What was sonos Thinking with Playbar re:5.1?

  • 12 April 2013
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I think the Sonos Playbar is a fantastic piece of equipment on it's own and perhaps with a sub for 3.1. However, with respect to the ability to add a pair of surround sound for 5.1s... I'm at a huge loss. Considering:

a) 99% of TVs will not output 5.1 sound from HDMI inputs over optical

b) TV manufacturers do not advertise this spec on their TVs so it's difficult or impossible to determine in advance

c) Sonos refuses to maintain an official list of such compatible TVs on their website

I don't understand why Sonos would advertise the Playbar as being 5.1.

Yes, you could get the Playbar to output in 5.1 if you add an A/V receiver and possibly if you use an HDMI switcher, although the switcher is iffy because of how HDCP handshaking works, it still might only output 2.1. Also, there's reports of HDMI handshaking failing between switches, which requires turning the TV and connected device on and off each time you use it.

But here's the problem-- the Playbar, or any soundbar, is supposed to be used when a person wants a simplified home theater setup, with minimal wires, minimal components, and minimal fuss. If you add an A/V receiver or switcher then it's no longer minimal.

So what exactly was Sonos thinking with the Playbar? Don't get me wrong, I enjoy mine for the 2 channel sound it is. However, it's going to be virtually impossible to reliably and easily get 5.1 out of it. And then even if you can, it won't do DTS but that's been hammered to death ad nauseum already.

I actually bought my Playbar with the thought that I could buy a new TV that outputs 5.1 over optical from HDMI inputs, because in a few months I'll be in the market for a new TV. Unfortunately, it still appears that I will be unable to reliably make a purchasing decision due to a dearth of information on what TVs will do this.

My initial question - What was Sonos thinking? remains. Clearly there was some discussion on this in the engineering room during R&D. Here's the best I can come up with:

1) The Playbar can take a 2.1 signal and put out a crappy faux 5.1 version that is extrapolated, and won't sound anything like real 5.1, but the average Sonos consumer is too ignorant to notice that the sound out of their rear $300 each speakers is really just a slightly quieter version of their front channel.

2) They didn't perform due diligence and didn't realize so few TVs output 5.1 over optical, and just assumed it would work.

Those are the best two explanations I can come up with, and neither of them make Sonos look good. I'm open to other possibilities, but when I contacted Tech Support asking them about a list of TVs that support 5.1 over optical, Sonos official CSR basically told me to screw off and I'm on my own. MAYBE Sonos created the Playbar with the idea that 99% of their customer base would NOT use it as 5.1, and Sonos was "nice" enough to add the functionality to pair the Play:3s for 5.1, for the 1% of hard-core customers that might want it, and Sonos figured those people would be able to parse through the methods of doing that on their own. That would be a reasonable thought, perhaps.

What was Sonos thinking with the Playbar regarding 5.1?

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Dunno.
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..MAYBE Sonos created the Playbar with the idea that 99% of their customer base would NOT use it as 5.1, and Sonos was "nice" enough to add the functionality to pair the Play:3s for 5.1, for the 1% of hard-core customers that might want it, and Sonos figured those people would be able to parse through the methods of doing that on their own. That would be a reasonable thought, perhaps.
That's how I see it..

Playbar with the SUB will satisfy the vast majority in the market for this type of simple setup IMO
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a) 99% of TVs will not output 5.1 sound from HDMI inputs over optical

Now, no but that's changing more new TVs are offering this. Sonos are just a bit ahead of the curve here. This point will improve with time.

b) TV manufacturers do not advertise this spec on their TVs so it's difficult or impossible to determine in advance

That just means you need to do a bit of research, beyond just looking at the adverts. Such information WILL be available on the TV manufacturers website.

c) Sonos refuses to maintain an official list of such compatible TVs on their website

Refuses? That's a bit of a stretch, if TV manufacturers don't make that info readily available (as you said), how are Sonos supposed to keep such a list up to date? Personally I don't want Sonos paying someone to maintain a list like that, the product is "premium priced" enough as it is...

I don't understand why Sonos would advertise the Playbar as being 5.1.

Because it is.

Yes, you could get the Playbar to output in 5.1 if you add an A/V receiver

You don't need an AV Receiver, you can connect any source that outputs 5.1 Dolby Digital from an optical connection to the Playbar, such as many PVRs, including Sky boxes (if you're in the UK).

