Sonos PlayBar review

The Sonos PlayBar is the company's latest speaker and one designed specifically to sit under your TV. But does it work, should you bother, and what's it sound like? Pocket-lint has been using one in our home, watching as much TV as is healthy, to find out.

Design

It's long, it's black, it's moody. That's the immediate takeaway when you get the Sonos PlayBar out of the box to set it up. Almost as wide as a 47-inch TV  - It measures 85mm (H) x 900mm (W) x 140mm (D) - IT can be wall-mounted or just placed on a stand in front of your television.

The bar itself, like other Sonos speakers, is very simple in its design. There is an IR receiver panel on the front and top, so it doesn't matter how you mount the speaker. There's a volume up/down and mute button on the side so you can manually control the volume if you don't have your phone, tablet, or TV remote to hand.

Hidden at the back are the power socket, the traditional Sonos double Ethernet ports, and an optical audio input to let you connect it to your TV. There is no HDMI and no analogue RCA inputs - the former isn't a surprise, but the latter is as other Sonos hardware has had line-in via RCA before.

If you want to hang the speaker on the wall, either above or below your TV, there's no need for a special bracket, just put a couple of screws in the wall, and your're good to go. We like this approach, it makes a lot of sense. 

Setting up

The PlayBar setup is like any other Sonos system in that you turn it on, look for the speaker via the Sonos app  - either on Android, iPhone, iPad or your desktop - and then follow the instructions, which boil down to pressing the volume and mute button on the device at the same time.

There is a little more effort required to get the TV side of things working, although it's all very straightforward and the process is easy enough. The extra step is setting up your TV to acknowledge that you are going to use an external speaker, although you can just opt to turn the volume down to zero - it works either way.

Understanding that using your phone to control the volume on the speaker under your TV might not be that practical, Sonos allows you to programme a Sky remote, or any other learning controller, to adjust the volume. It doesn't come with any sort of remote though, which is a very Sonos attitude, but for us, a little bit of a shame. 

Sonos tells us that most remotes are automatically recognised, however our Sky remote wasn’t. That's not a problem, as setting it up meant pressing the volume button up, down, and mute buttons three times each and it was done. Very simple. Interestingly you aren't actually reprogramming the TV remote, just the Sonos PlayBar to recognise it - it still worked with our old amp, although in reality you would be ditching this if you bought the PlayBar.

Once set up the PlayBar can be controlled in the same way as other speakers from Sonos - with the app on your phone or tablet or via your computer. Adding a Sonos Sub or surround sound speakers (in the guise of two PlayBar:3 speakers) is easy, and you can manage the equalisation via the app to. In short, all the customisation you get with a Sonos speaker is available here too.

Additional controls include the ability to set an audio delay (lip sync) if needed, although in our setup with a Sky HD box and a PS3 we haven't needed to do this.

The PlayBar as a TV Speaker

Because the speaker is connected to your TV any sound that is played through the TV is automatically sent to the Playbar. That makes it easier to manage, but does mean you have to have your TV on to get sound from it. If you listen to a lot of radio on your TV via an AV receiver and like to have the TV off when doing so that's something to bear in mind because you won't be able to here.

What it does mean however is that the PlayBar can automatically detect when the TV is on and perform the "handshake" automatically so you get TV audio rather than music audio and vice versa. That's handy because it means you don't get that frustrating moment of "Why isn't there any sound?". In the time we've been using the PlayBar, the handshake has worked perfectly every time.


In TV mode there are two further sound settings available: "speech enhancement" and "night sound", the latter allowing you to quieten sounds and supress loud sounds when on. They make some difference.

In our tests of the PlayBar as a TV speaker we watched a range of content from EastEnders - we know, the horror - to a number of films to get a good sense of its capabilities. Films like Avengers Assembled, Madagascar 3, and even classics like Die Hard all sound great, with the PlayBar creating a decent sound stage balancing treble and bass alike, although slightly on the more bass-heavy side - something you can reduce via the settings.

If there are any complaints is that to get the most out of the nine speakers tucked inside you do have to turn the volume up, and that's probably going to annoy the neighbours.

The PlayBar as a Sonos speaker

One of the key selling points of the PlayBar is that it is a speaker that fits neatly into your current Sonos system (if you have one) or acts as the start of a system when you come to expand. That means you can control up to 42 speakers via your phone, playing and streaming music from a number of different sources such as Spotify, Napster, Deezer, or your own hard drive of music on the network.

The sound here is better than the company's Play:5 speaker (although considerably bigger) and the only real comment we have is that the sound stage isn't as wide as we had hoped.

There is a noticeable difference when in front of the speaker from when you are standing beyond the directional cone. That's understandable, considering this is a speaker designed to be enjoyed in front of a TV and for the most part in most rooms you shouldn't notice any difference - we did because we have a long living room.

As a music speaker the PlayBar is fantastic, delivering a great sound experience regardless of whether you are listening to Norah Jones or the Prodigy.

It is possible to send audio from the PlayBar to other components in your system, but to do this they must be grouped into the same zone. This is fine, for one-off use, but it might be annoying if you use it all the time. That said, we're glad to see you can share TV audio with the rest of your house to enhance the noise from the big game you are watching if you're hosting a party.

As part of a home cinema setup

The PlayBar is really just one part of the puzzle - the starter, if you will - to listening to your TV. Where it's really at is the ability to connect it to a Sonos Sub and two Play:3 speakers to create a 5.1 Dolby Digital system. While it gets pricey, quickly, the results are brilliant with the sub adding heaps of boom to what the PlayBar can already achieve.

If you are looking to create a wire-free home cinema system this is certainly one of the easiest ways to do it, and while many will claim that the best way will be to clog up your living room, we disagree. If you've got a medium to large-sized house this will work a treat. Although we suspect if you are going for a dedicated cinema room this won't suit your needs, but then your budget will be a lot bigger too.

If you're looking to improve your home cinema sound, with the minimum fuss, then this is very much the system for you. 

Verdict

The Sonos PlayBar is a fantastic piece of kit that really delivers. While the price might seem high on the surface you are getting a speaker that replaces your AV receiver, a stack of speakers, and the ability to make it part of a bigger streaming system as well.

There are caveats of course. The PlayBar expects you to have a TV capable of becoming your entertainment hub and therefore takes away the advantage an AV receiver offers with additional HDMI support. There is also the need to have the screen on and the positioning of a large black box under your TV rather than three discreet speakers dotted around, and some would argue the lack of HDMI connectivity and 7.1 support isn't very forward thinking.

We are impressed by the PlayBar, impressed enough that we are off to watch some more telly. Pip pip.