Katherine Boehret

Raising the Bar for Better TV Sound

If there’s one piece of technology in your home that’s still too frustrating to master, it’s a sound system for the television. People who don’t want to hire an expert to set up high-end speakers around the living room or go through the hassle of doing it themselves often settle for using the TV’s speakers.

The Sonos Playbar aims to bring high-quality sound to a TV without a complicated setup. I’ve been testing this $699 one-piece speaker system in my living room for the past week while watching a variety of shows and a few movies, and I’ll be sorry to send it back.

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The $699 Sonos Playbar can work as a one-device sound system or can be used with additional Sonos speakers. The 12-pound device can be wall-mounted above or below the TV.

Alone, the Playbar produced a rich, smooth, powerful sound — even without its volume cranked up. But its winning attribute is the ability to loop TV audio into other Sonos speakers and choose what speakers play the audio. That’s because all of the company’s devices wirelessly communicate with one another, creating a multi-speaker sound experience without all the wiring.

The whole system can be controlled using a remote-control app that runs on Apple and Android devices, including phones and tablets. In short, the Sonos system is delightfully easy. Competing products exist, but many cost twice as much or require an add-on subwoofer for enhanced sound. And they don’t work with an entire system, like Sonos.

The Playbar marks Sonos’s first real foray into the TV arena. Since its debut about seven years ago, the company has focused on seamlessly piping digital music throughout many rooms. Like its predecessors, the Playbar is a cinch to set up and can play music from a computer or from Internet radio stations.

A system like this doesn’t come cheap. The Playbar costs more than some TVs and the newest models of its related speakers, the Play:3 and Play:5, cost $299 and $399, respectively. A pair of Play:3 speakers are the only Sonos components that will work with the Playbar to provide true surround sound.

And in some homes, like mine, the Playbar won’t be a perfect fit in the living room. My TV is in an armoire and the 3-foot-wide device couldn’t sit in the shelving below the TV. I ended up resting it on two half-opened drawers at the bottom.

Still, two of the Playbar’s features will be a cause for high fives. They are Night Sound and Speech Enhancement, and both are turned on using the free Sonos app. Night Sound lets parents with sleeping babies watch movies without fear of an action scene suddenly making it sound like the living room exploded. A simple message explains its function when you turn this on: “At lower volumes, quiet sounds will be enhanced and loud sounds will be suppressed.”

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Using the Sonos app for iOS or Android devices, people can choose to hear the same audio in different rooms of the house.

Speech Enhancement was a particular favorite in my house, where we feel like we’re losing our hearing because we can’t understand the dialogue in some TV shows. For example, throughout this third season of PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” my husband and I were constantly cranking up the volume or rewinding the recorded show to catch the dowager countess’s zingers. And we use a basic surround-sound system in our living room. Watching the same show with Speech Enhancement made Dame Maggie Smith’s character’s words louder than the background music and other sound in a scene, so we didn’t have to strain to hear.

The Playbar is handsomely designed and it blended in well with my TV, even on the two opened drawers. It can be stood on its thin, 3-inch edge or laid on its wider, 5.5-inch edge without affecting the sound. It can be wall mounted above or below the TV. Keep in mind, though, that the Playbar weighs nearly 12 pounds.

I set up the Playbar by plugging in just two cords: An optical audio cable, supplied by Sonos, and its power cord. A Sonos representative said most TVs made within roughly the past seven years will work with this.

The Playbar also needs to connect to a router and though my router isn’t far from my TV, I couldn’t connect my Playbar to it using the included Ethernet cable. Instead, I used a Sonos Bridge, which costs $49, to wirelessly connect the Playbar to my router. I also set up a Sonos Play:3 speaker in my living room so I could see how it worked with the Playbar.

Using the Sonos app on my Android phone, I followed the steps to set up the Bridge and Playbar by pressing buttons on each device. Each took less than a minute. The app walked me through programming my remote to work with the Playbar. I use TiVo, and by following a few steps to test the remote, like pressing Mute three times, I quickly got my TiVo remote set up to control the Playbar volume as well as TV functions and TiVo commands.

But the Play:3 speaker didn’t obey my TiVo remote. To control its volume, I had to adjust it using a button on the small speaker, or use the Sonos app, which I tested on an iPad and Android phone. A Sonos representative said this is deliberate so if someone has a Play:3 set up in the kitchen and a person watching TV suddenly cranks up the volume, the kitchen speaker isn’t blaring sound.

With the Playbar, Sonos adds to its long tradition of smart, elegant devices that really work without driving you mad during setup. If you can shell out the cash for this TV enhancement, it won’t disappoint.

Email Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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