There's only two issues as I see it, the lack of DTS support, which may get added (it can be done in firmware) and only one optical input. Two or a coaxial input would have made it more useful as then you could connect a PVR and DVD/Blu-ray directly. You won't get HD audio support but presumably Sonos don't think the wireless is up to the job of pumping that round to two surround Play:3s.
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the_lhc, I agree with you on most of those points. The only thing I would add in response to the original post is that Sonos does seem to be one of those companies (Bose are another, so are Apple) that divide opinions, and this results in strong views even from those that have never heard the relevant products.

My guess is that Sonos knew perfectly well that most TVs don't (yet) output 5.1 from optical, and so consequently they worked very hard on the Playbar's capability to create surround effects from a stereo signal - because that's how most people were supposed to use it (in fact, you could even say that the ability to decode Dolby Digital was something of a bonus when considered in that context).

My real point is that whilst I am no expert in true 5.1 wired systems, the suggestion that "the average Sonos consumer is too ignorant to notice that the sound out of their rear $300 each speakers is really just a slightly quieter version of their front channel" is nonsense - it is clear from ten seconds of listening to the Playbar/sub/Play:3s set up that that is not what the Play 3:s are doing. And of course you can get true DD 5.1 from Sky and DVD/Blu-ray by plugging them directly into the Playbar. And if Sonos does manage to get DTS decoding onto the Playbar, then there's really not going to be much to complain about.

Finally, the cost comparison is a bit misleading, lots of people saying that £2,000 for the system is expensive when compared to wired AVR systems. But to get a true comparison you have to add in the costs of cabling, not to mention the potential costs of channeling cables.
tBut to get a true comparison you have to add in the costs of cabling, not to mention the potential costs of channeling cables.
And don't forget to factor in the SONOS functionality. It can do more that a typical TV/surround set up.
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If it's so easy to do research and find out if a TV can output 5.1 over optical, how come each and every single forum thread on this forum and on AVS forums, that discuss this topic, all have split outcomes on the same model TVs?

Person A comes in and says "Hey guys, I got TV X to output 5.1 to my playbar."

Person B comes along and says "I also have TV X and it's only outputting 2.1."

Person C comes along and says, "I also have TV X and it doesn't work either for 5.1"

And then in a few cases, I'll see a TV that a few people are saying does work, so I go on Amazon to buy it, and it's a model from 2 years ago. So Amazon suggests the new model of that TV to me, and of course I have no idea if that newer model still outputs 5.1 over optical.

And there's no "name" for this feature, so it's not something I can go on a manufacturer's website to find. I wouldn't even know what to look for: "Parses 5.1 out of HDMI input to optical audio output"??

In fact, can anyone at all point to one definitive TV that absolutely, positively outputs 5.1 over optical? Where no one else has replied "I have the same TV and nope, it doesn't"? And for that TV can you point me to the manufacturer's website and show me where the company declares that as a feature in the product specs?

Can anyone do that on even ONE SINGLE television? I'm not being sarcastic, I'm being serious. Because if someone can do it for one, then I have hope it's possible. As of now, I think 0% of TVs output on 5.1 over optical from an HDMI source, but I list 1% because it might be possible.
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Or you could just connect sources direct to the Playbar, using an optical splitter if necessary, and then there will be no issue.
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Or you could just connect sources direct to the Playbar, using an optical splitter if necessary, and then there will be no issue.

Some things I read suggest that the HDCP handshake between the TV and the HDMI device will block 5.1 from coming out over optical from the device, into the splitter, if the TV doesn't support 5.1 out over optical.
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If it's so easy to do research and find out if a TV can output 5.1 over optical, how come each and every single forum thread on this forum and on AVS forums, that discuss this topic, all have split outcomes on the same model TVs?

Person A comes in and says "Hey guys, I got TV X to output 5.1 to my playbar."

Person B comes along and says "I also have TV X and it's only outputting 2.1."

Person C comes along and says, "I also have TV X and it doesn't work either for 5.1"

And then in a few cases, I'll see a TV that a few people are saying does work, so I go on Amazon to buy it, and it's a model from 2 years ago. So Amazon suggests the new model of that TV to me, and of course I have no idea if that newer model still outputs 5.1 over optical.

And there's no "name" for this feature, so it's not something I can go on a manufacturer's website to find. I wouldn't even know what to look for: "Parses 5.1 out of HDMI input to optical audio output"??

