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New Sonos Ace wireless headphones look amazing, but some fans may be disappointed

Sonos Ace in matte black and matte soft white.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

It’s official. After years of speculation — and many, many leaks — Sonos has debuted its first set of wireless headphones. The $449 Sonos Ace are available for preorder now and will be available starting June 5 in two matte-finish colors: black and soft white.

The Ace are loaded with the kind of tech we’ve become accustomed to seeing on flagship wireless headphones: active noise cancellation, transparency, spatial audio with head tracking, hi-res and lossless audio, and Bluetooth Multipoint. And that makes them head-to-head competitors with the likes of Sony, Bose, and Apple’s top headphones.

Some Sonos fans may have been hoping that the company’s first wireless headphones would behave more like existing Sonos products, with Wi-Fi connectivity for whole-home streaming and seamless interaction with every other Sonos speaker in your house. They don’t — but Sonos considered the idea carefully before ultimately rejecting it.

“We did a lot of studies,” Maxime Bouvat-Merlin, Sonos’ chief product officer, told me at the Ace launch event in New York City. “And we found that it didn’t make too much sense for us to do.” Sonos’ chief concerns were that a persistent Wi-Fi connection would be too power-hungry, and that users wouldn’t react well to the shift from a Wi-Fi-based link inside the home to a Bluetooth one when on the go.

The Sonos soundbar swap

Sonos Ace beside Apple iPad running the Sonos app.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Still, Sonos didn’t entirely give up on the idea. The Ace actually do support Wi-Fi, but only in a very limited and very specific way: if you own a Sonos Arc soundbar, you can configure the Ace to swap TV audio with the Arc with just a long-press on the Ace’s multifunction button. (I’ll talk more about the Ace’s controls in a moment.)

When you perform the TV audio swap, the Arc’s speakers are muted, and the soundbar’s onboard processors can pass along stereo, 5.1, or full Dolby Atmos with 7.1.4 channels directly to the Ace via a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection. You can then decide to turn on the Ace’s head tracking for a virtual cinema experience that works very similarly to Apple’s spatial audio link between the AirPods Max and the Apple TV 4K. The key difference is that Sonos’ version works with any audio that gets piped from your TV to your Arc via HDMI, whereas Apple’s only works with a limited amount of content playing from the Apple TV 4K.

Simon Cohen wearing the Sonos Ace in a home theater demo room.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

At launch, TV audio swap will only work with the Sonos Arc, but the company says it will eventually enable it on its most popular recent soundbars, including the Beam, Beam Gen 2, and Ray. Sonos avoided any mention of its older products (the Playbar and Playbase), so it’s unlikely that they’ll get Ace compatibility.

Apple iPad running the Sonos app showing the Ace's TrueCinema setting.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Pushing that soundbar-based, head-tracked spatial audio experience even further, Sonos plans to launch a feature called TrueCinema later this year. It uses some of the same principles as the company’s Trueplay room-tuning feature to map the specific acoustics of your TV room. Those data points are then used to make sure that your 7.1.4 virtual surround experience sounds realistic for the room that you’re in. Apparently, our brains develop expectations about how a room should sound. And when we hear something different, it feels less natural.

Limited app support

Sonos Ace beside Apple iPad running the Sonos app.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Aside from the Sonos soundbar integration, there’s almost no connection between the Sonos ecosystem and the Ace. In fact, the Ace are the first Sonos product that will work right out of the box without an app-based setup step. You simply turn them on and pair them to your smartphone via Bluetooth, just like any other Bluetooth headphones.

Once paired, the Sonos app can be used to adjust headphone settings, like EQ, ANC, for spatial and head tracking, to toggle the wear sensors, and to enable Bluetooth Multipoint. But none of the app’s major day-to-day functions, like searching for music from streaming services, playing music, creating and modifying play queues, or creating and accessing Sonos favorites, are supported.

All of your listening using the Ace will be done via third-party apps on your phone, like Spotify or Apple Music.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised: this is exactly how Sonos’ Bluetooth speakers (Move, Move 2, and Roam) work when they’re not connected to your home Wi-Fi.

