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Sonos Playbar review: A sound bar for Sonos disciples

The Sonos Playbar is cleverly designed and does great fake surround, but it's better suited to current Sonos owners than newcomers.

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Matthew Moskovciak
Steve Guttenberg
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Matthew Moskovciak

Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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11 min read

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Sonos perfected multiroom digital music for the home. It wasn't the first company to take on the task, but Sonos' system is so easy to use and undeniably superior that it's easy to recommend, even at a premium price.

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7.2

Sonos Playbar

The Good

The <b>Sonos Playbar</b> integrates the company's best-in-class digital music software into a thoughtfully designed sound bar. It's dead simple to set up and works seamlessly with other Sonos products, and can even be expanded to a true wireless 5.1 system by adding the Sonos Sub and two Play:3 speakers. The Playbar itself also does an excellent job with virtual surround effects, making it sound like you have more speakers than you actually do.

The Bad

The Playbar's heavily processed sound won't please purists. It's also expensive and there are considerably better-sounding alternatives in its price range. Many buyers would be fine with cheaper AirPlay or Bluetooth alternatives.

The Bottom Line

The Sonos Playbar is cleverly designed and does great fake surround, but it's better suited to current Sonos customers than newcomers.

Now Sonos wants to conquer the living room with the Playbar ($700). In many ways, the company's first sound bar is a success. Its understated looks fit Sonos' design ethos and it's ingeniously designed so it can lie relatively flush when wall-mounted or placed on a TV cabinet. The Playbar is also one of the only sound bars that does a convincing job of simulated surround sound, making it sound like there are speakers to your sides when there aren't. You can even wirelessly pair up the Playbar with the Sonos Sub and a pair of Play:3 speakers for a bonafide 5.1-channel home theater system. It's home theater, reinvented from the ground up, ditching legacy compatibility for the simplicity of wireless.

And yet, it's not an easy product to recommend, especially to Sonos newcomers. Competing sound bars like the Speakercraft CS3 ($600 street) and Harman Kardon SB 16 ($600 street) aren't as good with virtual surround sound, but they sound better in most other ways, especially when it comes to bass. Similarly, competitors may lack Sonos' best-in-class digital music software, but for most buyers streaming music from a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth or AirPlay is good enough, especially with the rise of cheap "locker" services like Amazon Cloud Player.

For Sonos disciples who are looking for better sound from their TVs, without a lot of fuss, the Playbar is a nicely designed sound bar worth its premium price. For everyone else, stick with the better-sounding alternatives that are nearly as simple.

Design: Understated and thoughtful
For a company that puts such a high priority on design, Sonos's speakers always seem rather plain in person, especially compared with the slick marketing photography. The Playbar has the same feel, with a simple, unassuming aesthetic that doesn't call attention to itself, but that's what many people are looking for in a home audio system.

Sonos Playbar
Sarah Tew/CNET

Instead, Sonos flexes its design expertise with a host of nifty features that show the company's attention to detail. The Playbar has a noticeably low profile (3.35 inches high), which helps keep it from blocking the remote sensor on your TV, thus avoiding a design drawback found on many other sound bars. And even if you happen to have a TV with an unusually low remote sensor, the Playbar actually repeats any remote signals it receives from its front panel out the back of the Playbar. One way or another, your remote signals will make it to the TV.

The Playbar also has a unique multipositional design: it works flat against a tabletop or flat against a wall for mounting. It's a clever trick that allows the Playbar to have a thin profile in either configuration, whereas other sound bars are generally either too tall on a tabletop or stick out too much when wall-mounted. A sensor inside can tell which configuration the Playbar is in and adjusts its sonics accordingly. (It needs less bass if it's wall-mounted.) There's even a second remote sensor on the Playbar that's positioned to better receive commands in the wall-mounting position.

Sonos Playbar

The Playbar can also be positioned flat against a wall.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Sonos Playbar's keyhole brackets.

There are keyhole brackets on the back for wall-mounting as well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sonos also decided against including a separate remote with the Playbar, which is a practice we've criticized other sound bars for. Sonos takes the same approach as many others do, asking you to program the Playbar to accept signals from your existing TV remote. The idea isn't a bad one -- who wants to deal with another remote? -- but in this configuration, many TVs end up displaying annoying onscreen messages. (More on that here.)

Sonos remote warning
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Sonos, to its credit, acknowledges this problem during the setup and the guided instructions even promise some workarounds to deal with the issue at the end of setup. Unfortunately it never actually got around to offering any solutions, although Sonos' Web site offers up a few ideas. In any event, many people can get around this issue by using a universal remote or their cable box remote, rather than their TV remote.

The Sonos experience, built in
The Playbar is expensive, but that's arguably because it has Sonos's best-in-class digital music software built in. You can think of it as being like a $350 sound bar with a $350 Sonos Connect built in.

