Sonos Playbase review

Review: Sonos Playbase

04 Jul 2017 | Tommy Lindegaard


Sonos is considered a pioneer in multi-room audio systems. It entered an unproven market in 2005 that today is on the brink of becoming a mainstream. Since then new technologies and competitors have emerged and Sonos has added new products to its range. In 2017, the company has added the Playbase.

Playbase expands Sonos’ portfolio that already includes the Playbar. As the name implies, Playbase is a flat unit as opposed to the elongated Playbar form factor that we today know as a soundbar.

Price and retailers:

US retailer


DE retailer
UK retailer

Specifications

2.1 stereo
6x mid-range
3x tweeters
1x woofer
10x Class-D speaker drivers
(HxWxD) 5,8 x 72 x 38 cm
8,6 kg
Can carry op to 35 kg
Soundbar: 1x optical, 1x Ethernet
2,4GHz WiFi (b/g standard)
Dolby Digital
TV remote
Sonos mobile app
Soundbase
Manual
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First impressions


Sonos Playbase comes in a pretty box, much like an Apple product, with a smart plastic lock on each side. Packaging is certainly unique and thorough, and should protect the product during transport.

Ironically, our Playbase sample had some surface scratches – right in the middle of the large surface. Since none of the boxes were damaged, we must assume that the scratches were made before the product left the factory. Had I bought the product instead of receiving a loaner sample, I would return it for another Playbase.

Playbase is rounder and more minimalistic than other Sonos products. It looks more akin to the Play:1 than the Play:3 and Play:5 units. Since Sonos dedicates a good portion of its time and energy to design, it bothers me that the Play:3 and Play:5 share more design elements with the Playbar from 2013.

There are other design elements that do not match across products. For example, only Play:5 has the new logo and this lack of consistency seems strange.

Sonos Playbase review


Viewed alone, Playbase looks nice. The plastic feels a little cheap, especially considering the price, but build quality is top notch. The small holes that cover the front of the soundbase are even and look very elegant. There is a Sonos logo in the center and above it a small light diode and three touch panels (volume up and down)

My sample of Playbase is black but it also exists in white.

The oval box measures 58 x 720 x 380 mm, which is wide enough to serve as a base for most TVs. However, there are exceptions. For example, some TVs have feet placed at the two ends of the frame.

Sonos says that Playbase can carry up to 35 kg so it should accommodate even fairly large TVs, except legacy plasma TVs and the largest LCD TVs on the market. A 75”Samsung Q7, for example, ticks in at 42 kg but if you spend that amount of money on a TV you should probably buy a more complete sound system than Playbase in the first place.

Around back there we found power, Ethernet, and optical SPDIF for connection to the TV. A little sparse, but effective. Despite the scratches, missing indicators on the volume controls, and missing audio ports, Playbase is nevertheless, at first glance, a very elegant product.




Technical features


The base speaker is not a product category pioneered by Sonos but there are still relatively few products on the market, which is dominated by soundbars. It is also worth considering your choices here; even some soundbars be placed on TV furniture without blocking the TV.

Sonos was one of the first to introduce wireless multiroom speakers, which has helped the company build up a large base of users. Playbase can enter into these systems as a speaker in a 4.1 surround system with wireless rear speakers and even a wireless subwoofer. Sonos’ products are still quite expensive but the company gets points for its approach to expandability.

The company has also in the past received praise for its app that it the brain of the system and which plays a major role in using the Sonos products. We will examine the app in more detail later.

The elephant in the room is HDMI. Playbase is not equipped with HDMI that some prefer to use to connect audio systems to TVs. Regardless, Playbase turned on automatically every time I turned on my TV and I never experienced any issues.

A more serious oversight is in my opinion the missing DTS support. Some movies on Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray come with DTS soundtracks and the lack of support means that you are missing out. Of course, Sonos Playbase may be positioned to a different type of buyer, one who more often watches movies from Netflix (that uses Dolby Digital exclusively) but DTS would be simple to add so there is no excuse.

One can of course wonder if Playbase is even equipped to take advantage of the finer nuances in DTS and in this regard it is worth pointing out that it does not support Hi-Res music either. If you enjoy the finer things in life, Playbase is probably not the right choice from a technical standpoint.

