Sonos Surround 5.1: Premium Sound Worth The Premium Price

So you've gone out and purchased a high end TV for the Super Bowl, but you want to take your whole setup to the next level. Or, maybe you're just tired of the puny sound emanating from your current flat screen and want to up the ante in the sound department. Well, I have a look at something which fits the bill quite nicely and is expandable so if you don't have all the cash up front, you can buy a piece or two at a time. This is the Sonos 5.1 system and it comes with a premium price tag that is worth every penny.

For those unfamiliar, at the core of every Sonos system is the ability to be wirelessly connected via WiFi. Sonos was one of the first companies to come to market with a consumer multi-room wireless speaker system. Today there is definitely competition in the whole home wireless speaker system market, but Sonos continues to be one of the top brands in the space with an easy-to-use system and fairly intuitive app, but more importantly a high quality listening experience.

My experience began with the Sonos Playbar. Though I received the whole system at one time, I wanted to put it together one bit at a time to see if the components would stand on their own for those who might be building their system over time. Opening up the Playbar, the weight of the product was quite reassuring. It's "heavy," weighing in at almost 12lbs. but that's because this soundbar is packed to the gills with hardware. Inside the Playbar you're going to find 9 speakers, that's 3 tweeters and 6 mid-woofers mated to 9 dedicated Class-D digital amplifiers. You get a WiFi radio that is compatible with 802.11 b/g on the 2.4GHz band and two gigabit ethernet ports. Other connections around the Playbar include an optical input and, of course, the power plug. On one end of the Playbar, Sonos has included play/pause, volume up/down and a status LED. You also have holes on the underside of the unit for wall mounting.

So, what's the big deal with Sonos' Playbar? The app is well done, and the WiFi connection to other speakers and equipment is rock solid, but the sound is the most important element. Afterall, at this price point, all of those connected features don't mean too much if the sound is sub-par. No worries though, as the Playbar is anything but that. With a total of 9, well tuned speakers,what you really get is a speaker that reproduces layers and nuance. What's more, many soundbars are fairly anemic when it comes to music reproduction. Yes, purpose-built for television, most soundbars do a terrible job of playing music from your home audio system or mobile device, but the Playbar actually does a quality job of everyday music play. Back to the movies and TV, listening to Saving Private Ryan though the Playbar was a joy. Looking at the unit, it's easy to think you're listening to just "a speaker" and even easier to forget that there are nine of them in there, until that opening battle sequence begins and you find yourself immersed in the sound field the single Playbar reproduces. That is due to the way the speakers are positioned as you can see in the exploded view below.

What I was able to discern listening to that opening battle sequence was the bullets and explosions sounding as if they were going off all around me and though the walls weren't rumbling -a different story once the SUB was added- the bass response of those 6 mid-woofers is surprisingly satisfying. And, I wasn't expecting much given the size, but when I loaded up Blade II next and the EDM that comprises much of the score of that movie kicks in, again the bass response is impressive. The bullets, the vampire incinerations and fight scene ADR all had robust "thuds," rumbles and hits in the mid and bottom frequencies. I know that you often don't expect that from something so seemingly compact, then again, at this price point you absolutely should be treated to this level of sound quality.

Next up, I added Sonos' SUB wireless subwoofer to the mix, which was a near earth shattering experience. The Sonos SUB is a beautifully crafted object which looks very modern with its simplistic, yet eye-catching design. It looks more like a piece of modern art than a speaker, but it doesn't sacrifice function for form. SUB supports bass frequencies all the way down to 25Hz and if you place the speaker properly -generally in the corner of the room if you have the space- you're going to feel every one. There isn't much to say about SUB other than it's a subwoofer unit, complete with two subs, which have been placed inside an enclosure facing each other. The reason for that, according to Sonos is that it cancels out box vibration and rattle, so that the unit is quiet and all you're left with is that low frequency molecular disturbance, or rumble. Just like the other Sonos units, this one pairs via the press of a button and has controls in the app to tune the level of "rumble" or bass output to your liking. The other aspect of the SUB that I appreciated was its heft. This doesn't feel like a cheap piece of kit, and that probably has a bit to do with the fact that you will hear no cabinet rattle as you're being dazzled by the explosions from your favorite guilty pleasure action flick, like The Expendables.

To complete the sound, I eventually connected two PLAY:1 speakers to the set up. These would be 4, and 5, in my 5.1 Sonos set up. As rear channel surround speakers, they definitely deliver. Each unit has one tweeter and one mid-woofer, with the ability to adjust the EQ through the Sonos app. They are essentially "always on" speakers which reproduce rear channel effects in 5.1 Dolby soundtracks. The Playbar's sonic image of 5.1 tracks by itself is pretty impressive, but adding two PLAY:1 speakers just ups the ante. What you have when you add these speakers to the mix is a truly surround sound system. What the Playbar does on its own is use the positioning of the outermost of its 9 speakers to simulate a surround sound field, and it's effective. With the two PLAY:1 speakers situated behind you, what you get is true surround. The testament to the Playbar is that, though noticeable, the difference wasn't night and day. Music, gunshots, sound effects all did indeed sound better through the dedicated rear channel speakers. Which is to say, all of those effects the Playbar simulated were actually more pronounced, which is to be expected. What's great about these speakers is that they're completely wireless which makes placing them in the room quite a bit easier than traditional wired speakers. And while that may be cause for concern for some people, at no time did I experience any lag when listening to 5.1 mixed programming.

If wireless connectivity is the heart of the Sonos system, then the app is the veins and arteries. Through the app, you can send music from your device, or from services like Spotify, directly to the speakers, individually, or as a group and add more speakers to your setup but that isn't the coolest feature. No, that's just the beginning. Through the app you can turn on two different TV modes which will allow dialogue and quiet sounds to be magnified so that they're easily audible. Yes, one mode allows dialogue to be punched up a bit so that you can hear it well. I can't tell you how many times I've watched a movie where an actor is speaking softly and I have to momentarily increase the volume to compensate. I haven't had to do that while listening to the Sonos surround system. The other mode works for what's called "night listening." You know, everyone's asleep and you don't want to disturb them so you turn the volume down, but now you really can't hear the nuanced sounds in the soundtrack. Activate this feature and it brings out the more subtle sounds in the audio mix. Now, there's also TruePlay which uses near-field microphones embedded in some of the speakers to "listen" to the acoustics of your room and then tune speaker acoustics for better sound, customized to the room you're listening in. Noice!

Because Sonos connects to your WiFi system, it is also capable of being connected to some of your home automation. Testing Sonos, I also connected it to my Amazon Echo Dot and to Logitech's Harmony Elite. Both work great and I haven't had to touch my Sonos, or TV remote, all that often.

We've become a disposable society. Many people upgrade their phones frequently, don't keep furniture as long as our grandparents did, but quality speakers can last you quite a long time. Decades even. So, if you have the disposable income, think of a solid surround system as an investment and consider Sonos a worthwhile investment. Sure you can get a soundbar for a fraction of the cost, but you'll also be getting a fraction of the quality and functionality. The greatest aspect of Sonos' line of speakers is that they're modular so you can buy them all and connect them, or buy just a couple and you won't miss a beat. For those with small rooms, the PLAYBAR may be all you need, so that makes purchasing a much simpler proposition, Build on with more speakers as you can afford them, or if you move to a larger space and need them. All together, the Sonos 5.1 system will cost you approximately $1,796, the Sonos 3.1 system (PLAYBAR and SUB) $1398 and the PLAYBAR alone costing $700.

Disclosure: Sonos provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.