Sonos PlayBase TV Sound Stand Unboxing and Review

Sonos PlayBase

Sonos deserves credit for creating the multi-room, networked lifestyle-audio category. Its innovative approach to sound prioritizes network stability and playback reliability above all other factors. This ethos led to enormous success for the company among consumers looking for attractive, easy to use audio products. Now comes the Sonos PlayBase TV stand, which is the largest speaker the wireless audio pioneer has ever built, and one that took three years to develop.

The idea behind the PlayBase is that the Sonos PlayBar—the company’s soundbar offering that I reviewed here—may not be the best fit for TVs that aren’t wall mounted. The company drilled home this point by showing a slideshow of various precarious PlayBar installations that it has encountered. It wasn’t pretty.

The photos came from research Sonos performed into where people typically place their TVs. It “discovered” what many of us already suspected; most folks put their TV on some sort of shelf, table, dresser, or stand. Armed with this knowledge, Sonos set out to create a product that’s better suited to this sort of arrangement, and the result is the PlayBase.

Like the PlayBar, the 3-channel PlayBase can link up with a pair of Sonos speakers for 5.0 surround sound and you can add a Sonos Sub to make a 5.1 wireless system.

Shortly after it was released, I managed to snag a PlayBase review unit for a couple of weeks of hands-on and ears-on experience. Here’s what I found.


Unboxing, Setup, and Specifications

If you’ve ever unpacked a Sonos product, you know the company pays attention to every detail, including packaging. This is the largest Sonos product yet, and it comes in a big box that’s as fully thought-out and expertly designed as the product itself. Check out the unboxing video:

For this review, I largely stuck with using the PlayBase as a stand-alone unit. The company makes much ado about its built-in bass-making capability, which is admittedly good for a device with such a low profile.

In keeping with the Sonos philosophy, setup was simple. The PlayBase accepts digital audio from your TV using a TosLink optical cable; there is no HDMI option. And it connects to the Sonos app via Wi-Fi, a process that requires just a few steps to complete. It even prompts you to press the volume up button on your TV remote to learn it, and it guides you through the process of disabling the built-in sound of your TV. It’s as foolproof as things get in the AV world.

An Ethernet port lets you opt for a wired connection and is also used if you don’t already have a Sonos network up and running.

Trueplay room-EQ calibration requires an iOS device to run, and it’s a fast and effective room-correction solution. All you need to do is sit in your usual spot for a few seconds and hold your phone in front of your face. Then, you get up and wave your iPhone or iPad in the air while walking around the room! The app lets you know when it has enough info to build a profile.

In all, going from unboxing to playing streaming audio and TV sound on a calibrated system that includes surround-sound took under an hour and was glitch free. Sonos built its reputation on the idea its products “just work” and the setup of the PlayBase echoed this philosophy.

The PlayBase contains 10 class-D amps and 10 drivers. It weighs just under 19 pounds and measures 2.28″ x 28.35″ x 14.96″. The chassis includes touch-sensitive controls for playback and volume adjustment.

The Sonos PlayBase is very attractive for a TV sound stand. It is so well put-together, it looks and feels like a single sculpted object, and the sharp yet curved edges create captivating gradients. I can’t imagine anybody being displeased with its aesthetics. The grille that wraps around the front and sides is notable for its 43,000 CNC-drilled holes of very specific yet varying sizes. Sonos says this grille helps with sound quality while allowing it to achieve the design goal of completely obscuring the actual drivers from sight.

As with other Sonos products, the PlayBase offers no support for hi-res audio and no Dolby Atmos. In particular, it won’t decode the uncompressed DTS soundtrack found on most Blu-rays. All that goodness is out of reach with any Sonos system, which is why I typically recommend an AVR-based system to anyone who can accommodate it. Sonos is interested in streaming content, not so much discs, and that goes for TV and movies as well as music.

With Sonos, you must be content with an ecosystem that whittles the home-theater experience down to compressed and uncompressed 16-bit audio formats. By contrast, most competing wireless systems support hi-res audio.

You can get the PlayBase in a matte-black or matte-white finish, and it’s engineered to support TVs weighing up to 77 pounds. Thanks to a low profile, it can fit under many large displays that are supported by legs instead of a pedestal—but not the Samsung Q9F I recently reviewed. The only TV I have on-hand that fits on the PlayBase is a 40″ Samsung JU6400 I use as a PC monitor; the Playbase supported that TV just fine.

Sonos PlayBase
The Sonos PlayBase worked great as a sound stand for my 40″ JU6400 UHD TV.


Performance and Listening

Sonos aims to make attractive, reliable, and intuitive lifestyle-audio products. The company also argues that sticking with CD- and DVD-quality audio (16-bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz) has its benefits, namely glitch-free streaming.

