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Hands On with SONOS PlayBar Wireless Sound Bar

When the SONOS folks invited us out to Santa Barbara to check out their top secret new product last week, I admit, I was intrigued. SONOS threw a monkey wrench into the multi-room whole home music distribution market back in 2005 by releasing wireless speaker systems that were at once high in sonic quality yet relatively low in price. And the best part is that most reasonably handy customers can install a SONOS system themselves, without the need for an expensive custom installation job.

Over time the company has released even more affordable systems -- as low as $299.99 for the Play:3 -- while expanding platform and app support. They even released a compact wireless powered subwoofer late last year (the SONOS SUB) to supplement the bass response of any SONOS system. A subwoofer? Hmmm, seems like SONOS is starting to think about the home theater, putting a little boom in the room.

I probably shouldn't have been too surprised when they unveiled their top secret new product... The SONOS PlayBar soundbar. A soundbar, you say? Aren't there already a few hundred of those on the market? Yes. But, in typical SONOS fashion, the SONOS PlayBar is much more than "just" a soundbar. Oh, sure: it plugs into your TV to provide a much higher quality of sound than you can get with standard TV speakers, or even many compact Home Theater in a Box systems. And it does so in a supremely simple way: a single optical digital input on the back of the unit that connects to your TV's fiberoptic digital output. But it is also a fully independent wireless speaker system, and that's where things get interesting.

 The SONOS PlayBar is ready for its close-up.

Like any SONOS wireless system, the new PlayBar connects to your home network, and from there out to the internet at large (via apps and internet radio). Your smartphone or tablet, PC or Mac becomes the control center via the SONOS app which is available for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS. With it, you can stream music wirelessly from your locally stored music files on a network-connected PC or Mac, or directly from an iPhone or iPad. But it also connects to internet radio stations and to streaming apps such as Pandora and Rhapsody (and many, many more) giving you instant access to millions of songs right where you want it most: in your living room.

You could think of the PlayBar as a Play:5 wireless speaker system on steroids: more speakers (nine drivers!), more amps (nine of those too!), but in a slim flat panel TV-friendly form factor. But it's also a sound bar, enhancing the sound of movies, TV series, sports and videogames. Virtually any device connected to your TV -- or any music or movie streaming app installed on your Smart TV -- will have its sound enhanced by the Bar.

 A variety of PlayBar prototypes on display at the SONOS Labs.

To keep things as simple as possible, the fiberoptic digital input on the PlayBar automatically takes precedence as an input source. In other words, if you're streaming music from Rhapsody, but then flip on the TV to watch a movie, the PlayBar automatically switches over to the TV input so you can enjoy sound that matches the picture. Although the unit does not come with a remote control, the PlayBar can learn the volume up/down controls of virtually any TV or set top box remote, so you won't need an extra remote on the coffee table. It also responds to its own discrete IR codes so you can program a Logitech Harmony or other universal remote with codes to operate the PlayBar. Of course, you can also control the volume from your smart phone or tablet using the SONOS app if you prefer.

The SONOS PlayBar can be wall-mounted above or below a TV or placed on a stand. The EQ and other parameters are adjusted automatically based on orientation.

Sound pretty cool so far? I haven't even mentioned the coolest feature! One thing that bugs me about most soundbars is that they don't provide a fully immersive surround sound experience. There are Yamaha units that bounce sound off the walls to give you sound from behind. And there are processing tricks that can be employed that will give you the illusion of surround from speakers in front of you. But nothing substitutes for a real pair of speakers beside or behind you in order to create that immersive surround sound experience that brings movie and TV viewing to the next level of enjoyment. I've already mentioned that you can add on the SONOS subwoofer to any SONOS speaker system (including the PlayBar). This brings some low end oomph to the system so explosions, gunshots, sweeping musical scores and sound effects are delivered with proper authority. But you can also pair the PlayBar with a pair of SONOS Play:3 speakers in the rear for instant discrete -- and wireless -- 5.1 channel surround sound action. Yup: 5.1 surround sound without wires (well, mostly).

There are some wires involved in the system: one optical cable from TV to PlayBar, and power cords to each speaker (PlayBar, Play:3 and Sub). But gone are the lengths of speaker wire strewn along the back and side walls (and potentially through doorways), which is where things can get messy. The PlayBar handles the front three channels, the wireless sub handles the bass, and the wireless Play:3 speakers handle the surrounds. Of course, you can also use the PlayBar on its own for even greater simplicity (and lowest cost) and in this configuration, the unit does use a combination of electronic processing and mechanical design to create a soundstage that is much wider and more expansive than you would expect.

The PlayBar is designed to be used in any of three placement configurations: sitting on a table top or entertainment center in front of the TV, wall-mounted below the TV or wall-mounted above the TV. An internal sensor detects its orientation and automatically optimizes the PlayBar's EQ and other settings for best effect. Tweakers can get into the SONOS app to adjust things like speaker distances, EQ and even engage a Night mode. The Night mode minimizes the dynamic range so you can hear both the gun blasts and the whispered dialog at a reasonable level without annoying the neighbors (or waking sleeping family members).

What goes into a SONOS PlayBar? Nine speakers, nine amplifiers, multiple wireless antennas, a powerful CPU and lots of other cool stuff.

At the SONOS labs, I was treated to an extensive live demo of the PlayBar in its three configurations: on its own, with a subwoofer, and with a full 5.1 channel implementation. Overall the sound was clean and detailed, with a nice wide open soundstage that only got more impressive with the addition of the Sub, and then the Play:3s in the rear. Content included music files streamed from a local iPhone, a selection of songs from Rhapsody and later some film clips.

Unlike the control freaks we find in many product demos, the SONOS guys let the audience pick their own favorite tunes for the demo. Of course, some songs sounded better than others, but all were enormously improved over playback from the TV's internal speakers. The demo also featured a few theatrical clips with the PlayBar on its own, then enhanced with the Sub and rear speakers. Hearing a discrete Dolby surround clip on the full system left no doubt that we were hearing sound from all directions and this shone through best in the movie clips.

SONOS Senior Engineering Program Manager Hilmar Lehnert shows off his new baby at the SONOS Labs in Santa Barbara, CA.

We were also treated to a viewing of the documentary "Sound City," Dave Grohl's love letter to the studio where his former band Nirvana recorded their ground-breaking album "Nevermind." And on this piece, the SONOS PlayBar system really captured the magic of the various acts who recorded their albums at the studio over its 41-year history. I won't say too much about overall sound quality as I need to get the unit in a more familiar setting (with a variety of my own musical and theatrical selections), but I will say the PlayBar did sound promising, and will likely be an extremely popular product.

The SONOS PlayBar will be available next month (March, 2013) for $699. Dealers will include Best Buy/Magnolia, PC Richards and Amazon with additional dealers to follow. Stay tuned for a full system review from Big Picture Big Sound once the production system becomes available.

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