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Sonos home theater review: The Wireless future is (almost) here!

Sonos has been making excellent iPhone- and iPad-controlled smart, connected speakers for years. With a Sonos home theater system (opens in new tab) you can get all that wireless action and up to 5.1 surround sound as well. But how well does it all work?

Road to Sonos

Prior to Sonos I had a 7.1 surround sound system based off of a Pioneer receiver. About a year after I bought it — and after the warranty expired — it started vomiting bogus high-definition copy protection (HDCP) errors and refusing to play any content from my Apple TV or Blu-Ray player. I spent a few weeks cursing and telling Hollywood where they could go shove their consumer hostility. Then I went out and got Sonos.

There were two reasons why I went Sonos. First, it uses digital audio to connect and not HDMI, so Hollywood couldn't prevent me from watching content I legally bought and paid for anymore. Second, I could control it with my iPhone or iPad. So, sold.

Now, yes, Sonos is expensive. Audio gear in general is expensive, though. You can spend millions of dollars on it if you have the obsession and the bank to back it up with. Sonos, for what it delivers, didn't feel exorbitant to me in the least. It's not budget priced, and for a lot of people, that'll be a deal breaker. But I'm going through a phase of buying less, but buying better. I'm looking for value, not price. 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.

Now, If you already have a traditional speaker system, you can start with that. Just get a Sonos Connect (opens in new tab) and plug it into your receiver, or get a Sonos Connect:AMP (opens in new tab) and plug straight in.

Since I'd ditched my busted Pioneer, I went all in with the home theater.

Playbar

The home theater is based around a Playbar (opens in new tab), which is the Sonos version of a Soundbar. Soundbars have been replacing traditional "home theaters in a box" for years now. Their convenience level has always been high enough, and they've now gotten good enough, that sticking them below a TV is simply more attractive for most people than fiddling with a multiple-component set up. Since both soundbar-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 six mid-woofers to cover the low frequencies and three tweeters to cover the high, all driven by nine 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. Like I said, I have a large, open, octagonal living room, so eliminating the speaker wires is a huge plus.

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.

Also, while the Sonos system supports Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, and PCM, it doesn't support 7.1, DTS, Dolby Atmos, or other technologies an independent receiver might. While I admit I lust for Atmos, I'd settle for 7.1 for now.

Apple TV finally supports 7.1 surround, and iTunes content is starting to go 7.1. Sonos not already being there with support is irksome. Many mainstream customers may not care, but given the cost, flexibility of the system, and how many enthusiasts like both Sonos and higher speaker numbers, it feels like a major missing feature.

Sonos Controller app

Once the Playbar is plugged in, your download the Sonos Controller app (opens in new tab) to your iPhone and/or iPad, and that's where the magic starts. It's easy to use the Sonos app, and as you follow along, it'll help you set up the entire system, disable your TV sound, and even map the volume control on your TV remote to the Sonos system. I mapped my Apple TV Siri Remote. So great!

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 or the 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.

Play:1... or Play:3

The standard Sonos home theater package uses Play:1 speakers, but you can also use the bigger Play:3. 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 (opens in new tab).

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.

Sub

If you want to take things a step further and go full-on 5.1 surround, you can add a Sonos Sub (opens in new tab) 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 you're fully set up, everything is controllable via your iPhone 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've heard there's some issue with multi-room licensing, but whatever the reason, it's beyond frustrating. I have an Apple TV, so I can AirPlay through that. I could also AirPlay through an AirPort Express if I had to. But it's not convenient, and convenience is the whole reason I went with Sonos.

Also, while I'm being all complaint guy, HomeKit for full-on Siri control would make things even better. I'd be willing to buy a new Playbar or Connect just for that.

Bottom line

Overall, I'm extremely happy with the Sonos home theater. From iTunes movies and TV to Netflix, 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 and convenient, that the end result is absolutely better.

Highly recommended.

See at Amazon (opens in new tab)

Sonos buyers guide
Sonos for iPhone and ipad
○ Sonos news
Sonos discussion forum
○ Reviews: Home theater, Play:5
○ More: Sonos One (opens in new tab); Play:1 (opens in new tab), Play:3 (opens in new tab), Play:5 (opens in new tab), Connect (opens in new tab), Connect:Amp (opens in new tab), Playbar (opens in new tab), Sub (opens in new tab)

