The launch of the Sonos Beam comes at a time when things are changing at a rapid pace for the smart speaker company. In the not-too-distant past, Sonos was happy with its slightly shallow product pool. The reason: it was confident that the devices it eventually did bring to market were built to last.
Sonos shied away from the rapid upgrade cycle favored by other tech companies, instead refining the speakers it had with numerous software enhancements. It didn’t need to saturate a smart speaker market it all-but owned.
But this was before Amazon, Google and, to a lesser extent, Apple earmarked the speaker space as their next big takeover; adding in the USP of voice control and promoting their speakers as the gateway drug to the smart home.
This meant Sonos had to stop with its languid release schedule and start to compete. And compete it has. There are currently four Sonos speakers (the Alexa-infused Sonos One, Sonos Play:1, Sonos Play:3 and Sonos Play:5) and three home theater audio setups (Sonos PlayBar, Sonos PlayBase and the new Sonos Beam) you can buy right now. That’s seven products, three of which came out in the last year.
[Update: Sonos Beam now has AirPlay 2 functionality. To get AirPlay 2 up and running, download the latest version of the Sonos app on your iPhone or iPad, then run the firmware update for your Sonos Beam. After that, swipe up from the bottom of the screen and select the music playback section. In it, you'll find the Sonos Beam speaker.]
The latest, as you've guessed, is the Sonos Beam, a relatively slim soundbar that fills the entry-level home theater audio gap. It’s the small-form size Sonos has been sorely lacking when it comes to its TV connectivity.
The Sonos Beam is a device that’s been paired down enough to be affordable but corners haven’t been cut, merely trimmed and tidied.
Sonos Beam design
The size of the Sonos Beam is key. It’s a soundbar that will happily sit in front of a 32-inch set up or a 40-inch plus TV. We should know, as we tested it on both variants.
What we watched and listened to while reviewing
Measuring 650 x 100 x 68.5mm, it’s much smaller than its super-sized sibling, the Sonos PlayBar. In fact, it’s 60% smaller (and that can be said of the price, too) but has the addition of HDMI connectivity - something the Sonos PlayBar sorely lacked.
It’s a slick-looking device, taking its design cues from both the Sonos One and the Sonos Play:5. The controls on the top are touch sensitive and look identical to the Sonos One.
The setup is simple: a four dot square on the left for volume down, the same on the right for up and a play/pause button in the middle. Above this is the ability to turn the speaker mic on and off.
We nearly slipped there and called it the Alexa mic, as that is what it currently is. But Sonos is also promising Google Assistant functionality and Siri integration. Sonos isn’t happy to speak with one voice but many and it’s a smart, shrewd move by the company. There is definitely an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality with Sonos at the moment.
That doesn’t mean that it has scrimped on design quality. The 43,000 hand-drilled holes may no longer be there - something the over-engineered PlayBase boasted - but it’s still a lovely-looking device. Instead of a metal grille, fabric is draped over the opening to the speakers.
The soundbar can be mounted or plonked in front of the TV. With a depth of 100mm, most TVs will happily have it sit in front of them and it not impinge on the actual screen, merely block the stand.
Inside the Sonos Beam are four full-range drivers, a center tweeter and three passive radiators which are there to add to the bass. These drivers work together to help the speaker deliver sound somewhere in between a Sonos Play:3 and Sonos PlayBar. The speakers inside have been specially made for the Beam, though, so there is no recycling here by Sonos.
The Sonos Beam is designed for three-channels, but it can nearly make those three channels sound like true surround sound thanks to Trueplay - a software feature that calibrates the sound to the room.
The magic happens during setup when the speaker asks you to use your tablet or smartphone to ‘scan’ the room (essentially wave your device around while the speaker plays a series of sounds).
When Trueplay is enabled, the room fills with sound - it feels like it works better with something like a soundbar as the radius is that much larger. If you’re an Android user, unfortunately you will miss out on this option as Trueplay is only available through iOS devices at the moment.
