SONOS BEAM WIRE­LESS SOUNDBAR

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - By Rob Sabin

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.

PLAYITALL BAR

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.

CON­CLU­SION

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.

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