Tech

Review: Sonos Beam; the smaller, smarter soundbar

It isn’t everyday that a product makes you sit up and pay attention. Sometimes the devil is in the detail and sometimes it is smacking you right in the face. Some products are immediately obvious in how you’ll use them and sometimes the more you use something, the more uses you find for it. In the case of the Sonos Beam, a simple looking soundbar, the devil really is in the detail and you absolutely discover new ways to use a soundbar the more you spend time with it.

When we were first introduced to the Sonos Beam, we experienced it, spoke to the people around the product and drank the Kool-Aid. The real test is always in the home. Given we already had some Sonos gear it was perfect to not only test it for what it is but also add items to the system to compliment it while also pitching it against existing Sonos products such as the PlayBar.

The Unboxing

Sonos has opted for a much more sustainable, environmentally friendly approach to the packaging of the Sonos Beam. Their prior products were luxurious from the moment you left the store, it was theatre to unbox a Sonos product. With the Beam, and likely future products, you’ll have less waste and the focus is on what is inside. Fortunately, everything was still well protected and easy to unpack.

The Connection

If you’re privy to Sonos, you know it is almost entirely plug and play. We unboxed, plonked it in front of the TV, HDMI to HDMI (ARC) on the TV and one connection to power. The rest is in the Sonos app on iOS/Android/PC/Mac, it takes seconds to name the room it is in, setup Amazon Alexa and use TruePlay to tune the sound of your new speaker in the room it belongs to.

Rewinding a little, HDMI ARC is not available on all televisions and not all televisions will have a HDMI output. For those customers you’ll be able to use the Optical connection from your TV into a supplied adapter. This will however limit functionality beyond the audio which we’ll address later. You’ll also need to set your TV to start firing audio out of the HDMI ARC port (or optical) to ensure you’re using the Beam and not fooled by the TV speakers.

The Sound

The most important part of a soundbar is in the name. You’ve bought it because televisions today are so thin that they leave little room for good speakers. It’s amazing how many people invest in amazing televisions yet ignore how much of a difference audio makes to the total experience. So, does the Sonos Beam sound good? Yeah*

*The Sonos Beam is not huge, it does not pack as many speakers as a Playbar, it also costs less. The Beam will play music in an average sized lounge room with ease, it will be the centrepiece for audio in your home if you let it. When music is flowing from the Beam people will ask you “Is it just that speaker producing that level of sound?” and “all that from such a small soundbar?” Yes, it is impressive. From a television and movie experience it performs very well to bring audio cleanly to your ears. It won’t for a minute fool you into performing Dolby Atmos like sound and it is simply because it is not designed for it. To create true Atmos you need a heck of a lot more speakers and a much larger investment.

The Add-ons

What we love about Sonos systems is how they can work together. While the Beam will be fine alone you might want to add a left and right rear speaker pair. Two Sonos One’s will do the job and all they need is power, the app will do the rest and make it all work for you. Keen for a bit of extra bass? The Sonos Sub will work with the Beam too, so technically you can build a home theatre slowly if money is tight or go big bang and load a room with power.

The Voice

Moving away from audio from the Beam, speaking to your soundbar is now a thing. With five microphones built into the Beam your voice is easily detected from across the room without yelling. Today it supports Amazon Alexa and soon it will give you an option to use Google Assistant instead. As tested Amazon Alexa is simple to setup on the Beam and this is where you wonder how you would use such a feature in the lounge-room.

“Alexa, turn on the TV”

“Alexa, play House of Cards on Netflix” (this only works if you also have an Amazon Fire TV  stick ($60) connected to the TV)

“Alexa, turn the lights down” (this works if you have smart lights)

“Alexa, turn the volume up”

“Alexa, order Domino’s Pizza”

and after some chill, “Alexa, order an Uber”.

Outside of the TV controls you can also use it for music functions

“Alexa, play John Farnham”

“Alexa, what is this song?”

“Alexa, play this through the whole house” (this works if you have other Sonos speakers in the house)

The Sonos Beam is always listening (unless you mute the mics) so you can continue to use it when the TV is off, we loved it for getting a Flash Briefing in the morning or starting our Roomba vacuum.

Once the Google Assistant comes to Sonos we’ll be excited to use it with the Google Chromecast which is definitely more popular in Australia.

The Other Soundbar

Yes… What about the Playbar? The older sister. It has been around for a decade, it’s loaded with speakers and sells for more than this new product. After attending the briefing this was the biggest question “is it better than the Playbar?”, we’ll answer that in three ways.

1. The Sonos Beam is not as room-filling as the Playbar. The reality is that is has less speakers, is smaller and costs less so it was unsurprising.

2. The Sonos Beam however is a soundbar for today. It has voice assistant capabilities which the Playbar will never have and unless you’re lounge-room is bigger than 5m x 5m then it would be overkill to put a Playbar in there.

3. The Beam is not designed for wall mounting, the Playbar however can do both.

So at the end of the day, decide what is really important, if it is all about that volume then the Playbar is going to win you, but unless you’ve heard the Beam, you’d be mad to make a decision on paper alone.

The Verdict

Did you scroll all the way down, skipping everything for this spoiler? Either way, here is the final word. This is the first speaker we’ve tested which can allow you to keep an arm around the significant other, or keep your hands greased up in pizza or can allow you to do things on the move. The addition of voice to the living room is more than we expected and it is going to be hard to understand that when you’re in store. The way we use voice in the smart home is only improving and it really is helping us do more without needing to move anything else except our mouths. We’ve had voice in the kitchen for a little while now and the Sonos One is a great product for that room however our lounge rooms really do benefit and it’s only just begun.

The Sonos Beam will ship globally starting July 17 and is available for pre-order today on www.sonos.com for $599.

 

Living in Sydney his entire life, Geoff has always had a close eye on technology. Through school and immediately after, tech held his focus. Attending University later in life, Geoff began his IT career immediately after leaving high school and has been in the industry ever since. In his spare time he launched a YouTube channel focused on consumer tech that had millions of views. This led to work on community radio talking tech every week and has now stepped him into the studios of 2GB / 4BC every Saturday helping people with tech problems and reviewing the latest gadgets.

When Geoff is looking away from the screen he can be found holding a glass of red wine, spending time with friends and/or watching the Formula 1.

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