Sonos Beam: Wide Home Theater Sound for Your Living Room, Great Music Sound Anywhere
Sonos recently announced a new soundbar they call the Sonos Beam. I've had some time to test it and simply to use it, and the Beam might be the most impressive speaker I've tested from Sonos yet, especially considering its US$399 price tag.
Sonos wireless speakers aren't generally targeted at budget-device-seekers, and while $399 still isn't at the low end of the spectrum, it's much more affordable than Sonos's previous two home theater offerings, the Playbase and Playbar, both retailing for $699. At almost half the price, I was eager to hear how the Beam stacked up.
I set up the Beam in the same room as a Playbase, and whether we were playing music or videos, none of us in the family had a favorite. We could definitely hear the difference between the way the two sound, but to our (relatively picky) ears neither stood out against the other.
The Sound of Beam
The Playbase has a built-in subwoofer but, perhaps because the Beam is free from supporting the weight of the TV, we found that the low end coming from the Beam was equally as satisfying. It wasn't the same, mind you, but it sounds very musical and the speaker can move air quite well. Though the tech is different, the Beam's low-end reminds me of the tight, round, punchy low end that one gets from the Sonos One or Play:1.
The stereo spread on the Beam is also impressive. I tested this with setups ranging from sitting 5 feet from the device to 15 feet away, and in all scenarios I was able to perceive stereo separation that felt much larger than the Beam's 25-inch width.
All of this sound magic can be explained by both hardware and software. The Beam has four full-range woofers in it and one well-placed tweeter to really spread out the sound. Three passive radiators give the Beam room to move air and warm up the low end to create that punchy bass response.
On top of that, Sonos's TruePlay technology uses your iPhone to tune the Beam (and all other Sonos speakers) for the room it's in. Together, all of this gives the Beam the ability to sound much bigger than its physical footprint while still accurately reproducing the sound you want.
As with the Playbase and Playbar, the Beam can be paired with a set of matching Sonos speakers for surround sound, and with a Sub if you really want to move some low-end air. The Sub is pricey at $699, but surround can be achieved with a $298 pair of Play:1 speakers. Buy the pair of Play:1s together with the Beam and you'll pay $649, saving $48.
Can you Say HDMI? Beam Can
One immediate issue when Sonos released the Playbase was its lack of HDMI support. All TV audio came in through an optical port, causing all sorts of logistical and sound issues for a lot of home theater setups.
The Beam (finally) solves this with an HDMI input port supporting HDMI's Audio Return Channel. Let your TV or HDMI Switchbox choose which input to use, and then use your TV's HDMI ARC port sends the full-quality sound signal back down to the Beam.
If optical is better for your setup, no worries. The Beam has an Optical-to-HDMI adapter in the box. Plug it in and you're good to go. Either works fine.
Beam Listens, Too
Like the Sonos One before it, the Beam also has a microphone array for voice assistant support. Out of the box it works with Amazon's Alexa, but Antoine Leblond, VP of Software at Sonos, tells me that they are "very deep into" integration with Google Assistant. Once that's released, both Beam and Sonos One users will be able to choose whether to use Alexa or Google Assistant on their devices, further supporting Sonos's open platform concept.
In addition to that, the Beam will support AirPlay 2 when Sonos releases that next month. That means you can stream direct to the Beam from your Mac, iPhone, Apple TV, and iPad, allowing Siri to also control music that you stream to your Sonos speakers.
And Then There's The Music
Sound for TV and Movies is important these days, and Beam delivers. But music must not be overlooked, and Beam certainly stands on its own as a wireless music speaker. Whenever I test a speaker's sound, especially when listening to rock music, I listen closely to cymbals and guitars. Those both sit in frequency ranges that can easily be overlooked in the development process. Sonos didn't miss anything here.
Guitars are rich and full, with enough bite to make it sound like an electric guitar is being played through a tube amplifier. Cymbals sound like cymbals to this drummer... not too much sizzle, and enough ping. The full body of each instrument is well-represented, and listening through the Beam really just sounds like instruments being played without any funny effects or EQ.
That's Sonos's vision, after all. "The idea of a sound signature is bad," says Sonos Sound Experience Leader (and producer of The Beatles ongoing library), Giles Martin. He knows how he wants his productions to sound, and he doesn't want to be responsible for creating any speakers that would change that for his work or anyone else's. Sonos has succeeded.
Beam Me Up?
Certainly the Beam is the easy answer for the living room, especially at this price point. Compared to a $349 HomePod there is no comparison. The Beam wins in every way. The sound is more natural, the stereo spread is wider, and the Beam's HDMI integration with your TV means it supports everything you can throw at it.
After testing the Beam, I'm also pretty bullish on using it outside of the living room. While you could get a Sonos One for the office or the kitchen for less than a Beam, two of them get you pretty close to the price of a Beam, and the Beam might work even better in those rooms, depending upon your setup.
Beam's a versatile speaker, perhaps the most versatile speaker I've ever used from Sonos, and is definitely worth a look if and when you're in the market for something more than just that $50 Bluetooth tube you're currently using to stream.
The only problem I see – and it's not really a problem – is that the Beam might make it difficult for Sonos to sell too many more Playbases. Like I said, this isn't much of a problem for users!