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Monday, April 22, 2013

SONOS PlayBar, Sub and Play:3 Wireless 5.1 Surround Sound System Review

When you're looking for better sound from your flat panel television, sound bars offer a seductive solution: subtle, sexy, self-contained speakers that promise to bring out the best in your favorite movies and TV shows. But for most soundbars, the promise of "surround sound" is an empty one. There's only so much you can do with electronic processing and acoustic trickery to simulate sounds coming from beyond that little box. If you want to really immerse yourself in your favorite movie or program, you need a receiver, a full complement of speakers, and a subwoofer, as well as a lot of wires or the services of a good custom installer... right? Maybe not.

SONOS recently released its own sound bar, called the PlayBar. For those who read my PlayBar review, you saw that I liked the sonic improvement over TV speakers, and loved the whole SONOS platform. And while the PlayBar on its own does a decent job of simulating surround sound, presenting a nice wide image, it really can't create sound from behind you. But the SONOS PlayBar makes good on the promise of true surround sound, thanks to its ability to play nicely with others, namely the SONOS Sub powered subwoofer, which supplements the low bass, and SONOS Play:3 wireless speakers, which can act as discrete surround channels for the PlayBar.

The full 5.1 system consists of a SONOS PlayBar, A Sub and two Play:3 speakers for the surround channels.

The Set Up

Setting up the PlayBar is pretty simple. It only offers a single fiberoptic input, which should be connected to the fiberoptic output of your TV.  Before you plug this in, however, you should add the PlayBar device to your SONOS Network which requires that you install the SONOS app on a PC, phone or tablet and "add a device" within the app.  This will prompt you to press a couple of buttons on the PlayBar so it can identify itself on the network.

If your PlayBar is near your main network router or a switch connected to that router, you can plug it into your network using the included network cable.  If it isn't, and if this is your first SONOS component, then you will need to purchase a SONOS Bridge and plug that into your router. The reason this is required is that the SONOS system actually creates its own wireless network in your home so it is free from the interference and traffic burdens of your existing WiFi data network.  To do so, it needs a single hard-wired connection to your network in order to access local music files and the internet.

The SONOS PlayBar can be wall-mounted (pictured) or set in front of the TV on a standard A/V stand.

Once you've powered up the PlayBar, added it to the network and plugged in the fiberoptic cable from your TV, you'll be ready to rock. We do recommend you get into your TV's set-up menu to turn off the TV's built-in speakers.  This will prevent any audio interference or echoes.  If you want to control the volume of the PlayBar with your TV or cable box remote, then you'll need to do that in the SONOS app as well, which should take only a few more minutes. The volume can also be controlled from the SONOS app.

You can start with the PlayBar on its own, then add on the SONOS Sub for enhanced bass reproduction and/or a pair of SONOS Play:3 speakers for rear channels. For the purposes of this review, we evaluated the system as a whole: a PlayBar and SONOS Sub up front and a pair of Play:3 speakers in the rear or the room. Once you add on these speakers, the SONOS system intelligently re-routes low bass information to the subwoofer, and rear channel information to the Play:3 speakers. and since both the sub and the Play:3 speakers are wireless, you can accomplish this magical feat without speaker wires or complicated set-up.

When you add the subwoofer, the SONOS app asks a couple of questions about level and placement and then you're done. When you add the Play:3 speakers as surround channel speakers, the app asks you about the distance from your listening position to the rear speakers, and that's about it. Both the subwoofer and rear channel levels can be adjusted at any time in the SONOS Room Settings - Advanced Audio menu (in the SONOS app).

Big Sound

If the SONOS PlayBar sounds good on its own, it sounds great when you add on the sub and rear speakers. First I confirmed that I was getting a discrete 5.1 channel signal using a channel check video on Dolby's "Sound of High Definition" Blu-ray Disc. Then I put on a series of movie and music clips and full films and sat back to take in the surround sound.

Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows offers some intense action scenes with gun shots and explosions aplenty. In the forest escape sequence, the PlayBar/Sub/Play:3 system reproduced the sounds of mortar fire and whizzing bullets with excellent spatiality, visceral impact and nice bass extension. Similarly on Star Trek (2009), explosions had nice heft and dynamics while dialog was delivered clearly and articulately. In the club scene near the beginning of the film, as Uhura walks through the door, the soundstage expands as the music kicks in, drawing you into the club and into the film. And during a viewing of Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part II, there was a point when I thought someone else was in the room with me as a door opened and shut behind me, slightly to the right.

For TV (and movie) listening, the PlayBar has some nice features which work well in the full 5.1 system. "Night Sound" mode compresses the dynamic range so you can hear whispered dialog and subtle surround effects without the loud parts of the movie being overwhelming. "Speech Enhancement" brings the dialog forward in the mix so you can make out what characters are saying, even when there are other sonic distractions going on. You can use both at the same time or each feature independently. I tested both and found that they did make noticeable improvements to dialog intelligibility. And the Night Sound mode did equalize differences between soft and quiet points. I found I could keep Game of Shadows at a reasonable volume level and I didn't need to leap for the remote when the explosions kicked in. But for daytime movie viewing (and for music) I left these features turned off.

The SONOS PlayBar offers level adjustments for the subwoofer and surround speakers from within the app as well as a Night Sound mode and Speech Enhancement. These tweaks can help you dial in the best sound for your particular room, and tastes.

On music-based reality shows, such as "The Voice," the system sounded clean and powerful, with plenty of energy and nice placement of the crowd in the surround sound channels. Close your eyes and you are there.

Comparing the sound from the augmented SONOS PlayBar system to that produced by a traditional soundbar with simulated surround is like comparing apples to crab apples. They may look similar but one offers sweet, expansive and dynamic sound. The other is a crab apple.

Does the SONOS PlayBar/Sub/Play:3 system match a comparably priced traditional surround sound system -- separate receiver, five good speakers and a subwoofer? No, not quite. The system can still sound a little congested at higher volumes, and is limited in its surround capabilities (more on that later). But the SONOS system is simpler, more elegant, and it includes that SONOS magic that helped them redefine the whole multi-room sound marketplace.

The SONOS Experience

On a phone or tablet, the SONOS app offers a nice selection of internet and local music sources at your fingertips.With SONOS, you can create an instant wireless speaker zone in any room within your home, and control it from any Apple or Android phone or tablet, or from a Windows PC, laptop or Mac computer. The free SONOS app allows you to select songs from services such as Spotify or Songza, or create your own custom internet radio stations using Pandora. If you prefer, you can tune into any of thousands of real radio stations around the world that stream their broadcasts live over the internet. But the beauty of SONOS is that all of this control rests within a single place: the SONOS app.

Want to stream some songs from your own ripped CD collection on your PC or NAS hard drive?  No problem. Spinkle in a few songs from new artists via Spotify in the same playback queue? Sure (assuming you are a Spotify subscriber). And do you want to route different music to the PlayBar in the living room and the Play:5 up in your bedroom? Again, no problem.

The SONOS app and wireless networking solution offers a simple, and elegant solution for those who want music in more than just one room of their home.  And the PlayBar is a way to bring that music into the room where it's needed most: the living room.

Also, since the PlayBar is networked to all the other SONOS speakers in your home, you can now take the sound from any source connected to your TV (cable box, streaming player, ATSC tuner, game console, etc.) and route that sound to any other SONOS speaker in your home. Maybe you want to listen to the game from the kitchen or bathroom? Or maybe you want to play a CD on your Blu-ray player in the living room and route that sound to different parts of your house.  This too is possible with the SONOS PlayBar in the system.

The Catch

You might think, from reading this review, that the SONOS PlayBar is the best thing for music listening at home since the invention of the phonograph. And you might actually be right. But this doesn't mean that it's perfect.

