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Sonos Arc vs Sonos Playbar – we find out if you should stick or upgrade with our in-depth guide to Sonos’ two premium soundbars.
When it launched in 2013, the Sonos Playbar was a state-of-the-art soundbar that could be expanded into a full 5.1 system by adding additional Sonos speakers. With the release of the Arc, it delivers immersive sound through Dolby Atmos. But, are the changes enough and should you upgrade?
We’ll go through everything you need to make the right decision based on sound, features and the home setup you have.
Related: Best Soundbar
Sonos Arc vs Sonos Playbar — Price
When it was first released the Playbar commanded a price of £699, though with recent price cuts you can find it for £499.
As the Arc is new, the RRP is £799, which is £100 more than the Playbar’s original RRP. If you go down this route, it’s the pricier option.
Sonos Arc vs Sonos Playbar — Design
Given the Playbar is now seven years old, it still looks pretty good, if not a bit rectangular. Even so, the chunky (85 x 900 x 140 mm) dimensions has held up well over and it doesn’t look particularly old.
The Sonos Arc is a big step forward in design. Wrapped in white or black mesh, it’s a curved and sleeker-looking product, designed to accompany, rather than dominate, the TV you pair it with.
Be warned, as the soundbar’s size (87 x 1140 x 116mm) it looks better when paired with TVs 55-inches and above.
Sonos Arc vs Sonos Playbar — Features
A big difference between the Arc and Playbar is the input used. The Sonos Playbar only has an optical input, whereas the Arc uses HDMI eARC, which is backwards compatible with HDMI ARC, although you can use an optical input via an adaptor, too.
We’ve discussed in great detail how to use the Sonos Arc without HDMI eARC and the various limitations (such as dealing with Dolby Atmos content), but we’ll give a short summary here.
Using HDMI means the Arc can receive higher-quality audio than the Playbar. For most TVs, that’s a minimum of Dolby Digital Plus with an HDMI ARC connection, although some TVs can send Dolby Atmos via this format, too. With new TVs that have HDMI 2.1 ports, the Sonos Arc can use Dolby TrueHD and full Dolby Atmos, both of which use lossless compression.
Dolby Digital Plus uses more bandwidth than the older Dolby Digital standard, supporting up to eight channels of audio. It’s a lossy codec, but it sounds better than Dolby Digital. Using an optical input on the Sonos Playbar (or the Arc), limits you to Dolby Digital, and you can’t get Dolby Atmos, either.
Using HDMI has a couple of other advantages. First, with HDMI CEC, you can control the volume of the Arc with your TV’s remote; with the Playbar you have to use an IR remote or Sonos app.
Secondly, HDMI ARC supports lip-sync and HDMI eARC has a better implementation, which should mean fewer problems.
In terms of music, both systems support the same range of services, and both are fully integrated into the Sonos ecosystem, so you can group them with other speakers for multi-room audio.
As the newer product, only the Arc supports Apple AirPlay 2. Also, the Arc is a fully-featured smart speaker, compatible with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
The verdict here is that while both are quality multi-room music players, the Arc does slightly more.
Sonos Arc vs Sonos Playbar — Sound quality
Sound quality is slightly harder to quantify, as much depends on the type of input that you have into the Sonos Arc. What we can say, is that the Arc is a product built for modern audio formats.
While the old Playbar sounded good, the Arc is a step up in all cases. It sounds warmer and more detailed, and it has better bass than its predecessor. In fact, the Arc is so good on its own that there’s not a real need to add wireless rear speakers or the Sonos Sub for extra bass.
Sonos has also done a lot of work on how sound is projected. For Dolby Digital soundtracks, the Arc’s sound is more immersive and wraps around you, particularly after you’ve used TruePlay to tune it. For this kind of content, the up-firing speakers are used to deliver more low-end frequencies, giving a richer home cinema experience. Positionally, the Arc’s sound fills a room, but the overall effect isn’t as detailed as Yamaha’s Digital Sound Projector technology used on the YSP-2700, which does a good job of faking rear speakers.
Where the Arc starts to pull ahead of the Playbar is when you use sound formats supported by the HDMI connection. Upping sound quality to Dolby Digital Plus means you get more bandwidth, which means the Arc is capable of decoding higher-quality audio.
With the right TV, Dolby Digital Plus can also be used for Dolby Atmos, using the Arc’s up-firing speakers for overhead channels. Atmos is a game-changer, with the Arc able to fill a room. The Playbar is more positional with the audio is coming from right in front of you.
If you have an HDMI eARC TV, you get full lossless audio from Dolby TrueHD (this can also carry Dolby Atmos). This is the pinnacle of current home cinema formats, and lossless encoding is yet another step up from Dolby Digital Plus, with cleaner, more precise audio.
In summary, the Arc sounds better in all cases, but it’s when you use Dolby Digital Plus or better that it really starts to shine, and it takes another notch up when you use an HDMI eARC port.
Related: Best Dolby Atmos soundbar
Sonos Arc vs Sonos Playbar – Verdict
The main choice will come down to the setup you have and whether it supports Dolby Atmos or not. If you’re running an older system that doesn’t, you’re missing out on one of the Arc’s key new features, so there’s little need to upgrade. In fact, the only benefit you might get is slightly clearer 5.1 sound via Dolby Digital Plus.
If you don’t have an HDMI ARC port and have to use optical, there’s really very little point in upgrading to the Sonos Arc today. You might as well stick with the Sonos Playbar until you get a newer TV.
The situation flips if you’ve got a TV with Dolby Atmos support, but again be careful. If you mainly watch Atmos content via streaming services, the Arc is an impressive upgrade. If you watch films on 4K Blu-ray, you need a TV with, at minimum, an HDMI ARC port and the ability to encode Dolby Atmos, or a TV with a HDMI eARC port.
This applies to people with TVs that are, at most, a couple of years old. If you fit into that category, the Sonos Arc is an impressive, detailed and rich sounding soundbar and a worthy upgrade.