Monday, 25/9/2017 | 6:41 UTC+0

Mossberg: Sonos solves TV audio problems for a stiff price

Last year, I bought a new, high-end LG OLED 4K TV and wrote about the experience. I talked about the brilliant picture, the tiny bezels, the ultra-thin display, and the overly complex UI. But, over the ensuing months, another feature of the TV has become more and more noticeable, and annoying: the audio.

The sound of “what did she say?”

Like most new HDTVs in recent years, my LG is too thin (even with its bulge in the lower back) to support more than small speakers. They generate volume, but little nuance.

On top of that, modern TV shows and films are increasingly mixed in a way that demotes the clarity of dialogue in favor of cinematic sound effects and wild swings in volume between scenes.

This wasn’t much of a problem with my old TV, a decade-old Pioneer Elite Plasma with huge, front-facing speakers running top to bottom on each side of the tall screen. But, with the new LG, we soon began resorting to closed captions on many shows, especially British ones, because the dialogue sounded muddy.

It turns out this combination of small speakers and dialogue-unfriendly mixing is a well-known problem, much written about. And its effects aren’t just limited to people who are hearing-impaired or whose hearing has degraded due to age. It’s a broader issue. You can tell it affects you if you’re constantly reaching for the remote to raise or lower the volume within the same show or movie (not counting the always-blaring commercials).

In fact, before I ever left Best Buy with the TV, the salesmen, who had been very high on the LG, told me all the new TV speakers were too small and tried to get me to buy an external soundbar. I ignored them, because a) I am not, and have never been, an audiophile, b) I suspected they just wanted me to spend more money, and c) a soundbar would be yet another gadget on our crowded TV console.

Sonos as TV savior

And then came the new Sonos Playbase to open my eyes and ears. I’ve been testing this combination TV speaker and Sonos music player for roughly six weeks, and here’s my take on it as a non-audiophile who has never before used an external TV speaker.

The Playbase is expensive at $700. In my tests, it exhibited two minor drawbacks, which I’ll describe below. But, otherwise, I found it to be a glorious improvement in both my TV audio experience and the general music-listening experience in my large family room, where the previous best speaker was a $199 Sonos Play:1 model.

My test Playbases (first a beta preproduction unit, then a production version) were black, and, as fully described by my colleague Chris Welch here, are thin, wide boxes designed have a TV placed directly on top. In our case, with our particular TV (which has a wide, flat base), the Playbase pretty much disappeared into the media area, and didn’t stand out as yet another box. That was a big plus.

But the bigger plus was the sound. When used as a TV speaker (a mode it automatically adopts whenever the TV is on) it produced crisp, clear, rich sound that rendered the dialogue beautifully and yielded soundtrack music and sound effects far superior to those from the TV’s own speakers. That’s partly because it has a center channel dedicated to dialogue, as well as left and right stereo channels that carry most other audio.

I found the sound immersive through the whole large room, at every seat from which I’d watch TV. Sonos also has an iPhone and iPad-based feature called Trueplay, which tunes the speaker to the room in a couple of minutes, adding a little more immersion.

And, suddenly, there was no more need for subtitles in our house. If you do encounter a show with dialogue you’re still having trouble hearing, there’s a “Speech Enhancement” feature that boosts dialogue further. In my tests, tapping on this enhancement icon in the Sonos app definitely made a difference, without diminishing any of the other sounds.

Setup was dead simple, with just two cords — an optical audio connector to the TV and a power cord. There’s also an Ethernet jack, but I found the 802.11n Wi-Fi to be just fine, even though it’s not the latest Wi-Fi version. (Sonos says it stuck with “n” because it finds it works better to connect the Playbase with other Sonos speakers you may have. It says it uses both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands.)

The app, which runs on all major platforms, also walks you through a simple configuration of your cable or TV remote so it can control the Playbase’s volume. In my case, the Apple TV remote could control the Sonos as well.

But wait! It’s also a standalone speaker!

When you’re not watching TV, the Playbase functions as an excellent standalone Sonos speaker, connected via the Sonos app to dozens of music services. Later this year, along with other Sonos models, it will acquire the ability to be controlled by Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant via an Echo device. Sonos says it’s working to make this control seamless and not clumsy, so it won’t require a secondary wake word, like other Alexa “skills.” The idea is that, for music, you could designate your Sonos system, including your Playbase, as the default speaker. For other kinds of audio responses, the Echo’s internal speaker would take over.

In my tests, as a standalone speaker, the Playbase behaved just like any other Sonos model, offering great sound for music. Its audio quality outclassed the Play:1 models I own. (I didn’t compare it to other, costlier Sonos models.) And, because that thin slab hiding under your TV can now be your main music speaker, you can remove any other speaker you may have in the room with your big TV, saving space and reducing clutter. (You could also wirelessly link a couple of Play:1 models and a Sonos Sub with the Playbase to create a home theater, but, remember, I’m not an audiophile, so I won’t be doing this.)

As with other Sonos speakers, you can group the Playbase with additional Sonos units. You can play separate music, or the same music, in various rooms. You can even play TV sound via speakers far from the TV.

So what’s not to like?

Well, for a non-audiophile, there’s the price; I wish it were less. Unless you’re already sold on Sonos, you could fix at least the dialogue problem with cheaper TV speakers, like the Zvox, at $250.

Then there’s the latency. I found that in certain scenarios, like first turning the TV on, or switching inputs or moving among different over-the-top services, the sound didn’t start until 2–3 seconds after the picture did. Sonos said this was because the Playbase had to emerge from sleep and do a quick sound analysis before starting, and do the same analysis when adjusting to a new source.

Also, the Playbase takes away the visual audio indicator on the TV screen, at least on my TV and others. I got used to these things.

I also wish the unit had microphones, so that, when Alexa compatibility arrives, you could just issue it commands directly, without an Echo device. Sonos says it plans microphones for future products, but wouldn’t exactly tell me why they’re absent on the Playbase.

For audiophiles, there are other issues, laid out here by my colleague Nilay Patel.

Bottom Line

As somebody who needed great TV sound to go with a great TV picture, who loves the Sonos audio system, and is perfectly happy with a single immersive speaker in the family room, the Playbase meets my needs. I’m planning to buy one.

But, if you can’t, or would rather not, spend $700, there are cheaper alternatives. And if you’re a real audiophile, there may be more desirable ways to go.

Still, this is a fine product. I recommend it to people who want better TV sound, love Sonos quality, and can afford it. Everyone else with a new, thin TV should definitely look into adding a soundbar of some kind. Even if you’re not an audiophile, good TV sound matters.

#gadgetbingo

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