Despite a few issues with the sound, the Arc has plenty to recommend with its large soundstage and well-defined sound. If you're already in the Sonos system, there's little reason to look for any other Dolby Atmos alternatives
- Expansive, well-defined and invigorating sound
- Good impression of audio height and width
- Fine spec
- Ample control options
- Slightly bumpy frequency response
- Some treble stridency
- No MQA support
- Review Price: £799
- Dolby Atmos
- S2 control app
- Amazon and Google voice control
- Apple AIrPlay 2
- Trueplay room EQ
The Sonos Arc sees the speaker giant join the ranks of Dolby Atmos toting soundbars that sit beneath your TV
The Sonos model range is looking ever-more formidable. By updating and expanding its portfolio of products – lately the Beam, the Move and the One SL all hit the spot to a lesser or greater extent – Sonos has consolidated its position as the mainstream’s preeminent purveyor of wireless multiroom speakers.
All this activity has left the Playbar – which has soldiered on since 2013 – looking more than a little antiquated. But now the Playbar has been put out of its misery. It’s been replaced by this, the all-new Arc. Meet the new ‘bar, that’s quite a big update on the old ‘bar.
Related: Best Dolby Atmos Soundbar
Sonos Arc design — The same trusty Sonos design we’ve become used to
From the circular perforations of its grille to its choice of matte-black or matte-white finishes, the Arc closely follows the design template Sonos laid down a few years ago now. Despite its 114cm length, the brevity of its height (9cm) and depth (11.5cm) mean it’s a reasonably discreet looker – although that length means it needs at least a 55in TV to sit beneath if it’s not going to look a bit odd.
The base of the Arc is gently rubberised to make it shelf- or table-friendly, and there are screw-holes at the back for use with the bespoke wall-bracket that’s on sale ‘soon’. Also at the back is a recess containing the Arc’s few physical inputs: HDMI, figure-of-eight mains power, an Ethernet socket and a set-up button.
Regardless of whether you position your Sonos Arc on a surface or attach it to the wall, though, you’ll need to make sure it’s not closed in from above. That’s because it has a couple of upward-firing mid/bass drivers, and there are four far-field mics arranged across the top of the ‘bar too – these are for use with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant voice control. Also on top of the Arc is where you find a few touch-sensitive controls – these cover ‘play/pause’, volume up/down’ and ‘skip forwards/backwards’.
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Sonos Arc features — Lots of ways to feed audio to the soundbar
Getting digital audio information into the Sonos is hardly a tricky matter. As well as the HDMI and Ethernet sockets on the back, the Arc features 2.4GHz wi-fi and compatibility with Apple AirPlay 2. And there’s an absolute stack of audio possibilities on offer in the Sonos control app.
I’m not the only one who thinks the Sonos control app is the industry standard, and the app to which all other audio companies should aspire. On June 8th, it’s being upgraded to ‘S2’ status – this test of the Arc was conducted using a beta version of S2, so it’s hardly fair to judge it at this stage. Suffice to say, that even in beta guise it’s more friendly, more logical and more stable than any nominal rival can claim to be.
Within the app there’s scope to integrate any number of audio streaming services, as well as access to the startlingly worthwhile Sonos Radio service. There’s some EQ adjustment here, the ability to integrate a pair of Sonos One SL speakers as the rear channels in a true surround-sound set-up, or incorporate a Sonos Sub if you’re bass-crazed. As far as simple usability goes, the Sonos app has always led the field – so let’s hope the update on the 8th doesn’t put the kibosh on that.
No matter if the digital audio information is delivered via AirPlay 2, HDMI or the control app, though, once it’s on board the Arc things get just slightly mysterious. Sonos has never been all that keen in dishing out the technical details and, true to form, some of what makes the Arc tick is a closely (and inexplicably) guarded secret.
What’s the resolution of the DAC that’s translating all the digital stuff into analogue information? Well, currently it ‘supports’ up to 16-bit/48kHz, but may rise to 24-bit support by the time S2 is available. It doesn’t support MQA though. How much power do the Arc’s 11 Class D power amplifiers generate? Not saying. What are the drivers made of? Won’t tell. How big are they? It’s classified.
Actually, that last bit’s not completely true. There are three tweeters in the Arc’s 11-driver array, and they’re of the silk-dome type. But how big they are is unknown to the likes of you and me, as is the size and composition of the eight elliptical mid/bass drivers that accompany them.
Two of these eight drivers fire upwards from the top of the cabinet, and are obviously charged with bringing some Atmos-style height to the Arc’s presentation. There’s another one at each end of the chassis, firing outwards to give some width to the sound. The other four, punctuated by the three tweeters, are carefully angled out from the front of the Arc.
If you’ve access to an iOS device, then Sonos’ Trueplay room EQ algorithm can be deployed. This will respond to the dimensions of the room your Arc is in, and its proximity to side walls, in an effort to tailor the way sound reflects off surrounding surfaces to offer a more convincing impression of sonic height and width.
It’s worth mentioning that the Sonos Arc only supports Dolby codecs, not DTS. Try and play a DTS disc and you won’t get any audio out of the system. As of the most recent update, Sonos has enabled multi-channel LPCM, which lets you send uncompressed sound, letting your Blu-ray player handle the decoding of DTS soundtracks. It can be fiddly to get working, so read our guide on how to get DTS on Sonos for more information.
