Review: With the PLAYBASE, Sonos prove that by staying a step behind, you can end up two steps in front

Sonos have never seen themselves as leaders in “doing things first”, rather, as the kings of “doing things right”. They seem to live by an adage of the past: the idea that a company can exist on key products – not a slate of “let’s see what sticks and what fails” merchandise – that are built to last, not fail within three years.

Their very mantra – though once common place for companies, seems to run against the norm of today. Even Apple, who would paint themselves as the modern trendsetters of minimalist approach (offering limited product at any one time, with a similar aesthetic), want to make sure you’re buying a replacement within a few years (or less). Of course this makes sense from a financial point of view, but where does that leave their reputation? One that puts profits over customer satisfaction – at least to some extent, surely.

Though Sonos have continually impressed with their products since their founding in 2002, they have released products which were never “first across the line”, and were often more expensive than their competition. But nonetheless, with some creative marketing, and a focus on quality, they have formed a dedicated audience with speakers that are aesthetically beautiful and, for their size, often the best sounding in market.

Built for their extensive R&D, this is one of the sound chambers at Sonos’ offices in Boston – here they test emissions, ensuring compliance with FCC and ETC regulations.

For years, the perception has been that Sonos have stayed a step behind the pack, biding their time. From the outside they may seem like a brand who are eyeing off their competition and letting them make mistakes; watching the industry shift and evolve. But in reality, it seem they they are simply running to the beat of their own drum, perfecting their product even if it takes them three years – which is exactly how long it’s taken them to release their newest entry into the home audio market – the PLAYBASE.

Can you spot the PLAYBASE in the photo above? If you didn’t see it underneath the TV to start with, then Sonos have achieved exactly what they wanted to with their new speaker – a beautiful monolithic slab, at just 58 mm in height, available in black or white, that is designed to sit underneath your home television – the first of its kind, a statement Sonos have rarely been able to make in their 15 years of operations.

The promotional image for the black PLAYBASE model

The concept came around quite simplistically. Their primary TV speaker was the PLAYBAR, a brilliant product that has only continued to get better as they’ve upgraded its software remotely. The problem they cited with the PLAYBAR, however, wasn’t down to any flaws in its design, or execution, but rather that the speaker, which was designed to be wall mounted, wasn’t being wall mounted. A large portion of those who had purchased the product, were simply sticking it in front of their TV. It may have looked a little like this:

This is how it looks in my own home. I need a better TV unit too, don’t I?

Though it worked fine here, the PLAYBAR was not designed implicitly to sit in this position, and so designers asked themselves the question: why don’t we create a product that sits underneath the television? The idea is simple enough, but as Youjin Nam, Sonos’ Industrial Design Manager is quoted as saying, “making a simple thing is never simple.” After all, there had to be a reason why a product like this didn’t exist on the market.

The PLAYBASE sits in front of the PLAYBAR

The obvious complications are immediate: how you build a product that can withstand the weight, while protecting the ten speakers that sit inside. To do this, they literally had to invent a new, tough polycarbonate, that could withstand up to 77lbs (35kg) of weight on top of it. And then to get a speaker of this shape to work to their usual standards of aural splendour, develop a one-of-its-kind technique and machinery to cover the front of the unit in 43,000 holes of different sizes to, in simple terms, let the sound out.

You’ll even find ingenuity in the box the product comes in. Latches on the side of the box make it almost like a briefcase, carrying your beautiful new (and surprisingly heavy) unit.

In essence, the sound the PLAYBASE produces is of little difference to the PLAYBAR. There’s a slightly crisper quality I noticed, but this could have been due to the recalibration of the sound in the room thanks to the Trueplay Tuning. Or, just as likely, it’s thanks to the holes that make up an acoustically transparent grill that sits at the front of the speaker. There will naturally be some differences between this and the fabric grille that sits on the PLAYBAR. But they are ultimately minor to the laymen ear.

You’ll be able to use the same ethernet and optic digital audio cables that came with your PLAYBAR, however the shiny AC plug is of a slightly new shape – and you’ll note that they’ve added their logo to it for strong branding effect!
The inputs at the back of the unit.

Beyond what you see above, there isn’t much to talk about from an external mechanics point of view, especially if you’re already familiar with the Sonos product line. Like the PLAY:5, you’ll find touch-sensitive buttons that allow you to stop, start and control volume, at the top centre of the unit, by the logo. The only other button of note on the unit is on the left hand side, which you’ll need to press when pairing up the system during setup.

Changing over to the PLAYBASE from the PLAYBAR was easy enough. I only had to replace the power cable, and I left everything else plugged in as normal. I then updated the Sonos app on my mobile and started the process over again. Since the PLAYBAR had been paired with two PLAY:1s, it would remember this later in the process and you will have saved a bit of time from when you first set it up – but whether you’re a repeat visitor like myself, or this is your first time using a Sonos product, once you get the system connected to your network, it’s a painless setup procedure. The app has been well designed to provide ample explanation both through copy and image and if you have any problems, I would recommend turning it on and off again (both the app and the unit – some home wi-fi connections can be a bit finicky).

If you have been with Sonos for a while, as I have, one thing you may not have played around with yet is the Trueplay Tuning. This is an extra step at the end which helps the speaker adapt to the room its playing in. It involves you walking around the room and waving your phone up and down like you’re in a cult-like trance for a minute, and the effects are immediate. It’s these sorts of features that Sonos continue to add to their products, even after they have arrived in your home, that have set the brand apart. Look out soon, too, for Amazon Alexa (read: Voice Recognition) support.

And once you’ve set it up, you can pretty much forget it’s there. And, sitting comfortably under your TV, that’s exactly what they want you to do. Let it blend in and fill your room with some pretty stunning sound. There are extras like Night Mode and Speech Enhancement which you should check out in the app, and it’s worth pairing the unit up with a couple of PLAY:1s to get that real surround sound as I did.

The new product from Sonos doesn’t offer anything new, really. Aurally, it’s as good as the already released PLAYBAR, if not slightly improved. I do much prefer the design here to the bar’s fabric (one being much easier to clean than the other, for starters). But the PLAYBASE provides one of the boldest statements the brand has ever made: for the first time, they’ve been first to do something. And it feels something so obvious, it’s amazing no one did it before. Add to this the unit’s strong design, presentation and execution, and you have what are the best TV speakers in market that I’ve used.  After years of staying behind the pack, Sonos now find themselves miles ahead of their competition. The Playbase is the television speaker to beat.

The SONOS Playbase is available now for a RRP of $999 AUD.

Learn a bit more about the making of the PLAYBASE here:

For more information about the PLAYBASE, head to sonos.com.

You can also read our interview with Sonos’ Sound Experience Leader Giles Martin on our sister site The AU Review HERE and our chat with Michael Papish, the Director of Platform Strategies HERE.