With the prices of large-screen TVs plummeting, there has been a spike in flat TV purchases, and data show that televisions are getting ever bigger. However, many new HDTV owners realize that the sound quality of TV speakers is often not on par with the image quality, which prompt many to seek additional audio hardware. Some opt for a setup with many speakers, which brings the downside of having also a lot of wires… Others want a neat setup in the form of a soundbar, but have to compromise on surround audio.
Sonos, which originally built music streaming speakers, is now offering home audio/video (A/V) products in the form of the Sonos Play Bar ($699), which can be paired with other Sonos appliances to provide additional bass (SUB, $699), or surround sound (Play:1, $199 each). I always wanted to see audio (music) hardware become truly integrated with the TV experience, and Sonos is one of the companies that wants to address this need. How well does it work? Read on…
Industrial Design (excellent)
The industrial design of the Sonos Bar is excellent: it is relatively low-key and should blend in in most home decors. The bar has a soft black matte cloth and there are two aluminum trims, one of which has the Sonos logo on it.
The reason for having two trims is that the Sonos Bar can be used flat to achieve the shortest profile (in height), or front-facing in case your TV height allows, or if you want to hang it on a wall to achieve a slim profile (in depth). I tried both orientations, and there was no perceptible difference in sound quality. In you want the cable to go up, it is also possible to mount it upside-down. The Sonos sound bar has an accelerometer that will detect the orientation and change the audio settings to output the sound as it was intended to be heard.
This alone is great for anyone who has a TV with relatively short feet, which means a whole lot of Samsung or LG TVs out there. When I was shopping for a soundbar, their height (including feet) was a significant problem because many were high enough to obfuscate some portion of the image.
The Sonos connects directly to the wall outlet, so there is not a “power brick” that you need to connect. All the power conversion happens internally, which is the best way to do it in my opinion because it keeps things clean and tidy.
It is possible to control the volume via a couple of buttons on the side, but these are mainly there as a last resort and to stay consistent with the user interface of other Sonos products. The Sonos sound bar does not come with a remote, but you can “teach” it to recognize the volume controls of any other IR (infra-red) remote.
I really like the idea that the Sonos PLAYBAR is a TV sound bar, and a wireless music streaming device at the same time. Frankly, I always found it to be bizarre that TV audio and music audio had always been implemented as two different sets of speakers. This is just a poor utilization of resources and space. I’m glad that Sonos is one of the few manufacturers to show the way, and for sure, others are starting to follow now.
Setting up the Sonos soundbar is very easy, and all I needed to do is to connect it to the power, then WiFi, then to an optical cable to the back of the TV. From there, there’s an additional step that consists of adding it to my existing Sonos environment (I’ve had a Sonos box for many years), which took about a couple of minutes, but required that I use the smartphone app. From then, I could stream music to the soundbar, or make it output sound just like any other Sonos speaker, which is great.
I typically shut down the internal speakers of the TV (via the TV’s Menu), but you should know that many Samsung TVs (and possibly others) display a very annoying “Speakers are OFF” message when you turn those speakers off. My work around was to control the volume via the Cable Set top box, but if you don’t have one, you may pull some hair out. This is not Sonos’ fault, and you will likely have the same issue with any other sound bar. I vaguely heard that Samsung would update this, but so far my two Samsung TVs never got a fix for that. Please drop a comment if you notice this on other TV brands.
Sound quality (very good)
I really wished that there was a clear benchmark for this, but subjectively, I found the sound to be very good. I could definitely tell the difference from the lower-end soundbar that I normally use. The sound is more powerful and it doesn’t distort when I push the volume to higher levels. Clearly, the neighbors would probably complain before I reach the speaker’s limits. I found that voices were a bit clearer despite the level of echo in the TV room.
It may be due to the fact that the speakers can reproduce a wider range of frequencies. Overall, I was very satisfied with the audio quality and power. Now, please note that I usually don’t crank up the sound so that each “boom” in a movie feels like a real blast. Your luck may vary if you really want to crank up the volume all the way up.
Surround Sound (neat installation, some caveats)
If you want surround sound, you can go to the next level and add a couple of PLAY:1 Sonos speakers. If you don’t know this product, it originated as a wireless speaker for iPods/phones/music streaming. But Sonos has managed to turn them into potential satellite speakers that can serve as left/right surround speakers for your TV setup.
I’ve connected a couple of those, and the results were immediate: when the content supported it, I had two extra channels of surround sound. Unfortunately for me, when using cable TV, it was hard to tell which show supported it and which didn’t. Also, I didn’t feel like the surround sound experience was remotely as good as it would have been with a traditional surround sound setup with many more speakers.
