- Excellent sound
- Integrated Alexa works like a charm
- Controls TV
- Lovely design
- Not the last word in bass output
- Review Price: £399/$535
- HDMI ARC
- Amazon Alexa support
- Google Assistant support (soon)
- Apple Airplay 2 support (soon)
What is the Sonos Beam?
Sonos made speakers. Then it made a smart speaker. Sonos made soundbars. Then it made a smart soundbar. It’s called the Sonos Beam.
It costs £399 in the UK, $399 in the US, and €449 in Europe. It goes on sale on 17 July.
I say ‘smart soundbar’, as opposed to a regular soundbar, because the Sonos Beam supports the Amazon Alexa voice assistant. It’s a natural move following last year’s Sonos One, which saw Alexa integrated to great success.
Sonos’ pitch is that too many smart speakers are made for the kitchen, rather than the living room. It’s a fair point, since they’re generally small, upright devices that don’t control TVs. So now we have a larger, horizontal alternative, which aims to serve as your living room’s only audio device, taking care of music and movie audio.
The company is continuing its commitment to being an open platform for voice assistants – there’s support for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant in one device, as well as Apple Siri.
The Sonos Beam is an ambitious sound system that aims to do many things, and I’m pleased to say it aces them all.
Sonos Beam – Design
There isn’t really much you can do about the aesthetics of a soundbar, but Sonos has had a good crack at it. It’s being pitched as a compact soundbar, which is fair considering it’s about half the size of Sonos’ other soundbar, the Sonos Playbar.
The Sonos Beam measures 651mm long, 100mm deep and 68.5mm high – it’s compact enough to avoid blocking the bottom of your TV, or precariously hang off your furniture. I had no problem with it stationed in front of a 55-inch LG C8 OLED.
Why is it called the Sonos Beam? The company is being literal with the name. Think beam in the architectural sense, as opposed to lasers. Sonos tells me it thought about calling it the ‘Sonos Bar’, in the way that the Sonos One also dropped the ‘Play’ prefix. The company ended up choosing something fresh, for clarity’s sake.
The Sonos Beam is designed to work in one orientation, unlike the Playbar and its ability to fire in upright or flat positions. If space is tight, or you’re picky about positioning, check out Flexson’s tilting custom wall mounts.
A fabric grille hides the audio components: a tweeter, four elliptical full-range woofers and three passive radiators. Two of the woofers are positioned at the ends of the compact soundbar, angled out at about 45 degrees for wider dispersion.
The fabric is a throwback to the Playbar, but elsewhere the Sonos Beam is aesthetically far closer to the Sonos Playbase. The ends are rounded in contrast to the Playbar’s boxy, angular approach. The colour scheme is a monotone matte black or white.
It features capacitive (touch-sensitive) keys instead of physical buttons. It’s the same layout found on the Sonos One: volume down, play/pause, and volume up. Swipe left or right across this trio to skip tracks. There’s also a microphone mute button for those concerned about eavesdropping.
Sonos Beam – Connections
The big news here is that the Sonos Beam addresses the key problem of the Playbar and Playbase: digital optical was the the only physical link to your TV.
Only one input remains, with HDMI replacing optical, so you still can’t plug all your stuff into the soundbar. Sonos is a firm believer in a simple relationship between TV and soundbar – you’re expected to plug everything into your TV, and then have a single cable going out to the Sonos Beam. This neatly bypasses any potential issues with video signal compatibility. This device is only interested in audio.
HDMI can control TVs. The Sonos Beam is meant to use your TV’s HDMI ARC (audio return channel) socket; the majority of TVs have one. HDMI ARC takes care of transferring audio to a soundbar, while HDMI CEC takes care of power and volume.
Not interested in HDMI? Don’t want to give up that socket on your TV? That’s fine – Sonos includes a handy little optical-to-HDMI adapter for you to go old-school. Elsewhere, non-HDMI connections are basic, as usual. There’s an Ethernet socket (plus built-in dual-band Wi-Fi) and a power socket. That’s your lot.
