Hands on with the Sonos Playbar
Sonos has already built up a fairly good portfolio of high quality, app-controllable networked audio components. Relatively recently, the company launched its Play:3 speaker, and accompanied it a short while later with the Sub subwoofer (to really kick up the bass). Now Sonos is launching the Playbar, which is designed to sit under the bezel of your TV screen (either laying in front of it on the TV stand, or mounted under it on the wall).

Yes, the Playbar connects to your Sonos network in the same way as before (you press two buttons on the side of the unit to add it to the rest of your network). Yes, you can stream your audio to it, whether it’s located on a local drive or comes to you via one of the major streaming services like Rdio or Spotify. Yes, you can even link it to one of the other players in your house (including the Sub) and stream the music simultaneously to multiple Sonos units around the house.

But what differentiates this new model is that it also has an optical input on the back (right next to the two Ethernet ports), allowing you to hook directly into the optical output found on the back of most modern TVs. Hook your Blu-ray player or PVR directly to your TV with HDMI, and the audio can be redirected to the Playbar instead of the internal speakers on your TV. The Playbar also has an IR port in two different spots on the bezel, allowing you to control the volume using your regular TV remote (after a bit of config during initial setup).

While the Playbar’s nine-speaker setup does a pretty good job in its standard 3.0 mode (one center, plus left and right), you can turn it into a 3.1 system by using Sonos’ mesh networking capabilities to link up the Sub (sold separately). If you want the full 5.1 experience you can add a pair of Play:3 speakers as your rear channel.

Okay, true, that’s starting to get a bit pricy – the Playbar is $749, as is the Sub, and each Play:3 is $329. But with that configuration you may be able to obviate the need for a receiver altogether. Plus, of course, you can stream music directly to the setup using your Android smartphone as a controller, thanks to the Sonos Controller app.

I had the chance to experience the Sonos Playbar in 5.1 configuration at a recent demo event, and the sound was truly outstanding – it filled up a relatively large space with clear, full sound. But I also had the chance to test the Playbar by itself with my own TV, and despite the more modest 3.0 configuration it still sounded fantastic. You can adjust the bass level a fair amount using the Android app, achieving a relatively deep sound even with the Sub.

One minor-to-midsized quibble, however. By, defaults, the Playbar is designed to automatically switch into TV mode when it detects sound flowing into the optical port, which is typically a good thing. However, I was trying to listen to streaming music while looking for a movie to rent on my AppleTV, and every time I scrolled down a menu on the AppleTV, the sound effect that popped up while scrolling would disengage my music and force me to start it again from the app. After automatically switching over a few times, I gave up and waited until the movie was downloading until switching back to music.

While there’s a setting for TV Autoplay deep in the menu system which turns off this auto-switching, it’s then not particularly clear how to switch the Playbar to TV mode without going back into the settings and changing the setting again. Urk. A dedicated icon in the app would be much more helpful here.

The Playbar will be available at retail starting on March 5.

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