Sonos Beam Evaluation: Assist for Alexa in a Nice Soundbar

There are two distinct methods of wanting on the new Sonos Beam soundbar: from the angle of an individual who already owns Sonos audio system, or as an individual who doesn’t have any Sonos audio system.

The previous, the speaker-rich amongst us—that is Sonos’s candy spot. The corporate says almost 40 p.c of Sonos purchases inside the previous yr had been made by individuals who already personal a Sonos speaker, and that when individuals purchase a Sonos product, they use it for years.

In that context, the Sonos Beam is not only a TV soundbar, however a WiFi-connected, fabric-wrapped hypnosis machine. You’ll assume you’re listening to Beyonce or Infantile Gambino or “Chill Hits” on Spotify. However what you are actually listening to is “Buy more Sonos.” You’ll get up with no recollection of getting purchased the factor, and you could have some explaining to do.

Nonetheless, in the event you’ve by no means owned a Sonos speaker and also you occur to be in search of a TV soundbar that allows you to use Amazon’s Alexa to manage the expertise, then the Beam is value contemplating. At $400, it is a lot cheaper and smaller than Sonos’s earlier dwelling leisure audio system. But it surely’s nonetheless a powerful compact soundbar in your TV. And naturally, once you’re not utilizing it to reinforce onscreen visuals, it makes a very good all-around front room speaker that sits comfortably by itself, or as a part of a multi-room system.

Form of Sound

Notably, the Beam was designed to help a trio of voice assistants—Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri—all on the identical system. That is no small feat; every firm’s voice service has its personal guidelines of engagement for smart-home {hardware}. If the entire speaker factor does not work out, Sonos’s executives might very nicely have futures in diplomatic relations.

Whereas help for all three companies is the promise, the fact is that the Sonos Beam does not really work with all of these digital assistants on the time of this overview. Its shrunken measurement additionally means Sonos has made some sacrifices within the sound division. However we should always discuss its design first, because the Beam is one thing that you’re going to most likely be a complete lot after you place it underneath your tv.

That is the third Sonos speaker meant to function a companion to your TV, and the smallest. If the Sonos Playbase and Playbar (each $700) are, respectively, a truck and a mid-sized sedan, the $400 Sonos Beam is a coupe. It measures 26 inches throughout and a couple of.7 inches tall, and weighs round six kilos. That is heavier and longer than one thing just like the Polk Audio MagniFi Mini, however that soundbar can also be taller and, like loads of soundbars, is visually uninspiring. The Sonos Beam is a delight to behold, a superbly baked breadstick complementing an countless buffet of video and audio content material. It ships in black and white, and it may be mounted on the wall if that is the place your TV lives.

The physique of the Beam is wrapped in a single piece of knitted polyester. The speaker’s guts embrace a single middle tweeter, three passive radiators, 4 custom-designed full-range woofers, and a five-microphone array for voice management. On prime are some capacitive contact controls: a play/pause button, quantity up and down, and a microphone icon, to show the voice assistants on and off.

In again, you may discover three ports: energy, Ethernet, and HDMI-ARC. In case your TV does not help HDMI-ARC (my outdated Sony Bravia TV doesn’t), there’s an HDMI-to-optical adapter you need to use. However you positively lose a few of the magic of Sonos’s promised content material management when you must revert to optical. The “ARC” in HDMI-ARC stands for Audio Return Channel, and it signifies that audio alerts may be despatched from the TV to an exterior audio system utilizing a single HDMI cable. And in the event you’re utilizing HDMI, which means the Sonos Beam can also be tapping into CEC, or Shopper Electronics Management, to allow you to management the TV’s quantity or toggle the ability by the Beam.

Ear Sweet

The newest speaker from Sonos performs music and works as a soundbar in your TV. It additionally helps you to management your good dwelling along with your voice.

Beth Holzer for Wired

Sonos is positioning the Beam as “Not Just a TV Soundbar,” however nonetheless, its main operate is supplying the audio for films and reveals. And as a soundbar, it performs nicely. It lacks a few of the deep, heavy bass of its bigger opponents. But it surely does improve dialogue, results, and soundtracks to counterpoint the entire leisure expertise. It strikes me as one thing that will not bowl over audiophiles, however will add worth for informal listeners—and on the very least, even audiophiles would possibly respect what Sonos has achieved with the Beam’s bodily constraints.

As a part of my testing I watched John Wick, a particularly family-friendly film a few man who’s unhappy concerning the dying of his canine and befriends his Russian neighbors. The motion film style is the one my TV’s built-in audio system battle with probably the most, with most low-toned speech drowned out by dramatic scores, membership beats, violent motion, or dudes doing donuts in vehicles.

The Sonos Beam eradicated the necessity for me to carry a distant in my hand to regulate the quantity 27 occasions all through such a film, with dialogue coming by crisp and clear. It evens out all of the sounds rather well and, like different Sonos audio system, adjusts its output to finest go well with the room. (Although you continue to need to undergo Sonos’s mildly awkward, 45-second TruePlay setup to determine this.)

Just like the earlier Sonos soundbars, there is a Speech Enhancement characteristic you may toggle on and off within the Sonos app. There’s additionally a Night time Mode characteristic, which clarifies dialogue and different quieter sounds whereas firming down the form of high-octane results that will usually preserve your neighbors up. I used each of those options liberally, though, even with Speech Enhancement on, dialogue can sound slightly flat and missing in resonance.

