If you (like me) are old enough to have grown up with CRT televisions, you’ll appreciate how amazing flat-screen TVs are much more than the generation which grew up with them. Our TVs are large, colorful and compact. We can mount them on walls or hide them away in or on svelte cabinets and stands.
This compact convenience comes with a major sacrifice, however. There’s isn’t much space to fit speakers into the thin frame of an LCD TV, so the built-in sound is invariably tinny and unpleasant.
Not to be dissuaded, the free market quickly came up with the “sound bar”, a slim speaker that usually also wall-mountable and may have a freestanding subwoofer tucked away in a corner somewhere. Personally, like the full-range soundbars that don’t need a woofer, simple because it’s neat and compact.
Soundbars can be pretty expensive, but at the high-end of the market, it’s totally worth the theatre-like audio experience. Who does this best? If you ask me it’s Sonos with their Playbar.
The physical hookup of the Playbar is dead easy. That is if your TV complies with the official compatibility criteria. If your TV doesn’t have a digital optical output you’re out of luck. Do not pass go.
Even if it does have such a connection, many TVs don’t pass a Dolby Surround signal to that port, so you’ll get fake surround from a stereo signal instead. If you want a Playbar with the express purpose of creating a true surround system your TV needs both optical out and Dolby Digital over optical support.
Setting up the Playbar isn’t that much different from setting up any other high-end soundbar. In fact, the lack of a separate subwoofer may make it a bit simpler than some.
The key difference comes from the fact that the Playbar (and all Sonos speakers) are “smart” devices that need to interface with a mobile app on your phone or tablet.The initial setup of your Playbar must be done through the app or it’s just a very expensive paperweight. If you’re reading this after the apocalypse and the collapse of the global telecoms network, well you’re out of luck friend. I recommend scavenging a cheaper soundbar from the ruins of your local store.
If however civilization still stands, install the Sonos controller application from your relevant app store, if you haven’t already done it for a previous Sonos product.
There are two ways to do this and it depends on whether the Playbar is the start of a new system or is being added to an existing system.
If it’s new then tap on “set up new Sonos system”. Yes, I know, how would you have managed without this guide, right? The app will walk you through the whole process, including getting your remote to work with the playbar and including surround sound speakers that you may have already.
Things don’t change much if you’re integrating the Playbar into an existing system. Just tap “add a player or sub” under “setting” in the mobile app. Once again, you just need to follow the wizard’s instructions. Essentially Sonos turns you into a hobbit no matter which path you choose.
Well, aren’t you fiscally responsible! While the Playbar is the perfect product to hook your (compatible) TV to, there are ways to get the sound quality of Sonos without forking yet more money into their bank account.
The bad news is that none of these options are exactly optimal. One way to do it is with a Sonos Connect or Connect Amp.
These devices are designed to turn an existing speaker or speaker and amp into a part of the Sonos network. For example, if you have a HiFi in a room and want it to play in tandem with the rest of the system.
Crucially, these two little boxes have RCA stereo audio inputs, so technically you can hook your TV’s sound in that way. Just select “line in” as the source in the app and it should work.
The same goes for the Play speakers that have direct line-in ports such as the Play:5, although you’ll have to settle for mono sound unless you’re willing to do some advanced fiddling.
A lack of surround sound is not the biggest problem with this method however, the real issue is latency. If you’re streaming music from an analogue source via the line-in function it really doesn’t matter if there is a one second delay between the when the source sends the audio and when you hear it.
If the sound has to be in sync with a video stream, it’s a whole different story. The line-in method tends to introduce an audio delay and depending on your network and exact TV model it may be it unusable.
This is only worth trying if you already have a Connect or Connect Amp, since they’re pretty pricey too. In most cases buying the Playbar is the best way to go about it.
For those of us who have bought into the Sonos sound experience, the Playbar remains the optimal way to introduce your TV audio to your Sonos device network. It may lack some of the features on cheaper soundbars (such as Bluetooth), but it’s hard to argue against the audio fidelity and power. Whether you use the Playbar by itself or add in your Play 1,3 and 5 speaker to create the ultimate theater experience, it only takes one listen to justify the admittedly steep price of admission.
Don’t forget, connecting your TV to Sonos isn’t the only way to smarten up the old gogglebox. Be sure to check out my roundup of the best Android TV Boxes of 2017 so far. They’ve come a long way since you last read about them!