On paper, the Sonos Beam looks like a modern home entertainment system miracle. Part soundbar, part smart speaker, and all Sonos, the Beam promises to control your TV with Amazon’s Alexa, provide rich, cinematic sound for your movies and TV shows, and stream music from just about any source you can imagine, all for $400. The Beam can also connect to a Sonos Sub and any two of Sonos’ many other speakers for a hard-core 5.1 surround sound system. Versatile? Absolutely. But is the Beam as “Sonos simple” as the company’s prior products? We had to find out.
Beauty, brains, and brawn
Hidden behind the Beam’s seamlessly wrapped cloth grill 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 One.
A closer look at the top surface reveals the Beam is 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 it’s not part of a pass-through 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 living room TV,” into an HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) signal that actually turns on your TV. For this and other functions like volume control 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. 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 those TV voice controls won’t work this way.
Controlling music with your voice is now almost commonplace thanks to devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod, and of course the Sonos One. But controlling your TV with your voice is new, having only recently popped up in gadgets like Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube streaming device and other new home theater pieces like Polk’s Command Bar. Even if your TV isn’t “smart” or doesn’t have its own internet connection, the Beam can talk to it via HDMI.
The Beam had no problem catching hearing us say, “Alexa,” even if music or movies were blaring.
If you have a regular Amazon Fire TV, you can use Alexa through the Beam to launch shows and apps, too. That kind of content control, however, is much more limited through the Beam than it is through the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which includes IR blasters to control game consoles, Blu-ray players, and other components.
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, and several TV brands do too, but they all require you have their remotes in your hand in order to use it. 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.
You can talk to the Beam from anywhere in the room, and you don’t need a physical remote to trigger it. During our testing, the Beam had no problem catching hearing us say, “Alexa,” even if music or movies were blaring. The Beam also supports follow-up mode for back-to-back requests. For example, we were able to ask, “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” immediately followed by, “What about tomorrow?”
The fact that the Beam has new competition from the Fire TV Cube – unveiled just a day after the Beam – only increases the likelihood that both of these devices will continue to improve with updates over time. For now, though, Fire TV Cube has device control locked down, while the Beam has Alexa compatibility and AirPlay 2 support right out of the box and will add Google Assistant later this year.
During our testing, we were able 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.
Sounds like a Sonos
Compared to the PlayBar and the PlayBase, the Sonos Beam holds up remarkably well. 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.
Sonos says it designed the Beam to be really good at enhancing dialogue, something which often plagues home theater setups. Now that we’ve logged several hours with the Beam, we can vouch for that claim. While watching Planet Earth II, we noted Sir David Attenborough’s voice sounding almost suspended in mid-air just in front of our LG E8 OLED TV’s screen, even while the film’s soaring soundtrack swelled in and out among myriad nature sounds.
The Beam’s ability to produce convincing bass without the aid of a separate subwoofer grew increasingly impressive.
Dialog clarity remained pristine as we moved on to Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, but it was the Beam’s prodigious bass response which stole our attention. Even as the crowd roared and the arena pulsated during Thor and Hulk’s battle, voices were clearly intelligible. As the battle raged on, the Beam’s ability to produce convincing bass without the aid of a separate subwoofer grew increasingly impressive.
The Beam maintained its clarity and forceful bass response while listening to music, but this is the first time we walked away feeling a Sonos speaker sounded more cinematic than musical. Compared to a pair of Sonos One speakers in stereo, the Beam had a slightly more boxed-in sound, likely due to a mid-bass hump which adds to the illusion of deep bass, but tends to trade off open-ness in the lower midrange. The treble and upper mids still had plenty of air and clarity, but in a way, they seemed somewhat disconnected from the rest of the sound profile … as if floating on top of a thick, meaty music foundation. There’s also just a tinge of metallic attack in the upper midrange.
This isn’t to say the Beam sounded poor for music — in fact, it sounded very clean and approachable — but for those who have come to enjoy Sonos’ earlier products for music listening, we think the level of Digital Signal Processing (DSP) employed here for the sake of bass performance reveals itself quite readily.
It’s also worth mentioning that, like all Sonos products, the Beam can be an entry point into a much larger system. Add a Sonos SUB for even deeper bass, and a couple of Play:1 speakers for surround sound. Or, if you like the idea of putting music in every room, the Sonos One is an Alexa-enabled speaker that stands on its own very well.
Sonos offers a 1-year limited warranty on all of its products.Our Take
The Sonos Beam offers shockingly powerful sound from a slim, unobtrusive soundbar that, when paired with Amazon Fire TV devices, offers considerable voice control for home entertainment.
Is there a better alternative?
Those who would prefer a subwoofer be included with their smart soundbar should check out the Polk Command Bar which, for $100 less, offers similar Alexa control but without the Sonos perks. Otherwise, nothing else really competes with the Sonos Beam.
How long will it last?
Given the Beam is software updateable, we expect it to last for as long as any speaker could. Also, Sonos makes it easy to add a subwoofer and surround speakers, making the Beam a potential launch point for future upgrades
Should you buy it?
Do buy the Sonos Beam if you want huge sound from a small package and like the idea of some voice control for basic TV functions. Don’t buy it if you are super picky about sound quality and need audiophile-grade performance.