Soundbars were born out of necessity. HDTVs got thinner, and quality built-in speakers were sacrificed as a result. A full home theater, with an audio-video receiver and separate speakers, provided the only option for sound that matched the quality of the picture. Unfortunately, home theater systems take up a lot of space and clutter up your house with a lot of unsightly, hard-to-keep-track-of wires.
The soundbar solved that problem by integrating multiple speakers – and the electronics to process surround sound – into one unit. While early soundbars opted for convenience over quality, the latest units wrap both qualities together in simple bundles.
Even within similar looking soundbars, a wide range of options exists. The best for you depends on what you value most: quality, convenience, or price – or, more likely, some combination of the three.
You can think of the $700 Sonos Playbar as a gateway drug into the company's well-regarded wireless multiroom music playback system. You may start with the soundbar, but once you're hooked, you'll be salivating for more.
On its own, the Playbar is a solid home theater system replacement. Despite its slim profile, it creates the illusion of a wide sound field, as if the speakers were spread further apart than they are. The Playbar offers better-than-average low-end effects for a unit without a subwoofer. Dialogue resounds clearly, and the speaker really shines for music, with rich bass and crisp treble tones.
The intuitive app really opens up what the Playbar can do. Connect the soundbar to your wireless network through Sonos's $49 Bridge adapter and it becomes a hub for digital audio content: Stream music files from your computer, tap into Pandora or Slacker Internet radio, or access your subscription music services.
In addition to more features, the unit offers some sound improvements over similarly priced soundbars.
And that's only the beginning of the potential soundscape you can create. For example, you can add a wireless subwoofer and surround speakers to create a more traditional home theater setup, and you can add other Sonos speakers in other rooms to create a whole-home system. The Playbar isn't just a soundbar; it's the beginning of a sound system. [$700; sonos.com]