Earlier this year, Sonos introduced the PlayBar—its first soundbar—featuring the company's user-friendly approach to wireless audio. The PlayBar garnered positive reviews upon its release, so when I was presented with an opportunity to demo a unit I jumped on it. I want to thank Bob Cole from wwstereo.com for loaning me the gear for this review. Along with the PlayBar itself, I also had a chance to demo the Sonos Sub, which turned out to be an essential component, as opposed to a mere add-on.
The Sonos Playbar sports an attractive, minimalist design
The PlayBar is part of an extendable wireless system, engineered for simple setup and operation. I did not have to start from scratch because I already own a pair of Sonos Play:1 powered speakers, as well as a Sonos Bridge, which is a dedicated wireless hub that connects the system's components to each other as well as to your network router.
Adding the PlayBar took less than five minutes using the Sonos app on my Android phone. I also have the software installed on my PC and on my iPad, but I found myself managing the system from my phone out of sheer convenience.
Sonos is a software-based wireless HiFi system
I appreciate the way Sonos software walks you through the setup process. There is only one physical audio input on the PlayBar, a single optical TosLink connection. The app steps you through the setup and connection process—it even makes sure the unit is receiving a signal from the TV. Then the PlayBar performs a very cool trick—it learns to use the volume and mute controls from your existing TV remote control. I have never experienced a more user-friendly system.
Configuring a Sonos system using a PC
Once connected, the PlayBar sounded much better than my Vizio MK550d's built-in speakers. I was surprised to hear stereo imaging that extends well beyond the physical width of the unit. It is not a 3D soundfield—for that you have to add a pair of Sonos speakers as rear channels—but the overall sound quality was better than I expected.
Initially, I played a bit of Dirt Nasty's album Palatial, which features thumping hip-hop beats. Turning up the volume eventually led to some distortion in the bass region, which is understandable considering the small size of the drivers used in soundbars. However, at modest volumes, the PlayBar sounded quite good—almost as good as a decent pair of bookshelf speakers. A 20-20,000 Hz frequency sweep—recorded at the main listening position—revealed that bass response starts to roll off around 100Hz, and is down 20dB at 60Hz. The unassisted PlayBar exceeded my expectations, but it's still a soundbar at the end of the day, which means that frequency response is limited in the bass region.
I added the Sonos Sub, which vastly improved the overall performance of the PlayBar. I measured the -6dB point in the 40Hz region, and the Sub offered usable output to 24Hz, which is exactly what the manufacturer advertises. I should note that for my measurements I turned off the loudness function, which was turned on by default. With loudness turned on the -6dB point was closer to 30Hz, but I felt the feature had a negative impact on the overall sound, so I turned it off for all of my testing and listening. As always, subwoofer placement can have a significant impact on bass performance—I placed the Sub a foot from a wall, but not in a corner—my own subs were too hard to move. Corner placement would likely increase bass output at the main listening position, especially at lower frequencies. Proper placement is the key to getting the most out of any Sub.
The benefit of adding a Sub goes beyond bass extension; it also frees up the PlayBar's drivers, relieving them of bass-reproduction duties. The result is that the system plays a lot louder and a lot clearer with the Sub than without. Although it isn't cheap, the 34-pound, ported, dual opposed-driver Sub produces tight bass that digs into the 20Hz region. I consider it a must-have accessory for the PlayBar. At $700, it's a bit pricey for a compact subwoofer, but since it is also wireless, placement options are nearly unlimited—plus it looks slick and it sounds good.
Adding a Sonos Sub improved the Playbar's bass response
For my listening tests, I started out with a couple of Beatles tracks from Abbey Road—"Sun King" and "Come Together." "Sun King" starts with instruments panned left and a cricket sound on the right. The PlayBar put those sounds right where my regular speakers are located, and as the mix evolved, it did a respectable job of keeping the elements separated. "Come Together" also sounded very good, if not exhilarating. A switch to Bassnectar's "Paging Stereophonic" allowed the Sonos Sub to strut its stuff while the PlayBar created a surprisingly wide and rich sound field. The PlayBar can handle music reproduction in a pinch, but a quick switch to my reference system reminded me that it's not ideal for critical music listening.
To check out movie soundtracks, I watched the second half of Oblivion, which features plenty of surround-sound effects. Without the Sub, the PlayBar still managed to put on a respectable performance—bass lacked visceral impact, but dialog was clear, and sound effects zipped around the (relatively) expansive front stage. Turning on the Sub vastly improved the low-end response as well as the overall system dynamics. Although I am saving the details for another review, I should mention that I added a pair of Sonos Play:1 speakers in the surround positions to create a proper 5.1 system, and it worked very well. Just to be clear, without a pair of surround speakers, the PlayBar was not able to create a 3D soundfield, but the 2D image did fill up the front stage in a manner I usually associate with LCR speakers in a 3.1 configuration.
The real question is whether the PlayBar is worth buying on its own, or if it only makes sense as a part of a larger Sonos system. Based on my experience, the PlayBar absolutely needs the Sub to sound its best, especially in larger rooms and when playing at higher volumes.
Cables and complex calibration routines do not intimidate me. However, I can understand the appeal of a super-simple, compact, stylish, adaptable, and wireless sound system for non-hobbyists. The PlayBar serves an essential role in such a system. While it is functional as a standalone soundbar, it is much easier to recommend when paired with a Sub. The sound quality might not compete with wired, discrete, high-end components—but it is definitely in the top tier when it comes to soundbars and wireless audio.
The PlayBar is so simple, it reminds me of an Apple product
Thanks to Sonos' ingenious software and impressive wireless capabilities, putting together a killer wireless sound system is a cinch. If a soundbar makes sense for your system, then the PlayBar is easy to recommend.