SONOS BEAM WIRELESS SOUNDBAR
WITHOUT KNOWING HISTORY,
you might dismiss the Sonos Beam as just another budget soundbar dropped into a largely undistinguished field. But as with most things Sonos, this attractive yet intentionally non-descript oval is significant both for the company and the audio business. Sonos execs have long seen the living room television as the most logical gateway for their wireless multiroom music system. The idea, birthed with the Playbar soundbar back in 2013 (review at soundandvision.com), was to build a Trojan horse whose primary function—fixing the awful sound quality of most flat-panel Tvs—would also provide the impetus to introduce surrounds perhaps, maybe a subwoofer, and other wireless speakers scattered about the home for music.
After Playbar came 2017’s Playbase soundbase, offered for those who couldn’t wall-hang the admittedly large and awkward Playbar. The Playbase (see soundandvision.com) is a wellengineered piece capable of hitting low bass notes. Still, priced at the same $699 as the Playbar, it was hardly going to open the floodgates. Now comes the $399 Beam, whose big claim to fame is being among the first fully voice-integrated, Alexaenabled “smart” soundbars to reach the market. With dimensions of just 25.6 x 2.7 x 3.9 (W x H x D), the Beam is also remarkably compact and easy
to place in front of a TV or on a shelf below. It isn’t designed to hit the peak volume levels or low bass notes of its bigger siblings; Sonos recommends it for more moderate-sized rooms. But given its affordable price and outstanding performance with movies and music, the company may have a hit on its hands. Let’s have a closer look and listen.
WHAT’S INSIDE COUNTS
The technology inside the Beam draws on what Sonos learned developing Playbase and last year’s Sonos One, the company’s first smart speaker (review at soundandvision.com). The small, high-excursion woofers used in array fashion in Playbase helped inform the design of the custom drivers for the Beam, which include four 2 x 3-inch elliptical woofers with aluminum cones, and a 0.75-inch silk dome tweeter. Two woofers face forward, straddling the tweeter at dead center. The other two face out at an angle from each corner to help spread the soundstage. Three racetrack-shaped passive radiators, two on the front and one on the back baffle, further enhance bass. The Beam is technically a three-channel soundbar, but Sonos clarified that the system isn’t just operating discretely on the left, right, and center-channel data; there’s some fancy routing of the information found in two-channel and multichannel signals (cross-cancellation, for example) to enhance the spatial characteristics, which are further optimized by the Trueplay setup (IOS device required) that identifies the room boundaries. As with the Playbar and Playbase, you can add a pair of Play:1s ($149 each), Play:3s ($249 each), or Sonos Ones ($199 each) for surrounds, plus the SUB subwoofer ($699) for a full 5.1 system.
For something designed to blend with its environment, the Beam, which comes in black or white, looks sweet and offers solid build quality. The top panel has a power/status indicator that flashes when the Beam hears the Alexa wake-up call, and it houses capacitive touch controls that mimic those on the Sonos One: volume up/down, play/pause, and a privacy button (with its own LED) that allows users to turn off the five-microphone far-field array.
Along with an optional Ethernet port and a setup button, the back panel offers something new for Sonos among its home theater products: an HDMI port for connection to your TV’S ARC (audio return channel) HDMI input. There’s no HDMI output or video pass-through; in most systems, you’ll connect your cable box and other sources to the TV’S alternate HDMI connections while reserving the Arc-enabled port for the Beam. This arrangement greatly simplifies setup. The Beam will be visible on the set’s CEC bus and automatically respond to the volume rocker on your existing TV or cable box remote.
Cooler still, it allows Alexa to control a variety of basic functions by voice, including turning the TV on and off, adjusting volume and mute, and flipping between TV sound or music on the Beam while the video image continues to play. (As an aside, the Sonos app also allows you to distribute TV sound to any Sonos speaker in the house, so you can keep an ear on the game while you’re, say, fixing a snack in the kitchen.) These functions worked fine on my aging Panasonic plasma TV.
For legacy TVS that lack an Arc-enabled HDMI port, Sonos supplies an optical-to-hdmi adapter to tap the digital audio output. With this connection, the CEC functions are lost and you’ll have to separately program the Beam to respond to your remote. Either way, the Beam’s on-board multichannel Dolby Digital decoder will recognize that signal type if it’s what your TV outputs, or it’ll work with stereo PCM. Along with the optical dongle, the unit ships with a 5-foot HDMI cable.