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

11 Comments
  • Love my Sonos System, the Air Play issue bothers me, but given that Sonos can play whatever is on your iPad or iPhone I get around it ok. Apple TV 4G just added the Synology DS Video App so it is great having acess to my Video Collection on the TV and hence Sonos.
    One important point, when shopping for a TV look for one that "Passes Thru" surround sound on its output, and then you can you use your TV for switching between various components with full Surround Audio. Makes life really easy.
  • I've been tempted by this type of setup many times in the past. The lack of DTS support held me back. Now it's the most recent statements by the Sonos CEO stating that they're refocusing their business on paid streaming services and voice control (see https://www.avforums.com/news/sonos-forced-to-lay-off-staff-and-refocus-...). Based on that, I'm fairly certain they'll be abandoning their home theatre efforts, since that's explicitly not mentioned as an ongoing interest. So I don't think DTS or 7.1 support are EVER going to happen.
  • As tempting as the wireless speaker developments have been recently, I'm also not going to jump on the Sonos bandwagon. Too many compromises and not enough cutting edge features...for such expensive speakers. Going to sit tight and wait (and this is from a guy who always gets the latest Apple gear etc.).
  • Couldn't agree with you more. I actually owned the 5.1 setup but once I purchased an Nvidia shield android tv that supports pretty much everything. The sonos setup became my bottleneck. It only supports dolby and no software update will provide dts support (needs hardware). Ended up selling everything and purchased an onkyo nr646 and full definitive technology 7.1 setup and voila, Theatre bliss. Trust me when I say this, don't waste your money on sonos products. They don't believe in what they're doing anymore and neither should you.
  • Prior to the latest Apple TV, you could just hook the optical directly to the Playbar, but of course they dropped the toslink.
  • We probably won't be going with Sonos when we finally get around to doing a custom home theater, but we've been using Sonos for quite a few years so we can have the same music playing in every room of the house (I won't tell you how much was spent on just one pair of custom Salk speakers). I love Sonos, but I wish they would support replay gain.
  • I have a Home Theater. It has.
    1. A 8 fT Wide X 4 Ft high screen.
    2. A Sharp PG-A20X Projector.
    3. A Quasar Laser Disc player. A Sony Blu-Ray player, And JVC VCR hooked up with it.
    Also Netflix, Hulu with Showtime, HOBNOW, Warner Archives, and CBS all access going to it... From my Roku 3. AS I'm hard of hearing I don't have any speakers hooked up with it.
    But I do have a great closed Caption set up with it..
    And happy as can be with it..
  • I also have Sonos in my home. I have a V1 Play 5 in the living room, a Play 3 in the Bedroom, and a couple of Play 1's. I love listening to music on them. I had thought about getting the playbar set up but there are two issues for me. The first is quite frankly the cost. While I admit, you can spend more, you can spend less as well and still get fairly decent sound. I purchased my 5.1 theater because I knew that all I had to do was on occasion purchase a new receiver and just hook the same speakers up to it. I will be the the first to admit that my system is getting a bit long in the tooth but I haven't had any trouble yet getting sound through. One major issue is logistics, I too have an open i living room space and no place to really place plug in the Play 1 surrounds without running power cable under my carpet, while I don't mind doing that with low voltage speaker wire, the idea of doing so with an actual power cord give me pause.
  • Do you really need a Sonos sound bridge now? I thought they got rid of that requirement as it all works through your home wi-fi network. My in-laws have two Play:1 speakers and neither are hard wired into their router and they don't have the bridge. Or is the bridge required if you want to set some of these up as a home theater system? Either way, I think I'm satisfied with my Onkyo system. It supports 5.1 and 7.1 input (though it down samples to 5.1) in Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby TruHD, DTS, DTS-HD MA, and PCM. I've had it for a few years now and it even supports 3D pass-through. It doesn't support 4K but I'll cross that bridge if I ever have to (I'm not hopping on that overrated bandwagon). I'm hoping that, by then, Philips gets their act together with their soundbar. They used to have a soundbar that came with a subwoofer and two detachable rear speakers. You could leave them attached (and they would charge via the main soundbar) for everyday use but, when you wanted surround sound, you just had to pop the rear speakers off and they would work wirelessly and be able to last for ~5 hours on a single charge. I just didn't like that they had a single digital optical audio input as most HDTVs don't allow for Dolby HDMI passthrough (i.e. receiving Dolby Digital audio via HDMI and then passing on the lossy 5.1 core via optical).
  • To bring AirPlay functionality to my Sonos speakers, the free SonoAir (experimental build b5) app has been working fine for me, in OS X 10.11.x: https://twitter.com/mihosoft/status/662399840614268928
  • I love Sonos and it works great for TV based Home Cinema but if you are using a projector or a TV that doesn't have an Optical out then you are in trouble. Also with the Apple TV Generation 4 now losing the Optical port then it must mean that the Playbar is due for a HDMI model? There must be a white model on the horizon as well they came out with a white Sub very recently.