To round off, we should add that Playbase does not support object-based audio formats such as Dolby Atmos or DTS:X either. Of course, Atmos would require more speakers but considering that Sonos focuses on expandability, the lack of support may indicate that those kind of systems are not part of the immediate future for the company.


Sonos Playbase review



Setup


As mentioned earlier, the brain of the system is the Sonos app. It is available for both Android and iPhone/iPad so you can use Sonos regardless of your alliance. The system is easy and straightforward to set up but the app is not exactly pretty. The developers should probably have dedicated more time to polish it to give new users a good first impression.

Unfortunately, it seems that development on the app has been stale for some years. Comparing Sonos’ app to other streaming apps, we can certainly find better and more intuitive experiences. Sony and Samsung hit the beat with their latest apps but of course none of them are perfect. Next to these, Sonos’ app looks like it was designed 3-4 years ago.

If you primarily use Sonos Playbase as a TV speaker this should not concern you too much since you will very rarely use the app. However, it you want to use Playbase as a general-purpose speaker for music, TV, and radio, you will be using the Sonos app a lot.

We should add that while the app has previously been the only way to control Sonos, the company has relaxed its requirements a little by implementing Spotify Connect, letting you use the Spotify app. If you are using other music streaming services such as Tidal you still need the Sonos app. This means that you will have to settle for a less intuitive design and will be missing out on the latest features.

For the sake of completeness I tried to set up Playbase via both Android and iPhone and the process was smooth and unproblematic on both devices. The app is also very stable.




Sound quality: TV


Sonos Playbase was tested without an external subwoofer and rear speakers. Playbase is specified as 2.1 audio, meaning stereo with a built-in subwoofer. It is liberating to see a more conservative approach to sound in a time where most manufacturers try to cram in as many units as possible and then claim that a tiny speaker cabinet can deliver 5.1 surround or whatever.

Playbase is a stereo speaker so sound is fairly directional. It cannot recreate a wide sound perspective, which is fine for a soundbase, and fed with TV content is clearly when Playbase shines. First and foremost, vocals are crystal clear.

If you primarily watch TV channels / broadcast TV, Playbase is a major improvement over the majority of the built-in speakers in TVs. Most people are missing out when using built-on TV speakers and Playbase perfectly demonstrates why. As said, vocals are so clear that you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the program without having to use subtitles as a backup plan.

There is also more nuance in vocals. With Playbase you can actually tell apart nasal speech, deep voices and minor speech nuances in a manner that is simply not possible with built-in speakers that tend to mix it all together in monotone manner. Hearing these small nuances means more for the experience than most can imagine. It helps set the atmosphere and can even amplify humor or something tragic.

Reproducing vocals is clearly an area where Sonos has put in a lot of effort because Playbase pulls away from most of the direct competitors in this area. It is not particularly neutral in its sound representation but in these loudness times, it seems not to bother most buyers. Just be aware that the Sonos Playbase it amplifies voices at the expense of other things, which at least for broadcast TV is a good trade-off.

I did not have the Sonos Playbar at hand to do 1:1 testing but I have experienced the soundbar on several occasions and one thing I can say without hesitation is that the bass has been improved markedly on Playbase. To me, Playbar has always had a somewhat “muddy” sound to the bass. Playbase also has clearer treble reproduction, although some may find it a little too sharp on the ears. How you prefer the trade-off is a matter of taste but I found the treble to distort a little bit at times.

In the Sonos app there are “room settings” that let you optimize sound for your living room. In theory, it is a great idea but the settings are very limited. It allows you to control treble and bass volume. Sonos also offers a room correction system that it has dubbed ‘Trueplay’. It does some automatic profiling and it changes sound somewhat but it is certainly not a revolution. It may improve sound if you living room mostly consists of windows or if you have wall-to-wall carpets but in a living room environment with a mix between hard and soft surfaces, it has limited effect. One reason may be that Sonos Playbase lacks quality in its hardware to be flexible enough to truly change the sound space. The value of Trueplay increases as you add more speakers to your Sonos setup.


Sonos Playbase review


Sound quality: Movie


When challenging Playbase to reproduce more advanced soundtracks from TV series and movies, the performance is a more mixed bag. Transformers is a good movie for testing because the soundtrack has lots of details in both the high and deep end of the spectrum. This exercise revealed that, for example, a firing pistol would sometimes sound distorted.

