I’m not much of a home theater guy. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time and energy fine-tuning my audio setup for music at home. Or because watching movies is something I only manage to squeeze in time for on weekends—and by then, I’m typically sick of staring at screens. So when the Sonos Playbase showed up at my house, I wasn’t holding my breath for a life-changing experience.
I should’ve realized that the Playbase was designed to try and reel in people like me. The Playbase, the latest in Sonos’s line of wireless home audio speakers, is essentially a home theater sound bar with a different design. Rather than being mounted on the wall, the flat, 58-millimeter tall speaker is meant to sit comfortably beneath your television, which statistics show you’re unlikely to have mounted on the wall anyway.
By itself, the Playbase (like its traditional sound bar counterpart, the Playbar) offers a dramatic upgrade from the sound coming out of your TV. Results will vary depending on what you’re watching, of course; I found myself adjusting my Sonos audio settings when switching between different types of programming, since shows and movies from different eras and production studios are all mixed differently. Is the improvement worth the $700 cost of the Playbase? That’s up for debate, depending on how much you watch and how important immersive, room-filling audio is to you. For more casual viewers, a much cheaper sound bar may well suffice.
What the company is really hoping, though, is that the enhanced sound of the Playbase (or the Playbar, for that matter) is enough to get you hooked. That’s because Sonos isn’t just a speaker, it’s a whole home audio system that works over Wi-Fi and that’s designed to pipe sound throughout the home, ideally using multiple speakers. In the home theater context, that means pairing other Sonos products like its Sub subwoofer and its entry-level Play:1 speakers to create a true surround sound experience.
Truth be told, the surround sound effect works just fine with a Playbase paired to two $200 Play:1s, especially since an impressive amount of bass comes out of the deceptively thin Playbase. This is the setup I used to test the Playbase.
Depending on how the programming’s audio is mixed, the presence of two rear speakers might not make much of a difference. But for most movies and modern TV shows worth watching, this trio of speakers will make you feel like you’re in a movie theater. The early scenes in Jurassic Park, for instance, practically shook my living room as velociraptors pounced on their prey and sent my cats scurrying frantically out the room. Naturally, the movie’s iconic theme song sounded all the more epic—but not overly loud—in this immersive setup. Indeed, the Playbase is optimized for programming that mixes dialogue, impactful sound effects, and music. If you watch a lot of sci-fi or action movies, for instance, a setup like this is worth it.
Music-heavy films like documentaries about artists and eras of music work especially well on the Playbase, with or without the rear surround speakers (although preferably with them). A film like Muscle Shoals—which focuses entirely on the specific, now-classic sounds captured in a recording studio in Alabama—feels like it was meant to be experienced on a sound system like this. Likewise, music documentaries like Amy, The Last Waltz, A Band Called Death, and last year’s Eight Days A Week all sound amazing through a Sonos system.
The fact that music-oriented films—especially the Beatles doc Eight Days A Week—sound great on the Playbase is no coincidence. That’s because it’s one of the first products designed and built by Sonos since they hired Giles Martin as their sound experience leader. Martin, who has taken over remixing and remastering the Beatles’ music from his late father Sir George, works with the company’s acoustics team to ensure that Sonos’s speakers meet the standards of music producers and, in the case of the Playbase, film composers and audio engineers as well. Martin’s job literally involves taking prototypes of Sonos products to people like Rick Rubin and Hans Zimmer to get their input as the company’s design team and acoustics engineers fine-tune how they sound.
To further perfect the sound once you’ve unboxed the speakers, Sonos products offer a clever, software-based acoustic tuning feature called TruePlay. Using the built-in microphone on the iPhone (not Android yet), TruePlay measures the size and shape of the room by listening to pulsating, sonar-like test tones coming from the speakers. It then adjusts the output of the speakers, essentially tuning them to the room itself. Even if you don’t like the sonic adjustment, this process is worth going through if only for the experience of making your living room briefly sound like an intergalactic laser gun battle and, once again, freaking out the cats.
If you’re already a Sonos speaker owner, the Playbase is an easy—albeit not particularly inexpensive—way to bring the wireless, high-fidelity audio experience from music listening to TV watching. In fact, it’s slightly frustrating that Sonos’s other products don’t link up to your TV this easily. As you might expect, the Playbase works just fine as a music speaker when the TV isn’t in use. And it’s even better when paired with other Sonos speakers. That said, if you’re vastly more interested in listening to music than in watching movies, you might be better off starting with something like the Play:5, which is $200 cheaper and has an audio line-in jack (unlike most Sonos speakers).
Either way, the company is banking that you’ll be impressed enough to come back and add to your system. It will sound great, provided you’ve got the cash to spare.