Sonos was founded in 2002 and it designs and makes smart, Wi-Fi connected speakers. What makes them smart is attention to detail, the use of Wi-Fi to stream (compared to Bluetooth), more than 80 music streaming services, the Sonos app for iOS and Android, and the longevity – it is not unusual for Sonos speakers to last for 10 years.
Rennie Addabbo, Sonos country director, told iTWire, “Sonos is as much a way of life as a smart speaker - our mission is to fill every home with music, reintroducing the joy of listening out loud to music lovers across the globe. Thanks to our Wi-Fi mesh network, which spreads perfect sound throughout the home, you can enjoy any of the huge range of music streaming services we support, in stunning quality, in a way that is incredibly easy to use.”
Wi-Fi and mesh network angle
First, the other method of sound transmission is Bluetooth that has around a six-metre range from the streaming device – usually a smartphone. It is great for mobility and portable sound but is really an extension of the smartphone and relies on high compression (lossy) content.
Wi-Fi uses the home network, or if there is not one it will set up a Wi-Fi mesh between Sonos speakers. That allows speakers to play the same or different content in each room, control the music anywhere in the house, have inbuilt streaming clients (does not use a phone), and provide more stable, reliable bandwidth for the uncompressed (lossless) audio stream.
Sonos supports more than 80 streaming services (not all are in Australia) and plays everything – the most popular streaming services, on-demand services, Internet radio, podcasts, audiobooks, downloads (Windows, Mac, DLNA, NAS) in lossless ALAC, FLAC, AIFF and WAV. The supported lossy formats are MP3, WMA, AAC and OGG.
PLAYBASE – just like the PLAYBAR lying down (Australian link here)
Sonos chief executive Patrick Spence said, “When we think about what product we’ll invent next, we think first about the home, and the role each of our products play in the home. What we realised is that PLAYBAR only met the need of the small percentage of homes where people wall-mount their televisions. We saw a tremendous opportunity to deliver great sound in great style for most homes where the TV sits on a piece of furniture. It was a huge challenge where we pushed the boundaries of design, acoustics, materials, wireless and software, and we can’t wait for people to bring it home.”
At the briefing, this writer listened to the new PLAYBASE in all its possible configurations e.g. 2.1 (L+R+in-built Sub e.g. the PLAYBASE alone), 2.2 the PLAYBASE with an optional SUB, 4.1 the PLAYBASE with a pair of optional PLAY:1 rear Wi-Fi speakers (that can also be standalone room speakers) and 4.2 is with the optional sub-woofer. In all cases, it also has a “centre” sound so technically it is a 2.1.1.
The PLAYBASE costs $999 and is an all-in-one - about 58 (H) x 720 (W) x 380 mm (D) x 8.6kg, designed to go under a typical TV. It comes in black or white and would look good on any sideboard or credenza. It will support about 32kg in weight that covers most 50-65+” TVs. It connects to the TV via optical audio cable (no HDMI) found on both most older and newer TVs. It also needs an Internet connection (either by Wi-Fi or 10/1000Mbps Ethernet) and 240V power.
The demonstration was held in a warehouse which meant exposed brick and AC sheeting walls, glass windows, high ceilings, rugs on the floor, heavy furniture – what AV experts call a “bright” room. A bright room is among the hardest to tailor the sound to because it bounces unevenly off the various surfaces creating a flutter echo – the aim is to minimise bright anomalies.
Sonos’s iOS Truplay app uses the iPhone microphone to set up the best sound for any room. It can only do that because it knows what the microphone parameters are – as yet there is no Android equivalent due to the many microphones in use. Once set as the main speaker (a PLAYBASE, PLAYBAR or another Sonos speaker), it should compensate for any room anomalies.
So how did PLAYBASE sound?
In 3.0 mode a variety of content from audio tracks to movies sounded excellent. Notable were:
- Sound projection/depth - the sound “feels” like its coming from well in front of the unit – projecting out.
- Separation - the distance between sounds on the left and right - appeared to be at least one metre from each side of the unit and that is good.
- Tone: I use the all-encompassing term instead of bass, mid-range and treble as the app in simple mode only has a bass and treble setting was very customisable.
- The default sound signature was full and crisp neither adding or subtracting from the source. With 10 Class-D digital amplifiers covering all ranges it was crystal clear at the top end courtesy of six mid-range, three tweeters, and one woofer, all custom designed for the speaker’s acoustic architecture.
- The inbuilt subwoofer and S-Port was as good as many down firing floor mounted woofers.
3.1 - The external SUB ($999) is well designed and uses two opposed woofers in an “O” shaped cube. It can be placed flat under a cabinet or standing for the best visual effect – it makes no difference to the sound.
Everything sounds fuller with a sub delivering the ultra-low frequencies that help one to feel the dinosaurs stomping around in Jurassic Park.
5.0/5.1 – Adding a pair of PLAY:1 speakers (each $299) and switching to “quadrophonic” mode made the sound more immersive. The PLAYBASE can be tried first – its natural sound projection is impressive.
The full kit (4.2) costs $2596 – it compares favourably with many high-end AV amps and speakers.
The demonstrators were effusive about the design, saying, “The chassis is made from glass filled polycarbonate, there are 43,000 gradated sound holes in the grill that get bigger as it wraps around, it will have Amazon Alexa Echo and Dot compatibility, and it has touch controls on top as well as the app.”
No HDMI – not a deal breaker
Almost all devices – Foxtel, X-Box, DVD/Blu-ray players and more use HDMI with ARC (audio return channels) to connect to the TV. In the past multiple HDMI devices connected to the TV using either an HDMI switch box (later ones need 4K pass through) or later smart TVs typically have two to four HDMI ports and some of the connected devices have HDMI input ports as well.
When asked if this was an oversight for a home theatre device the answer was that the TV is the visual output device and it does what it does best in upscaling and displaying content. The PLAYBASE is the audio output device and it works best off Digital Audio Out (Optical). Most TV remotes will control the Sonos power on-and-off and volume.
The PLAYBASE at $999 is a well-priced, top performing, addition under any TV, just as the PLAYBAR is a great addition to a wall mounted TV.
My sources at JB Hi-Fi say that sound bar or AV amp/speaker sell-through rate is approaching 70% for premium TVs as people want the best home theatre experience. But they also say it is a very crowded market with Bose, Samsung, Yamaha, LG, Panasonic and a host of amplifier and speaker makers in the field.
Sonos makes what, in my opinion, are some of the best wireless (Wi-Fi) speakers offering incredible sound and a simple user experience. Remember how difficult and costly it was to wire an entire house for sound before Sonos.
iTWire will be reviewing the PLAYBASE and PLAY:1 soon.