Sonos doesn’t do Bluetooth – and that doesn’t change with the Sonos Beam. Sonos works firmly in network-based audio when it comes to music streaming. This isn’t ideal if you just want to ping over an audio file from your phone to a single speaker, but it makes sense for the multi-speaker, multiroom music-streaming ecosystem that is Sonos’ domain.
Oh, and there’s Apple AirPlay support, with an Apple AirPlay 2 update coming in July 2018.
Sonos Beam – Features
The stand-out development is the inclusion of the Amazon Alexa voice assistant. Besides being able to set timers and look up basic information, Alexa can control your TV. I don’t just mean power and volume, either.
If you have an Amazon Fire TV device plugged in – the Amazon Fire Stick, for example – the Alexa will help the Sonos Beam control that, too. It means you can use your voice to control what you watch, as long as it’s available on the Amazon Fire TV device. This means yes to Netflix, Amazon Video or BBC iPlayer, but no to Now TV.
Sonos isn’t technically the first to make an Alexa-toting soundbar – that honour falls to the Polk Command Bar, which is similarly priced and will also be released in July 2018. We also know the upcoming Amazon Fire TV Cube is a speaker that can control TVs.
However, Sonos is the first and only one to support Alexa and Google Assistant – and Apple Siri too. That last one is a pleasant surprise. Siri will be coming to the Sonos Beam as part of the Apple AirPlay 2 update. You can get Siri to start playing a song on Apple Music, and then later control it with Alexa – seamlessly.
This platform-agnostic approach will surely help Sonos reach more people, since it’s always easier to buy something that fits into your existing ecosystem. There’s no firm date on when Google Assistant support will go live, but I’m told it’s on track to be delivered some time in 2018.
Elsewhere, the Sonos Beam offers the same tricks and treats you get with other Sonos speakers. There’s Trueplay, a feature that analyses your room’s characteristics. It optimises the sound according to where the speaker is positioned. For example, if you have to place the Beam right next to a wall, you don’t need to worry about there being too much bass. It’s an iOS-only feature for now.
There’s wide support for more than 60 streaming services, which goes some way to balancing out the lack of Bluetooth. Forget phone-to-soundbar communication; just have the speaker pluck tracks directly off the net. Key services include Spotify, Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora, SoundCloud, Audible and TuneIn.
As ever, the excellent Sonos app brings them all together, but some of these services (Spotify, for example) can be controlled through their own apps. Then there’s voice control – you won’t be able to voice-search on every service, but you will be able shout to skip tracks or pause.
Five far-field microphones and multi-channel echo cancellation means your voice can be heard even whilst music is playing. This worked very well on the Sonos One.
The one omission here is Dolby Atmos, which has been the cause of much concern. In my opinion, it isn’t really justified. There are no similarly priced soundbars right now that can do Dolby Atmos, let alone do it well. Given the price of the product and the audience Sonos is going for, Atmos was never going to be on the Beam.
Sonos tells me a Dolby Atmos soundbar in the future isn’t off the cards, but that would only come at a time when the company can “do it right.” In other words, a high-end (and comparatively niche) technology such as that has no business on a £400 soundbar. Maybe someday we’ll see a high-end replacement for the Sonos Playbar.
Finally, there’s the Sonos multiroom element. It was a real party trick a few years ago, but even now – with a flooded market – Sonos remains one of the best options for multiroom audio. The Sonos Beam can be part of a network with other Sonos speakers. They can play the same song at the same time, or a different song in every room.
The app is super-slick. Controlling multiroom systems can often be likened to herding cats but Sonos makes it easy. You’re never in danger of accidentally playing music in the wrong room.
If multiroom isn’t your thing, how about wireless surround sound? The Sonos Beam can directly connect to other Sonos speakers (including the Sonos Sub) and be turned into a 5.1 configuration. All of that, plus there’s voice control too.
