Soundbars were born in part from frustration caused by the lackluster sound that HDTVs produced. That's why most soundbars focus on improving how you hear dialogue but care little about music playback. Sonos, a pioneer in multiroom music systems, is playing to its strengths with the $699 Playbar—the company created a soundbar that excels at music as well as dialogue and sound effects, and can stream from a variety of online sources. But is it worth hundreds more than less versatile soundbars?
Sonos applied the simple and sophisticated style it uses for its modular speaker system to the Playbar. At 35 inches long, it isn't quite as large as many other soundbars, but that didn't stop Sonos from packing in six midrange drivers and three tweeters; compare this to the $500 JBL Cinema SB400, which includes two midrange drivers and one tweeter.
As a result of all those drivers, the unit weighs more than other soundbars at almost 12 pounds, and is deeper at 5.51 inches; the SB400 weighs 7.4 pounds and is only 2.5 inches deep. You can set the Playbar under the HDTV or mount it to the wall above or below the speaker; when you wall-mount the unit, you change the orientation so that the 5.51-inch dimension becomes the height and the 3.35-inch dimension is the depth—which is easier to handle but still sticks out quite a bit.
The Playbar doesn't come with a subwoofer but you can get one separately. That's a real advantage of the Playbar: you can add on to it. Add two Sonos Play:1 speakers and a subwoofer and you have a complete 5.1 home theater speaker set. But the expansion will cost you: Each Play:1 runs $199 while the subwoofer costs as much as the Playbar at $699. By comparison, the Vizio S4251w-B4 soundbar brings 5.1 sound for just $300.
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Unlike some other soundbars, the Playbar isn't intended to act as a video hub; it has no HDMI inputs. You connect all video sources directly to the HDTV and then use an optical digital audio cable to send the sound from the TV to the Playbar. The Playbar also lacks Bluetooth connectivity, meaning all audio sources need to come through the TV or play from the Sonos app.
Sonos offers only minimal buttons on the right side of the speaker; in addition to a power button, you can adjust the volume. The status indicator light below the power button is the only visual cue that the Playbar provides, as you access all other functions and features through the Sonos mobile app.
Setup and Use
Connecting a Playbar to your HDTV involves a single optical digital audio cable (if your TV doesn't have optical audio output, look elsewhere). You handle the rest of the set up through the free Sonos Controller app for iOS or Android (Mac and PC versions are also available). I used the iOS app for this review.
The Playbar needs to be connected to your network for setup; after that, it doesn't need to be connected to the network, but if you aren't connected you limit your control of the sound. The app walks you through each step, and I was able to connect to my Wi-Fi network in a few minutes. You can also use an Ethernet cable to connect the Playbar to a router.
During the setup process, you can program your TV remote to control the volume of the Playbar. When prompted by the app, push the volume button on your TV remote and the Sonos learns the command. It worked on the first try for me with my Panasonic TC-P55ST60.
Sonos App and Services
If you only want to use the Playbar for better sound from your TV, you don’t really need the app once you've completed set up. But if you don't take advantage of the extras that come with a Sonos, your money would be better spent elsewhere. As good as the Playbar sounds, it's the extras that make it worth the premium price.
In the app, you can log in to your accounts for music services, including Amazon Cloud Player, Spotify, Google Play Music, Beats Music, Pandora and most other popular subscription and free streaming services. To play music from these services, you must use the Sonos app. You can also play music that is stored on the mobile device you are using, but again you play it through the Sonos app.
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I found the app's interface intuitive; it makes it easy to access your existing playlists and music libraries within each service. The app also has options for boosting bass and treble to tweak the sound, but I didn't find it necessary to adjust either.
Sonos knows sound, and the Playbar lives up to the brand's reputation.
While watching movies, the Playbar fills the room remarkably well for such a small soundbar. Since it isn't a 5.1 system, it seeks to emulate surround sound—and in the process creates a wide field of sound that makes the viewing experience immersive. In a Blu-ray version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the Playbar deftly reproduced the eerie sound of the spiders lurking in Murkwood forest as they ambush Bilbo and the dwarves—sounds that are part of the surround mix on a 5.1 system.
The Playbar includes a speech enhancement setting in the app that boosts the mid-range volume and greatly improves the clarity of dialogue, which I found particularly useful when listening to the narrators in Ken Burns' The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, as well as Frank Underwood's Southern-dialect heavy monologues in House of Cards. Without it on, the voices often got lost in the mix.
In most cases the Playbar alone produced enough bass to give the intent of the low-end effects, though in chase scenes from The Dark Knight I found myself missing the floor shaking that other soundbars with subwoofers can achieve.
Unlike many soundbars, the Playbar cranks tunes just as well as it reproduces movie and television sound. The digital rhythms and noises of Aphex Twins "CIRCLONT6A[141.98]syrobonkusmix" registered crisply, as did Miles Davis' trumpet on Cannonball Adderly's "Autumn Leaves." I didn't miss the sub when listening to music; the distorted bass and thumping kick drum on Jack White's "Lazzaretto" came across forcefully.
The Playbar lives up to the expectations of a Sonos speaker. It excels at audio for both movies and music. For a system with many content options, it’s very easy to set up and use. However, Sonos locks you into its app for streaming sources because it can't accept a Bluetooth connection.
If you just want full sound and clear dialogue when watching TV and movies, you can do almost as well with systems that cost half as much, such as the Vizio S4251w-B4. But, if you think you'll add more Sonos speakers to other rooms, it's well worth the investment. If music is a priority, you won't find a better-sounding soundbar at this price.