If you're unfamiliar with Sonos, it's worth reading our full review of the Sonos Connect to get a more in-depth look at how the system works. The short story is Sonos gives you access to all of your digital music through a simple interface, including your personal library and a huge selection of streaming audio services like Amazon Cloud Player, Spotify, Pandora, and Rhapsody. Sonos also excels at handling multiroom audio; Sonos components throughout your house can be synced or play separate audio. What's most impressive is how simple Sonos makes everything.

Sonos iPad app
Sarah Tew/CNET

There are a few requirements you should know about going in. One is that you'll need a "controller" to really take advantage of Sonos's digital music offerings. Generally, this is a smartphone, tablet, or iPod Touch that can run Sonos Controller app, although it's possible, albeit less convenient, to control the components from a computer as well. The other requirement is that although the Playbar is technically wireless, at least one Sonos component on your network needs a wired, Ethernet connection. If you don't have any other Sonos components, you can purchase a Sonos Bridge ($50) to use the Playbar wirelessly.

Connectivity and setup
The back panel makes a statement in its sparseness: a single optical audio input, a power port, and a pair of Ethernet jacks.

Sonos Playbar back panel
Sarah Tew/CNET

The single audio input is a choice, rather than an oversight. Like many other sound bars, the Playbar expects you to connect your home theater devices directly to your TV, then connect your TV's optical audio output directly to the sound bar. In most cases, this configuration works pretty well, although note that you're limited by how many inputs your TV has. And in the particular case of the Playbar, routing audio through your TV has its tradeoffs -- more on that later.

The power port only requires a slim cable, instead of relying on a bulky power brick. As mentioned before, the Playbar requires a wired Ethernet connection unless you have another wired Sonos component on your home network. The inclusion of a second Ethernet jack lets you use the Playbar as a Ethernet switch or wireless bridge, and the latter can actually be quite handy if you don't have Ethernet in your living room.

Setup, for the most part, is incredibly easy, with Sonos guiding you with step-by-step instructions through the Controller app. We only hit one step that would require "intermediate" tech knowledge while configuring a MacBook to share its digital music library. You're required to dive into a few layers of the system preferences to allow for SMB sharing, and even though Sonos guides you the whole way, it's still a taste of networking nitty-gritty most people would rather avoid.

Sound quality: Enveloping, but artificial
The Sonos Playbar does one thing better than nearly every other sound bar: virtual surround sound. In our testing, the Sonos Playbar generated a soundfield that not only stretched to nearly the full width of the CNET listening room, but also was able to create the illusion that sound was coming from the sides of the room. Only Yamaha's higher-end YSP sound bars, which cost significantly more, do better in this regard.

The Playbar was at its best with straight dramatic movies and films that didn't make big demands on the speaker. Action films like "King Kong" fared less well. When Kong rampages through the streets of New York City and tosses cars around, the Playbar noticeably squashed the soundtrack's dynamic range.

Sonos Playbar
Sarah Tew/CNET

The sound lacked excitement, and we noticed again and again that the Blu-rays and DVDs we use as test discs in many reviews sounded very different through the Playbar. The Playbar relies heavily on sound processing to achieve its expansive sound, which is at times pleasant, but it's far from what the films' sound mixers wanted us to hear. The same goes for two-channel music, which often sounded soft and lacked clarity, while also sounding very different from a traditional stereo mix.

The Playbar does deliver a lot of midbass, so the sound balance is very rich and full. Dialogue sounds pleasantly warm, but intelligibility is a little below par in the standard playback mode. Thankfully, there's a Speech Enhancement feature, which actually boosted intelligibility quite a bit. The Playbar also has Bass, Treble, and Loudness controls, but they were fairly subtle and only slightly altered the sound balance of the speaker.

On the plus side, the Playbar's richly balanced sound is a big step up from the speakers built into TVs, and the Playbar's enveloping sound will impress most buyers. On the other hand, the Playbar doesn't produce any truly deep bass. Compared directly with the Speakercraft CS3, the Playbar's bass definition was rather soft and muddy, while the CS3's bass definition, dynamic range, and overall clarity surpassed the Playbar's. The CS3 also does virtual surround well, but the Playbar's is better and projects sound farther forward into the room.

The Playbar is rather pricey for sound bar without a subwoofer, so we also compared it directly with the Harman Kardon SB 16 ($600 street). The SB 16 comes with a subwoofer that's huge by sound bar standards and, unsurprisingly, it delivers much deeper and more powerful bass. The speaker's clarity and detail easily also outdid the Playbar's on a war movie like "Black Hawk Down." The explosions and gunfire in large-scale battle scenes were more exciting on the SB 16; the Playbar sounded muffled by comparison.

Next, we added the Sonos Sub ($700) to the system, which not only added bass, it significantly improved the Playbar's sound. The bass firmed up and the speaker's midrange detailing was enhanced. The Sonos Sub is smaller than the SB 16's sub, but sounded equally powerful. The Playbar-Sonos Sub combination was better, but still didn't match the SB 16's clarity.

