the presentation gloss of the proprietary apps for Spotify and Napster though. Where their interfaces have improved fairly rapidly over the last year or so, the Sonos app looks much like it always has. And thanks to the closed nature of the Sonos system, you can’t use apps other than Sonos’s.
Time for a new layer of paint perhaps, Sonos?
Sonos normally keeps fairly quiet about the exact driver arrays in its speaker units, but it’s happy to shout about the Sonos Playbar, which uses six mid-range drivers and three tweeters.
This may sound like a large number, but it’s a fairly common, and common-sense setup for what is effectively a 3.0 soundbar. Each of the left, right and centre channels gets two mid-range drivers and a tweeter, while the left/right tweeters are mounted on the edge of the bar at roughly 45-degree angles to fire positional audio data as wide as possible.
Higher-frequency sound is far more positional than lower-frequency sound, which is why it’s important to put your home cinema satellites in the right place, but your subwoofer is far more flexible about where it sits.
This driver setup works extremely well, producing a wide, detailed and grand-sounding soundstage. The Sonos Playbar creates sounds genuinely larger than its size – however we did find that the best results came from positioning the soundbar “upright” rather than on its back, as Sonos suggests.
The Sonos Playbar’s sound is exceedingly crisp and detailed, a tonality that’s common in aluminium-bodied speakers. There’s real finesse in its delivery of music and dialogue alike.
Given the speakers it has at its disposal, bass performance is pretty impressive too. For relatively small drivers, the Sonos Playbar can pump-out mid-bass tones with surprising authority. However, it fails to deliver low bass and sub-bass sound. The drop-off is pronounced, and means that the Playbar alone isn’t quite enough to do justice to an explosion-packed action movie. A sub-less system also lacks a little warmth compared with a more traditional set-up.
That’s where the Sonos Sub comes in. The Sonos Playbar can be used happily enough on its own, or you can add the £699 Sonos subwoofer as part of a 3.1 setup. Feeling especially flush? You can also add a pair of Play:3 speakers to upgrade to a full 5.1 surround sound rig. However, this pricey package will seem ever-so-slightly terrifying to some.
Other Sonos kit and other non-Sonos speakers cannot be used as part of the Playbar surround system. It’s also worth noting that only external sources will offer surround – all of the content within the Sonos library of streaming services is stereo.
It’s hard to deny that the Sonos Playbar is anything but a success. It looks good, works a treat and has the sound delivery to act as the main sound source in your living room. It also has the punch of some soundbar systems that include a small subwoofer.
What it is not, though, is cheap. There’s a premium here to pay for the convenience, class and quality that you get with a Sonos product – and we can’t deny that you could get a better-sounding 5.1 system for the same price than what Sonos’s full setup would bring. However, what it does, it does exceedingly well.
The Sonos Playbar is a lounge-unifying device that will let you dump your remote controls and your old hi-fi in the bin. Once you've set it up, it’ll also let you control both your TV and your audio system with your phone. For everything but the most crashing of movie soundtracks the Sonos Playbar sounds great too, with excellent clarity and an expansive soundstage. Sadly, all this convenience and minimalist Sonos style doesn't come cheap at £699, a figure that quickly rises to around two grand should you want to build around the Playbar to reach its full 5.1 potential. Ouch.
Read more: Best soundbars to buy
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