September 15, 2018

Sonos Playbase Vs. Sonos Beam

The Sonos Beam and the Playbase are both meant to be a central speaker in a home theater system.  The Playbase is meant to sit under a television, while a Beam is meant to sit next to a TV.  Since they have similar functionality, you might want to know which you should buy.

While Sonos got their start revitalizing audio systems for the 21st century, it took them some time to move into the AV market. But when they did, they moved with a vengeance, releasing the Playbase, Playbar, and Beam over the course of a scant few years. While the Playbar largely feels like an inferior evolutionary predecessor to the Beam, the Playbase comes with some distinct advantages that could make it a viable alternative if you’re shopping around for a superior speaker for your TV. Here’s how the two stack up in practice.

Ease of Use

Sonos’ products are designed from the ground up to be as easy to use as possible, and that’s as much true for their soundbar market as it is for their more conventional speakers. Both the Beam and the Playbase are essentially plug and play. Both make use of a simple power cord and a cable that plugs them directly into the TV, but the format they use differs. The Playbase uses an optical cord, a format designed explicitly for sound. As a result, there’s no real configuration method you need to worry about. Simply connect the cable at both ends, and it will automatically transmit to its source device. Since the Beam uses an HDMI cord, it’s a little more complicated. It doesn’t use a traditional HDMI cord either. Instead, it uses an HDMI-ARC, which is designed to sync audio with sound naturally. The problem is that many older TVs don’t support HDMI-ARC technology. If you’re using a TV that predates 2013, chances are good that you’ll have to invest in an HDMI to optical adapter to make sure the device works as it should. It’s a minor inconvenience but a tangible one.
Winner: Playbase

Smart Functionality

The HDMI-ARC connector for the Beam may make setup a bit more difficult, but it’s there for a reason. One of the biggest selling points of the Beam is that it has Alexa features built right in. The result is a speaker that works interchangeably as a virtual assistant. Admittedly, these functions can be a bit limited. Controlling your video streaming apps requires syncing a Beam with an existing Amazon FireStick, but you can natively control functions like turning your TV on and off or adjusting the volume with your voice alone. It’s incredibly responsive too. These speakers are great at reading your voice and parsing your commands even when you’re blasting the TV at full volume.

That’s not to say that the Playbase doesn’t have options in terms of smart features or voice integration. While it may not stand up to its younger sibling, it can sync up with an existing Alexa-enabled device like an Echo or Echo Dot. That means that the Amazon device will need to be in the same room as your TV if you want to make adjustments locally, but if your home is already integrated with Alexa devices, the integrated tech of the Beam won’t bring a whole lot to the table.

Overall, these two devices have a lot more similarities than differences. Both of them come with the standard suite of Sonos features. That means that they can be integrated into your existing Sonos sound system. There’s a whole lot of versatility on display here. Both devices support a vast array of music streaming services, and they can coordinate seamlessly with any existing or future Sonos speakers to create a comprehensive and adjustable sound system for your TV. Through the use of a Sonos Sub and two Play:1 devices, you can even simulate wireless 5.1 surround sound. Both devices also use WiFi rather than Bluetooth so that you don’t have to worry about incoming phone call interrupting your music or breaks in aural quality. Both are also two for one devices, providing full theater sound for your TV while also doubling as a robust core for a stereo system.
Winner: Echo

Aesthetic and Pragmatic Value

While Sonos has always focused on elegant designs that don’t overshadow your room or the other devices within your entertainment center. While both devices here look good in practice, they diverge pretty significantly in general terms of design. This largely comes down to their unique purposes. The Playbase is a soundbase while the Beam is a soundbar.

Both are pretty and minimalist, offering black and white variants with smoothed off edges and buttons that allow you to control the units themselves from attache buttons that don’t stand out. But the Playbase is naturally deeper and heavier, weighing in at roughly 19 pounds to the Beam’s 6.

These considerations are largely practical. The Beam can either sit in front of your TV or be mounted on the wall behind it. While it’s smaller all around, the way it has to sit distinctly apart from your TV means it’s going to stand out more in your space. The Playbase is designed to serve as a platform your TV sits on. When you can make this work, it essentially sinks into your entertainment center, making it practically invisible. But that means finding a TV that weighs 77 pounds or less and makes use of a single foot rather than claw feet. That said, you don’t need to inherently use the Playbase as a stand. As long as your TV has over 2.3″ in clearance, the Playbase can squeeze underneath it comfortably. It’s not the ideal solution in terms of aesthetics, but it works in a pinch.
Winner: Playbase

Sound Quality

Once you strip out all the bells and whistles, both of these devices are designed to be speakers, and sound quality is the most important thing to consider. This is a situation where there’s no contest, and it’s easy enough to evaluate just looking at the tech packed into these devices. The Sonos Beam sports one tweeter and four mid-woofers each accompanied by their own amplifiers. The Playbase boasts three tweeters, ten amplifiers, six mid-woofers, and one woofer. Both of these are respectable speakers, but the specs for the Playbase blow the Beam out of the water, and that’s apparent through any side by side comparison.
Winner: Playbase

The Verdict

Overall, the Playbase wins out over the Beam. That significantly increased sound quality is hard to dismiss; and while the Beam provides more in the way of smart integration, that can be easily remedied by the addition of an Echo or Echo Dot. Of course, there are a lot of variables here that depend on your unique circumstances. Either one would make a solid addition to any home.