Finally, note that the Beam and the Sonos One will both be Airplay 2-compliant with a forthcoming software update. And Google Assistant will eventually be an option for both speakers if you prefer that voice platform to Amazon’s Alexa.
I placed the Beam on a 26-inch speaker stand in front of my 60-inch TV, which put the bar just below the screen and canted it back 5 degrees for more direct projection at my ears when I sat on the sofa 9 feet away. Setup
was a breeze. The Sonos app walks you through making the HDMI ARC connection, and my TV immediately linked with the Beam via HDMI-CEC. More critically, Sonos has greatly simplified the sequence required to activate Alexa with what it calls auto skill-enabling. All that was necessary was for me to log on to my Amazon account, which I did from within the Sonos app. After tthat, everything else happened automatically.
After a bit of casual music listening , it was apparent that the Beam offers the characteristic Sonos voicing, which is to say largely neutral across the spectrum, with a well-defined midrange and detailed highs—
and never, ever, crossing into offensively overblown bass or exaggerated treble. Different Sonos products make different compromises from the ideal, however, and it was clear that the Beam is optimized more for TV sound than music. That’s not to say it wasn’t extraordinary with my playlists and quite excellent for its price point. But in a direct A/B with the music-centric Play:1 (which is voiced identically to the Sonos One), the Beam lacked the Play:1’s midrange focus and its last word in high-frequency definition and sparkle.
Whatever the finely-honed audiophile ear might notice in the Beam’s mids and highs, it easily made up for in its bass response, which (of course) trounced the tiny Play:1. When I ran bass tones through the Beam using the app’s default tone settings (bass and treble flat, loudness contouring on) I found that, in my large basement studio space (20 x 25 feet with 6-1/2 foot ceilings), and without any nearby walls, it produced bass to 50 Hz before falling off sharply.
Cd-quality music tracks from Tidal on the Beam were highly engaging thanks to its overall accuracy and spaciousness, and its pleasantly rich and defined bottom end. “Wild World,” by the Americana band Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, was one of many standouts. The recording starts with the sound of a distant, wailing siren coming from somewhere outside the studio; it was so convincing on the Beam that I paused the recording thinking there was really an emergency vehicle flying by on the street. When Holcomb’s close-miked acoustic guitar started in I luxuriated in the leading edge of the plucks and the occasional screech of finger sliding on string. Holcomb’s voice was delivered with both a dimension and immediacy that betrayed the Beam’s size, assisted by bass extension that gave it just enough fullness and body.
As for home theater, I turned to the opening scene of Dunkirk, which relies heavily on the dynamic swings between rifle fire, dropped bombs, and screaming prop fighters, and more subtle closely-miked foley effects (such as paper fluttering, a squeaky window hinge, and a falling carpet of sand on the beach). For such a tiny soundbar, the Beam pulled it off with aplomb. It lacked the bass depth required for the full reproduction of the gunfire and bomb effects, but hit the mark readily on everything else. Dialogue was clean and intelligible; I never once touched the app’s Speech Enhancer mode. Score elements like terse violin swells were projected with an appropriate texture that gave them
dimensionality and weight.
Without question, the Beam was greatly enhanced by the addition of Play:1 surrounds and the SUB subwoofer. I introduced the surrounds first and found that they not only turned the Dunkirk opener into a more immersive scene, with gunfire all about and score elements coming from behind, but they also took some dynamic burden off the tiny bar and allowed the system to play louder and with more authority. Adding the SUB further improved overall output to where I substantially cut back the volume control, and it gave visceral impact to the opening gunplay while reproducing its full echo in the deserted, narrow streets of the town. The cost of these extra speakers is high—$1,000 worth of kit bolted on to a $400 soundbar. But there was no denying their sonic value.
There’s a lot to like with the Sonos Beam, not the least of which is what calculates— by my math, anyway— to a ridiculously good value. I found it unfailingly pleasant on both music and movies, and was consistently impressed with how much high-quality sound it put out given its size and price. Throw in the Alexa smarts and the value of having access to the proven Sonos infrastructure and library of music services in your home, and it’s hard to understand why anyone with a plain ‘ol TV in their room wouldn’t want one of these to go with it.
The Verdict SONOS BEAM WIRELESS SOUNDBAR
Sonos’ compact, Alexa-enabled soundbar offers impressive performance for the price. All in all, a smart value.
The Beam's four woofers and three passive radiators deliver impressive bass for a compact soundbar.