In fact, can anyone at all point to one definitive TV that absolutely, positively outputs 5.1 over optical? Where no one else has replied "I have the same TV and nope, it doesn't"? And for that TV can you point me to the manufacturer's website and show me where the company declares that as a feature in the product specs?

Can anyone do that on even ONE SINGLE television? I'm not being sarcastic, I'm being serious. Because if someone can do it for one, then I have hope it's possible. As of now, I think 0% of TVs output on 5.1 over optical from an HDMI source, but I list 1% because it might be possible.


I'm in the same boat as you although when selecting something as large and expensive as a TV my primary interest is how it looks. I'm getting just as hung up on this as you are, debating between the Panasonic 60 or Samsung 60 (plasma) and knowing if either of them truly support 5.1 would help. I'm planning on making the store hook up the Playbar to verify myself. I have several switchers at home that I'm playing with which of course goes against one of the reasons I like the Playbar...simplicity.

It is entirely possible that I'm getting hung up on this for no reason. I have not even compared the sound quality difference between true 5.1 and simulating that from a 2ch signal. Have you and can you share your findings? Now that I think about it I should be able to set this up with my current solution, just by changing the setting on my Apple TV. If I can't hear that much of a difference than I can forget about all of this angst and pick a TV based purely on image quality and enjoy my new Sonos toy.
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There's no way that simulated 5.1 will sound anywhere close to real 5.1.

Think about the XMen movie where Professor X is whispering into Wolverine's brain. In true 5.1, you hear it coming from a single speaker, in different directions. e.g. the first one might have been front left speaker only, the second one might have been rear right speaker only.

Some movies have a sound coming from the rear left speaker only and the actors react in that direction.

It's impossible for a simulated 5.1 setup to do that. In fact, all a simulated 5.1 setup can really do is take the sound from the front left and right channels, tone them down slightly, and push that toned-down sound through the rear left and right channels. I can't imagine why anyone would waste their money on that.

Functionally it's like taking a pair of Play:3s, linking them to work as a pair, creating a new ZONE for those Play:3s, then setting up Party Mode between the PlayBar Zone and the new Paired Play:3 Zone, and then running the Play:3 zone at a volume that's 20% of the volume of the Playbar zone.

I mean, really, in a best case scenario, using a high-end algorithm that may or may not exist, a simulated 5.1 setup (off a 2.1 input) MIGHT be able to parse the 2.1 input, 10 seconds in advance of it playing, figure out that a certain sound is moving from the left to the right speaker, like a train, and then simulate a 5.1 by having the sound first start in the rear left, then front left, then center, then front right, then rear right.

That would require a significant algorithm, a ton of processing power, and it still wouldn't sound correct because the train isn't supposed to be moving in 360 degrees around you.

Simulated 5.1 is one of the silliest things I've ever heard of. I can see simulated 3.1 being possible and worthwhile, because the center channel handles dialogue, and it's possible for an algorithm to guess when dialogue is occurring and then push that out of the center channel as opposed to the L and R simultaneously. That wouldn't be as good as a 5.1 signal being pared down to 3.1 (due to lack of rears attached) but it's at least worth simulating. Simulated 5.1... I just don't understand.
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Honestly from what you are saying it seems that you would have been better off with a true 7.1 setup, a receiver, etc. I don't know of any soundbar based solution that is going to give you what you are looking for. It is by definition a compromise solution and not for everyone. Most soundbar solutions don't accomodate rear channel speakers at all, they just hope sound bouncing off the walls is enough to give you some surround effect. Your screen name is DTS and you want perfect channel separation for a real home theater experience...I think you may have bought the wrong product, Sonos isn't trying to hit that bar.

I'm intentionally "downgrading" from a complete 7.1 setup because our new house and general use won't accomodate and doesn't need the big box approach anymore. I also love the integrated Sonos ecosystem. It is a tradeoff. At the end of the day I'm sure I can live with a 2ch output but it would be nice to have a definitive list of TVs that support 5.1.
Or you could just connect sources direct to the Playbar, using an optical splitter if necessary, and then there will be no issue.

I dont understand why Sonos did not build this into the Playbar. Just have 4 HDMI and 1 optical in and 1 HDMI out would have stopped all the negative comments about the Playbar and made customers lives simpler. If this had been included I would have bought the whole set up in a flash. Now I can not justify having to also get optical splitter and actually making my system as complicated as before.
I dont understand why Sonos did not build this into the Playbar. Just have 4 HDMI and 1 optical in and 1 HDMI out would have stopped all the negative comments about the Playbar and made customers lives simpler. If this had been included I would have bought the whole set up in a flash. Now I can not justify having to also get optical splitter and actually making my system as complicated as before.

