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Tech  |  Reviews

Sonos Play:1 and Sonos Playbar Review

December 13, 2013  |  10:00am
Sonos Play:1 and Sonos Playbar Review

Sonos recently released its newest and smallest wireless speaker to date, the Play:1. This speaker—roughly the size of an oil can—joins the Sonos family at an interesting time and compliments Sonos’ other recent release, the Playbar, very well. In this review, I take a close look at both the Play:1 and the Playbar.

Multi-zone listening is the core competency of Sonos. There are many ways for a user to de-tether audio from their phone, tablet or PC and “beam” it to external speakers/TV— from the long-in-the-tooth Apple AirPlay to more recent Bluetooth approaches to Google’s Chromecast. However, where every one of these technologies fall short is that you can not send one song to one set of speakers, while sending another song to another set of speakers in a different room (zone).

So, if you want to play Lorde in your living room, while playing NPR in the kitchen you can’t do it from the same source using any of the approaches listed above. With a Sonos system, on the other hand, wherever there is a Sonos speaker (or speaker connected to a Sonos ZonePlayer) you can play distinct audio from the same source. For instance, use the Sonos App on your iPhone to—as above—have NPR playing in your kitchen, while Lorde plays in your living room. If you have a Sonos speaker in your bedroom, you can play something completely different there.

It’s not surprising then that for many households with a number of people with different tastes in music, Sonos and the boom-boxed sized Play:5 became the audio solution of choice when it was released in 2009. The Play:5, however, turned out to be overkill (both in terms of power and price) for many. The fact that not only did you need the Play:5 speaker, but also a Sonos bridge to get it up and running meant that the price of entry (~$600) was just too high. Sonos took steps to address this in 2011 when they introduced the Play:3, which is roughly half the size and a hundred dollars cheaper than the Play:5.

Something interesting began to happen at this point. Between the Play:5 and the Play:3 (not to mention the ZonePlayer options that allowed you to hook your existent speakers into the system), a shift in mindset began to take hold. For many, myself included, Sonos became what all great companies must become in the eyes of their users: a platform—something upon which the user can build.

For people who love music (clearly Sonos’ target) the Play:5 and Play:3 were tools with which to hack our in-home music universe. Determining, for instance, the best areas in the house to place the speakers to give the broadest coverage was a “problem” that was delightful to solve. My seven year-old son plays with Legos, I play with Sonos speakers.

The ultimate solution, of course, required more Sonos gear (“If only I had one more Play:3, I could get the music in the kids’ room, while not having to hear it…”). Sonos clearly understood this emergent dynamic of people using their products like audio building blocks. To this end, they introduced the Sub in May 2012. This was the first Sonos product not aimed at attracting new users, but, with a list price of ~$700, and requiring other Sonos components to work, was aimed squarely at the Sonos power users. The Sub addressed the less-than-full-range bass coverage of the Play:3s (the Play:5 bass range is remarkable even without the Sub).

But the Sub soon had an even more logical use when Sonos introduced the Playbar in 2013. I was fortunate to see the Playbar just before it was released, and my very first thought was: “Now I can set up a surround system for my TV by using the Playbar, the Sub, and the Play:3s as surround speakers.” (Remember, Sonos is to a 44 year-old dude as Legos are to a seven year-old.)

Still, even with the pieces coming together, and the logical (in hindsight: 5, 3…1) naming convention, the Play:1 comes as something of a surprise. Its small size, and (relatively) small price of $199, both seem at odds with Sonos’ approach to date…until you realize two things. First, the Play:1s make excellent rear speakers for a surround set up when paired with a Playbar and Sub. Second, and this is related to the first, they are the gateway drugs for the potential Sonos junkie.

This second point becomes all the more likely when you note that Sonos is offering a free Bridge (a required element in order to use any Sonos speakers) with the purchase of a Play:1. Now, for $200—you’re in. My sense is that Sonos understands that most customers are unlikely to stop with a single Play:1. Many users will delight in not only the sound that these small speakers output, but also in the range of possibilities that these speakers represent. That is, many people this Christmas will be getting their first audio Lego under their tree, and will soon be buying more “pieces” to build their masterpiece.