Sonos Arc sound quality — A big, wide soundstage, though bass/midrange transition could be handled better
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has plenty to recommend it – and that includes an extremely effective Dolby Atmos soundtrack. So with the Sonos Arc connected to a TV via HDMI ARC, it’s simply a matter of pressing ‘play’ and settling back for three and a half hours.
In terms of the soundstage the Arc is capable of generating, it’s a far bigger listen – wider and taller – than the soundbar itself. It focuses well, moving effects across the ‘front’ of the stage with real precision, and locating off-screen effects at unlikely distances from the screen. There’s plenty of space on the stage, too – so when a particular sound or effect needs isolating, there’s more than enough room available to do so. Left-to-right movement (or vice-versa, obviously) is secure and believable, and the Arc locates effects with real solidity.
Of course, it’s nigh-on impossible for a single soundbar to offer a true surround-sound experience, even if it’s a) as carefully designed as this one and b) tuned itself to the particular room it’s in. But the Sonos does manuful work bringing those ‘rear channel’ effects to a point where you might almost believe they’re located alongside your seated position, which is not something Sonos’ own Beam soundbar is capable of doing, let alone your TV by itself.
But presenting sound in the vertical plane is what Dolby Atmos is all about, and there’s admirable height to the sound the Sonos Arc serves up. A film like 6 Underground really goes to town with the Atmos effects and the Arc is able to position effects far above the soundbar itself, giving a convincing sensation of height to its soundstage.
Naturally enough, and just as with surround sound effects, the Sonos can’t position effects above you like a ‘traditional’ Atmos system with overhead speakers would. But then, of course, the Sonos doesn’t make you cut holes in your ceiling.
Tonality is, on the whole, pretty well judged. The bass and midrange frequencies, in particular, are impressive with one caveat. The Sonos Arc can dig deeper and hit harder than seems plausible from such a slender soundbar, and its bass response is no blunt instrument. There’s plenty of texture and detail revealed, and a very decent sense of straight-edged control to the start and stop of low-frequency sounds. And the bottom-end stuff doesn’t impact on the midrange above it, which is equally detailed, giving ample character to dialogue and sound-effects alike.
The problem concerns the transition between the two. Although the eight mid/bass drivers appear identical, it seems logical that each driver’s individual crossover point will have been tuned to either offer that ample bass reinforcement or to give the midrange all the character and definition it needs. There is also some digital sound processing going on, so that (for instance) when playing sub-Atmos content, the upward-firing drivers put out more of the (less directional) bass frequencies.
In this respect too, Sonos has been entirely successful – the midrange is just as detailed as the bass response, and it remains distinct and easy to follow even if it’s surrounded by sonic uproar on all sides. But where ‘upper bass’ becomes ‘lower midrange’ there’s an absence (or, more properly, a concavity) where that transition is poorly managed. Bass and midrange sound like two quite separate entities, and the unity of the Arc’s presentation suffers as a result.
At the top of the frequency range there’s no suggestion of absence. The Sonos Arc is a crisp and forthright listen where treble frequencies are concerned, and while top-end sounds are generally pretty well controlled there are undoubtedly circumstances in which ‘crisp’ might become ‘hard’. Once the Arc has set itself up to your specific environment, it’s certainly worth fiddling with the EQ adjustment in the app to make sure treble sounds don’t set your teeth on edge.
These characteristics carry over to the Arc’s presentation of music. The low-end presence and momentum is all there, the texture and character of the midrange, the forthright and mildly overconfident high-frequency reproduction. But the disconnect between bass and midrange is, if anything, more pronounced (or, rather, more obvious) when listening to music, and the overall sound of the music the Arc produces just lacks a little conviction as a result.
Should You Buy the Sonos Arc?
Buying a soundbar to improve your home cinema experience is a no-brainer. It’s buying the right soundbar that’s the real trick.
Despite its sonic idiosyncrasies, the Sonos Arc has plenty to recommend it. The size of the soundstage it can deliver (when given the right material), for instance, is impressive. And prospective customers who are already partial to the Sonos system (and who consequently know how simple and straightforward it is to live with) are unlikely to spend much time considering alternatives. But for the rest of us, there are a couple of very worthwhile rivals that demand investigation.
Sony, for example, was a fair bit more proactive than Sonos where Dolby Atmos soundbars are concerned, and its HT-ST5000 7.1.2 ‘bar deserves consideration. It’s a few years old now, admittedly, but that just means it’s become almost as affordable as the Arc. The separate subwoofer is a double-edged sword, but the Sony’s facility with hi-res music and its dynamic, confident way with movie soundtracks make it an endlessly entertaining listen.
Or you could save a significant sum of money and check out Samsung’s Atmos/DTS:X -enabled HW-Q70R soundbar-with-wireless-subwoofer charmer. It’s an uncomplicated and likeable device, capable of proper scale and dynamism with movies no matter the type of soundtrack they’re encoded with. It’s not quite as adept as the Sonos where music is concerned, but then it’s not as expensive either.