This TV speaker can be expanded into a full wireless home theatre system - for a price...
Having effectively modernised hi-fi, the wireless titan that is Sonos has set its sights on the booming soundbar business, and seemingly almost by default, finds itself a home cinema player, too. But can the brand really replicate its audio success in the world of TV and multichannel audio?
The Playbar soundbar is a substantial piece of kit. Running 90cm wide, it’s clearly designed to partner larger displays, and can be mounted horizontally on a table or vertically on a wall. Design-wise it’s decidedly macho, hiding a battery of drivers behind a dark fabric grille; aluminium trim adds a whiff of eau du gadget. Unlike the ‘bar itself, connectivity is a little on the thin side, with just a pair of Ethernet jacks and a single optical digital audio input. What sets it apart from rival soundbars is the fact that it can be integrated within a broader multizone Sonos audio system, or expanded into a wireless home theatre system. Both options are enough to get the HCC team salivating.
To assess the Playbar as a multichannel component, we partnered it with a pair of diminutive Play:3 active speakers, used as left and right surrounds, and borrowed a Sonos SUB subwoofer, creating a 3.1 system. While the Play:3 enclosures are aesthetically an acquired taste, the subwoofer is drop-dead gorgeous, all black gloss and heft.
Setting up this Sonos theatre is a rather different experience to wiring a conventional multichannel sub/sat package. For one thing, you’ll (obviously) not need any speaker cable – if your living space is primarily bare boards you’ll doubtless breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The installation proves a doddle. I plonked the Playbar onto my network via Ethernet, coupled it to a screen with the optical lead supplied, and then downloaded the Sonos Controller app, available for iOS or Android. There’s no remote actually supplied with the 'bar itself, and the Controller is essential for setting up the system. The app allows you to wirelessly pair each of your enclosures - if only all systems were as easy to organise!
As a solo solution, the Playbar is immediately impressive. There’s a depth and richness to its output which easily eclipses the natural squawking of the average flatscreen. It produces a veritable wall of sound that’s broad and solid. The Playbar utilises nine drivers - six mid-woofers and three tweeters - two of which aim out from its edges to create the widest possible soundfield. Each driver has its own digital amplifier. While it goes pretty loud, Sonos conceals the amount of welly available. ‘You won't find rated output referenced anywhere, we prefer to let the sound speak for itself!’, I was told.
That’s as may be. But it’s worth noting that at full blast, the Playbar doesn’t draw more than around 25W from the mains – and at this volume the output becomes shard-like and unpleasant. In home theatre guise, the Playbar connects to the Play:3 satellites and SUB, using the 5GHz band (although it also offers 2.4GHz to pair with the brand’s original Play:5 active speaker and Connect amplification).
In pursuit of ease of use, the system relies on the TV itself to act as a source selector, which could prove problematic for some. Sky+ HD boxes currently don’t deliver multichannel sound over HDMI, so they can’t route multichannel sound through any telly. You also need a TV able to extract 5.1 from a connected HDMI source and output it as DD5.1 over optical. Not all can do this. Your best guide is to look for overt Dolby Digital Plus compliancy on any TV you intend to use.
You can’t partner the Playbar directly with a Blu-ray player, either. While the Playbar has a Dolby Digital decoder, it doesn’t offer any DTS support. Given that most Blu-ray movies come with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, the system would spend most of its time mute. Of course, if you haven’t yet made the jump to Blu-ray and still cherish DVD, you’ll have more joy, as unlike BD, the majority of DVD movies feature a Dolby Digital soundtrack. Yet even then, the lack of DTS decoding leads to some nonsensical home cinema situations. When playing my DVD of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine straight into the ‘bar, I could only groove to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in German or Italian, as the disc restricts its English multichannel mix to DTS.
An alternative approach that would favour Sky+ HD (and similar set-top box) users, is to run an optical output direct to the Playbar, giving unfettered Dolby Digital. The system springs into life when fed a 5.1 mix. Steerage and LFE prove deeply impressive. Rise of the Planet of The Apes, on Sky Movies HD, gives the system a fabulous opportunity to show off. The movie rocks some seriously deep bass, and the Sonos SUB doesn’t falter on the big transients, plunging deep and often. As Caesar and his green-eyed troupe break free from captivity the system thumps like a Silverback.
As a wireless soundbar, the Playbar is unquestionably intriguing, and streaming hipsters with existing Sonos hardware will find it easy to accommodate. It’s a solid, if expensive, single-box solution – you can get soundbar/subwoofer combis for much less, but these don't usually offer app control, and none bring you Sonos' music portfolio, which adds Spotify, Napster, Tunein, Last.fm, Rdio and more to whatever you've got in your iTunes library.
Put it another way: if you were considering buying a pair of Play:3s for a living room setup, you might prefer this more elegant-looking single enclosure, and using it as a soundbar for regular TV material. And you can add the superb Sonos SUB for another £600 if you wish to sample low-end delights.
However, as a multichannel home theatre solution it’s harder to enthuse over, as both source and TV need to play ball. The overall cost of a 3.1 system, using the Play:3 speakers, also fast becomes onerous. If value and true surround sound versatility are what you're after, you're better off looking at a more traditional solution.
Price: £600 Approx
Highs: Easy wireless setup; big, bold audio quality; well-built; Sonos Controller app and music services are good fun
Lows: Solitary optical input proves limiting; no DTS decoder onboard; multichannel package painfully expensive
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