Let’s face it, soundbars aren’t exactly cutting-edge technology. They’re the things you buy at Costco for $199 to make the lousy audio from your TV marginally less lousy.
Then there’s the new Sonos Playbar. It costs $699, sounds good and works even better.
Known for its wireless multi-room sound systems, Sonos is really more a technology company than an audio company. Its Play:5 and Play:3 intelligent speakers can be used to create a network throughout your home to stream music from computers, mobile devices and online services like Spotify and Pandora.
Even better, each speaker can be playing something different. So you might have classical music going in the living room, rock in the family room and jazz downstairs, all controlled via free, excellent apps for iPad, iPhone, Android devices, Mac and Windows.
Until now, the only way to integrate TV into the mix was through a $349 adapter attached to your own home-theater equipment. The Playbar provides a simpler and more flexible solution, particularly in cases where you’re still relying on the set’s built-in, and probably inadequate, speakers.
The Playbar is a substantial piece of gear. It weighs 12 pounds, is three feet wide, and can be either laid flat on your TV stand or mounted on the wall above or below the screen. Inside the enclosure are nine amplified speakers, six midrange and three tweeters.
Plug and Play
I put the Playbar in my home office, where I was still using the internal speakers of a Samsung TV. The physical set-up was a breeze: With the included cable, the Playbar connected directly to the optical audio port on the TV. I plugged in the power cable and was done.
From there, it took a few easy steps to shut down the TV’s internal speakers and introduce the Sonos unit to the Comcast remote I use. The Playbar immediately recognized the remote, which I could then use to control the volume; an infrared-signal pass-through ensured that my other commands to the TV weren’t blocked by the speaker itself.
The process is a little more involved -- and maybe a little more expensive -- if you’re setting up a multi-room system for the first time. In that case, you’ll either need to connect one of your components directly to your router via Ethernet, or else purchase Sonos’s $49 Bridge adapter.
No soundbar is going to match a true home-theater system for audio quality. But for what it is, the Playbar delivered excellent performance. Voices were clear and sound effects appropriately intense, and the bottom ranges were decent even without a sub-woofer.
With enough money, you can also use the Playbar as the centerpiece of a true, wireless 5:1 home theater by adding Sonos’s $699 Sub and a pair of $299 Play:3 speakers for the rear channels. I saw and heard it demonstrated -- my ears are still ringing -- but didn’t try setting one up myself.
The best thing about the Playbar is that, once installed, it acts as a full part of a Sonos network. So when the TV was off, I was able to use it for music, which sounded about as good as a one-box speaker system possibly can. I streamed songs stored on an iPad, iPhone and the iTunes library on an iMac, as well as over the Internet from Spotify.
When the TV is on, you’re able to move its audio to other Sonos speakers around the house. If I had a game on in the office but had to go upstairs, I was able to toss the play-by-play onto the living-room speaker.
The biggest drawback to the Sonos system is the expense. While the components don’t seem excessively priced individually, the total jumps as you add more rooms; except for the Play:3, Sonos gear is too heavy to routinely lug with you around the house.
Still, there’s value in the Sonos network that goes well beyond the quality of the speakers. It isn’t just good sound -- it’s smart sound.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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