Sonos Beam is a flexible little soundbar with style (Australian review)

The Sonos Beam is its $599 entry-level soundbar offering HDMI ARC sound input, Amazon Alexa integration, Airplay 2 and eventually Google Home.

OK, let’s get the Sonos adoration over early. Everyone, especially Apple users love Sonos for its excellent wireless, multi-room speakers and amazing 50+ supported music services. You can trust Sonos to be one of the best in the niches it serves.

The Sonos Beam is a niche speaker. It is a compact, competent 3.0 (left/centre/right) soundbar that provides quality sound for replacing crappy TV speakers. It suits a small sized room – great for apartments and townhouses.

If you want more, you can add a pair of Sonos One ($598 for the pair or a cheaper set of Play 1 for $458) to add 5.0 sound (Front left/centre/right and rear left/right).  Then if you want room shaking 5.1 sound the $999 sub fits the bill.

Hold on that is $2,196 for something to replace crappy TV speakers!

Readers, the only way you should consider this excellent little sound bar is on its merits as a single unit. If you need to buy more speakers or a sub, then there are excellent alternatives to pushing this compact soundbar beyond its limits.

Sonos BeamReview: Sonos Beam

Australian Website here.
A$599 in Black or White.

Hardware

It is small fabric covered soundbar at 651 (L) x 68.5 (H) x 100 (D) mm x 2.8kg. It will fit in front of most TVs or use the optional wall mount ($89).

Sonos BeamSonos doesn’t publish specifications so we cannot give you WATTS RMS, THD, Frequency response etc.

What we know is that it has four full-range drivers (Left/Right to handle bass and mid-range), three passive radiators (to reinforce bass), and one tweeter (centre channel for speech enhancement). Two of the drivers are positioned at the ends, angled out at about 45° degrees for wider spatial dispersion.

It uses a Class-D amp for each speaker. These are small, power efficient and generate less heat. They are for economical home theatre sound systems – not high fidelity. I am guessing it has about 100W total output.

That means that the full-range drivers handle everything – bass, mids and treble. Not an audiophile’s delight as something has to give!

It plays audio from PCM stereo, Dolby Digital and up to Dolby Digital 5.1 sources (e.g. you can turn it into that by adding two extra speakers). There is no support for DTS, lossless audio formats or Dolby Atmos – although we don’t expect this on a $599 soundbar.

Sonos can access files shared from Windows, Mac or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device that supports the Common Internet File System (CIFS).

HDMI ARC means the TV remote should be able to turn Beam on/off or adjust volume. You can also use an optical fibre Toslink cable, but you lose ARC functions.

Sonos BeamTouch controls on top can manually adjust volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause and microphone mute.

It has both 10/100Mbps Ethernet and Wi-Fi G 2.4Hz, 54Mbps half-duplex connection. This is slow but fine for the lossy music content it streams. Other Sonos speakers connect by a dedicated Wi-Fi mesh channel to each other.

It does not have Bluetooth for smartphone connection or casting. But the Sonos app on your Wi-Fi connected smartphone handles streaming audio.

The Sonos app for iOS and Android

Download the Sonos app. Add the Beam, and that is it. The same app handles access to music content on 54+ music services (subscriptions may be required), plays internet radio and podcasts etc.

The app allows you to add speakers. I tested on Android, but TruePlay on the iOS app makes a big difference as it uses the iPhone microphone to calibrate the room sound.

As far as a comprehensive app goes – its four out of five.

Voice control – sad really

Sonos is platform neutral when it comes to music services. It also says it will support all available voice assistants, albeit not necessarily on equal terms. Amazon Alexa is first, access to Siri is with the AirPlay 2 update and Google Assistant sometime this year. We give it ten points for that!

Five far-field microphones do a competent job of hearing voice commands at up to about 80% peak volume. They work up to about 4 metres away. Security sensitive types can turn the mics off.

But I was unimpressed with the scope of Amazon Alexa. OK, first you need an Amazon Account (I have one). Then you are basically tied to whatever services and skills that would work equally well from a $79 Amazon Echo Dot.

Sure, you can ask it the weather, to set alarms, turn on the Beam, adjust its volume etc. But anything more than that requires you to use Amazon services or have Amazon Alexa compatible devices.

You can’t tell it to find a show on Netflix nor do anything on the TV unless you also plug in a $69 Basic Fire TV device. Then you can also access streaming video through Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu, and other Alexa-compatible services at extra cost.

When you use Alexa on Sonos, you get access only to the Amazon version of that ‘skill’.

For example, the native Spotify app (or similar) does a lot more than the Amazon skill version. It is a big step back from the native apps functionality.

In fact, when you speak to your Beam, you’re no longer accessing your Sonos account settings but your Amazon settings. For example, you have to set up Spotify in three places; the Sonos app; the Spotify app; and in the Amazon Alexa app.