Nor do I...

OK, so costs would inevitably have increased but they could include both a downlink for optical from TV (for those using that as their primary source) and 4 HDMI ports for connecting content devices with a single HDMI uplink to TV.

It is making me laugh about all this discussion around hanging optical switches around to address a fundamental product design flaw... oh, and it doesn't even do DTS, let alone any HD formats!

Don't get me wrong, I love Sonos but not this product.
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I dont understand why Sonos did not build this into the Playbar. Just have 4 HDMI and 1 optical in and 1 HDMI out would have stopped all the negative comments about the Playbar and made customers lives simpler. If this had been included I would have bought the whole set up in a flash. Now I can not justify having to also get optical splitter and actually making my system as complicated as before.

They've been saying in interviews for a while now that they have no intention of getting into video switching, which would rule out the use of HDMI ports straight away.

Definitely needs more than one input though.
I’m an existing Sonos customer (2 x 5, 1 x 3, Sub) whose Panasonic home theatre system has just died after many years of excellent work. So I’m looking for a new system, and one that is compatible with my existing Sonos hardware would be perfect. But I just can’t buy the Playbar with its connectivity issues and DTS incompatibility.

It’s a shame Sonos got this wrong. Their strategy and implementation of a wireless sound system has been excellent to date - although the glossy Sub, rather than matt, may have been a marketing error. And they have captured a large part of the market because of a combination of their first mover advantage and their quality products.

Perhaps the connectivity problem is due to a shift into a slightly different market, one that requires full dependence on other hardware manufacturers. But why didn’t the prototype testing team highlight it as an issue, and why didn’t the sales and marketing teams determine it to be a problem? Surely they know their customers expect quality sound and would have a serious issue with anything that degrades it; even if the 2-channel sound is excellent.

Perhaps Sonos wasn’t sure about their target market during development. They went for customers requiring ease of physical connectivity (an excellent Sonos mantra) over those requiring full sound quality (also a Sonos trait). I think their target market demands both.

The DTS incompatibility is even stranger. Sonos has lots of experience with integrating various sound formats. Even Wikipedia states for Blu-ray audio “players are required to support Dolby Digital (AC-3), DTS, and linear PCM.” But Sonos technicians must be amongst the best in the world – they would know that. Was there rush to get it to market? Why didn’t the testing team find some Blu-ray movies didn’t work properly? Again, why didn’t Marketing and Sales see it as a problem?

I hope they address these issue quickly. I’d love to buy a Playbar, but I feel it will take too long and I will have to turn to Sonos’ competition.
Have to agree with most of the comments here - we have installed Playbar and other components in our new demo room - currently big mistake.

Finding no luck with an optical connection from a new 65" LG TV, very annoying results from a new Panasonic BluRay - 5.1 during the menu's and then nothing as it switches to DTS, i have now purchased a second BluRay player so we can demonstrate what a proper 5.1 wired system sounds like, while the Sonos does the faux 5.1 from a stereo only output from the other BluRay player.

It may all look good, but currently it seems like a premature release to market...
Having tried to replace my 2010 Sony TV with a 2013 Panasonic Plasma, I've run into the same issue. Whereas the Sony can output 5.1 over optical irrespective of the source, Panasonic's own customer service section is telling me that NONE of their 2013 plasmas can output Dolby Digital though the optical out unless the 5.1 signal comes via the internal TV tuner.
Sonos must have a hard job keeping up with yearly TV releases but I could do with a spot more info to help me upgrade. Next stop, other posts on this forum...

Sonos must have a hard job keeping up with yearly TV releases...


It's worse than that because networked TV's can have "upgrades". Features can come and go. It is literally "here now, gone in a few minutes".
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I had to purchase a Shinybow HDMI / Audio switch. Basically, it allows the switching of both audio and video (optical and coax for each channel). It does not strip the audio from the HDMI which eliminates handshake issues.

I have the respective audio outputs of the switch sent directly to my Martin Logan sound bar. Granted, the Sonos Play Bar does not offer the multi-input ability; however, if all of your components (Apple TV, DVD, Directv set top, etc.) have an optical output, the switch will allow true 5.1 even with the Sonos Play Bar.

Not optimal due to the addition of yet another component; but it satisfied my OCD of not having true 5.1 on my sound bar.


