September 4, 2018

Comparing the Sonos Beam to the Sonos Playbar

The Beam and the Playbar fit similar, but different niches in the Sonos speaker lineup.  While both are soundbars, the Playbar is bigger, heavier, and louder than the Beam.  You can think of the Beam as a light version of the Playbar.  However, it is a newer design and you shouldn’t discount the high end sound you get from this affordable speaker.

Why it Can be Difficult to Compare Sonos Speakers to Each Other

The Sonos business model is well calculated. Rather than seek out the sort of vertically integrated and locked in ecosystem that so many hardware companies are following, Sonos is dedicated to creating a modular model where devices can be mixed and matched to accommodate your individual needs, and an ambivalent approach to third party software and devices allows the whole system to communicate regardless of the components that make up your entertainment system. Since each of these items is seen as the organs of a body rather than the body itself, it’s hard to compare them directly.

That said, there’s a distinct competitiveness between the Sonos Beam and Playbar. Both speaker offerings fill a similar niche in the Sonos product selection, serving as alternatives to traditional soundbars, and each come with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Keep in mind that with any speaker system, ultimately the way that you are going to use a speaker plays a big role in choosing the “right” speaker.  If you have a tiny room, you probably don’t need a giant booming speaker because you will never turn it up very loud.  If you have a giant room, you may need a set of speakers designed to have directed sound, as opposed to omni-directional sound.  Application is key in any setup.

Aesthetics

Sonos is known for creating slick products with an eye towards minimalist design. They’re built to be an unobtrusive component in your stereo system – an accompaniment to the main course – and both the Playbar and Beam fulfill this mission to varying degrees.

The newer Beam undoubtedly takes the advantage here. At barely more than half the overall size of the Playbar, the Beam fits more comfortably into your home stereo setup. If it weren’t for the Sonos branding on this bar, it would be hard to know what it does. Available in both black and white variants, the Beam features intuitive touch screen controls along the top panel and a slick design with rounded curves.   The Playbar is only available in black, in contrast to the two color options for the Beam.

If not for the Sonos branding on its surface, it would be hard to define what exactly the Beam does. By comparison, the Playbar’s weighty frame sports a boxy and squared look with buttons that stand out notably. Where the Playbar resembles a slow transition from the traditional, imposing look of heavy old stereo components, the Beam is undoubtedly a speaker of the future.

Features

While how a speaker is going to look on your shelf is important, it’s merely incidental to the main purpose of these devices. This is another one where Beam takes the lead.

Built off the basic principles first pioneered with the Sonos One, the Beam fills the underrepresented fusion of soundbars and smart technology. The big selling point for the Beam is its smooth integration with a number of different virtual assistants. Support for Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri are a standard feature of Beam, something entirely absent with Playbar.

That’s not to say that Playbar is lacking on interactivity with cloud-based streaming. The Playbar comes with the standard assortment of features you’ll find in any Sonos product, and they’re no slouch. That includes cross compatibility with any other Sonos product in your house and the ability to stream from a wide variety of software platforms.

Both the Sonos Beam and the Sonos Playbar offer Dobly 5.1 compatibility. That said, the virtual assistant integration is very cool, and it does a good job of filtering out voice commands even when you have the bass bumping at full volume, but it can be limiting in and of itself. The ability to turn on your TV vocally and adjust the volume with a simple word is great, but anything beyond that requires the inclusion of an additional platform like the Amazon Fire TV or Amazon Echo. It’s a situation where Sonos’ open approach to cross-platform neutrality could be a tentative negative, but it leaves Beam ready to adapt as smart home devices become a more consistent aspect of the regular home.

Ultimately, the Sonos Beam wins in terms of features, but how much of an edge that provides comes down to how much you value the benefit of TV voice controls and how expansive your smart home system already is.

Power

Convenience and aesthetic appeal are great, but ultimately a good speaker lives and dies on how good it sounds, and the Sonos Playbar wins here hands down. The Playbar may be bulkier, but that also means there’s a lot more space to pack in hardware. The Playbar boasts nine drivers, all individually amplified. It’s an impressive amount of power even given the size of the speaker, and it shows in the performance, and it also uses its own individual woofer to handle to handle its bass frequencies.

By comparison, the Sonos Beam packs in one tweeter and four full-range elliptical woofers. Three passive bass radiators round out the package. As with practically every other aspect, how much value you get out of this increased power is going to come down to your personal needs. While the Sonos Playbar can give you serious theater-level performance in an expansive home theater, you likely won’t notice too much difference in a more modestly sized room. Power is the name of the game here, and the Playbar is built from the ground up as one of the premier Sonos speakers for true audiophiles.

In simple terms, the Playbar gets louder, deeper, and stronger than the Beam.  But depending upon your application, you need to ask yourself if it is necessary or superfluous.

Connectors

Sonos excels when it comes to creating products that minimize the cables in your setup and allowing a vast range of components to communicate with little to no configuration. Suiting the fact that it’s far newer, the Beam has more practical components. It utilizes a single HDMI cord, meaning that you can connect it easily to any TV and essentially control both television and speaker as one single unit. The Playbar only uses an optical cord, making it less ideal for ease of use. But the lack of virtual assistant integration in the Soundbar means that if you’re working with a modern TV and not looking to create a smart TV configuration, it really won’t make a lot of difference.

Price

Reflecting its status as a lighter version of the playbar, the beam is less expensive.  While the Playbar sells here for $650, it regularly retails for $699.  The Beam is a relative bargain at $399.  This represents a huge discount to the Playbar.  Given its competitive performance, it is tempting for many to choose the Beam over the Playbar based upon the price.

Conclusion

Which Sonos soundbar is right for you really just comes down to where your preferences lie. For futurists and minimalists who want a seamless smart home, there’s no doubt that the Beam is the perfect match. It’s one of the few soundbars on the market that coordinates directly with the full range of virtual assistants on the market. And while it doesn’t have the aural integrity of the Playbar, it’s perfectly well suited to most rooms.

The Playbar’s is starting to get a little long in the tooth, both in its antiquated design elements and its lack of features, but it also offers a crisper and more powerful sound hands down. In larger rooms, the distinction will be noticeable to anyone with a discerning ear.

The one final consideration here is price. The Playbar is nearly double the price of the Beam, meaning it’s an expensive toy catered more towards the demands of people who require intense auditory integrity. Regardless of the decision you make, you can’t go wrong with either. They’re both near the front of the pack in the world of wireless speakers.