OPINION: Sonos has announced a sequel to its popular compact Beam soundbar, and the headline statement is that it supports Dolby Atmos. Considering where the market is travelling towards, it’s the only sensible path for the Beam Gen 2 to go down.
But if there’s one thing about Dolby Atmos in the home, it’s that it was not quite what it was billed when it first appeared on the scene. I remember being at the launch of Atmos at Dolby’s UK HQ in Soho and listening to how it was going to advance cinema sound further, which it genuinely has.
But in transferring that to the home, there have been a few false starts. The initial messaging and approach of having to knock holes in the ceiling for downward-firing speakers didn’t take off unless it was for custom installations; and traditional surround speaker packages with upfiring modules take up more space and are more expensive. What Atmos needed was convenience.
And so it has been found in the soundbar realm. Soundbars have become an increasingly popular method of smuggling Atmos into the home, requiring no cables and occupying a smaller footprint than a traditional speaker package would. As the years have gone by, we’ve seen more manufacturers jump into this sector of the market – Bose one of the latest – but does it offer a true performance or just a convenient funnel for Atmos?
The Sonos Beam Gen 2 has a similar speaker array to the original and doesn’t have any upfiring speakers as part of its set-up, so there are no physical means of firing sound towards the ceiling and bouncing it down to create the Atmos effect like Sonos’ own Arc soundbar.
Instead, it uses psycho-acoustic techniques, which is more about how the human ear perceives sound. The Beam 2, therefore, offers Atmos in a virtual sense, creating the perception of a taller, wider soundstage better processing.
Virtual Dolby Atmos is one such approach to delivering immersive sound, but is it better than a soundbar that has upfiring speakers? From my perspective, out of the soundbars we’ve tested, it’s not been necessarily clear if either option is definitively better.
The LG SN7CY from 2020 was a disappointment from an object-based audio perspective, producing a lean and muffled tone.
The JBL Bar 5.0 Multibeam goes without upfiring speakers but delivers better performance with Atmos content, while a bigger soundbar system like the Philips Fidelio B97 (upfiring), takes a more subtle and not quite as enthusiastic approach to deliver on the promise of height in a soundtrack.
Then there’s the issue that Atmos is a surround sound format, but compact bars are only capable of producing the front hemisphere of that ‘surround sound’.
There’s an inconsistency that could be perceived as maddening, but if there’s one thing that is clear about Atmos in the home it’s that at the end of the day, the best results occur from having a defined approach and tuning. Atmos remains a more premium proposition in the home market.
But Sonos has frequently shown its skill with regards to tuning and its approach to sound, and we shouldn’t discount the presence of the Trueplay calibration system, which like JBL’s MultiBeam system, could hold the key to presenting Atmos that’s fully meshed with the acoustics of your room.
So, here’s hoping that the Sonos Beam Gen 2 can fulfil the potential of Atmos and, despite the price hike over the original, still at a fairly affordable price. If it does, it could lead the way for single-bar Atmos soundbars going forward in much the same way as the original Beam did for compact bars.