On another tangent:
I am in the market for a Sonos Play Bar for my living room. Currently I have a Play 5 which is just a little short of filling the room. Is the Play bar a better option for music only or should I just purchase a second Play 5 for the room? Thanks
I am new to Sonos and read this with interest because the Play Bar seemed to be a good piece of kit which I thought I might buy.

As regards 5.1 on a TV, sure a TV might not output 5.1 yet, but my DVD player is connected to my TV via an Onkyo amp which handles 5.1, in fact 6.1.

So, when I playback 5.1 DVD's, isn't the Play Bar ideal for this?
Geoff_Sonus,

Since PLAYBAR expects optical digital audio input (only) for 5.1, make sure that your ONKYO has big print stating that it will pass all digital inputs through to an optical digital output. Don't assume that this will be the case.

If you will be using the ONKYO playing through regular 5.1 speakers, I don't see much point in adding PLAYBAR to that room.
Geoff_Sonus,

Since PLAYBAR expects optical digital audio input (only) for 5.1, make sure that your ONKYO has big print stating that it will pass all digital inputs through to an optical digital output. Don't assume that this will be the case.

If you will be using the ONKYO playing through regular 5.1 speakers, I don't see much point in adding PLAYBAR to that room.


Thanks for the info Buzz
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It certainly isn't obvious whether the TV will output 5.1 through optical. I've got a Playbar with sub and rear Play 3 surrounds, and I recently bought one of this year's Panasonic plasmas (TX-P55VT65B), but thus far have only been able to get the TV to send stereo. When you switch any of the sources to 5.1 over HDMI it stops sending at all.

Speaking to their customer service dept, I got this: "…by connecting with optical cable the TV should automatically output 5.1 signal. If it does not, should you try to forward sound from a connected device, like a skybox, please connect that device directly to the Sonos system."

Obviously the key word there is 'if'. They don't seem to know for sure, but it seems to me the socket just isn't set up for 5.1.

So, I was thinking of getting a Toslink switch like this…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B004YPSRC0/ref=oh_details_o02_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Can anyone forsee any issues with using that?

Thanks!

T
On another tangent:
I am in the market for a Sonos Play Bar for my living room. Currently I have a Play 5 which is just a little short of filling the room. Is the Play bar a better option for music only or should I just purchase a second Play 5 for the room? Thanks

@doublestack:
Imho, a second Play5 is largely superior to a Playbar when it comes to music only. I have a few rational arguments and the unavoidable subjective argument:
- The second Play5 will allow to create a stereo pair and have a much wider sound image than with a Playbar or even a Play5 and a Playbar (because they can't be paired as stereo pair).
- The Play5 costs less than the Playbar
- Now to the subjective part: for music, Play5s are much better adapted. The frequency response is much richer to my liking and the Play5 will never "inadvertently" try to create virtual surround effects to your music that isn't made for that kind of treatment... If you don't plan to watch movies with your Playbar, or even TV, go for the pair of Play5s in a second! Well, at least that's my opinion.
I'm REALLY glad I found this thread.

I was beating myself in the head for the past couple of days trying to figure out why I was only getting 2 channel support from my HTPC which connects to my Vizio TV via HDMI. I did a fair amount of research before I paid the $700 for my Sonos Playbar which clearly stated that all I had to do was connect my devices to my TV via HDMI, connect the optical cable from my TV to my Playbar and WALLAH, I'd have either 2, 3, 3.1, or even 5.1 sound! Well, I just noticed that I'm only getting 2 channel support.

Luckily, I don't have many HDMI device anymore. I just bought an InfiniTV 6 ETH network tuner which allows me to stream my TV to my HTPC running WMC. I don't need my HD Cable DVR from Charter anymore so all I have to do now is connect my HDMI cable from my HTPC to my Vizio and then run my optical cable from my HTPC right into my Sonos Playbar. I should be good after that. My HTPC is an all in one Blu-ray player, DVR, Gaming device, Plex box and also allows me to watch Netflix in really good quality with the new Windows 8 Netflix app.

I feel sorry for people who have 3 or more HDMI devices and want to utilize full sound quality from their Sonos Playbar. Looks like they are stuck buying a receiver.

I love my Sonos Playar. I really do, but if they knew that most TV don't pass Dolby Digital or DTS via their optical output, they should have made that LOUD and clear!

I'm a little disappointed, but I'll be ok. 🙂

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