Sonos Beam soundbar first listen: bringing sound and smarts home

The soundbar that's got something to say

First listen: Sonos Beam soundbar

When John Macfarlane stepped down as Sonos CEO last year, he admitted he’d dropped the ball on something pretty major. Sonos had steeled itself against the rise of voice technology when it should have embraced it, and it was starting to feel the burn. So when the new CEO Patrick Spence stepped up to the plate, the message was clear: Sonos was going to join the smart speaker era, and would not be left behind. As a former BlackBerry bod, he should know what that feels like.

The new Sonos Beam soundbar is the embodiment of this message: a compact slab that blends room-filling sound and smart assistant tech together. It follows the Sonos One, the company’s first smart speaker, in integrating Alexa, while Google Assistant support will come later.

Read this: Apple HomePod vs Sonos One

The Beam is a soundbar to lust over, but it won’t be a good fit for every home. At $399 it should be obvious that this isn’t as powerful as Sonos' Playbar or Playbase options. But for people with less room (or money) to play with, this could be the one. The marketing around the Beam has taken aim at tangled modern entertainment setups; countless remotes, controlling unknown boxes, scattered around the living room floor. Sonos is pitching the Beam as a way to take back control of the living room.

After the press conference I was led into a pop-up living room to hear the Beam in action. We were taken through a series of demos, starting with a few records before moving onto clips from Arrival, Stranger Things and Wall-E, the third to demonstrate the Beam’s aptitude for spatial sound as Wall-E and EVE frolicked through space. I was fully aware of the compromises going in: the Beam has no sub-woofer and only half the number of speakers as the Playbase.

But even so, it really sounds superb. I was sat to the left side of the soundbar, but the left and right separation was still clear. Sonos says it’s become aware how people no longer sit in a “sweet spot” in their living rooms and has accounted for that. It’s also really loud. After we were shown a short Westworld clip, the Sonos rep revealed it was only playing at 50% volume - which was already a little louder than I’d probably have it at home. Audiophiles may find the compromises more noticeable (we'll have a better idea in our full review), but from what we've heard, this is one great soundbar.

Which is little surprise when you have Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, working as your sound experience lead out of London’s Abbey Road studios. His job is all about getting the sound working to its potential, often turning to huge names in movies and music, like Chris Jenkins, the sound engineer on Mad Max, to sound-test their own creations on Sonos technology. “With Mad Max, they spent three to six months mixing it, so he knows that film pretty well. It won him an Oscar. And he’ll just watch the opening section and he’ll know every single detail because he mixed it. So if we get it wrong he’ll tell us.” Giles will also play Radiohead’s Kid A to Nigel Godrich, who produced the record (and is another frequent face of Abbey Road), who will know best if a voice is coming through too thick, or a cymbal too bright.

One thing I’m still unsure about, and something that I wasn’t able to fully test out in the demo, is how well Alexa will be able to cut through the noise. Hilmar Lehnert told me this posed a huge challenge in making the Beam.

“I think the technical term for this would be a royal pain in the neck,” he said. “Five channels is a lot harder [than on the Sonos One], there’s more drivers and more channels so we’ve had to develop a bunch of technologies to deal with that.” Alexa will work best when you’re directly in front of the Beam, according to Lehnert, but he suggested the positioning should be pretty flexible.

Between this voice control and the introduction of AirPlay 2, we also have fewer reasons to enter the oft-maligned Sonos app. To be fair it’s seen a lot of improvements, but it’s still a pain point of the entire experience. Meanwhile the integration of the HDMI-ARC port will mean the Beam is better integrated with your TV so, if your set supports it, will mean you can even control the television with Alexa.

(Anthony Hopkins for scale)

The Beam's AirPlay 2 support also makes it more appealing as an add-on to existing Sonos systems. 30% of Sonos sales come from existing customers, and at the Beam launch event CEO Patrick Spence revealed that 93% of Sonos products ever bought are still active today. Sonos has done a good job of keeping all of its products supported, and the Base is a perfect example of a Sonos speaker that works as an add-on, not an upgrade.

There's no doubt that Sonos has delivered on the sound here; the bigger test is in how the voice smarts work. Sonos seems pretty confident. “The steps that the team has made through the launch of Sonos One, where we were sort of behind,” Giles Martin told me. “I think we’re now ahead in voice recognition.”

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