REVIEW: Stunning Playbase Is Sonos At Its Best
The multiroom maestro revisits TV audio and knocks the ball out of the park with this premium soundbase solution.
The Playbase is the first new addition to the Sonos hardware line up since the last iteration of the Play:5, in 2015. It’s positioned as an alternative to the hugely popular Playbar, which was largely credited with kick-starting the high-end soundbar market when launched.
It may also be the best sounding speaker Sonos has ever made.
Available in black or white, the Playbase can be used solo or integrated with other Sonos wireless components. You can stream to it directly, group it with other connected speakers, or simply use it as a TV audio upgrade.
Sonos has, of course, got set-up down to a fine art. For those new to the brand (and we suspect the Playbase will attract quite a few new fans), it’s simply a matter of following the Quick Start guide. This boils down to connecting the Playbase to a TV, assigning External Speakers in the TV’s audio menu, then downloading the Sonos app and following the prompts.
Connectivity is limited to a digital optical audio connection and Ethernet /Wi-Fi. As with the Playbar, there’s no HDMI Arc connection, 3.5mm line input or Bluetooth. This simplicity is all part of the Sonos philosophy.
Build quality is outstanding. The bodywork is crafted from a custom-designed glass-infused polycarbonate and has a lovely tactile feel. The industrial design is understated; there are no visible seams, which gives it a clean, modern look.
It’s fronted by an acoustically transparent grill, with holes that imperceptibly widen toward the edge, from 0.75 to 0.9mm. There are around 43,000 of these if you’re counting.
Just 58 mm tall and 720mm wide, the Playbase is intended to support pedestal stand TVs which can be neatly parked on top. If your screen has widely spaced feet, you may be able to slide the Sonos between its boots. Alternatively you could pop the set on a replacement stand from a third party supplier, which use the VESA mounts on the back of the screen. The Playbase can accommodate sets up 34kg.
On-body controls, positioned either side of the Sonos logo, are limited to Volume, Play/Pause and Next/Previous swiping.
The enclosure is a three channel design. It employs a nine transducer array (six mid-rangers, plus three tweeters) plus 5.25-inch woofer, allied to an S-shaped bass reflex port. The outside tweeters angle outwards at a 45 degree angle.
What isn’t streamed, is delivered from the TV via that optical audio input. The Playbase incorporates a Dolby Audio decoder and sounds its best when fed Dolby Digital, be it from Netflix or a source connected by HDMI, via the TV.
Blu-ray enthusiasts should note that the Playbase has no DTS decoder. There are workarounds for this. If your Blu-ray player allows it, you can specifically assign DTS soundtracks to output as PCM. Alternatively, your TV menu will allow you to change the TV’s digital optical audio output from bitstream to PCM.
There’s obviously a wide variety of music services which can be streamed to the unit via the Sonos app, including Tidal, Spotify and Deezer. Alternatively you can play tunes from a music library on a NAS.
For the most part, the Playbase is plug ‘n’ play, but there’s some tweaking that can done within the Sonos app.
A lip sync audio delay can be used to combat any latency problems (although we didn’t suffer from them), and there’s some rudimentary EQ adjustment with Bass and Treble sliders. There’s a Loudness boost, if you feel the need.
The Playbase can also be room tuned using the Sonos Trueplay calibration app, which is available for iOS devices.
While primarily forward facing, the Playbase doesn’t penalize off-axis listening. This is good news for family TV viewing. It makes good use of those angled drivers to extend the soundstage (for once, hard room surfaces are your friend).
If you want a more convincing home theatre experience, but you can always add additional speakers at the rear at a later date. The Sonos subwoofer can also be drafted in, however few will feel the need. That ingenious S-port arrangement allows the Playbase to deliver a deep bass response that belies its size. Indeed, it drops significantly deeper than the Playbar.
The enclosure starts to shift air around 50Hz. This mid-bass response is naturalistic and rounded, giving a visceral thump to action movies. V8s roar at the opening of Mad Max Fury Road, and there’s plenty of authentic clanking as the War Boys prepare their rig for Gas Town. For such a compact enclosure, the noise it makes is huge.
The Playbar doesn’t just impressive with its gutty slam either. It handles subtle atmospherics brilliantly well too.
The opening of gothic chiller Crimson Peak, in which the young Edith is visited by the ghost of her mother, sends perfectly pitched shivers up the spine: Guillermo del Toro’s haunted house groans, the Playbase adding ominous bass weight to its ghostly complaints. When boney fingers touch Edith’s shoulder, the soundtrack boos. The child screams, high pitched and young; thunder rolls. Nothing is lost in the downmix.
This Sonos may be tuned first and foremost for movies, but it’s convincingly musical too, and seemingly ambivalent to genre.
Avril Lavine’s poppy Complicated (from Let Go) combines crisp stereophonic acoustic guitar with a nasal vocal that images dead centre. The speaker is immediately agile and fast.
By comparison, Cindy Tells Me, from the 2004 remaster of Brian Eno’s Here Comes The Warm Jets, with its shades of early Roxy Music and soaring chorus, is lush and seductive.
If you like a harder edge, Rammstein’s Ich Will (from Mutter) unspools as a towering wall of sound. Unsurprisingly, Sonos doesn’t talk about power output but the Playbase goes loud and doesn’t distort.
It’s easy to understand why the Playbase spent three years in development. This is a beautifully executed product that eclipses the performance of the Playbar by some margin. The more we listened to it, the more we loved it. What we have here is a genuine alternative to a separates based hi-fi system.
There are caveats of course. The Sonos ecosystem still cocks a snoot at Hi-Res Audio – 16 bit/44.1kHz is as good as it gets. It also takes a tough line when it comes to connectivity. But drink the Kool-Aid, and the Playbase rewards with a simplicity and full-bodied performance that will leave enthusiasts satisfied and newbies converted.
It’s expensive but excellent.