REVIEW: Sonos Playbase is the solution for people who don't really want a TV speaker

Sonos Playbase television speaker, with Sonos subwoofer on the right. (Source: supplied)

Sonos, traditionally known for its wifi-connected home audio speakers, last month released a new television speaker that, if the advertising blitz is any measure, will make or break the company.

The Sonos Playbase, priced at $999 in Australia, is distinguishing itself from other TV speakers with its shape. It’s a flat box that sits below a flatscreen — i.e. the TV sits on it. The current trend among other brands is a long, slim bar designed to be hung on the wall or placed prominently in front of the screen.

With many new televisions now too large to be supported by one central leg, the Playbase form may not suit them all, but the shape remains its biggest advantage.

Sonos says the Playbase is designed “disappear” into the home by sitting as inconspicuously as possible under the television. And this is exactly the feature that was a hit in our household, where the person responsible for home décor (hint: not me) would never ever want to see massive “man cave” speakers in the living room.

The sound quality is also better than competing soundbars, with the extra depth of the box better used to produce deeper bass. Of course, audio enthusiasts would still want a separate subwoofer, but with the Sonos sub costing another $999, the Playbase produces good enough sound for the average home user who just wants to be able to decipher movie dialogue without turning the volume up to 85.

Sonos Playbase television speaker. (Source: supplied)

Sonos needs the Playbase to be a success to reassert itself in the market. The company made its name in the 2000s by enabling customers to play their personal music collection wirelessly in any room of the house, but with streaming services now coming into vogue, that niche was soon overrun with competitors. As such, founder John MacFarlane stepped down as chief executive at the start of the year, with Patrick Spence now leading Sonos into a new future of streaming partnerships and voice assistants.

The Playbase also features Trueplay, a software feature that will tune the sound output according to the shape of the room. When I visited Sonos’ Boston headquarters earlier this year, I was ushered into the company’s perfectly rectangular demonstration “living room” where all the journalists were blown away by the aural experience. Back in Sydney, my open plan living area brought this capability back down to earth, but playing music-heavy or action-heavy footage still does impress.

As with other Sonos products, setting up is based on simplicity rather than flexibility. There are just two mandatory ports – power and optical audio cable – and one optional LAN port. This means that everything (Bluray player, games console, Foxtel box) needs to go through the television first, which would, again, likely put off the audio enthusiast, yet please the average punter.

One minor thing that may drive some people bonkers is that programming the Playbase to accept commands from the TV remote control does confuse the television – to the extent that my Samsung screen kept putting up a large message telling me that I have external speakers every time the volume was changed. After some foraging on the web, a crude but effective solution was found – cutting the plug off an old pair of headphones and sticking it into the television.

Workaround to get rid of annoying messages on TV with a Sonos Playbase. (Source: Tony Yoo)

There was also an audio issue the Sonos support crew were very helpful with, which ended up being a fault with my television. The service was very responsive and knowledgeable, which it needs to be with Sonos charging such a premium for its products.

And as with other Sonos speakers, the Playbase is fully controllable using the smartphone app, meaning it is capable of many internet streaming services and interconnecting with other Sonos units on your network. While I was in Boston, the company even announced the Amazon Alexa voice assistant would arrive via a software update later this year.

The verdict is that the Sonos Playbase delivers great sound for people who don’t really want speakers featuring in their home interior design. I ended up buying one after the review, with approval from the missus.

If you can live with the high $999 price tag, it is certainly worth a look.

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