Review: Sonos PlayBase
It's one of the lesser-known ironies of our age - television picture quality has improved but many still have poor sound.
Ultra-slim TV designs might look great but there is a downside. There isn't room for decent speaker drivers which results in shrill or muffled audio which makes listening a chore.
SOUNDBARS AND 5.1 AV AUDIO
Fixing this isn't difficult. With Dolby Digital used by both Freeview and Sky TV, some people choose 5.1 surround home theatre setups. These consist of an amp paired with speakers and a sub-woofer.
The only problem is the sheer amount of clutter and space consumed by these set-ups.
Finding a way to keep the speaker cables snaking across your lounge hidden (or at least tidy) is a mission.
Then there's the matter of persuading your family to let you buy a set of hulking floor-standing front speakers, a centre speaker, bookshelf rears (plus speaker stands) and a sub-woofer that's only marginally smaller than your first born. This is an even tougher proposition if you live in an apartment.
A more convenient option for many is a soundbar. These tuck away under the TV and offer some form of faux surround sound. Some also ship with a subwoofer. As convenient as they may be, many sound almost as bad as the TV audio they're supposed to be upgrading.
THE SONOS PLAYBASE
None of this has escaped the folks at Sonos. They made multi-zone wireless speakers audio simple and seamless. They've also waded into this issue with the new Sonos Playbase.
It is a rectangular slab designed to sit under your TV. The Playbase has the functionality of a wireless speaker so it'll play digital music as well as TV audio.
Best of all, it can send audio from your TV to other Sonos speakers. This proves useful when the cricket is on and it's your turn to cook or do dishes.
Sonos functionality aside, the Playbase ticks a lot of the same boxes as a soundbar. For a start, it's a doddle to set up. With only a power and line-in cable, there's also next to no cable clutter.
Its slimline design also means that it all but disappears and doesn't dominate the lounge. That it is available in white or black helps too.
The real test comes down to its audio performance. Many soundbars are average. This isn't the case with the Playbase.
Much of the audio magic comes down to what Sonos call Trueplay. Once connected, the Sonos app plays a series of test tones. These get analysed using the microphone on your smartphone/tablet. The Playbase's audio gets customised using digital signal processing.
Trueplay must be heard to be believed. The environment Sonos used to demo the Playbase was a trendy apartment decked out in post-industrial decor. This translated into lots of concrete and hard surfaces.
The audio should've sounded like it was being belted out of a public toilet block. It didn't. Audio sounded punchy, warm and detailed.
There wasn't a hint of reverb or any other tell-tale signs that I was listening to it in such poor audio environment. Both music and movies sounded great. The improbable amount of bass delivered by the Playbase had me looking for a sub-woofer. There wasn't one.
Instead, Sonos have put a proprietary flat bass inside Playbase. Bass gets enhanced thanks to a tuned S-shaped port which ensures the speaker moves a decent amount of air. This sees the Playbase delivering deep bass that is almost at odds with its slim design.
The dynamic range impressed without overpowering detail. Sonos played a jazz track where vocals were so upfront you could hear the singer breathing on the mic. The kick bass was felt as much as it was heard. The high-hat had a crisp, almost live quality.
Dialogue and audio from movies was also great.
Adding a sub-woofer and rear surround speakers is also do-able. The Playbase can pair with Sonos Play 1 speakers (for the rear surrounds) and the Sonos sub. The only cables needed are mains power. I'm willing to wager that many won't bother as the sound dished out by the Playbase is so good.
If there is a downside to the Playbase it's the steep $1399 price. That said, a comparable amp and speaker setup typically costs more and involves a fiddly set up while lacking the convenience Sonos brings.
If you already have Sonos in your home, then the Playbase is a no-brainer. For those wanting to test the Sonos waters, the Playbase is a good bet. It is expected to launch in New Zealand in early April.