Let’s face it. The sound systems in your garden-variety LED HDTV are aural disappointments, which is why soundbars have become necessities.
Even though TV manufacturers know their sets will probably need soundbars, it’s a shotgun marriage at best. There are more wires to run and placement to figure out. Wall-mounted TVs still need the soundbars close by. Some people try to mount the sound source, too, making the soundbar look like a fat, useless shelf. Others put it on furniture or fireplace mantles below the screen. Most of the time, though the sound bar simply sits in front of the HDTV, which is usually resting on a piece of furniture.
That was one of the core discoveries Sonos, the wireless sound company, made in developing its new PlayBase: more than 75% of HDTVs are not installed on walls. Instead, most sit on furniture, usually right behind a sound bar. Sound bars, which are often as wide as HDTVs, but relatively shallow so they can fit in front of the HDTV. Less space naturally leads to compromised sound.
Sonos’ revelation led them to develop a larger sound base that could sit under most TVs (anything under 75 pounds). It’s a base with enough space (almost 15 inches wide) to fit an array of amplifiers: six midrange speakers, three tweeters and a woofer. All are hidden behind an attractive and rather innovative speaker grille that wraps around the entire front face of the PlayBase. Sonos tells me there are 43,000 individually drilled holes. I started to count them, but soon decided to take Sonos’ word for it.
Sonos also makes a traditional soundbar called the PlayBar, which has nine sound sources, including only a midrange woofer. Sonos uses the extra space in the PlayBase to position a full-sized woofer, face down in the base.
Open your ears
I got my hands on a black PlayBase (they also come in white) to try with my own home theater system. It would temporarily take the place of the Bose sound bar that currently serves as the speakers for my 47-inch Sony Bravia LED HDTV.
I’m not a Sonos novice; there are already two Sonos Play:1 speakers in my house. I love how, using the well-designed mobile app, I can play music from the Sonos library, Pandora, my phone’s music library and even Sirius satellite radio. I’d been told that not only can the PlayBase pump sound directly from my TV, but it could become a part of the Sonos system family.
First, though I had to unbox the PlayBase, which was easy (Sonos has Apple-level packaging), I then needed to lift the TV while my adult son slid the 18-pound PlayBase underneath it. The PlayBase elevates my TV a couple of inches, which does not demonstrably change the viewing angle from my couch. I then only needed to connect the power and optical audio cable, which runs directly to my TV. PlayBase also has an Ethernet port, and includes the cable, but since I planned on connecting the PlayBase to my Sonos system via Wi-Fi, I didn’t need it.
Next, I launched the Sonos app and followed the instructions to add another Sonos device. Since my phone and the Sonos network on the same Wi-Fi network, the app found the new PlayBase immediately.
The app also guided me through turning off the sound on my HDTV and making sure that I could control PlayBase with my TV remotes. The last thing I had to do was run Sonos’ Trueplay technology to tune the speaker for my room. This involved the speaker producing a rather annoying tone while I waved my phone around the room. If you don’t do it right, the tuning fails and you must do it again. I did this, seriously, five times (a couple of times I accidentally locked my phone during the tuning process because the test forces you to hold the phone backwards) before getting it right. I still can’t tell if this improves my audio experience and I feel like an idiot every time I do it.
During setup, the system asked me if I wanted to connect other Sonos speakers (mine are too far away from the living room to be used as part of the home theater) and the Sonos Sub subwoofer. I already have a subwoofer for my Bose system, but that one can’t connect to this system. I hoped I wouldn’t miss the thump during repeated viewings of Guardians of the Galaxy.
First I tried playing music through the system, both as a standalone speaker and grouped with the Play:1 speakers throughout my house.
Tunes sounded good. But I couldn’t wait any longer to try the PlayBase in its primary role: a home theater sound system.
I did miss the room-jarring thump of my subwoofer a little bit, but otherwise I have never heard such sharp, clear sound in my living room. I made the PlayBase louder and louder until the sound filled my house. It never distorted— PlayBase just got loud and sounded amazing.
Of course, at $699, it should sound that good. My first 7:1 Onkyo surround system cost me almost $800 and it came with a giant subwoofer and five speakers. The Sonos is one sound system with 10 sound sources built into one chassis. It does do an excellent job of sound separation and the built-in woofer gives those base notes enough boost, but PlayBase can’t throw sound behind you like a true satellite speaker and it can’t make the room shake like my old subwoofer.
Do I like it? Yes, I love this PlayBase. Would I pay $699? That’s a tough call. It doubles as a home sound system, but, at the cost of a decent TV, it’s a bit of a luxury.
Great design • Brilliant sound • Works perfectly with existing Sonos system • Excellent design for TVs on stands
Expensive • Built-in woofer can’t shake a room
The Bottom Line
The Sonos PlayBase is an excellent soundbar, but the $699 price of admission may be too high for many.