To finish up, we listened to the ultimate Sonos home theater experience, adding a pair of Sonos Play:3 ($300 each) speakers as surround speakers. (In this configuration -- the Playbar, two Play:3s, and one Sub -- only one of them needs an Ethernet connection; the rest are wireless except for the power cord and the connection to the TV.) The additional speakers generated a somewhat more spacious, room-filling sound, but it lacked the spatial accuracy we get from a traditional receiver-based 5.1 home theater system. Jazz singer Patricia Barber's excellent music-only 5.1-channel "Modern Cool" Blu-ray had surprisingly little surround sound effect on the Sonos, which isn't what we're used to on other systems.

About that "surround" sound...
The relatively mild improvement from adding the Play 3 speakers didn't make much sense, until we dug a little deeper into the technical details of how the Playbar works. Feel free to skip this section if you don't care about the geeky particulars.

The Playbar can decode two types of audio signals: Dolby Digital and stereo PCM. If the Playbar receives a Dolby Digital signal, it can create the true surround-sound mix that's included with the movie, TV show, or video game. If the Playbar receives a stereo PCM signal, it will still create surround-sound effects, but they'll be simulated using its own processing rather than the original surround mix.

The problem is that in the vast majority of cases, the Playbar will never get a true Dolby Digital signal. That's because the Playbar requires you to route audio signals through your TV and most TVs "dumb down" incoming surround signals to stereo via their optical output. We tested several TVs in the CNET lab and only one of them (Sony's high-end XBR-55HX950) passed a true Dolby Digital signal to the Playbar via its optical audio output. In every other case, the TV would pass a stereo PCM signal to the Playbar, which then created a pseudo-surround mix based on its own processing.

Furthermore, there's no way of getting a true surround mix from a Blu-ray or DVD that has a DTS (rather than Dolby) soundtrack. Even if there's a TV that will pass a native DTS signal to the Playbar, it doesn't have the decoding to take advantage of the true surround mix. (None of the TVs we tested passed DTS signals, for what it's worth.)

And the kicker is that the Playbar sounds dramatically better when it receives a true Dolby Digital signal. Not only with the Play:3 surround speakers, which then produced excellent surround effects, but also with the Sonos Sub, which had much clearer bass definition. In our test setup, we were easily able to flip back and forth between the true surround mix and the Playbar's simulated surround mix, and the difference wasn't subtle.

The practical outcome won't bother less critical listeners; the Playbar still does a better job of creating a big soundstage than the vast majority of sound bars, even if it's not the "true" surround mix. But it's still bothersome to know that the Playbar can sound significantly better, especially with additional Sonos components, but is hamstrung by annoying technical issues (albeit ones that are the fault of the TV). As it stands, Playbar owners with the Sonos Sub or Sonos Play: 3 surround speakers or both won't be able to consistently hear the sound the system is capable of.

What are the alternatives?
The Playbar is part sound bar, part digital audio system, so there's no one single product that offers precisely the same experience. However, it's not hard to put together a system that sounds better and offers nearly same functionality for less money.

The best alternative is the Speakercraft CS3 ($600). It sounds better, it looks just as good, and with built-in Bluetooth, you can stream audio from any app on your smartphone or tablet, regardless of operating system. Similarly, if you have an iPad or iPhone, you can pair up an Apple TV ($100) with the Harman Kardon SB 16 ($600). Not only will you be able to stream audio from any app via AirPlay, but the Apple TV can also access music stored on a computer running iTunes.

Both of those alternatives get to the same truth: if you don't need Sono's excellent multiroom flexibility, AirPlay and Bluetooth actually duplicate a lot of the Sonos experience these days. Sure, Sonos is still a slicker system, especially if you have a large personal library of music, but for the average buyer Sonos is overkill.

If you're set on Sonos, you can also easily pair up a Sonos Connect ($350) with the Harman Kardon SB 16. The Harman Kardon includes a wireless subwoofer, so while that combo ($650) is more expensive than the Playbar on its own, it's less than half of the Playbar and Sonos Sub combo ($1,400 total).

Conclusion: Not for everyone
The Playbar has its charms. It's well-designed and innovative, with great virtual surround effects that you can't get elsewhere without spending more. Sonos also has delivered on truly painless setup for both the sound bar and its digital music software, which is no small feat.

But ultimately we can't love the Playbar because, well, we wouldn't want to listen to it every day. It sounds like no other sound bar and, since our tastes skew purist, its processed sound gets tiresome over time. It's easier to live with the Playbar for movies and TV, but for a sound bar that's so focused on music -- this is Sonos, after all -- we wanted it to sound a lot better with stereo music. Especially for $700.

If you're invested in the Sonos ecosystem and aren't a purist about sound quality, the Playbar is a solid choice as a way to get better sound out of your TV. But for Sonos newcomers, the Playbar isn't a great entry point to the company's line, as it's less impressive as a standalone product.

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7.2

Sonos Playbar

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 7Value 6