In my testing, the Sonos:1 offers a very fine audio performance as a stand-alone unit; particularly when compared against many of the Bluetooth speakers which are roughly the same size and price. However, when paired as a stereo unit (with all of the Sonos speakers you can wirelessly connect two of them and create a stereo pair), they are remarkable. The bass is fairly astonishing, and the stereo imaging is tight and crisp, and devoid of any artificial trickery that plague so many speakers of this size. That is, what you put in is what you get out.

Using the Sonos mobile app and desktop app (both of which are not as good as they could/should be; the UI requires more steps than need be and the color scheme is dated) I immediately went to my go-to audiophile source: Monk from the Newport Jazz Fest in 1959. This concert, available to subscribers of concertvault.com [disclosure, I’m the COO of the parent company of Concert Vault], provides unheralded sonic depth, and tests the range of these small speakers. There’s a tenderness to Monk’s playing on tracks like “Blue Monk” that isn’t always present in his concerts from this era, and the Play:1s present this nuance elegantly. Again, the bass is tight and present. Sam Jones propels the set along with Arthur Taylor on drums and the Play:1 more than adequately displays the effortless high-hat work of Taylor. When Charlie Rouse comes in on “Well You Needn’t”, the interplay between his tenor sax and Monk’s comping piano demonstrates the full spectrum of the dynamics of a pair of Play:1s.

Of course, many people will be perfectly happy putting a Play:1 next to their bed and using the alarm functionality to wake up to music (or news). For that purpose, or as a speaker in a bathroom, kitchen, or child’s room, the Play:1 is very hard to beat.

I also tested two Play:1s as rear surround speakers for a Playbar. I highly recommend this approach to anyone looking to introduce surround sound into their home. While not cheap, a Playbar combined with two Play:1s will give you far more detailed and accurate surround than you would get with a cheap-o “surround in a box” type set up, at roughly double the cost. Remember, with the Sonos approach, you don’t need an amp/pre-amp to power/direct the audio to speakers.

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There is, however, one large issue with the Playbar/Play:1 (or 3) surround set up. Most people will use HDMI cables to go from their audio/video source into their TV. That is, people will run an HDMI cable from their cable box or DVD player right into their TV—however, the Playbar accepts only an optical chord as an input. Most TVs offer an optical out, but they also down convert the audio before passing it along. That means if you’re sending 5.1 audio into your TV from your DVD player, you’re probably not going to get 5.1 running through your Playbar thanks to the optical out. This largely defeats the purpose of having the Playbar, Sub, and surround set up. You can remedy this by sending the audio from your devices to an optical splitter and sending the output directly to the Playbar (bypassing the TV entirely), but this is much more difficult than it should be.

Having taken this approach (that is, routing the audio directly from a DVD player and/or Apple TV to the Playbar with Play:1s paired as surround speakers), I tested the newest Bond film, Skyfall. The word that kept popping in my head was “immersive.” Like the music listening experience, there’s a tightness and non-processed element to the Sonos components that I find very satisfying. There is no audio-processing, where you feel as if your senses are being manipulated, and which tends to result in dialog being too soft while music and sound effects are too loud. Certainly, the explosions and whizzing bullets were impressive, but the overall ambience of the film was exceptional due to the well-balanced rendering of dialog versus music/sound effects. I tested also an episode from Season 1 of Downton Abbey, and had a similarly delightful experience (all be it with less bullets and explosions) in terms of very clear dialog contrasted against immersive background sound and music.

There was a noticeable difference when I tested the Play:3s as surrounds when compared to the Play:1s. The Play:3s represent a broader dynamic range (more highs, oddly) than the Play:1s. This is understandable given the Play:3s size, and more directed output, and I would suggest using Play:3s as surround speakers when possible. That said, the Play:1s do a more-than-adequate job as surround speakers given their diminutive size.

With the Play:1, Sonos has to a certain degree come to an end-of-lifecycle moment, not unlike Apple has now that it’s released the iPad Mini with Retina. That is, there is now a full array of Sonos speakers, from large to small, that fulfill pretty much any need a customer could throw at them. Certainly, Sonos has left themselves some room for iterative innovation: the even numbers are sitting there (Play:2? Play:4?), but what’s most interesting is to consider what the next innovation will be. Outdoor speakers is one very logical thought. The car is far less logical, but one can dream.

And so, like my seven year-old waiting to see what Lego might dream up for him to build his next masterpiece, I too will have to attempt to patiently wait for what’s next from Sonos for my audio construct. The Play:1s and the Playbar continue the winning streak started back with the Play:5, and this only raises expectations for what’s next.

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