I recently had the opportunity to see — and then take home and test, for a bit, the new soundbar from SONOS appropriately entitled the SONOS PLAYBAR.
Sonos has, heretofore, been known as the wireless music company, and rightly so. As I've mentioned on Mac Geek Gab, their technology helped get me back to playing music in the house again, something that had dwindled after ripping our CD collection and subsequently packing it away. And yes, I'm now a Sonos addict. There are cheaper addictions, I'm sure, but none quite so fulfilliing to me and my family.
One Room... Two Systems? Not Anymore
One thing I noted when I got into Sonos was that, to do it right, I would wind up with both a Sonos system for music playing and a home theater system for movies and TV in my living room. The reason is that Sonos just works automatically, turning itself on and off when needed, whereas my home theater system would require me to power it on and then select the appropriate input for the Sonos. And that's exactly what I did, crazy as it might sound.
With the Playbar, though, Sonos aims to solve that problem by providing one device, the Playbar, that serves both purposes equally well.
For music, the Playbar works pretty much like every other piece of Sonos gear. You plug it into the wall for power and, if you already have other Sonos stuff setup, that's all the plugging you need to do. Launch the app on your iPhone, go through the quick configuration, and the Playbar will wirelessly join your Sonos mesh like everything else.
That's what I did, and I immediately started playing through my test playlist, quickly trying to suss this thing out. I was instantly impressed. Guitars sound like guitars, warm, present, and like they're in the room with you (even the distorted, electric kind). Everything cuts through and yet there's plenty of air, plenty of space in the music. It's a different sound signature than the PLAY:3 or PLAY:5, but just as pleasing. I quickly got very used to hearing our music in the living room through this instead of through our two PLAY:5s.
One thing that was better is that the Playbar has what I dubbed "nearly 360 degree clarity." Because it's built to also create the illusion of surround for movies -- more on that shortly -- the nine speakers inside are aimed in all different directions. Because of that, I was able to hear music clearly even when even with or behind the speaker. That's not the case with other Sonos devices, which are more traditional and directional.
Nine speakers in the PLAYBAR send sound everywhere.
Going from two PLAY:5 units that were 13 feet apart, I definitely noticed a smaller stereo field with the Playbar, but the stereo field was certainly still there. Interestingly, I noticed more of a stereo field with TV than with music, making me want to be able to engage a "wide mode" for music listening: less sound in the center and more thrown to the sides. Alas, that's probably something I wouldn't have noticed if I weren't coming from such a wide field to begin with.
Adding the Video
Adding your video input to the Playbar requires but one more cable, which Sonos provides in the box. It's an optical cable from your TV to the Playbar. Nearly all modern HD televisions (Plasma, LED/LCD, etc) have an optical output for this purpose, though some reformat the output to be just two channels and not 5.1. The Playbar will take either, and even getting 2-channels from our TV, the difference was barely noticeable.
The reason you want to plug it into your TV and not, say, directly into your DVD player or TiVo is because the Sonos looks for a signal on that optical cable to decide when to stop playing music and come alive for video mode. You can configure it otherwise if you must (or if you prefer) but then you lose some of the automated magic that is Sonos.
I was blown away with how wide the sound field was with the Playbar. It's only three feet across, and yet it had sounds coming from my walls six feet on either side of it. The sound was clear and, for those movies where the dialog is mixed a little low (J.J. Abrams, ahem), Sonos has a voice-enhancement mode that settles that right into where it's supposed to be.
The Playbar even did a good job of simulating rear/surround speakers, though obviously nothing takes the place of actually having speakers back there. And for that, well, that's where the Sonos magic really shines. If you have two PLAY:3 units around your house, you can temporarily pair them with the Playbar for movie night and get a full surround experience. Got a Sonos SUB? You can pair that, too, and really get an immersive 5.1 experience. The cool part is that you can easily unpair those things when movie night's finished and reassign them back to their day-to-day duties in the kitchen or bedroom. You don't have to do that, but it's easy... and fun.
The one thing our family noticed in our testing was that the size of the room really is a big factor in how well the Playbar works. Our normal TV-and-movie-viewing environment, our living room, has us on the couch a full 18 feet from the screen and therefore the Playbar. That far back we definitely lost some of the spatial magic the Playbar was doing, especially with the left-to-right stuff. But watching from the floor in front of the fireplace at anywhere in the two to 12-foot range, that magic was alive and present. I imagine this is going to be true with nearly every type of soundbar, though, so you just need to factor that into your theater setup decisions. And hey, perhaps the "wide mode" I wished for when listening to music could come in handy here for a bigger room?
Not Cheap, Very Much Worth It
Nothing about what Sonos does would ever be considered cheap, and that's true with the Playbar, as well. It's well-built, sounds fantastic, has more technology baked into it than you can imagine. And it manages all of that such that your involvement is easy, simple and pleasant. The price isn't cheap either, though, and at US$699 you definitely are paying what all that quality is worth. But it is cheaper than buying two PLAY:5s, and you get the easy ability to plug your TV right in and save yourself any expense of buying that second audio setup for your home theater.
I love the Sonos stuff and, as with everything, boxing this up to send it back to them comes with a bit of reluctance. That's about the best testimonial I can give. Will I buy one? Probably not yet. The living room is well-served with the two PLAY:5s for music and our older, but still mostly working, 6.1 setup for the home theater. But when we move the current Plasma downstairs for the kids and get a newer, larger TV upstairs, the Playbar would make a perfect companion to that downstairs Plasma for the kids to watch movies with their friends in the playroom. Hmmm... Fun stuff!