As TVs get thinner, the laws of physics dictate that sound quality must get worse! There’s simply no room for decent speakers. Hence the rise in popularity of sound bars and bases. The difference between them is simply that sound bars usually sit in front of the TV whereas sound bases normally sit underneath the TV. However both have options for positioning them elsewhere.
I have two award winning options (albeit in different categories) to look at, the Sonos Playbar and the Canton DM55. There is a significant price difference between the two, so my aim is not to try and determine which sounds best. There are far better qualified people who can do that (and indeed have). I will discuss sound quality briefly, but I will be looking at the broader picture.
The 9 driver Sonos Playbar is part of a complete wireless music system and can link wirelessly with all the other components in the Sonos range, including powered speakers like the Sonos Play:1 and wireless receivers like the Connect:Amp, that will turn a set of passive speakers into a streaming HiFi system.
It streams via WiFi which means there is no downsampling. So it plays exactly what it’s sent, from compressed MP3 files, to uncompressed audio files like FLAC or Apple Lossless.
Your music or TV is controlled via a free app on your computer, smartphone or tablet. From the app you can choose what music you want to play in a variety of ways. Numerous streaming services such as Spotify or Deezer can be accessed as well as internet radio stations or your iTunes (or equivalent) music library. You can stream music directly from your smartphone or tablet – but really you’re better off using your device as a controller. TV is just another source you can choose from the app:
Sonos can operate in two modes: standard wireless mode and bridge mode. In bridge mode, all the Sonos components connect to each other directly, forming an ad-hoc network. This makes for a very robust wireless system, particularly if you have difficulty with wireless reception around your house.
It has one optical audio input which Sonos recommend you connect directly to your TV. Then you connect your Sky box, PlayStation, DVD player etc via HDMI. This does require your TV to have optical out (most recent TVs have this). Otherwise you’ll need to invest in an analogue to digital audio converter.
Another option not officially supported by Sonos, is to connect all your devices via their optical output to an optical switch. This can be advantageous since some TVs don’t pass through exactly what they are sent. For example they may downsample 5.1 Dolby Digital to stereo. If you only have a Sky box connected to your TV, I’d connect directly from the Sky box to the Playbar to ensure any 5.1 content is played correctly.
You can check what the Playbar is receiving from the Sonos controller app: Help | About my Sonos system. I’m connected directly from a WD Live box to the Playbar. This will show stereo if the TV doesn’t pass through the Dolby Digital 5.1 signal.
The Playbar has an accelerometer built into it that changes its sound profile depending on how you have it mounted: either above, below, or in front of the TV. If in front of the TV, the infrared signal from the TV remote cleverly gets repeated through the Playbar so there’s no concern of it blocking the TV’s receiver.
The 6 driver DM55 is the smallest of a range of soundbases from Canton, an established and well respected German brand. The 55 stands for 55cm (width). They also do a DM75 (8 drivers ) and DM100 (10 drivers) at 75cm and 100cm wide respectively with higher specs.
The glass topped box looks very sleek and unlike the Playbar, comes with its own remote which is on the chunky side but well built. It’s very straightforward setting up the DM55. It has digital optical and coaxial inputs as well as an analogue input and a SUB output.
Typically you’ll connect it in the exact same way as the Playbar. Again, I’ve connected it directly to the WD TV via the optical input. There isn’t really any setup although you can configure sound adjustments via the remote, all explained clearly in the manual. I found the default settings fine.
For music, the soundbase supports Bluetooth streaming via aptX. There’s a very simple setup procedure to connect your device via Bluetooth. Bluetooth has less range than WiFi so your phone or tablet will need to be with 10-15m of the DM55.
Both systems sound very good as you’d expect. The sound from the DM55 by default has more bass than the Playbar, due to its two integrated woofers. Whether you prefer this is down to personal preference and the sort of TV you watch. You can add insane bass to the Playbar, wirelessly, by adding a Sonos Sub (an extra £599).
The Playbar gives better spatial separation partly due to its extra width (90cm versus 55cm), so provides a better surround sound experience, but the DM55 does a very decent job given its size and price. The Playbar has another trick up its sleeve. If you have two Play:1s or Play:3s, you can use these as rear speakers for a mind blowing 5 speaker surround system. Add in the Sub too for the complete 5.1 listening experience, but make sure you live in a detached house!
The Playbar provides so many more options for playing music. If you have other Sonos speakers, you can group them wirelessly with the Playbar for a multi-room experience. But it’s the app and the ease of playing whatever music you like, all through one simple interface that really sets the Playbar in a different league when it comes to music (and radio for that matter).
However audio quality via Bluetooth streaming is remarkably good through the DM55. It’s a lot better than I was expecting and streaming Deezer from my iPhone sounded great.
If you have a limited budget and want to play music only in one room, the DM55 is superb value. TV and films sound very good and streaming via Bluetooth is unlikely to disappoint.
If you already have Sonos, or are considering it, and budget allows, I would go for the Playbar. But it’s rarely as simple as that!
Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below. I have both setup here, so should be able to answer any queries you may have on either system.
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