This is really a trade of convenience and cleanliness of the design, versus audio performance and price. You can build a pretty darn good surround sound experience for a compelling price, if you don’t mind that 1/ there are wires everywhere and your living room looks like a mess 2/ you surround sound speakers don’t talk to your phone/iPod and don’t stream music. The cause is likely is a caveat that you should know about: in many cases, Sonos Bar will upmix audio coming from the TV.
You will probably notice that there are very few WiFi-based surround sound wireless systems on the market, and the reason is that it is very difficult to deal with the network lag (in the order of 300-400 milliseconds) with real-time content (live TV/games). When you stream music, a similar audio system will likely buffer half a second of sound, and use that to make sure that every speaker can play it back in sync, even when accounting for network delays. It is extremely hard to do this for live TV and games. The more speakers or channels you have, and the trickier it gets.
Using the TV as the audio HUB may degrade the Dolby 5.1 sound quality
Because there is only one optical audio input in the back, the simplest, most convenient way to set the soundbar up is to use the TV as the main audio HUB. This means that Consoles, Blu-Ray players, etc. are connected to the TV via HDMI, then the TV sends the audio signal of whatever is currently playing on the screen to the Sonos BAR via the optical cable.
The downside of doing that is that TVs will often not pass Dolby 5.1 signals “as is” to the soundbar and will convert it to a lesser quality audio stream. The Sonos Bar will “upmix” and try to electronically improve the audio to best use its hardware, but it’s not the same.
A possible workaround is to connect an A/V device directly to the soundbar. This requires an additional switcher, and possibly some form of remote/selector to pick which audio stream should be active if you leave all boxes ON at the same time.
Another solution is to use an external HDMI switch, which has an optical audio out, and won’t degrade the audio signal. Again, this affects usability and cost.
No DTS support
Equally important, the Sonos Soundbar does not support DTS. This is due to the fact that TVs usually don’t support DTS to start with. However, if you were thinking of hooking up your BRay player directly to the soundbar, this won’t work. Sonos has confirmed that it won’t add support for DTS in the near future. I don’t know if the hardware can even support it anyway, but I doubt this this instance of the Sonos BAR will ever receive DTS support, so if this is critical for you, look elsewhere.
Dolby Digital and PCM audio are supported
Dolby Digital Plus or Dolby TrueHD are NOT supported
Wireless Subwoofer (loud and classy)
Things get more interesting when the Sonos Sound Bar is paired with the wireless Sonos SUB subwoofer. The soundbar by itself sounds good, but it you really want to have a lot of bass, there’s nothing that can really replace a big subwoofer. While its performance is quite remarkable, the real asset of SUB is its wonderful design. That’s what I would pay extra money for.
SUB is much better looking than most competitors, and it has the advantage of being very slim (in depth). This means that you hang your TV on the wall, you can have the sound bar and the subwoofer by using only a few inches. This makes thing look much slimmer, especially if you don’t have TV furniture to put a sub next to.
You may find subwoofers that cost less for a (perceived) similar performance, but most of them may just look ugly once installed. The only thing that you can see from the product images is that SUB is heavy (36.3 lbs). It’s not really something that I care much about since one would typically not move it around much, but it was surprising, so I want to mention it.
At $699, the Sonos PLAYBAR is a very good, somewhat expensive, sound bar. If the price was lower, it would certainly be a very easy recommendation (“no brainer” would comer to mind). But since it’s not, I would urge you to look at your actual needs.
If you were going to spend money on a soundbar and a relatively expensive iPod speaker of sorts, then the PLAYBAR would make a lot of sense. If you just want a sound bar for your flat TV, you definitely have less expensive (and more technically limited) options, including some relatively high-end ones with virtual sound projection to provide “some” surround feel to the sound, without the need for satellites."SONOS BRINGS A BLEND OF QUALITY, DESIGN AND CONVENIENCE THAT IS VERY HIGH, UNIQUE"
I really love Sonos’ idea to use speakers like the PLAY:1 as satellite speakers. When we tested them individually, they sounded great – almost as good as the (very) expensive Bang & Olufsen A8. However, each cost $199 and the surround sound upgrade would add another $400 to the overall bill.
If you add the superb Sonos SUB wireless subwoofer, you now end up with a $1800 surround sound setup, which is also a very nice music streaming/playback system – but this becomes relatively expensive, in absolute terms. This would buy you a lot of TV audio goodness, but keep in mind that there are very few wireless options that will be as easy to install and look as neat.
Sonos brings a blend of quality, design and convenience that is very high and unique. That is really what one should be paying for. If you only want one of these attributes, it is possible to find other solutions (I haven’t seen many things this convenient though). But to get all three in a sleek package, it will cost you, and it’s really up to you to decide if your sleek living room and TV should have a matching audio system. If yes, I’m confident that the Sonos Sound Bar or complete solution will make you very happy, even if it is not perfect.