Frankly, for what Alexa does right now on Sonos I would not be buying it for that reason alone.

Similarly, Apple’s HomePod, iPhone, iPad and watch do a better job of summoning Siri.

How does it sound?

Remember this is a compact unit. The sound is far better than it should be from such a diminutive device.

First, it reaches a maximum volume of 83dB. That will fill an apartment/townhouse lounge. You need more like 100dB if you have a larger room.

Sonos has a default loudness setting adding bass weight but at the expense of clarity. With loudness on bass cuts in at 100Hz but lacks that room shaking feeling a separate sub does when it cuts in at 50Hz. With loudness off, it cuts in around 200Hz but gives far better definition.

Sonos Beam

The gold line is with loudness on, but it muddies the bass/lower mids and makes treble a little too harsh. The white line is with loudness off – a better flat response and removes treble harshness.

Adding a pair of Sonos Ones does not increase overall volume but makes it a 5.0 system giving good rear speaker spatial definition in mid/treble range.

Night Mode reduces bass while increasing mid and treble.

Speech Enhancement makes dialogue clearer by reducing bass and treble – a mid-sound signature for clarity.

Sound summary

For what it is the Beam provides a good small room-filling sound. Bass can be a bit muddy with the Loudness feature enabled, and I prefer the sound with it off. There is a slight harshness at full volume too – probably overworking the tweeter. At 80% volume, it’s excellent.

Airplay 2 (Not tested)

Sonos BeamApple AirPlay 2 means sounds from any app on your iOS devices can now be streamed directly to Sonos – music, podcasts, radio, video, audiobooks, and more. You still need an iPhone, HomePod or watch top access Siri.

Reports are that the AirPlay integration on the Beam is really good. If you are an Apple devotee, buy  Beam as an Apple speaker and a soundbar for your TV.

GadgetGuy’s take. Sonos Beam is a competent little sound bar but do not push it beyond its limits.

Sonos Beam is a smaller, cheaper niche soundbar product. It replaces your TV’s crappy built-in speakers. It doesn’t create bass that isn’t there, and it doesn’t pretend to be a speaker double the size – Playbar and Playbase are for that.

Alexa is for Amazon content only. The Sonos app is so much more flexible and offers a huge range of content sources. If you want Alexa buy an Echo Dot.

This is an affordable soundbar that will transform your listening experience. The width, depth and spatiality beat my expectations.

The lack of Dolby Atmos support is not so much of an issue now as there is so little content. And frankly, to do it well requires a 5.1.4 or 7.1.4 system and that will set you back around $2,000. But it does illustrate the point that there is no point spending more on additional speakers or a sub with the Beam.

Competition

Sonos stands alone. It is not a product that has competition if you look at it as part of a larger whole-of-home music system. It is an aspirational purchase.

But if you want more flexibility the excellent $699, 450W, JBL Bar 3.1 with a sub-woofer will give you room shaking bass, 4 HDMI, Bluetooth and more. Or look at Samsung, LG, Panasonic, and Sony that all have offerings in this space.

If you want Dolby Atmos (5.1.4 or 7.1.4), it will cost somewhere from $1,700 to $2,000 for Samsung, Sony and LG.

Pro

  • Bass strong but not punchy from a small box
  • Can be harsh at high volume (depends on content)
  • Good spatial L/R separation
  • Sonos App for easy setup, HDMI ARC, Ethernet and Wi-Fi
  • Supports Alexa now, Siri and OK Google on the way – agnostic

Con

  • Lacks BT but you use the Sonos app on a smartphone instead
  • No remote – ditto and use HDMI ARC
  • Dolby Atmos MIA – not expected at this level
  • No TruePlay room tuning for Android app
  • Alexa limits music choice – use the Sonos app.
  • One HDMI (e.g. not a media centre device)
  • Too expensive if you add 2 x One and Sub

Rating

This is tough to rate. As part of a Sonos whole-of-home system and the if the Beam were enough for your TV sound needs, then it would score highly.

But, as a 3.1 soundbar, it is in a very crowded market space, and it loses points on features.

  • Overall: 3.8 out of 5
  • Features: 4 out of 5 – it is a 3.0 soundbar with Amazon Alexa and HDMI ARC
  • Value for Money: 3 out of 5 – If you buy the Beam, it is good for what it is. If you buy the rear speakers and sub, you are pushing the Beam way beyond what it was designed for
  • Performance: 4 out of 5 – Sonos quality sound with a reasonable frequency response
  • Ease of Use: 4 out of 5 – Plug and play for the Beam and use the Sonos app. Getting Alexa working is complex, especially for the limited things it can do
  • Design: 4 out of 5 – A ‘trendy’ Sonos design

Price

$599