Vocals are enhanced, which helps you understand what is being said, but in some scenes the vocals get enhanced to such a degree that explosions and gunshots from heavy guns sound wrong in the mix. In other words, Playbase has a tendency to color sound too much.

"Playbase has a tendency to color sound too much"
Bass reproduction on the other hand is well balanced when considering the form factor. The very deepest tones do not get reproduced and bass is a bit one-dimensional. In the price class we have heard better bass and vocals but definitely also worse.

Switching from action movies to drama such as The Danish Girl, you are once again reminded of the clear vocals. As such, the most problematic genres for Playbase are horror, action, and science fiction. Unfortunately, one could argue. These are the types of movies that most people want a soundbar or soundbase to improve compared to built-in speakers.

Speaking of typical built-in TV speakers, I did some back-and-forth testing, and should make it very clear that there is a world of difference. Not only in special effects such as gunshots but also vocals that sound more direct and distinguishable, and especially bass. Very few integrated speakers can reproduce the deep bass tones that are used more often in movies and TV program than most people suspect, including voices. Playbase is definitely a huge improvement when watching movies.

However, compared to the Sonos Playbar I am not sure that Playbase is, all things considered, an improvement for watching movies. When you consider that Playbar is four years old I think that Playbase can, in comparison, be categorized as a slight disappointment. Playbase should represent an improvement in all areas, despite having a different form factor.

As said, Playbase is an improvement over pretty much any integrated TV speakers, but the older Playbar has a more comfortable sound overall. Maybe Playbase can win in the next discipline; music.


Sound quality: Music


Music is rarely a discipline in which TV sound systems excel. As soon as I put on my test playlist I could confirm that Playbase too has some limitations. Eric Clapton’s live version of Tears in Heaven normally has a long reverberation time but Playbase completely fails to reproduce it, which takes you completely out of impression that Clapton is sitting on a big scene alone with his guitar. I also missed tone details in the guitar strings. Playbase simply lacks richness in details.

The vocal is still clear and apparent, which makes it easy to listen to but Eric Clapton is not alone in demonstrating the Playbase’s limitations. Ben Harper’s percussion intro to Burn One Down sounded a little odd. If you listen closely it is possible to discern that conga drums are used but the characteristics are not as clear as on better speakers.

I guess it corresponds to having only 10 shades of red when 24 shades are in the source material. For some listeners this may be OK but when a speaker costs this much, it should deliver a better music listening experience.

Rock and Metal sound a little better, primarily because of good bass reproduction but the sound lacks soul and depth. Music is just not the Playbase’s favorite discipline despite Sonos’ promises of a combined TV and music speaker. Listening to music also requires you to rely heavily on the Sonos app, which constantly remind you that there are better music apps out there.




Conclusion


Playbase is intended to fill an empty spot in Sonos’ product portfolio. It has been created for customers who do not wish to wall-mount their TV or soundbar. With Playbase you can place your TV directly on top and get significantly better sound than the majority of built-in TV speakers.

Despite Sonos Playbase being a clear improvement over almost any integrated TV speakers it has some limitations in areas where cheaper products can match it. I am not entirely convinced that Playbase, all things considered, is better than the 4-year old Playbar (full review here) that outperforms it in some areas. Nevertheless, Playbase deliver a contrast-rich sound experience with strong vocals and bass but also at times distorted and bland monotone sound.

For watching TV and for mixed use, including drama, documentaries and casual TV series, Playbase is a major improvement. Vocals are very clear but enhancements sometimes make vocals too dominating. If you prefer a more round and atmosphere-filled sound in action movies and music I consider Sonos Playbar and some of the competing products from Sony, Denon, and Libratone better options. Of course, these are typically in the soundbar form factor. There are fewer choices in the soundbase category.

All things considered, Playbase is not a top performer but rather a middle-of-the-road product that I would rate with 3 out of 6 stars.

If you already own products in the Sonos ecosystem and prefer the soundbase form factor over the soundbar form factor, Playbase integrates nicely. From a holistic perspective, Sonos still offers one of the best multiroom solutions but I think the Playbar is a better TV speaker.


Price and retailers:

US retailer


DE retailer
UK retailer

Good bass reproduction
Clear vocals
Solid and elegant design
Multiroom expandability


App not up to par
Too colored sound
No DTS or Dolby Atmos support







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