Sonos is known for selling some of the best products for streaming music around the house, and now the company has home cinema ambitions. The Playbar, announced today, is designed to sit in front of your TV or hang on the wall, creating a surround-sound-like effect for movies from a single speaker.
The sound bar also acts as a normal Sonos speaker, playing music from a computer, NAS drive or a bunch of Internet services, such as Spotify, Last.fm, Napster, Rdio and more. Sonos described it to me as "the sound bar for everyone who loves music", and it goes on sale on 5 March costing £599 in the UK, $699 in the US and €699 in Europe.
I've spent a short time listening to it in advance of the launch, and can report that it sounds good, although to my ears better for music than for movies.
Most powerful Sonos
Inside the 900mm box are nine speakers: six woofers and three tweeters, making it Sonos' most powerful speaker yet. Sonos says it analyses the source and adjusts the focus of the sound accordingly, so you get a very centred sound with certain types of music, a very wide one with others and lots of sounds of whooshing off to the side when watching an action movie.
The speaker sits differently depending on where you position it. When hanging on the wall, the wide part is facing front, keeping the profile nice and thin. If it's placed on a table in front of your TV, the wide part faces upwards. Sonos says a sensor inside detects which way the speaker is facing, adjusting the sound to fit.
Use your TV remote
One cool idea is the built-in IR repeater. If the Playbar is in front of your TV, it might block the infra-red receiver, making your TV remote useless. To get round that, an IR sensor on the speaker passes the command to the back of the unit, re-broadcasting it so that the TV can pick it up even if if the speaker is in the way.
That technology also means you can control the volume of the Playbar using your normal TV remote, or cable remote, or any other remote for that matter. In the set-up process, you press the volume down button on the remote you want to use and the Sonos checks the code against its database. If it has the TV in its database, that's it.
If not, you'll be told to press different keys on the remote so the box can learn what does what. It will then upload that information back to Sonos so the next person to use that remote won't have to go through the learning process. To control the music playing on the Playbar, you use the Sonos app on an iPad, iPhone or Android device as with other Sonos products.
Sonos says the Playbar is incredibly easy to setup. There are certainly very few connections to confuse people: two Ethernet ports, an optical-in port and power are all you get. There's no HDMI, so for the Playbar to work, you'll need a TV with an optical-out port, or a home-cinema amp. Although if you're the sort of person that has a home-cinema amp, this isn't really for you.
The Sonos engineer who demoed the product to me was adamant that the single optical-in port was the best way to go for lots of reasons, chief of which is that there is less chance of an incompatibility, and that HDMI isn't really designed for audio.
To me, the lack of HDMI seems like a missed opportunity. Other sound bars from established home-cinema brands manage to include HDMI-in their products, so for a product that costs this much, it seems like a glaring omission. But providing you have a TV with optical out, it's not the end of the world.
While I'm on the subject of omissions, the Playbar supports home cinema signals output in Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus, but not DTS: again, Sonos says DTS is unnecessary.
You need the Sub
To get a decent level of bass when watching movies, you're going to want to pair the Playbar with Sonos' own £599 subwoofer, called simply Sonos Sub. This is incredibly powerful and similarly wireless, so you should be able to hide it somewhere in your living room near a plug.
Watching a Dolby test sequence, the train crash scene in Super 8 and Spock's spaceship shootout in Star Trek, it was only with the sub turned on that the sound came alive, although Sonos did point out the demo conditions were not optimal. To get to the next level, you can pair the Playbar with a couple of Play 3 speakers mounted on stands, which will give you proper, very impressive surround sound, although at a total cost of over £1,700, there are cheaper ways of achieving that.
You could, for example, buy a good home cinema speaker kit for less and plug a Sonos Connect into it to get most of the same features this has. It wouldn't be as tidy and, Sonos would say, won't sound as good when playing music. Music does sounds lovely on the Playbar, incidentally.
Wireless is the cornerstone of any Sonos product: it uses a proprietary Mesh networking protocol to stream music around the house that should, in theory, mean fewer audio dropouts than systems using Wi-Fi, although in practice I've found it depends entirely on the house it's being used in.
The Playbar actually has two radios inside it: one operating over the 2.4GHz band and one on 5GHz. The Playbar uses the 2.4GHz radio to communicate with any other Sonos devices in your house, such as a Play 5 or Connect Amp.
The 5GHz radio is reserved for communicating with a Sonos Sub or Play 3, if you have them paired with the Playbar. You can't use Play 5 speakers because unlike the Sub or Play 3 products, they don't have 5GHz radios inside, so can't communicate with the Playbar for home cinema.
In my short time trying out the product, the Playbar struck me as being a very polished product. The lack of HDMI and DTS are shortcomings when you stack it up against other home-cinema speakers out there, but if you're already a Sonos addict and just want a simple way to add it to your living room -- and hang the cost -- then my feeling is this will be worth buying. Just make sure your TV has an optical-out port.
I'll be reviewing this product properly in the next few weeks, so make sure you come back to see what I thought of it once I've had longer to test it out.