Sonos Beam – Performance
Given that the Sonos Beam’s price (£399/$399/$449) and footprint are almost half that of the Playbar, my instinct was to expect half the performance. But this wasn’t the case at all. Sonos is on to something great.
It’s always tricky when an audio product is tasked to handle both movies and music. A device that works well for watching films won’t necessarily be good at pumping out tunes. Thankfully, the Sonos Beam excels at both. I played a mix of music and movie soundtracks and was impressed at every turn.
The first song was Leon Bridges’ You Don’t Know. My first thought was that the soundstage could be a little wider, but I was impressed by the solidity of the stereo image, which was neatly defined.
That comment about the width of the soundstage was shot to bits by the next song and a test favourite, Radiohead’s Reckoner. The stereo image was just as defined, but this time I was confronted by a wall of sound significantly wider and taller than the Sonos Beam. Whatever dispersion techniques the Beam is using, it totally works.
Such a dramatic difference between tracks is a great indicator of an audio product – it became very apparent that the songs had vastly different productions, and the fact that the Sonos Beam could convey the disparity is a very good sign.
Next up was Wow by Beck, a song with a thumping bassline and percussion scattered throughout the frequency range. This was a great demonstration of the Sonos Beam’s dynamic headroom, and its bass prowess in particular. It’s an impactful, authoritative bass, with a remarkable agility. Bass extension is far-reaching enough that I never felt the need for an external subwoofer, at least where music is concerned.
As for video content, I found the dialogue clear, with a good amount of weight behind the voices. Say goodbye to tinny-sounding people.
What really surprised me was big movie setpieces with high production value. I watched Wall-E, the scene where he uses a fire extinguisher to zip about in space. Then I watched The Last Jedi, with all manner of laser fire going off everywhere in the opening scene.
The accuracy and spread of effects placement was astonishing. The stereo image was so wide and solid that occasionally I felt the effects begin to reach behind me.
And it gets even better if you pair the Sonos Beam with a pair of rear speakers (two Sonos One units, for example). A scene from the end of Stranger Things season 1, where Nancy and Jonathan discover the portal in the woods, was super-immersive. There was palpable menace throughout; I felt the panic in the actors’ voices, and the precision of rustling leaves succeeded in transporting me to that creepy forest.
What about the Sonos Beam versus the Sonos Playbar? Sonos regards the Playbar as the more powerful option. It shifts more air and offers deeper bass, which is good for annoying the neighbours. But the Beam really isn’t far off, considering the price difference. It’s an agile, versatile device – and a lot easier to accommodate.
The following are a few Sonos Beam set-up tips. If you have an iPhone, make sure you use the Trueplay feature to calibrate the soundbar’s audio for your room. It takes into account the amount of space and reflections for a more balanced tonal performance – and it totally works.
Also, you’ll find a ‘Loudness’ option under the EQ menu – this isn’t to make things louder at all. You’ll want to turn this on to hear bass at lower (late night) volumes. But maybe turn it off for loud movie nights, since I feel it compresses the dynamic range a little.
Why buy the Sonos Beam?
This soundbar does a bit of everything and does it well. It excels at both music and movie soundtracks. It fits seamlessly into Sonos’ existing network of multiroom speakers, and it has no problem fulfilling its promise of controlling TVs and Amazon Fire TV devices. Integrated Alexa support works as well on the Sonos Beam as it does on Amazon’s own Echo products.
While the Google Assistant/Siri compatibility hadn’t arrived at the time of writing, I’m still going to praise Sonos for its inclusion. The platform-agnostic inclusivity is a healthy approach, and I wish more tech companies would think this way.
All of that, and it’s far more affordable than the Sonos Playbar and Playbase – still viable options if you want a little extra power at the sacrifice of some smart functionality.
The best compact soundbar you can buy.