SMALL IT MAY BE, BUT THIS DIMINUTIVE SMART SPEAKER PACKS A PUNCH IN THE LIVING ROOM.
THE SONOS BEAM is a smaller, cheaper TV speaker than the Playbar, with a few additions to its spec sheet, including support for Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. At just 65cm wide and weighing 2.8kg, it’s significantly lighter than its older sibling, too.Touch controls on top of the soundbar allow you to select volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause and microphone mute, while an LED indicates the soundbar’s status, mute status and voice feedback. Around the back, you’ll find the HDMI connection, Ethernet port, power connection and a pairing button. Available in black and white, the Beam looks stylish but understated — every bit the Sonos product. You can wall-mount it, too, although the official bracket costs a fairly steep $89.
Inside are four full-range drivers, one tweeter and three passive radiators, plus five Class-D amplifiers. As on the Playbar and Playbase, the drivers and radiators are positioned along the front and the far edges of the bar, helping to drive sound around your room for a more immersive, room-filling sound. Voice control is taken care of by five far-field mics, which ensure the Beam can hear you wherever you are in the room, even when the speaker is blaring a movie or music out.
This isn’t simply a soundbar: it’s also a wireless, multi-room speaker that can play music from almost any source: Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, Amazon, Google Play, Deezer, your phone, network-connected hard drives — it’s all supported and all can be combined in on-the-fly playlists and queues. The Beam can talk to any other Sonos products you have in your home and also supports AirPlay 2, allowing you to build a multi-room system with products from different manufacturers. Of course, the Beam can connect to your TV, and deal with TV and movie sound, too.
While the Sonos Playbar and Playbase offer only a digital optical connection, the Beam has HDMI (with an optical adapter, too). However, the sole purpose of the Beam’s one HDMI port is to receive audio from the TV, using ARC (audio return channel). If your TV was bought in the last few years, it should have an ARC-enabled HDMI socket, and the Sonos Beam will help you find it during the intuitive, app-based setup. The advantage of using ARC is that it allows the Beam a certain amount of control over your TV, as long as it supports CEC (consumer electronics control). This means that, thanks to voice support on the Sonos Beam, you can turn on your TV and adjust the volume with voice commands.
Those looking for deeper voice control should consider adding a Fire TV device to their setup. This enables more commands, such as starting specific programmes on supported streaming services (“Alexa, play Stranger Things” will start the show on Netflix on the Fire TV, for example).
Just as Sonos wants to be platform neutral when it comes to services, it also promises to support all available voice assistants. Alexa is on board at launch, with Siri support set to arrive by the time you read this, while Google Assistant integration is still in the pipeline.
THIS ISN’T SIMPLY A SOUNDBAR: IT’S ALSO A WIRELESS, MULTI-ROOM SPEAKER THAT CAN PLAY MUSIC FROM ALMOST ANY SOURCE: SPOTIFY, TIDAL, APPLE MUSIC, AMAZON, GOOGLE PLAY, DEEZER, YOUR PHONE, NETWORK-CONNECTED HARD DRIVES — IT’S ALL SUPPORTED AND ALL CAN BE COMBINED IN ON-THEFLY PLAYLISTS AND QUEUES.
Unfortunately, you can’t issue Siri commands to the Beam directly, instead you will need to use your iPhone as a microphone.
Much like the Playbar and Playbase, you can connect two smaller Sonos speakers (One, Play:1, Play:3 or Play:5) to act as rear speakers in a cinema system or add a Sonos Sub. The former is worth considering if you’re after proper surround sound from a discreet system, but at an extra $999, we’d say the Sub is overkill for the Beam.
Sonos hasn’t upgraded the audio codecs it supports, so it’s PCM stereo, Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital 5.1, with no support for DTS or lossless audio formats. There’s also no Dolby Atmos support here — the company believes that soundbars don’t deliver Atmos sound to a quality level it is happy with.
As is the norm for Sonos speakers, you will be prompted during installation to tune the Beam’s sound using the company’s Trueplay system, which uses your iPhone’s mic to tailor the sound to your room and usual listening position (Android phones are not supported). While the Beam sounds better when ‘Trueplayed’, the difference isn’t as marked as with the company’s other speakers. This means you should get relatively close to the Beam’s best performances even without an iPhone. Sonos’ Loudness feature is also enabled by default, adding a bass weight and scale that’s missing when you turn it off. Other modes include Night Mode and Speech Enhancement, both of which can be left off unless specific needs arise.
TURN IT UP
So how does the Beam sound? For its size, exceptionally good. Sonos has managed to overcome two of the usual limitations of compact speakers: scale and weight. Given its dimensions, the width and spaciousness of the soundstage are astonishing. The Beam can go loud, too — few will ever complain about it not being loud enough. Dialogue is clear and direct, and never drowned out by the rest of the action.
But it isn’t perfect — there’s a little treble brightness and sibilance is present, particularly at higher volumes or with poorly recorded audio. We also had this issue with the Playbase (which suggests it’s a symptom of the way the company tunes its speakers), but it’s far less of a problem with the Beam. In fact, with decent content and everyday volumes, it’s barely noticeable at all.
And while the Beam is almost unbelievably spacious for its size, it doesn’t quite fool you into thinking you’re listening to a proper surround sound system. Effects stretch right across the front of the room, well beyond the dimensions of the screen. They don’t, however, stretch up the sides of the room. It’s a deep, spacious, atmospheric delivery, with echoes and reverb and three-dimensionality, but, unsurprisingly, it’s not ‘surround sound’. For that, you’ll need to add a couple of Play:1s.
The Beam is, though, about as musical as a dispersive soundbar can be. You sacrifice some directness due to the angling of the drivers, but for a device designed first and foremost as an AV product, the Beam makes for a solid music system, with good tonal balance, bass weight, rhythm and punch.
This is an affordable soundbar that most could find space for, and that could transform your listening experience. The width, depth and three-dimensionality of the presentation smashes expectations. This system is more than enough for most people, to the extent that spending the extra $400 to get the Playbar could, in many cases, be entirely unnecessary. Sonos’ larger soundbar sounds fuller, richer and generally more sophisticated, yes, and it still has a place for people with larger living rooms and budgets who don’t want the full surround sound, but for the average person in the average lounge space, the Beam is a superb choice.
Sleek in design, the Sonos Beam could be best described as ‘just another Sonos product’ — high praise indeed.
Pairing the Beam with another of Sonos’ speakers is simple and definitely worth considering to get that true surround sound effect.