Flip the device around and the ports are minimal. There’s an ethernet, HDMI slot, power and a Wi-Fi button.
Sonos Beam setup
Setup of the Sonos Beam is two-fold. If your TV has HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel, there will be a symbol near the HDMI slot), then it’s a cinch. HDMI ARC allows the Beam to sync up audio and picture and have everything working through your TV’s remote in a matter of minutes.
That last part is pretty important for the Sonos Beam as the device doesn’t come with a remote. As with all Sonos products, the idea is that you use the Sonos app to control volume, link up speakers and the like. This is fine but in a home theater scenario, you want this as an addition rather than the sole way to control your speaker. And that’s why Sonos chose HDMI ARC.
Without HDMI ARC, things become a little more complicated. Sonos has done its due diligence, though, and added in an optical adaptor to the set up. Plug this into the accompanying HDMI cable and you can use the Beam through the optical port.
To make it work properly, however, you need to delve into the settings of the Sonos app (and the ones on your TV, too).
In our tests, we had to reconfigure the Beam so that it would automatically come on when the TV was turned on. Obviously, you don’t have to do this but it means going into the app every time if it is not sorted.
It wasn’t very clear where and how to do this, but after a few minutes of going through myriad menus, we found the TV Autoplay setting in Room Setting>TV. It’s also here that you can configure the remote control setup. Follow the instructions on the app and you should have the remote working with your Beam in no time.
While we didn’t mind going through the app, it’s clear that Sonos would prefer you use HDMI Arc. Its app, while pleasant enough, is currently setup to help more with making sure your Sonos system works in unison with any other Sonos devices you may have and not to configure a home theater system. Now it has the PlayBar, PlayBase and the Beam, though, we can see this changing in the future.
To give the app some credit, alongside the 60+ audio services that are compatible with it, it does have a number of nice home theater options. Two of the most used are situated just above the volume slider. These are Night Sound (which takes out any booming bass, so you can watch something when the rest of your clan are in bed) and Speech Enhancement. Since using the Beam we have had Speech Enhancement on almost all the time and it’s really helped with the clarity of speech, especially in any scenes we are watching that are full of bombast.
Dig into the room settings and there is also an EQ option (with bass and treble sliders and a Loudness button), and TV Dialog settings which allows you to sync the voice if it’s a little off (something you won’t get using HDMI ARC).
Sonos Beam voice control
There is, of course, another way to control the Sonos Beam, and that is with your voice. One of the big features of the Beam is its Alexa integration. This is something that was first seen on the Sonos One (where it works extremely well), but using Alexa to control a part of a television is a whole other matter. It’s something that’s happening more and more - Alexa voice control is now available with the Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick and it is also available in the Amazon Fire TV Cube.
There’s a thread here: all of these products are Amazon based, and you will need an Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick to get the most out of the Sonos Beam’s voice functionality. If one of these are plugged into your TV, then the Beam offers up the power to search Netflix and Amazon Prime - something which is fun, if still a little awkward, to do.
Without Amazon’s back-end tech, you can still use the voice controls for things like volume (Alexa, turn it up 30% etc), to request radio stations and to pause and play whatever you are listening to. You will also be able to turn your TV on and off with Alexa if you are using HDMI ARC.
It’s fun, if a touch limited. And speaking of touch, we found ourselves using the intuitive touch controls on the top of the Beam far more than we thought that we would.
Having Alexa voice control is all well and good, but it does lock you into an ecosystem. Thankfully, AirPlay 2 has now arrived on the platform, and with it comes Siri integration. (Google Assistant is also coming to the Sonos Beam, but that's still a ways away, according to Sonos.)
While we can’t give our verdict one way or another about the success of Sonos' triple smart assistant experiment, knowing how egalitarian Sonos is trying to be here makes us appreciate the soundbar even more - making the soundbar as open as it can possibly be is an admirable, ambitious goal after all.
That said Siri on Sonos is still early days yet and while we like using the assistant on Sonos - as well as having quick access to the speaker on our iOS devices - we can't wait to see how this partnership evolves over time.