To its credit, Sonos’ products handle streaming robustly. Based on anecdotal observations—hard data is difficult to come by—the company’s app earns praise for ease of use while competitors like DTS Play-Fi, Denon HEOS, Yamaha MusicCast, Google Cast, and others are playing catch-up when it comes to intuitive usability and reliability.

The Sonos PlayBase uses a beamforming tweeter array to create an expansive soundfield that envelopes the listener without creating any distracting audio artifacts. Plus, because the bass is coming from the PlayBase and not a separate sub, the soundfield is cohesive, unlike some soundbars that feature a high crossover frequency. The most commendable thing about this unit is that it can disappear and leave you with just the sound.

Music at modest and even somewhat high volume levels was clear and punchy. While not as good as a pair of the company’s Play:5 speakers ($500 each), it was more than listenable. If you sit and pay attention to its imaging—like you would with a properly configured stereo system—the reward is a surprisingly wide and cohesive soundstage. Yes, a pair of $500/pair bookshelf speakers (think ELAC Uni-Fi) and a $200 amp will sound better (okay, much better), but the PlayBase has some oomph to it. For a TV sound stand, its audio performance is commendable.

I fed the Sonos PlayBase my ever-expanding “AVS Forum Speaker Test Tracks” Tidal playlist, and I was pleased with what I heard. On numerous occasions, it surprised me by handling challenging passages with greater ease and fidelity to the source material than I expected.

In particular, guitars—acoustic and electric—sounded great. That’s likely because the PlayBase relies on an array of wide-range tweeters that excel at reproducing fine details at higher frequencies.

The PlayBase and early-1990s electronic music got along quite well. Yes, I missed having a subwoofer while listening to The Orb’s classic “Perpetual Dawn” from Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld or “Dr. Nightmare’s Medication Time” from Pop Will Eat Itself’s 1990 album Cure for Sanity. But music of that era did not assume listeners would own a subwoofer or headphones capable of reproducing 20 Hz.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and electronic music tracks have become much more challenging in the bass department. The PlayBase was not able to pull off a proper rendition of Daft Punk’s “Disc Wars” from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. Without a subwoofer, the impact was lost. Listening to Datsik’s Sensei EP with hard-hitting tracks like “Nasty” or “Redemption” (feat. Excision) is a distinct experience than I’m used to hearing from a decent stereo. Without visceral bass—which the PlayBase cannot provide in meaningful quantities—it’s a much less exciting listen.

Of course, the PlayBase is designed to go with TVs, so how it handles TV and movie sound is critically important. The good news is that dialog is very clear, and it can play quite loud without distorting. Furthermore, adding a pair of Play:1 speakers to serve as surrounds provided a genuine 5.0 listening experience with almost zero effort.

But when compared to what’s state of the art in 2017, the PlayBase falls short—and I don’t just mean as compared to AVRs. A Samsung MS650 Sound+ soundbar ($450, reviewed here) offers similar fidelity—including impressively deep bass—plus multiple HDMI ports for a lot less than the PlayBase. And before you say “Mark, the Samsung is a soundbar and the Sonos is a TV sound stand!” I’ll point out that the Sonos PlayBar is a “tall” soundbar that’s awkward to place in front of a TV. Sonos needed something that works on a TV stand. But many modern soundbars feature a low profile and therefore work just fine on a TV stand.

TV shows—which tend to be less bass-laden than movies—sounded nice and clear through the PlayBase. If you’re watching sports, you can crank the volume, and the announcers will be clearly audible.

However, the PlayBase fell short performing full-on home-theater duty with big-budget movies. There’s simply not enough oomph in its built-in woofer to handle cinematic bass. The unit can reach down to 30 Hz or so (at -10 dB), but the maximum output level is very low in those depths. I did not make it through attempts to watch Rogue One, Patriots Day, or Deepwater Horizon. While it may be a bit snobbish, when it comes to movies I’ve seen, I’m spoiled by what AVR-based systems can do.

Sonos PlayBase Woofer
The Sonos PlayBase woofer.

Overall, with music, TV, and movie sound, the PlayBase offers good fidelity. As a stand-alone $700 luxury lifestyle product, it’s not a bad deal.

Notably, it’s a gorgeous design that offers the looks, functionality, performance, and build quality you’d expect for the price. But the cost to build a true 5.1 surround system includes adding a Sonos Sub ($700) and a pair of Play:1 speakers ($200 each) for a total system cost of $1800. That’s a lot to pay to wind up locked into a proprietary ecosystem. You need to want what Sonos offers; otherwise, you’re better off adding Sonos functionality to an AVR-based system using a Sonos Connect ($350) or perhaps a Chromecast Audio ($35) to stream music.

While 5.0 surround sound worked out fine, I’m spoiled by the Dolby Atmos soundbars I’ve heard from Yamaha, Sony, Samsung, and LG. It’s 2017, and I’d hesitate to spend $1100 on a 5.0 AV system—or $1800 on a 5.1 system—that lacks HDMI and 3D immersive-sound capability.

