Sonos is not a company that throws out new products willynilly, nor does it update its hardware every year, preferring to delight existing owners by adding new abilities via firmware update. This has its limits, of course — the ability to have voice control, say, requires a microphone, though Sonos has been quietly building those in since the Play:5 refresh in 2015. One of the headlines for this Beam release is AirPlay 2 compatibility, again rolling out also to a limited number of existing Sonos models.
The company has obviously taken a liking to the TV audio space, the Beam bringing the number of TV-centric Sonos models to three — the existing Playbar and Playbase, and now the Beam, which is smaller and cheaper than either. Sonos suggests the Beam to be suitable for smaller rooms, while the higher driver count of the Playbar and Playbase are capable of filling larger spaces.
The Beam looks nicely unobtrusive in the black of our review sample, while the white version may be preferred by those with modern minimalist décor. It’s 65cm wide and precisely 10cm deep, its top just 7cm above a table-top, which should keep it clear of all but the lowest current television models.
It is wildly minimalist in its connections, having no inputs at all except power and Ethernet, while a single HDMI output connects to the ARC-equipped input on your TV. It lacks an optical or analogue connection as a fall-back position, so should you not have an ARC-equipped TV, the Sonos Beam is clearly not for you.
Its driver count is somewhat mysterious — it takes quite the reverse tack to some competitors which have separate tweeters and a single woofer for bass. The Beam has a single tweeter and four full-range elliptical woofers, in a three-channel configuration, with left and right far out on the curved sides, and the centre getting two woofers and the tweeter — a good approach for dialogue clarity. But there’s more, with three passive radiators delivering extra bass under the power only of the reverse pressure within the cabinet from the active drivers. These we found by running our ear around the perimeter — two on the front, and one at back right.
It has five microphones as well, all the better to hear your Alexa (and later Google) commands when the Beam is already making a noise itself. This works well.
Of course being Sonos, you can build up your system beyond the solo Beam. While it is designed to operate on its own, it also wirelessly pairs with the $999 Sonos Sub for added bass, and/or with a pair of Sonos speakers to act as rear speakers, giving the potential of a genuine 5.1-channel surround system, though obviously at significantly increased cost.
And while it sits by your TV (or can be wallmounted, with an optional kit), it has all the abilities of any Sonos speaker, able to access the many many music services which are made available through the Sonos app, and to interact fully within a system of multiple Sonos speakers around the home.
We will note briefly that although our Beam arrived in what appeared to be pre-release packaging, we were assured it was a full production unit with no beta elements involved. We had an initial fail during set-up, apparently from a malfunctioning rear switch, but it eventually decided to play ball, accepted a firmware update, and behaved nicely during the rest of our fortnight spent with the Beam.
The Sonos Beam plays audio from PCM stereo, Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital 5.1 sources. It’s worth checking your disc and TV settings to give it Dolby Digital if you can, as this allows it quite dramatically to outperform a stereo input. Similarly avoid giving it anything else: when delivered Atmos in TrueHD format, it merely wailed in protest with a tone around 400Hz.
We began with music, first undertaking the Sonos Trueplay exercise which purports to tune the system to your room. This involves taking one measurement in the preferred listening position, followed by a mighty odd waving of your smart device (an iPad Pro in our case) up and down the walls of your room for a full minute. This rather excited the dog, whose panting was detected as affecting the measurements, requiring a second set of waving, and a third when we apparently didn’t wave enough during the second. The effect of Trueplay was to deliver a response which was superficially more exciting but ultimately less accurate, with more resonant bass and a wider spread of sound, but also a phasey effect to central vocals and dialogue. You can select or remove it using the app, and we did do regularly to confirm its effects, preferring it off. (It’s a shame you can’t isolate its measurement from the main listening position only, to see if that’s better than the result from all the waving.) On the other hand we left the ‘Loudness’ option on, which is the default setting.
The Sonos set-up procedure is a model of customised intelligence. It not only knew we were using an iPad Pro to set up, the demonstration video for Trueplay showed a lady waving a similar iPad. Coincidence? Maybe. But when wizarding us through the ARC connection to the TV, the app knew we were using a particular Sony TV and included specific information about Sony settings in its instructions. Given all the marketing nonsense around in audio and AV at the moment regarding supposed ‘AI’, we’d say this is smarter by far than most supposed ‘AI’ applications.
With music the Beam seems to use the centre channel as well as left/right,, and succeeds in delivering a wide spread beyond its physical bounds. It sounded rather boxier and a little bass-light without Trueplay tuning selected, deeper but muddier and fizzier with it on. Music generally lacked depth; as on the small Sony soundbar overleaf Neil Young’s Walk With Me had neither its bottom octave nor the D above produced, bass entering the song only at the second F. Diana Krall’s vocal on Alone Again (Naturally) lacked its thrilling delicate crispness. Using Roon (which can address Sonos units directly) we piped high-res from our network and Roon confirmed it was downsampled to 16-bit/48kHz. Overall we’d mark the Beam just over the line as listenable for music, but it’s not a hi-fi performance; it can’t match Samsung’s MS650 or MS750, for example. We wouldn’t choose it as our sole music solution.
With movies, on the other hand, the Beam delivers remarkable sound for its size and price. Dialogue is not only clear, it is correctly rich and full, underpinned by those passive woofers which combine effectively with, rather than arriving separately to, the front channel output. Soundtrack music is well enough handled that it fully emotes as it should, while the side drivers successfully spread the sound impressively wide, whether creating a spread of atmosphere for the London bar scene in Wonder Woman or the hail of gunfire as she crosses No Man’s Land. In a full-on action scene like this you can crank the Beam, and its level of output, in combination with its spread of sound, qualifies as amazing given the size of the unit. Small-and-medium room use may be understating things.
All three channels engage during stereo soundtracks, and this caused some curious behaviour. A single voice, such as a news announcer, would emerge from the centre-channel drivers only. But a voice with music underneath would trigger the side speakers into action, and this caused the vocal tone to change and spread outward. This sudden tonal change happened regularly — with every music sting during Channel 7 news, for example, and even the laughter track under Have You Been Paying Attention was enough to trigger the change. Whenever the music stopped, the voice would shrink mid-sentence back to centre-channel only. Even the missus would comment on its strangeness. (At no time was Trueplay engaged.)
What of the Alexa voice control? Once Sonos is linked with an Amazon account (it defaults to US Amazon if you haven’t told both Alexa and Sonos where you live), you can request volume up or down (handy since Sonos has no physical remote control and your TV may be off when playing music), Alexa can turn the TV on and off, which Google can’t yet do, and you can do other Alexa things, like smart-home control and Amazon shopping. If you link your music services to Alexa as well as to Sonos, it can play from Spotify/TuneIn/Deezer/iHeart. But not control TV content. ARC isn’t smart enough for that (yet).
Passable for music, good with stereo TV and outstanding with a full movie soundtrack, the Beam should further the Sonos inroads into TV audio with such a compact, intelligent and expandable solution. You can get better sound, especially for music, but not from a unit so compact, and with all the powers of the Sonos platform behind it.
+ Remarkable with movies
+ Intelligent set-up
+ Advantages of Sonos ecosystem
- Merely passable with music
- Sudden changes in vocal tone
Bar drivers: 4 x full-range drivers (unspecified), 1 x tweeter, 3 x passive radiators
Inputs: 1 x Ethernet, Wi-Fi,
Output: 1 x HDMI (4K) with ARC
Quoted power: 5 x Class-D amplifiers, no figures
Bar dimensions (whd): 68.5 x 651 x 100mm
Bar weight: 2.8kg
Finishes: Black, white