The best compact soundbar you can buy
- Excellent sound
- Integrated Alexa works like a charm
- Controls TV
- Lovely design
- Not the last word in bass output
- Review Price: £399
- HDMI ARC
- Amazon Alexa support
- Google Assistant support (soon)
- Apple Airplay 2 support (soon)
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What is the Sonos Beam?
Sonos made speakers. Then it made a smart speaker. Sonos made soundbars. Then it made a smart soundbar. It’s called the Sonos Beam.
I say ‘smart’, as opposed to a standard soundbar, because the Beam features support for Amazon Alexa; taking the same approach as the Sonos One which integrated Alexa to great success.
Sonos’ pitch is that there are too many smart speakers made for the kitchen, instead of the living room. It’s a fair point to make, since they’re often small, upright devices. Now we have a larger, horizontal alternative, which hopes to serve as your living room’s one and only audio device.
And the Beam continues the company’s continuing commitment to providing an open platform for voice assistants with support for the aforementioned Alexa and Google Assistant, as well as Apple Siri.
The Sonos Beam is an ambitious sound system that aims to do many things, and I’m pleased to say it aces them all.
Related: Best soundbars
Sonos Beam design — A compact unit that doesn’t require too much space
There isn’t much to change about the aesthetics of a soundbar, but Sonos has had a good crack at it. The Beam is pitched as a compact soundbar, coming in at about half the size of the Sonos Playbar.
Measuring at 651mm wide, 100mm deep and 68.5mm high – it’s compact enough to avoid blocking the bezel at the bottom of your TV.
Why is it called the Sonos Beam? The company is being literal with the name. Think of the word beam in the architectural sense, as opposed to lasers. Sonos tells me it thought about calling it the ‘Sonos Bar’, in the way the Sonos One dropped the ‘Play’ prefix. The company ended up choosing something fresh, for clarity’s sake.
The Sonos Beam is designed to work in only one orientation, unlike the Playbar with its ability to fire in upright or flat positions. If space is at a premium, or you’re picky about positioning, have a look at the tilting custom wall-mounts that Flexson produces.
A fabric grille hides the audio components inside: a tweeter, four elliptical full-range woofers and three passive radiators. Two of the woofers are positioned at the ends of the compact soundbar, angled out at about 45 degrees for wider dispersion.
The fabric is a throwback to the Playbar, but elsewhere the Sonos Beam is aesthetically much closer to the Sonos Playbase. The ends are rounded in contrast to the Playbar’s boxy, angular approach and the colour scheme is a monotone matte black or white.
It features touch-sensitive keys instead of physical buttons, employing the same layout on the Sonos One with volume down, play/pause, and volume up. Swipe left or right across this trio to skip tracks. There’s also a mute button for the microphone.
Sonos Beam connections — Only a single HDMI for connection to a TV
The big news here is that the Beam addresses the key problem of the Playbar and Playbase. They offered a digital optical input as the only physical link to your TV and that’s now been swapped out for a HDMI In.
With only one input available, you still can’t plug all your stuff into the soundbar. Sonos believes in a simple relationship between TV and soundbar – you’re expected to plug what you need into your TV, and have a single cable going to the Sonos Beam. This bypasses any potential issues with video signal compatibility as the device is only interested in audio.
The Sonos Beam is meant to use your TV’s HDMI ARC (audio return channel) socket; and majority of TVs on sale have one. HDMI ARC takes care of transferring audio to a soundbar, while HDMI CEC takes care of power and volume operation.
Related: What is HDMI ARC?
Not interested in HDMI and don’t want to give up that socket on your TV? That’s fine – Sonos includes an optical-to-HDMI adapter as an accessory. Elsewhere, non-HDMI connections are basic. There’s an Ethernet socket plus built-in dual-band Wi-Fi, and a power socket.
Sonos doesn’t often venture in Bluetooth, at least until the recent Sonos Move, preferring Wi-Fi instead. Sonos works firmly in network-based audio when it comes to music streaming. This isn’t ideal if you just want to ping over an audio file from your phone to a single speaker, but it makes sense for the multi-speaker, multi-room music-streaming ecosystem that is Sonos’ domain.
Added to all that, there’s Apple AirPlay 2 with Siri voice control support.
Sonos Beam features — Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and AirPlay 2 support
The stand-out development is the inclusion of Alexa voice assistant. Besides setting up timers and looking up information, Alexa can control your TV. And I don’t just mean power and volume, either.
If you have a Fire TV device plugged in – the Amazon Fire Stick, for example – Alexa will help the Sonos Beam control that, too. You can use your voice to control what you watch, as long as it’s available on the Amazon Fire TV device. This means yes to Netflix, Prime Video or BBC iPlayer, but no to Now TV.
Sonos isn’t the first to make an Alexa-toting soundbar – that honour falls to the Polk Command Bar. However, Sonos is the first and to support both Alexa and Google Assistant – and Apple Siri too. That last one is a pleasant surprise. You can get Siri to start playing a song on Apple Music, and then later control it with Alexa – seamlessly.
This platform-agnostic approach will surely help Sonos reach more people, since it’s always easier to buy something that fits into your existing ecosystem.
Elsewhere, the Sonos Beam offers the same tricks and treats you get with other Sonos speakers. There’s Trueplay, a feature that analyses your room’s characteristics and optimises the sound according to the speaker’s position. For example, place the Beam next to a wall, you don’t need to worry about there being too much bass. However, Trueplay is only available on iOS devices.