More to the point, with an $1800 budget, you can put together an AVR-based system that makes a 5.1 Sonos rig sound like a toy. If the goal is surround sound with subwoofer bass, you must crave the aesthetics and simplicity Sonos offers to justify the premium price.

Also, if your primary interest is listening to music in stereo, a pair of Sonos Play:5 speakers is an option that offers significantly higher fidelity than the PlayBase, albeit at a higher price.

Anyhow, the Sonos PlayBase was designed to offer a satisfying listening experience on its own, without the need for a sub or surrounds, and look good doing it. The company strives for Apple-like simplicity and has built a reputation for offering a frustration-free wireless-audio experience, and it certainly succeeds at that.


Measurements

Subjectively speaking, I have no problem heaping praise on this well-designed, luxury-oriented TV sound stand. But at the end of the day, it is a speaker system, which means it’s measurable. So, here’s the scoop on what it’s capable of doing.

When I visited Sonos in Boston for a behind-the-scenes look at the engineering that went into the PlayBase, a primary focus was on how the company shoehorned a vented woofer into the chassis by using a snake-like port tube and a custom ultra-low-profile driver. And it worked; the PlayBase can belt out surprisingly deep bass at frequencies as low as 30 Hz.

Not only can the PlayBase dig deep—though not loudly—but its capable of producing an overall frequency response that is very linear. Pre-EQ, the response had an upward tilt in the treble region that results in a bright sound. Post TruePlay EQ, bass response was flatter but higher frequencies still had that upward tilt. After turning down the treble control, it was textbook flat.  The catch is you need a measurement mic to tune it, otherwise the PlayBase defaults to being a bit on the bright side. Of course, you can simply tweak it to taste.

playbase-no-eq
PlayBase response at 1 meter, no EQ

 

playbase-eq-and-tone
PlayBase response at 1 meter with EQ and tone adjustment

 

samsung-soundbar
Samsung MS650 soundbar at 1 meter, no EQ

The size and shape of the PlayBase imposes performance limits, primarily in peak output. You’re not going to get reference-level SPL from a Sonos system. At 1 meter I measured 90 dB (C-weighted) using full-range pink noise. From 10 feet away, that figure dropped to 82 dB. You can’t push the PlayBase beyond this level; it won’t let you. The upshot is you’ll never hear clipping distortion coming from a PlayBase.


Conclusion

Given the realities of the luxury and lifestyle-audio marketplace, the gamble Sonos took to keep it simple with the PlayBase may be the right call. Certainly, consumers now have many alternatives to Sonos and its PlayBase, but based on what I see and hear, the company has a good grasp of what its target market looks for in a device such as this.

But here’s the catch. The Samsung MS650 Sound+ soundbar I mentioned earlier plays just as loud and clear as the PlayBase—I checked. Plus, it exhibits a frequency response that’s as flat as the post-EQ and treble-tweaked Sonos, without the need to run a room-correction routine. Not that there’s an option, the Samsung has no room correction.

The icing on the cake is that the MS650 digs just as deep into the bass region as the PlayBase while offering multiple HDMI inputs and an HDMI output with ARC support . All in all, it’s a better performer with more connectivity—and a physical remote—at a considerably lower price.

So, unless you explicitly want/need a TV sound stand with built-in Sonos streaming capability, based on my ears-on experiences and measurements, I’d suggest plugging a Google Chromecast into a Samsung MS650 soundbar instead and calling it a day.

I wish Sonos luck. Its products are well made, and the app is slick. Thanks to the simplicity of its approach, non-enthusiast consumers seeking a sound solution can achieve a good result with minimal effort.

Nevertheless, I’m completely happy with the streaming alternatives to Sonos that have emerged—especially Google Cast. I think the Sonos hardware ecosystem is too restrictive, and the price/performance ratio is unfavorable given what the competition now offers. Consequently, it’s tough to recommend the PlayBase in a 5.1 configuration for a home-theater application.

Having said all that, if you are already committed to the Sonos ecosystem, or you’re looking for a stand-alone device that excels at reliable music streaming, and you can live with the limitations imposed by being restricted to an optical-digital connection to a TV, then perhaps the PlayBase is the TV sound stand for you.

Sonos Never This ArtworkArtwork Sonos included with the PlayBase reviewers’ guide.

If possible, though, consider an AVR before succumbing to the temptation of Sonos’ brand of wireless simplicity. If you can’t swing it, have a look at some of the soundbar alternatives. And if you decide that the Sonos aesthetics and ease of use supersede other priorities, then I’d say surely the Sonos PlayBase is worth an audition as is a very well designed and crafted lifestyle audio product from a company with a proven track record in this category.