The good news is that the Sonos Playbar, on the market for several years now, is a superbly finished and packaged TV soundbar product. Set up is pretty easy, compatibility with your TV’s remote is straightforward, and its simple connectivity will make it an easy hookup with the majority of TVs. It’s easy for a Sonos fan to recommend to a friend who asks about soundbars, as long as that friend is upgrading from the TV’s own speakers.
The bad news is that the Sonos Playbar is a mediocre audio and home theater performer, sound-wise. I don’t think it fails in its mission to be a great product, but I would bet its mission was defined at its inception to be a great TV speaker and a solid upgrade from a TV’s own speaker, rather than being a top music and movie performer. Modern flat-screen television speakers are very compromised by the physical limitations of the TV’s shape – these underwhelming built-in audio systems often send the sound back toward the wall through small openings. By firing the sound away from the TV viewer, intelligibility is compromised. Imagine standing facing a wall, speaking into cupped hands pressed against that wall, and what your voice would sound like. You wouldn’t choose to speak to a friend this way.
What’s a Soundbar For?
The top goal for a soundbar is to bring back the intelligibility that the TV lost. After all if you can’t hear the words of the show, how can you appreciate much else except the pretty colors of your new fancy TV? The Sonos succeeds well in getting the vocals to punch through, to be heard, and I doubt anyone would return a Sonos Playbar because they can’t understand the talking. But you shouldn’t pay this kind of money and get a megaphone.
The problem is that the emphasis given to voice makes everything sound like it’s coming through a bullhorn (yes that’s hyperbole, but hyperbole is very popular these days, so I’ll go with it). The Playbar lacks the neutral quality that makes it satisfying on music or good quality home theater source material. The Playbar does sound better in a vertical (wall mounted) placement. The Playbar also gets better when you add the Sonos Sub, or a pair of Play:1 speakers as surrounds, but the crucial tonal balance character that defines your listening experience always stays the same.
So what’s going on?
Trying a variety of source material I find that center-heavy mixes fare the least well. The soundbar reproduces the left, center, and right channels that you would hear in a movie theater or a component-style home theater. Used without surrounds, the soundbar also injects a little bit of simulated surround sound into what comes out of the bar. The center channel specifically is the culprit in the vocal over-emphasis, but this doesn’t have to be. First, the Playbar center rendition is too loud. If I play a calibrated test source track that circulates a same-level sound to left, center, and right, the center is just plain louder. Second, center sounds have that megaphone balance I mentioned. By design, the center in a surround sound source is supposed to carry primary sounds like vocals, but do it with a balance and quality comparable to the left and right channel sounds.
The Playbar has a speech enhancement feature that only makes the problem worse – to confirm, I was doing most of my listening with the speech enhancement switched off. I also used several different sources feeding the Playbar digitally, to rule out some sort of source-related malfunction. To summarize, the Playbar is at its best with laid-back sources (recordings where the sound is mellow instead of squawky) and with spatialized sources – ones that have a strong sense of the space of the original recording instead of narrowly focused “mono” sounding material. A great example is the recording of Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramirez; this recording features José Carreras and is a staple of audio demonstrations. The spacious intro of the guitar in track 2 sounds very good. When the singers enter, suddenly this great recording is not so listenable – it’s shrill.
Could Sonos fix these sound issues?
Yes, with a software update, or possibly by enabling TruePlay. If you don’t like your Playbar, let Sonos know. I sold mine.
Would I recommend the Sonos Playbar to a friend as it is now? No.
© 2016 Stephen Shenefield