Sonos perfected multiroom digital music for the home. It wasn't the first company to take on the task, but Sonos' system is so easy to use and undeniably superior that it's easy to recommend, even at a premium price.
Now Sonos wants to conquer the living room with the Playbar ($700). In many ways, the company's first sound bar is a success. Its understated looks fit Sonos' design ethos and it's ingeniously designed so it can lie relatively flush when wall-mounted or placed on a TV cabinet. The Playbar is also one of the only sound bars that does a convincing job of simulated surround sound, making it sound like there are speakers to your sides when there aren't. You can even wirelessly pair up the Playbar with the Sonos Sub and a pair of Play:3 speakers for a bonafide 5.1-channel home theater system. It's home theater, reinvented from the ground up, ditching legacy compatibility for the simplicity of wireless.
And yet, it's not an easy product to recommend, especially to Sonos newcomers. Competing sound bars like the Speakercraft CS3 ($600 street) and Harman Kardon SB 16 ($600 street) aren't as good with virtual surround sound, but they sound better in most other ways, especially when it comes to bass. Similarly, competitors may lack Sonos' best-in-class digital music software, but for most buyers streaming music from a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth or AirPlay is good enough, especially with the rise of cheap "locker" services like Amazon Cloud Player.
For Sonos disciples who are looking for better sound from their TVs, without a lot of fuss, the Playbar is a nicely designed sound bar worth its premium price. For everyone else, stick with the better-sounding alternatives that are nearly as simple.
Design: Understated and thoughtful
For a company that puts such a high priority on design, Sonos's speakers always seem rather plain in person, especially compared with the slick marketing photography. The Playbar has the same feel, with a simple, unassuming aesthetic that doesn't call attention to itself, but that's what many people are looking for in a home audio system.
Instead, Sonos flexes its design expertise with a host of nifty features that show the company's attention to detail. The Playbar has a noticeably low profile (3.35 inches high), which helps keep it from blocking the remote sensor on your TV, thus avoiding a design drawback found on many other sound bars. And even if you happen to have a TV with an unusually low remote sensor, the Playbar actually repeats any remote signals it receives from its front panel out the back of the Playbar. One way or another, your remote signals will make it to the TV.
The Playbar also has a unique multipositional design: it works flat against a tabletop or flat against a wall for mounting. It's a clever trick that allows the Playbar to have a thin profile in either configuration, whereas other sound bars are generally either too tall on a tabletop or stick out too much when wall-mounted. A sensor inside can tell which configuration the Playbar is in and adjusts its sonics accordingly. (It needs less bass if it's wall-mounted.) There's even a second remote sensor on the Playbar that's positioned to better receive commands in the wall-mounting position.
Sonos also decided against including a separate remote with the Playbar, which is a practice we've criticized other sound bars for. Sonos takes the same approach as many others do, asking you to program the Playbar to accept signals from your existing TV remote. The idea isn't a bad one -- who wants to deal with another remote? -- but in this configuration, many TVs end up displaying annoying onscreen messages. (More on that here.)
Sonos, to its credit, acknowledges this problem during the setup and the guided instructions even promise some workarounds to deal with the issue at the end of setup. Unfortunately it never actually got around to offering any solutions, although Sonos' Web site offers up a few ideas. In any event, many people can get around this issue by using a universal remote or their cable box remote, rather than their TV remote.
The Sonos experience, built in
The Playbar is expensive, but that's arguably because it has Sonos's best-in-class digital music software built in. You can think of it as being like a $350 sound bar with a $350 Sonos Connect built in.
If you're unfamiliar with Sonos, it's worth reading our full review of the Sonos Connect to get a more in-depth look at how the system works. The short story is Sonos gives you access to all of your digital music through a simple interface, including your personal library and a huge selection of streaming audio services like Amazon Cloud Player, Spotify, Pandora, and Rhapsody. Sonos also excels at handling multiroom audio; Sonos components throughout your house can be synced or play separate audio. What's most impressive is how simple Sonos makes everything.
There are a few requirements you should know about going in. One is that you'll need a "controller" to really take advantage of Sonos's digital music offerings. Generally, this is a smartphone, tablet, or iPod Touch that can run Sonos Controller app, although it's possible, albeit less convenient, to control the components from a computer as well. The other requirement is that although the Playbar is technically wireless, at least one Sonos component on your network needs a wired, Ethernet connection. If you don't have any other Sonos components, you can purchase a Sonos Bridge ($50) to use the Playbar wirelessly.
Connectivity and setup
The back panel makes a statement in its sparseness: a single optical audio input, a power port, and a pair of Ethernet jacks.
The single audio input is a choice, rather than an oversight. Like many other sound bars, the Playbar expects you to connect your home theater devices directly to your TV, then connect your TV's optical audio output directly to the sound bar. In most cases, this configuration works pretty well, although note that you're limited by how many inputs your TV has. And in the particular case of the Playbar, routing audio through your TV has its tradeoffs -- more on that later.
The power port only requires a slim cable, instead of relying on a bulky power brick. As mentioned before, the Playbar requires a wired Ethernet connection unless you have another wired Sonos component on your home network. The inclusion of a second Ethernet jack lets you use the Playbar as a Ethernet switch or wireless bridge, and the latter can actually be quite handy if you don't have Ethernet in your living room.
Setup, for the most part, is incredibly easy, with Sonos guiding you with step-by-step instructions through the Controller app. We only hit one step that would require "intermediate" tech knowledge while configuring a MacBook to share its digital music library. You're required to dive into a few layers of the system preferences to allow for SMB sharing, and even though Sonos guides you the whole way, it's still a taste of networking nitty-gritty most people would rather avoid.
Sound quality: Enveloping, but artificial
The Sonos Playbar does one thing better than nearly every other sound bar: virtual surround sound. In our testing, the Sonos Playbar generated a soundfield that not only stretched to nearly the full width of the CNET listening room, but also was able to create the illusion that sound was coming from the sides of the room. Only Yamaha's higher-end YSP sound bars, which cost significantly more, do better in this regard.