Sonos has been making great iPhone- and iPad-controlled smart, connected speakers for years. Recently they've moved into the home theater space as well. Now, not only can you get all your audio anywhere in your house, but you can get up to 5.1 surround sound in your living room. Easily. But how does is work with iOS 7 and Apple TV, and more importantly, how well?
While I've been aware of Sonos for a long time, it wasn't until recently that I became really interested in it. That's mainly because Kevin Michaluk wouldn't shut up about it. Kevin loved that Sonos integrated with the services he already used, like Songza on the 'net and his iTunes library on his Mac. Not only that, he said Songza provided a better experience through Sonos than it did through its own web site or app. He also loved that his fiancee could easily use the Sonos app to control all the music in their house. Being able to scale from super geek to regular person and back was the killer feature for Kevin. But for me, someone who rarely listens to music, it wasn't that enticing. The home theater was.
Yes, Sonos is expensive. Actually, audio gear in general is expensive. You can spend millions of dollars on it if you have the funds and the will. Sonos is fairly priced for what it delivers, but it's not budget priced, and for a lot of people, that'll be a deal breaker. I'm going through a phase of buying less, but buying better. So, I'm looking at value rather than cost. I'm also willing to buy one element at a time, and space them out. That approach might not suit everyone, but it's currently suiting me.
If you already have a traditional speaker system you want to keep in place, there's a Sonos Connect and Sonos Connect:AMP that let you add the smarts in anyway. I wanted to go all in on the future, however, so I removed my existing system and started over with the Playbar. That's the centerpiece.
Sound bars have been slowly replacing traditional "home theaters in a box" for years now. Their convenience level has always been high enough, and they've gotten good enough now, that sticking them below a TV is simply more attractive for a mainstream customer than fiddling with a multiple component setup. Since both sound bar-based home theaters and Sonos systems are designed to be simple to set up and easy to expandable, it really is a match made in geek heaven.
The Playbar has 6 mid-woofers to cover the low frequencies and 3 tweeters to cover the high, all driven by 9 class-D amplifiers. The left and right tweeters are angled out to project sound as widely as possible.More importantly, it's a "smart" component. According to Sonos, the Playbar makes 24 million calculations per second, adding, subtracting, equalizing, and otherwise intelligently adjusting each element to keep the system in balance.
If you already have a Sonos Bridge in your home, or your network — like mine — is next to your TV, you can start with just the Playbar. Mount it on the wall if that's where your TV is, or place it on the stand if not. Plug it into your router over ethernet and your TV over optical audio, and you're good to go. (If your router is elsewhere, however, you will need a Sonos Bridge as well to get it on the network since at least one component has to be on a hardline to the internet.)
Now, that's two wires in what a lot of people say is a "wireless" setup, but neither of them are speaker wires. As someone with a large, open, octagonal living room, plugging one component into ethernet and the TV, and all the others into power alone, especially given all the additional benefits that come with powered, smart speakers, is a huge plus. I have power plugs everywhere. I have to run speaker cable. (Some wireless speakers from other vendors are re-chargeable but the idea of a low battery warning on my home theater gives me the wiggins.)
Plugging right into the TV also eliminates the need for a separate amp, though it has advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, it means your TV needs to have enough HDMI ports to support all your video gear. Since I cut the cord years ago, I have no cable or satellite box to worry about, and since I'm not much of a gamer anymore, I have no consoles, new or old, to plug in. That just leaves my main video source, an Apple TV and my occasional source, a Blu-Ray player, and my TV can fit both just fine. (If I had more I might have to explore a separate HDMI switch.) Also, while the Sonos system supports Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, and PCM, it doesn't support 7.1, DTS, or other technologies an independent amp might.
However, the direct connection also removes a point of complexity from the chain. My previous Pioneer amp would continuously, maddeningly spit out HDCP (High Definition Copy Protection) errors that prevented me from watching the content I'd paid to watch. (Thanks Hollywood!) I've yet to have a single one of those with this new, simpler setup.
Once the Playbar is plugged in, your download the Sonos app to your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, and that's where the magic starts. The Sonos app will not only take you through setup step-by-step, but once you tell it what kind of TV you have, it'll even tell you how to disable the internal speakers so there's no conflict. What's more, if there are software updates available for the speaker — yes, updates for the speaker! — the app will download and install the for you.
By itself, the Playbar handles HiFi stereo and sounds good. When you start expanding the setup, however, it sounds great. That's where the new Play:1 and the older Play:3 speakers come in. Independently, they're excellent ways to bring music to any room in your house, paired together, and with the Playbar, and they become something more — surround sound.
The Play:1 is less expensive and less powerful, the Play:3 more expensive but better able to fill a larger room. Both work brilliantly. The Play:1 has a custom-designed 3.5-inch woofer and tweeter, each with a dedicated amplifier. The Play:3 has a bass radiator, two mid-range drivers, and a tweeter, and again, dedicated amplifiers for each. Since my living room is large, I went with the Play:3.
To bring the surround speakers into the system, you simply fire up the Sonos app again, detect the additional components, give a rough estimate of their distance as close or far from the primary listening location, and you're immediately good to go.
If you want to take things a step further and go full-on 5.1 surround, you can add a Sonos Sub as well. The Sub has two force-cancelling speakers and two class-D amplifiers, and that's more than enough to send Kaiju/Jaeger-sized tremors across your floor and up your spine. Again, just plug it in, launch the Sonos app, and it gets added to the setup.
Once your fully setup, everything is controllable via your iPhone, iPod touch, and/or iPad. You can do all sorts of useful things, like toggle Night Sound Mode which lets you keep watching while your neighbors keep sleeping, and Speech Enhancement, which lets you hear what the actors are saying even often the often onerously loud soundtracks.
You can also increase or decrease the power of the surround speakers, the sub, introduce an audio delay if necessary, and, of course, manage any music services you might be using with it.
Unfortunately, Sonos doesn't support AirPlay. I have an Apple TV as part of my home theater setup, so it's not a problem for me. If you don't, however, you need to get an AirPort Express and hook it into one of the speakers, which is silly. Sonos needs to get the AirPlay deal done and now.
Also, while the Sonos apps have been updated for compatibility with iOS 7, cosmetically they're still very much iOS 5/6 apps. Since it's been 7 months since the beta, and 4 months since the release, that's stupefying. Design isn't about eye candy, it's about usability. Hopefully that update comes soon.
Overall, I'm extremely happy with the Sonos home theater. From iTunes movies and TV to Netflix to network TV apps beamed over Wi-Fi, everything works well and sounds great. I can't say it sounds better than my previous, wired, Pioneer 7.1 surround system, but it sounds good enough, and is so much more powerful, that the end result is absolutely better.
Now I know what Kevin couldn't shut up about, because I can't shut up about it either. Sonos is amazing. It's simply the best way to get smart sound not only into your home, but into your home theater.