There’s wide support for more than 60 streaming services, which goes some way to balancing out the lack of Bluetooth. Forget phone-to-soundbar communication; just have the speaker pluck tracks directly off the net. Key services include Spotify, Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora, SoundCloud, Audible and TuneIn.
As ever, the excellent Sonos app brings them all together, but some of these services (Spotify, for example) can be controlled through their own apps. Then there’s voice control – you won’t be able to voice-search on every service, but you will be able to skip tracks or pause.
Five far-field microphones and multi-channel echo cancellation means your voice can be heard even whilst music is playing. This worked very well on the Sonos One.
The one omission is Dolby Atmos, which has been the cause of much concern. In my opinion, it isn’t really justified. Given the price of the product and the audience Sonos is going for, Atmos was never coming to the Beam.
Sonos tells me a Dolby Atmos soundbar in the future isn’t off the cards, but that would only come at a time when the company can “do it right.” In other words, a high-end technology that is unlikely to be seen on a £400 soundbar. Perhaps someday we’ll see a high-end replacement for the Playbar.
Finally, there’s the multi-room element. Sonos remains one of the best options for multi-room audio. The Sonos Beam can be used as part of a network with other Sonos speakers to play the same song at the same time, or a different song in every room.
The app is super-slick. Controlling multi-room systems can often be likened to herding cats but Sonos makes it easy. You’re never in danger of accidentally playing music in the wrong room.
If multi-room isn’t your thing, how about wireless surround sound? The Sonos Beam can connect to other Sonos speakers, including the Sonos Sub, and used in a 5.1 configuration. All of that, plus there’s voice control too.
Sonos Beam performance — Considering its compact dimensions, the size and spread of the sound is excellent
Given that the Sonos Beam’s price and footprint are almost half that of the Playbar, my instinct was to expect half the performance. But this wasn’t the case at all. Sonos is on to something great with the Beam.
It’s always tricky when an audio product is tasked to handle both movies and music. A device that works well for watching films won’t necessarily be good at pumping out tunes. Thankfully, the Sonos Beam excels at both. I played a mix of music and movie soundtracks and was impressed at every turn.
The first song was Leon Bridges’ You Don’t Know. My first thought was that the soundstage could be a little wider, but I was impressed by the solidity of the stereo image, which was neatly defined.
That comment about the width of the soundstage was shot to bits by the next song and a test favourite, Radiohead’s Reckoner. The stereo image was just as defined, but this time I was confronted by a wall of sound significantly wider and taller than the Sonos Beam. Whatever dispersion techniques the Beam is using, it totally works.
Such a dramatic difference between tracks is a great indicator of an audio product – it became very apparent that the songs had vastly different productions, and the fact that the Sonos Beam could convey the disparity was a very good sign.
Next up was Wow by Beck, a song with a thumping bassline and percussion scattered throughout the frequency range. This was a great demonstration of the Sonos Beam’s dynamic headroom, and its bass prowess in particular. It’s an impactful, authoritative bass, with a remarkable agility. Bass extension is far-reaching enough that I never felt the need for an external subwoofer, at least where music is concerned.
As for video content, I found the dialogue clear, with a good amount of weight behind the voices. Say goodbye to tinny-sounding people.
What really surprised me was big movie setpieces with high production value. I watched Wall-E, the scene where he uses a fire extinguisher to zip about in space. Then I watched The Last Jedi, with all manner of laser fire going off in the opening scene.
The accuracy and spread of effects placement was astonishing. The stereo image was so wide and solid that occasionally I felt the effects begin to reach behind me.
And it gets even better if you pair the Sonos Beam with a pair of rear speakers (two Sonos One units). A scene from the end of Stranger Things season 1, where Nancy and Jonathan discover the portal in the woods, was super-immersive. There was palpable menace throughout; I felt the panic in the actors’ voices, and the precision of rustling leaves succeeded in transporting me to that creepy forest.
What about the Sonos Beam versus the Sonos Playbar? Sonos regards the Playbar as the more powerful option. It shifts more air and offers deeper bass, which is good for annoying the neighbours. But the Beam isn’t far off, considering the price difference. It’s an agile, versatile device – and a lot easier to accommodate.
The following are a few Sonos Beam set-up tips. If you have an iPhone, make sure you use the Trueplay feature to calibrate the soundbar’s audio for your room. It takes into account the amount of space and reflections for a more balanced tonal performance – and it totally works.
Also, you’ll find a ‘Loudness’ option under the EQ menu – this isn’t to make things louder at all. You’ll want to turn this on to hear bass at lower (late night) volumes. But maybe turn it off for loud movie nights, since I feel it compresses the dynamic range a little.
Related: Best Bluetooth speakers
Should I buy the Sonos Beam?
This soundbar does a bit of everything and does it well. It excels at both music and movie soundtracks.
It fits seamlessly into Sonos’ existing network of multi-room speakers, and has no problem fulfilling its promise of controlling TVs and Amazon Fire TV devices. Integrated Alexa support works as well on the Sonos Beam as it does on Amazon’s own Echo products.
The platform-agnostic inclusivity is a healthy approach, and I wish more tech companies would think this way.
All of that, and it’s far more affordable than the Sonos Playbar and Playbase – still viable options if you want a little extra power at the sacrifice of some smart functionality.
The best compact soundbar you can buy.
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