FOX11, Los Angeles - You went out and upgraded your TV game. Now you can watch the game in style. But, you’re missing something. The game looks great, but the sound is a tad lackluster. Then you watched a movie and when trying to really key in on important dialogue, you realized just how unsatisfying the sound projected from your TV really is. So, you decided to take a look at home theater and speaker systems. You don’t really want, or need, to invest in a full 5.1 system so you look at soundbars. They’re great but you don’t really have the space to mount one on the wall because your TV sits on a “table” style entertainment unit. What to do? Sonos thinks they have a solution to a problem many people may have and it’s called the PLAYBASE.
Sitting high atop my armoire, I really loved the sound quality of the Sonos PLAYBAR, but the one issue I had was that at the angle I was watching TV, it actually blocked the bottom portion of the screen. With the release of the PLAYBASE, Sonos is betting that I’m not the only one having this problem. They’re also taking a gamble that there is a large enough number of consumers looking for premium sound who don’t want to mount their speakers to the wall. They’ve gone through pains to ensure it has a place on your tv table, or whatever you’re going to set that LED (or OLED) on. “Playbase is one of those products which doesn't look or feel like a piece of consumer electronics. It looks more like a piece of furniture and we think that makes people more open to having a piece of equipment in their living rooms,” says Scott Fink, Product Manager for Home Theater.
PLAYBASE: The Hardware
As the name implies, the PLAYBASE is a soundbar which can act as a base for any TV up to 77lbs. So, you just place your TV atop the PLAYBASE, plug in the two cables, set it up in the Sonos mobile app, and Bob’s your uncle! This works for any TV with a single foot design that is no wider than 28” but will also work setting it under a TV with two feet at the edges if you have enough clearance between the surface the TV is on and the bottom edge of the TV. You’ll need at least 2.28” of clearance to facilitate that positioning. But, at the same price point as their PLAYBAR, will people be as enthusiastic to buy? That’s probably a question that was being asked before Sonos put out the PLAYBAR itself. One, Fink addressed when we spoke with him, “Very quickly PLAYBAR became the number one selling soundbar in the U.S and around the globe. It became clear that people were willing to invest in an awesome sounding speaker for their TV when it’s on and music when it’s off.” I reviewed it here, and if you search around the web, you’ll find that the PLAYBAR is at least in the top five of most review sites around the web. But, what about the PLAYBASE? Was Sonos able to bring to market a product worthy of the price tag?
From the very first listen, it’s clear that the quality engineering and attention to sonic detail that I experienced with the PLAYBAR was built into the PLAYBASE. Sound, or audition itself, is a fairly subjective experience, but when I test speakers out I always try to listen to the same content. Content I’m familiar with so that I can pick out the nuances in the sound and the tonal differences from speaker to speaker. The first thing I noticed when listening to the PLAYBASE was the dialogue and highs are definitely more crisp than they are with the PLAYBAR. Listening to various movies, dialogue cuts through like a knife, never leaving me guessing what characters on screen were saying. Even during hushed moments and whispers. Watching Legion and listening to it through PLAYBASE was a joy because that show has quite a few scenes with nuanced dialogue, where one moment the on screen action may be explosive and the next, played out in whispers. All of it, reproduced bright as day. During my initial listening period, I actually thought the bass reproduction was not quite as solid as the PLAYBAR, but this is one of those tonal issues. I think the sonics from the PLAYBASE favor the lower end of the sound register, while those from the PLAYBAR are brighter and favor the upper end. When I listened to Saving Private Ryan and a few other flicks, it “felt” like the bass reproduced from the PLAYBAR had more rumble, or to put it another way, it felt like it caused a greater sonic disturbance. Greater displacement. The PLAYBASE reproduced a tighter bass response. You could “feel” it as well, but it wasn’t quite the guttural rumble that it’s cousin reproduces. To coin a phrase, “I wasn’t even mad at that. In fact, that was amazing.” When you look at how much smaller and more compact the PLAYBASE is, the fact that Sonos was able to create the sonic experience they did in a form factor so small is rather impressive. In fact, they created proprietary audio components to make the PLAYBASE because what they needed didn’t already exist. Getting to that bass component, on the tenth speaker in the array, the 5 ¼” woofer they built into the cabinet, Fink tells me that, “the speaker/transducer we needed didn't already exist, so we created it. It had to be not only very thin, but very precise. Also, it's oriented flat/horizontally, so we had to work out moving it up and down as much as it can without bottoming it out.”
PLAYBASE: Sound Quality And Soundstage
Soundstage. How immersive, how expansive, how well does a set of speakers fill the room and make you feel like you’re in the middle of the Blood Rave opening scene in Blade? Do you hear the bullets flying to the right of you? Do you hear the scene’s protagonist yelling at Blade front and center? The PLAYBASE, does a great job of reproducing a wide soundfield that clearly reproduces all of the nuances in the sound design that audio engineers have painstakingly taken the time to create. Listen to the beach sequence in the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan. Watch the series, Legion. Immerse yourself in the gun fights and vampire eviscerations of the movie Blade. Be frightened again by the sound design in Evil Dead. It’s all there and a pretty fascinating feat given the design and size of the PLAYBASE.
Being a Sonos product, the PLAYBASE also handles music with aplomb. While I’ve never been a fan of listening to TV speakers for my recreational music enjoyment, the Sonos line of TV speakers pulls double duty and can handle your local music playlists and streams. The app is clear enough, and allows you to connect streaming services to it, as well as play music directly off of your device. The Sonos app also has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Using your mobile device’s microphone, the app will actually tune the audio output of the PLAYBASE to the acoustics of your room. Going into the TruSound mode, the app makes you walk around the room and hold your device in various locations. Where you’ll be sitting directly in front of the speaker. Locations on the periphery of your room. I didn’t have dB meters, or anything scientific to test how well this works throughout a room so I can’t go too deep into how effective this tuning is. Also in the app, as with their other products, you’ll find the ability to tune the bass and treble to your liking as well as turn on Dialog and Night Modes. They’re both what they sound like. Dialog punches up the high end to make dialog more audible, and Night mode flattens loud sounds and bass elements so as not to disturb those sleeping. Or, to disturb them less.
$700. That’s quite the investment, when there are much cheaper alternatives available on the market and people generally tend to spend as much as their budget allows for a TV set, making sound a second thought. But, it shouldn’t be. 20 years as an A/V professional have taught me (actually, I learned this pretty early on) that sound is just as important as video. Matter of fact, I’d place it above video in terms of importance. Think about the best horror movies you’ve watched? Was it the images you saw, or the sounds which got to you? What heightened your tension? What made you white knuckle that theater seat? In most cases, it was the sound design. Heck, Tron: Legacy was the movie it was because of the soundtrack. As I’ve argued in other columns elsewhere, upping your sound game will increase your media enjoyment. I promise you that. It still may not be a big deal to you as not everyone really cares that much, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms that if you put on your favorite action movie, or thriller, or horror flick, you will hear the difference. Now you just need to decide what that difference is worth in dollars.
Disclosure: Sonos provided me with a demo unit of the PLAYBASE for the purpose of this review.