Sonos Beam vs. Sonos Playbar: Which home theater soundbar should you buy?

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When it comes to home theater soundbars, there’s an almost endless array of choices, but if you’re a Sonos enthusiast it comes down to just two products: The Sonos Playbar, a soundbar that has been part of the Sonos family for years, and the Sonos Beam, a new, compact soundbar that sports the latest in voice assistant and home automation technology. Though they share much in common, thanks to the way all Sonos components work so well together, you’ll find that each has its own particular strengths. Which one is right for you? Let’s put them head-to-head and find out.

Price

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Most of us don’t have the luxury of an unlimited budget, so price certainly matters. The Sonos Playbar will run you $699, while the Sonos Beam costs $399. Why the $300 price difference? The Playbar is a full-fledged home theater soundbar. At 35 inches wide, and boasting a total of nine drivers — each with its own dedicated class-D digital amp — the Playbar makes no compromises when it comes to filling a room with high-quality cinema-grade sound. The Sonos Beam, on the other hand, strives for a more compact take on the soundbar formula, at only 25 inches wide, and with only five drivers and amps.

This makes the Sonos Beam the most attractive choice for those who are looking to save money but keep in mind, you can’t expect a $400 soundbar to sound like a $700 soundbar. If your room setup (and your expectations) are a good match for the Sonos Beam, it’s a terrific value. We’ll dig into why you might still want to consider the Playbar next.

Winner: Sonos Beam

Sound

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You already know that the Sonos Playbar is bigger, and has more drivers than the Sonos Beam, but what does that actually mean in terms of sound? In practice, it means the Playbar can deliver a wider range of frequencies, at higher volume levels, and with a more effective virtual surround sound. That’s a solid argument in favor of the Playbar for people who put a high priority on getting the best sound for movie and TV show soundtracks. Both the Playbar and Beam feature Sonos’s speech enhancement software for clearer on-screen dialog, but the Beam only has a single tweeter to work with; the Playbar has three. Both can be paired with a Sonos Sub, and a set of Play:1, Play:3, or Sonos One speakers to create a 5.1 surround sound setup, but the Playbar’s wider design and more effective center-channel drivers makes it the clear choice for home theater enthusiasts.

What makes the Playbar better for movies and TV shows, also makes it a more accomplished soundbar for music. Dynamic range and volume are both better than the Beam, and thanks to its wider stance and additional drivers, the Playbar can produce better stereo separation as long as your room is big enough for you to sit at a distance that lets you appreciate it. Yes, the Sonos Playbar has better sound, but it’s not a total slam-dunk. If hearing every nuance in a high-speed car chase, or combat scene isn’t your main concern, and if you’re buying a soundbar for a room that isn’t dominated by a big screen TV, the Sonos Beam might still be the better choice. In the right space, it will still do wonders for TV audio, and it’s certainly no slouch in the music department either.

Winner: Sonos Playbar

Voice control

Sonos Beam Speaker
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This one is no contest: The Sonos Beam has joined the Sonos One as the company’s only smart speaker products, with the ability to run either Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant directly on the speaker. With built-in far-field voice mics that can pick out the “Hey Google,” or “Alexa” wake word, even in a noisy environment, the Beam gives you voice control over music playback as well as a host of smart home options. If you happen to own other Sonos components, adding a Beam lets you control those products too.

These voice commands aren’t just limited to audio. If you connect a Sonos Beam via HDMI-CEC to a compatible TV, it will relay instructions like “Alexa, turn on the TV.” It’s worth noting that for now, the Sonos Beam is one of just two smart speakers in the world that can work with either Google Assistant or Alexa on the same device. The other is the Sonos One.

The Playbar has no voice control functionality, though it can be controlled by voice if you have a Sonos smart speaker, or another Google Assistant or Alexa device in the house.

Winner: Sonos Beam

Connections

Sonos Beam Speaker
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Sonos components are famous for their relative lack of connections. By default, a Sonos speaker will have Wi-Fi and Ethernet, and nothing else. Soundbar products like the Sonos Playbar and Sonos Beam are slightly different in this area because they need to physically connect to a TV to get an audio signal. The Playbar uses an optical connection, whereas the Beam uses an HDMI connection that can be fitted with an optional (and included) optical adapter.

Increasingly, more and more new TVs are dropping optical outputs in favor of HDMI-ARC (a version of HDMI that lets the TV pass an audio signal back along an HDMI cable, even if it’s being used to send video and audio to the TV. Because the Playbar can only support optical connections, it won’t work if your TV doesn’t have one.

The Sonos Beam also has AirPlay 2 built-in, a feature it shares with the Sonos One and Sonos Amp. With AirPlay 2, you can play audio directly to the Beam from any iOS device or Mac computer. More than music, you can also send the audio track from a Netflix movie, or any other audio source. If you have other Sonos speakers in your home, the Beam’s AirPlay 2 can be used as a bridge to send that same audio to any speaker in your setup.

With an aging optical-only connection and no AirPlay, the Sonos Playbar can’t hope to match the Beam.

Winner: Sonos Beam

Conclusion

It would be easy to conclude from this analysis that the Sonos Beam is better than the Sonos Playbar. It’s cheaper, it can do voice control, and it’s got future-proof connections. But of course, the truth is more complicated. These two products are meant to address two sides of the same spectrum: People who simply want better audio from their TVs. If your TV and your room are on the small side, the Beam is ideal. Especially if it’s a bedroom, you might really appreciate and take advantage of its built-in smart speaker capabilities. At the other end of the spectrum is the Playbar, designed to fill a full-size media room with convincing surround sound, and as much oomph as it’s possible to generate without adding a subwoofer.

Ultimately, as Sonos components, you can’t go wrong with either of these soundbars, as long as your chosen room, and your expectations are a good match.

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