For Sonos fans, creating the ultimate home theater package is an expensive proposition. At a minimum, you’ll need a $1,300 investment, which gets you your choice of a PlayBar or PlayBase, plus a Play Sub. Adding a pair of Play Ones for rear channels bumps the price up to nearly $1,700. That’s a lot of money for people who just want to get better sound from their TVs.
That changes today, thanks to the addition of the Sonos Beam, a $400 USD ($500 CAD) soundbar that has the same voice-assistant technology as the Play One. Considerably smaller than the PlayBar, the Beam is designed to sit in front of the majority of TVs without obscuring any of the screen. It comes in black or white, and features the same minimalist design language we’ve grown accustomed to from Sonos.
Beauty, brains, and brawn
Hidden behind the Beam’s seamlessly wrapped cloth grille is a center-mounted tweeter, four full-range woofers, and three passive bass radiators, all of which have been custom designed by Sonos specifically for the Beam. Sitting atop its smooth surface are the same touch-sensitive controls from the Sonos One, plus the microphone array needed to pick up voice commands. Hilmar Lehnert, a senior director of audio at Sonos, told Digital Trends that getting a mic array to discern voices from music is a lot harder when you’ve got five drivers all pumping out sound, instead of just two like the Sonos Play.
A closer look at the top surface reveals its ever so slightly concave in shape, with the outer edges flaring up. This “dish” shape was intentionally created to hide the two LED lights and controls from view when sitting directly in front of the Beam, according to senior director of design, Meiko Kusano.
HDMI at last, kind of
Around the back of the Beam, sits a port that no other Sonos product has ever featured: HDMI. But in somewhat typical fashion for Sonos, it’s not part of a passthrough system that you see on most other soundbars. Sonos’s only interest in HDMI is what it lets the Beam do with voice commands. Using a feature of the HDMI standard called ARC, the Beam can translate a spoken command, like “Alexa, turn on the TV” into an HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) signal that actually turns on your TV. For this to work, your TV needs to support HDMI ARC, and have an available ARC-compatible HDMI port so you can connect it to the Beam, but virtually all newer TVs do. For older TVs, an optical adapter is included so you can connect to the HDMI port for digital sound, but ARC control won’t work.
Sounds like a Sonos
While we’d love to tell you how the Sonos Beam compares to the PlayBar, or the PlayBase, we can’t. The very short and limited hands-on time we got at the launch event was strictly with the Beam itself in a mocked-up living room environment. What we can say is that, just like every other Sonos speaker, the Beam pulls off the magic act of being able to produce way more room-filling sound than its tiny dimensions would normally suggest.
Just like every other Sonos speaker, the Beam produces way more sound than its size suggests.
Sonos says it designed the Beam to be really good at enhancing dialogue, something which often plagues home theater setups. From what we heard, it definitely works. The center-mounted tweeter sounds crisp, and the short clip of Westworld we viewed allowed Anthony Hopkins’ voice to be both clear, yet still chock-full of the menacing lower frequencies that have raised the hairs on the necks of millions.
In another clip, this time from the movie Arrival, we got a quick impression of how the Beam handles the frightening, larger-than-life sounds that fill this film’s soundtrack. Again, when you consider the Beam’s small footprint and price point, it’s hard not to be impressed. Even without the help of a dedicated subwoofer, our demo room was immersed in the aliens’ deep, guttural groans.
It was a little harder to judge music quality, but overall we don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The Sonos Beam makes a very strong argument that in a room that doesn’t offer placement for a stereo pair of Sonos Ones, you can buy a single Sonos Beam for the same price and get almost the same experience. Depending on the room, the Beam might actually sound better thanks to the way its five main drivers are arranged.
One of the big selling features of the Sonos Beam is voice control, which is also the big sell for Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube streaming device, and other new home theater pieces like Polk’s Command Bar. Controlling music with your voice is now almost commonplace thanks to devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod, and of course Sonos’s own Sonos One. What’s new about the latest devices is the ability to directly control your TV with your voice, even if your TV isn’t “smart” or doesn’t even have its own internet connection. As discussed above, that’s now possible through the Beam’s ability to communicate voice instructions to your TV over HDMI. If you have a regular Amazon Fire TV, you can extend this capability to the content itself through the Beam as well.
The Beam is really good at enhancing dialogue, which plagues home theater setups.
These features ought to work well once Sonos’s software is out of beta, but the demo experienced a few hiccups. Powering up the TV with a voice command worked instantly, however Alexa seemed to develop a case of selective listening when asked to playback the sample video clips — and studiously ignored attempts to get her attention.
Of course, voice control is nothing new in the home theater realm. Apple, Roku, TiVo, and Amazon have all offered this ability in past devices, but they require you have their remotes in your hand in order to use it. But we need voice control when our hands are occupied, or the remote is inaccessible, otherwise it’s a lot less useful than it could be. Sonos Beam aims to get TV voice control right: You can use it from anywhere in the room, and you don’t need a physical remote to trigger it. The fact that it has new competition on that front from the Fire TV Cube – unveiled just a day after the Beam – only increases the likelihood that these devices will continue to improve with updates over time.
The Beam will have Alexa compatibility at launch, and unlike the Fire TV Cube, it will add Google Assistant later this year, setting a new standard for home theater gear in terms of smarts. When AirPlay 2 compatibility is added in July, the Sonos ecosystem will also possess a remarkable level of control dexterity.
Our demo showed how it will be possible to initiate the playback of an Apple Music track on the Beam using Siri via an iOS device, and then take over control of that track using Alexa e.g.: “Alexa, skip this track.” Sonos users are already used to being able to move seamlessly between tablets, smartphones, and computers to control their music physically, and Sonos has made sure that this flexibility remains a feature now that voice control is here to stay.
Based on these very early (and incomplete) experiences with the Sonos Beam, we’d have to say Sonos has another excellent product to add to its line-up of wireless home speakers. But this is hardly the final word. As soon as we get one in for a full review, we’ll be back to let you know if the Beam is actually the soundbar you’ve been waiting for.