Sonos Playbar Sound Bar
Sonos has become a household name in recent years, especially in the premium-yet-accessible niche that the company has carefully carved out for itself. The Playbar relies on a simple concept: instill Sonos's trademark sound quality in a reasonably-sized package, and make sure it works with the Sonos ecosystem - other speakers, subwoofers, apps and all.
The Playbar fits in with Sonos's minimalist motif, and somehow manages to simultaneously disappear into your entertainment system while standing out with its rich appearance. The buttoned-down appearance comes via making several deliberate design choices (more on that later), leaving users to focus on other aspects instead. The main draw of any Sonos speaker product is its sound quality - after all, the company makes no secret that it employs award-winning sound engineers and acoustics experts to painstakingly dial in true-to-life audio playback. The Playbar certainly lives up to Sonos's claims; compared to other soundbars with a similar format, the Playbar manages to sound "fuller" and catches small details that lesser equipment simply muddles.
While any true one-piece soundbar is inherently limited by its physical configuration, the Playbar overcomes its own speaker placement through the combination of driver aiming and particularly effective sound processing. Between its various output modes, the Playbar works well for all types of sound from casual music playback to action sequences in movies. Speech Enhancement Mode can boost the volume of dialogue when it's needed, and Night Mode reins in frequencies that are likely to carry through walls and annoy neighbors or family members who would otherwise involuntarily participate in your concert or movie.
Aside from the sound quality, the Playbar is defined by its simplicity and ease of use. Whereas other sound bars offer HDMI connectivity and Bluetooth audio, the Playbar's rear panel contains just a single optical audio input, power supply connection, and, puzzlingly, a pair of 10/100 Mbps Ethernet ports. One of those Ethernet ports can be used to hard-wire the Playbar to your network, and the other can be used to turn the Playbar into a network extender or hub. Wireless connectivity is limited to WiFi; Sonos clearly shows no interest in utilizing what they describe as dropout-prone Bluetooth. Of course, the Playbar is fully compatible with Sonos's other speakers and subwoofers. It can connect via WiFi to other Sonos speakers for true left/right separation or surround sound, and the Sonos Sub can be added if you want to augment the Playbar's bass capabilities.
Sonos famously goes to great lengths to ensure minimalism, and the Playbar is no exception. In fact, the Playbar ships without a remote control. The idea is to mute your TV's internal speakers and connect it to the Playbar using the digital audio cable (TOSLINK). During setup, the Playbar will detect your TV remote's frequencies for volume up/down/mute commands. This eliminates the clutter from adding another remote control to your system, but there's a potentially annoying drawback: many TVs display an error message when adjusting volume after changing the output settings to an external device. The Sonos App provides suggestions for getting around the messages, but we've seen mixed feedback about whether they're effective or not. A built-in sensor detects how the Playbar is oriented; it'll sound the same whether you lay the Playbar flat in front of your TV or choose to mount it to the wall.
With the Sonos design and Sonos performance, it should come as no surprise that the Playbar demands a Sonos price tag. At this price, it's certainly possible to build a home theater system with separate speakers and a subwoofer, but that's missing the point. You'd still need to add an A/V receiver to drive those speakers, and then invest hours (or pay an expert) to perform a calibration. The Playbar offers no such hassle - simply connect it to your TV and program it with the remote commands, and it's ready to fill your room with premium sound pretty much out of the box. It's the execution of streamlined simplicity paired with superb quality and performance that earns it our nomination for Best Soundbar.