SONOS chose simplicity and ease of use as primary drivers in the design of the PlayBar. Its single optical input and automatic preference of that input means that you don't have to worry about multiple connections or switching inputs manually. When you turn on the TV, you get TV sound - no switching required. Period. And if you buy just the PlayBar or PlayBar and subwoofer, then you should have no complaints. The great majority of TVs made in the past few years have fiberoptic digital outputs so you really should be able to just plug and play.

But if you're really interested in discrete 5.1 channel surround sound (using the Play:3 speakers as rear channels), you may find it difficult to actually get that discrete 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound out of your TV.  If you're using your TV's built in ATSC (high def) tuner, or if you're using the TV's built in streaming services, such as VUDU or Netflix or Amazon Video on Demand, or if you're viewing video files from a connected USB drive, then chances are very good that you will get a Dolby Digital 5.1 channel output from these sources. However, in most cases, devices connected to a TV via HDMI will only pass a 2-channel (stereo) signal to the fiberoptic output, even if that source component is capable of 5.1-channel output. To find out if you are getting a true Dolby Digital 5.1 input, check out the "About my Sonos System" link under "Settings" in the SONOS App.

So if you're using a cable or satellite set-top box, Blu-ray or DVD player or game console, it's very likely you will only get 2-channel output from the TV. The SONOS PlayBar can extract matrixed surround information from the signal (if present) but this is not the same as discrete 5.1 channel surround sound.  I did some listening of two-channel PCM sources with matrixed surround channels, specifically the Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray. I set my Panasonic Blu-ray player to output 2-channel PCM with surround-encoding (since the PlayBar does not support the discs's native DTS soundtrack). Listening to the "Battle of Peleanor Fields" on disc two of Return of the King revealed some surround effects in the rear channels but not much. It did sound much better than any TV speakers, but not as impressive as you would hope from a system that sells for just about $2,000.

Is this limitation unique to the PlayBar? Not really. But because the PlayBar only offers a single fiberoptic input, and does not support DTS decoding (only PCM and Dolby Digital), it means it's harder to get around the issue with the PlayBar than it is on products that offer multiple inputs.  Ideally all TV manufacturers would provide a 5.1 passthrough feature, but this just isn't there yet.

 A pair of Play:3s in the back of the room provide the rear channel duties.

A Path to True 5.1?

There is a workaround to this issue, if you're willing to sacrifice a bit of simplicity. You can buy a remote-controlled multi-input fiberoptic audio switch box, connect your devices to this, plug its output into the PlayBar and then get discrete 5.1 surround, at least from Dolby Digital 5.1 content. It won't help the PlayBar to decode DTS material (which is extremely common on Blu-ray) but it's a start. Here's one that would work for these purposes: 4x2 fiberoptic switch on Amazon. There are many similar choices.

With this switch, you can and will get discrete 5.1 from your cable or satellite set top box, a connected Blu-ray or DVD player and any game console with a fiberoptic output. The PlayBar can still be controlled by your TV or set top box remote, but you will need to switch inputs on the fiber optic switch remote. It's a manageable complication, to the tech savvy, but the tech savvy would probably be OK with a standard receiver and wired speaker system.

If SONOS could add a second or third fiberoptic input to the PlayBar (as well as DTS decoding), without affecting its simplicity of operation, they'd have a near perfect solution on their hands.

SONOS platform is ideal for music loversDiscrete 5.1 surround from compatible sourcesElegant looksWireless operationA model of simplicity

ExpensiveSingle optical input No DTS decodingLimited by TVs in getting discrete 5.1 soundMake no mistake: as far as soundbars go, the SONOS PlayBar is one of the best: great sound quality, expandability to true 5.1 surround, and access to the uniquely powerful SONOS music platform. Most buyers will be thrilled by the sound of the PlayBar on its own, let alone with the sub and speakers. And its expandability to true 5.1 surround is something that very few competing products can match. But the single fiberoptic input, lack of DTS decoding and high price keep it from earning our unqualified recommendation.PlayBar ($699)Sub ($699)Play:3 x2 ($598)Total system price as tested: $1996

Manufacturer's Contact Information:

Sonos, Inc.
223 E. De La Guerra
Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Phone: 800-680-2345

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