To get a way of the speaker’s skills for music, I listened to Gregory Alan Isakov’s live performance with the Colorado Symphony from 2016, amongst different playlists. The Beam’s did not give me any form of phantasm that the symphony was enjoying behind me, or that it was similar to seeing Isakov in live performance with an orchestra (which I’ve seen). But it surely nonetheless crammed the room, and its spatial sound skills made it potential to ascertain the place members of the ensemble had been on stage when it was recorded. Additionally: This soundbar will get loud.

All Speak

For the reason that Sonos Beam natively helps Amazon’s voice companies, you may ask the soundbar the identical belongings you’d ask an Echo, whether or not that is “Alexa, play Spotify workout playlist” or “Alexa, tell me a joke” (“How do you win over a chocolate lover? Keep some Twix up your sleeve.”) You possibly can seek for and obtain expertise, Amazon’s time period for voice apps, and set timers, one thing that accounts for roughly 90 p.c of my Alexa requests on my Echo speaker.

The draw of getting Alexa within the Sonos Beam soundbar, although, is that you could management your TV along with your voice. Utilizing voice instructions to manage sure features of your TV expertise has been an choice on numerous dwelling leisure units for a number of years now, but it surely has nearly at all times required that you just push a bodily button on a distant to provoke the voice capabilities. The newest push in TV voice management is towards units that rely as an alternative on a easy wake phrase. That is Sonos’s technique right here—you may simply shout “Alexa” at your Beam and ask it to show the TV on and off or to lift the quantity.

When you have an Amazon Fireplace TV Stick, too, you may hyperlink your Fireplace TV Stick with the Beam and ask Alexa to pause this system you are watching by chatting with the AI by the Beam. This workaround is slightly convoluted, although, because it requires you to first join the 2 units in a sub-menu of the Alexa app (not the Sonos app), and even after that you must be particular: “Alexa, pause Fire TV,” not simply “Alexa, pause.”

Sadly, my TV does not help HDMI-ARC. That meant I wasn’t ready to make use of an HDMI cable to attach the Beam to my TV, and as an alternative I used to be compelled to depend on the optical audio connection. This saved me from using the CEC performance, the characteristic of HDMI that lets a soundbar or different speaker ship instructions to the tv set. Consequently, I wasn’t in a position to flip the TV on or off with my voice utilizing my present dwelling setup.

I just lately examined one other product that allows you to toggle your TV energy along with your voice: the Amazon Fireplace TV Dice. However along with the HDMI choice, the Dice additionally comes with little infrared blasters you need to use to ship instructions to older televisions that lack help for HDMI-ARC. Whereas I did not love the Dice, I did like that it gave me the choice to make use of my voice to manage my older TV. So whereas CEC is a helpful characteristic for the Sonos Beam to help, these with lesser TVs will not be capable of make the most of it.

Talking Up

Sonos’s voice technique does not cease with Alexa. The corporate has some competitors in that house, like Polk Audio’s upcoming $300 Command Bar, a voice-controlled soundbar that additionally has Alexa inbuilt (and which we’ve not reviewed but). So to get forward, Sonos has been engaged on help for Apple’s AirPlay 2, which can even give Siri some restricted management over the Sonos Beam. Sonos has additionally stated Google Assistant help will arrive on its latest speaker fashions someday this yr. That is supposed to permit for a “continuity of control”—in principle, you can begin music with one voice assistant, then ask one other voice assistant to establish the track, or to pause or cease the music.

The issue, although, is that AirPlay 2 help wasn’t prepared by the point I wrote this overview. Nor was Google Assistant. This implies Sonos has successfully requested the media to overview a product that does not but do every thing it is promised to do. (Sonos has additionally requested us to carry off on publishing our impressions of the AirPlay 2 expertise on the Beam, though AirPlay 2 software program is technically out there now, which appears extreme.) By promising these options sooner or later, Sonos is asking shoppers who don’t desire Alexa to take an opportunity by pre-ordering the Beam earlier than it really works with their voice assistant of alternative.

It is also value noting that you could get a few of this similar voice-controlled Sonos expertise with the Sonos One, a $199 good speaker that works with Alexa—and also will be upgraded sooner or later to work with AirPlay 2 and Google Assistant. After all, it isn’t a TV soundbar, so it will not work the very same method the Beam does. Nonetheless, in the event you’re not really that eager about a soundbar however are nonetheless very eager about a Sonos speaker with voice management, the One is a high quality gateway drug. That speaker competes extra immediately with merchandise like Apple’s $349 HomePod and the $400 Google House Max—though Sonos’s argument has at all times been that its audio system allow you to play no matter audio you need with out pushing you into one music service or voice assistant over one other.

Current Tense

Sonos is relying partially on the goodwill it is developed with prospects over the previous a number of years with the intention to promote the brand new Sonos Beam. Belief us, the corporate is saying; AirPlay 2 and Google Assistant are coming quickly, and it’ll all be nice. Usually, in that state of affairs, I’d say maintain off.

However even with out the complete assortment of voice assistant capabilities, the Sonos Beam is a and spectacular and thoughtfully designed soundbar. In underneath two weeks, it is improved my very own TV watching, podcast listening, and music enjoying expertise in an actual method. Having Alexa in a soundbar has been helpful too, even when that is the only digital assistant for now. The Beam has additionally change into one thing of a sound centerpiece to the Sonos audio system I have already got at dwelling. Which most likely seems like music to any Sonos lover’s ears.

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