Low-profile looks

Sonos Ace in soft white.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

As you might expect from a company like Sonos, the Ace’s design is elegant and understated, blending plastics with stainless steel. But one look at their shape (with a single point of contact between the headband and earcups and a fold-flat architecture) will immediately call to mind the Ace’s biggest rivals: Apple’s AirPods Max and Sony’s WH-1000XM5. However, Sonos says it went to great lengths to ensure the Ace are comfortable for many hours, look good when worn (the earcups are very low-profile), and won’t interfere with long hair thanks to an internal yoke.

At 11 ounces, the Ace’s weight sits squarely between the XM5’s featherweight 8.82 ounces and the AirPods Max’s substantial 13.6 ounces.

Sonos Ace with one magnetic earcushion removed.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, the memory foam ear cushions latch magnetically to the earcups, making replacement very easy. Dual-layer memory foam has also been used on the underside of the headband.

Officially, there’s no IPX rating for water or dust resistance. However, Sonos says the Ace have been built to withstand normal environmental conditions like sweat, so you can probably use them at the gym.

Sonos Ace in soft white.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The controls are simple. And unlike most of Sonos’ speakers, they use strictly physical, tactile buttons. A small button on the bottom of the left earcup controls power and Bluetooth pairing, and the right earcup has a multifunction button for media playback and call management, plus a button for switching noise cancellation modes and accessing your phone’s voice assistant.

Speaking of voice assistants, at launch you’ll be able to access Siri (iPhones) and Google Assistant (Android). Soon, according to Sonos, you’ll also get the option of using Sonos Voice Control (SVC). However, the company didn’t say whether you’ll be able to run SVC simultaneously with your phone’s assistant (as you can do on the company’s smart speakers), or if you’ll have to select just one of them.

The multifunction button blends a spring-loaded slider with a push button, providing an intuitive up/down movement for volume adjustments and a very familiar single-press for play/pause. Track skipping can be done with double- or triple-presses.

Multifunction button on the Sonos Ace.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Noise canceling and transparency modes are powered by the Ace’s eight built-in mics and proprietary algorithms developed specifically for these headphones. By default, the ANC button switches the Ace between ANC and transparency, but you can also shut off ANC entirely using the Sonos app.

Sonos says that placement and the design of the mics (plus the software) should minimize wind noise both when in ANC mode, as well as when you’re using the cans to take calls.

Lossless audio

Close-up of exploded view of the Sonos Ace.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

For Apple devices, the Ace use the good, but lossy 16-bit AAC Bluetooth codec. Some Android owners will be able to avail themselves of Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive codec for hi-res audio streaming at up to 24-bit/96kHz. And those who own one of the rare Android handsets with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound platform will be able to use the aptX Lossless codec for bit-perfect CD quality audio.

The Ace also follow the recent trend of supporting lossless digital audio via a USB-C connection — the onboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC) will support up to 24-bit/48kHz from smartphones, laptops, and other devices. The USB-C port also lets you charge the headphones and, with the included 3.5mm-to-USB-C cable, you can pipe in analog audio.

Sonos says this is yet another “lossless” connection, but I’m not sure I agree. Much like on the AirPods Max, that analog signal still gets converted to digital, before finally getting converted back to analog — a process that almost certainly involves some degree of signal loss.

Moreover, because of this signal path, you can’t use the Ace when powered off or when the battery’s totally dead.

Sonos Ace in matte black.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Speaking of the battery, Sonos promises the Ace can go up to 30 hours between charges, even with ANC on. When it’s off, you’ll get “significantly more,” though no hard numbers were offered.

A fast-charge system delivers a claimed three extra hours of listening for just three minutes of charging. To charge them fully from empty takes three hours.

When I asked what happens when the battery eventually reaches the end of its useful life, I was told it can be replaced by an authorized Sonos service center.

Finally, Sonos ships the Ace in a color-matched, zippered hard-shell case, with a small removable cable organizer that uses a magnet to cling to the inside of the case.

Curious if the Sonos Ace should be on your short list for your next set of wireless headphones? Check back with us on June 3 for our first impressions of Sonos’ first wireless cans.

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Simon Cohen
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like spatial…
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