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Sonos offers smart sound for smart TVs

February 12, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • The new $699 Playbar (shown beneath a flat-panel TV) by Sonos will be available March 5.
The new $699 Playbar (shown beneath a flat-panel TV) by Sonos will be available… (Sonos )

The advent of "smart" television sets helped introduce the masses to the idea of tuning in content from a home network and the Internet, not just traditional sources of TV programming (e.g., local broadcasters and cable networks). Now, Santa Barbara-based Sonos -- a leading manufacturer of connected home audio devices -- is adding a similar kind of intelligence to a TV sound bar.

On Tuesday the company announced the Playbar, a 4-inch deep, 3-foot-long rectangle stuffed with nine independently driven speakers. Once wired to a TV set's digital audio output, it automatically provides the amplification and sound for the set and any device connected to it, such as a DVD player.

That might not sound like much of a technological challenge, but Sonos Chief Executive John MacFarlane said it's actually hard to integrate an external device seamlessly without adding a remote or requiring users to manage their audio settings by hand. The Playbar adapts to the TV set's remote, and it automatically powers on and off whenever there's an audio stream to amplify.

Of course, more things are possible if the Playbar is controlled by a smartphone or tablet. The free Sonos app enables users to stream music from a home computer or one of several different online music services. You can even watch a TV show with the original sound muted and substitute in the audio stream of your choice, although that option is probably more useful when displaying photos or home movies.

Granted, you don't need a $699 Playbar to do such things. Many of today's smart TVs can stream audio from the Internet or a home computer. The drawback is that they don't usually sound as good as they look. It's simple enough to improve the audio by connecting the TV to a living-room stereo, and it's possible to make the stereo "smart" with an adapter that connects it to a home network and the Internet. Sonos makes one, in fact: the $349 Connect. A Playbar, though, eliminates the need for an adapter, a stereo or speakers. 

The Playbar is designed to deliver wide, clear and immersive sound. "It's the most powerful speaker we've built to date. It's also the smartest," said product manager Scott Fink, noting the advanced speaker array and electronics that try to optimize the positioning of sounds around the room.

It's not true surround sound, though. For that, you'd have to add a couple of Sonos networked speakers, which start at $299 each. The company also sells a networked subwoofer for $699. All of these can be linked to the Playbar with a tap of the app.

The Playbar will succeed or fail depending on how good it sounds. What interested me, though, was how the device advances the idea of the digital TV as a sort of universal monitor, with the network as the source of audio and video. Picture a flat panel as thin as a magazine, mounted on a wall just above an elongated speaker, with no wires anywhere, all of the sound and images being drawn from somewhere on the network.

MacFarlane said that digital TVs are going to become increasingly sophisticated, like 55-inch diagonal iPods with a very active ecosystem of applications. To avoid the clutter of wires, they'll send and receive audio wirelessly through the home network. MacFarlane said Sonos designed the Playbar to be well positioned for that sort of change.

The company will try to drive the price down in the meantime. MacFarlane said Sonos "tried hard to make that a $599 product, but we couldn't accept the corners we had to cut." There will be a lower-priced version, he said, "when we can deliver the experience you expect from us."

The Playbar is scheduled to be available March 5.


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Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow him on Twitter @jcahealey

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