Sonos’ new soundbar is smaller, cheaper and packed full of smarts.
Sonos’ first punt at the home cinema space, the Sonos Playbar, was released in 2013, when smart voice assistants, 4K TVs and streaming devices from Google and Amazon didn't even exist. Dark days indeed.
As such, it’s fair to say that Sonos was probably overdue a new soundbar. One that's more in line with current viewing and listening habits.
Enter the Sonos Beam - a smaller, smarter and cheaper soundbar that's jostling for a space underneath your telly. While the Sonos Playbar will continue to be sold, the Beam is the very capable - not to mention pretty tempting - younger sibling.
DESIGN: SMALLER AND LIGHTER
One of the first things you'll notice about the Beam is that it’s quite a bit smaller than Playbar. It also updates the Playbar's straight lines and chunkier build with a softer, slender and more rounded exterior, following in the design footsteps of the newer Play:5 and the Playbase.
Beam is also around 28 per cent shorter than Playbar, and 40 per cent smaller when it comes to overall volume. This will greatly benefit those who have less space to play with under their TV, whether it's sitting on a shelf or wall mounted using Sonos’ new accessory. Beam also comes in both black and white colour schemes, whereas the Playbar is only available in black.
That's all very nice of course, but the thing that's most likely to get people excited about Beam is its price. At least for those put off by the high price tag of Sonos’ previous home cinema products.
At $599, it’s much cheaper than the Playbar. Granted, if you want the full home cinema experience you’ll also need the SUB and two Play:1speakers. But judged on its own, Beam is a (relatively) cheap way to get a soundbar, a smart speaker and something that fits into the wider Sonos ecosystem if you decide to buy more speakers.
PERFORMANCE: SOUND CHECK
Given Beam's $599 price tag, the natural question is going to be: at nearly half the price of the Playbar, is it going to sound half as good?
Based on our hands-on time, which took us through music from Leon Bridges, films such as Arrival and TV shows including Stranger Things, we were very impressed. It’s impossible to tell how it compares to Playbar without doing a side-by-side comparison, but based on our experience with Playbar, we'd say it really held its own.
Just the Beam on its own was able to produce an impressive sound stage - so much so that we had to ask Sonos if there was a SUB unit tucked away somewhere in the test room.
That said, Sonos is realistic about the fact that this Beam is a cheaper product than both the Playbar and Playbase. One of the company’s audio engineers admitted to us that “Beam doesn’t go quite as deep as Playbar”, but that the company had done as much as it could within the smaller frame.
While there isn’t physically as much separation between the speakers due to its smaller size, Beam was still able to create a good amount of separation between the different elements of a soundtrack, which of course can be improved even further with additional Sonos speakers at the rear. One thing that may disappoint the many people who've asked on social media though, is the lack of Dolby Atmos support.
FEATURES: BEAM ME UP
Sonos was way ahead of the curve in the early 2000s when it released products focused on music streaming, but in 2018, smart home assistants are the feature everyone's crying out for.
Like the company's recent Sonos One speaker, Beam will pack Amazon Alexa from launch, meaning you can ask her to play you specific tracks, watch certain shows and movies (if you have an Amazon Fire TV device) and even turn your TV on for you.
You can also do anything else you’d usually do with Alexa, such as ask for news or weather updates or control other smart home devices. Google Assistant will also be coming to Beam, but Sonos is being coy about when that will actually roll out.
Beam will also work with AirPlay 2, thanks to an update coming to all Sonos speakers released after the redesigned Play 5. This means you’ll be able to see your Sonos Beam as a speaker when playing music on an Apple device, without needing to go into the Sonos app.
What’s neat is that even when using the speaker this way, you can still use Alexa to control it, such as playing, pausing and changing volume. You’ll also be able to make any older Sonos speakers in the house work with AirPlay 2, as long as you have one of the newer speakers on your network.
One of Beam's other smarts is the new HDMI ARC port, which enables the built-in Alexa to turn the TV on or change the channel, for example. Older TVs might not support this feature (they'll have to be pretty old though - ARC's been around a fair while now), but thankfully Sonos will include a HDMI to optical audio connection, just like on the older Playbar, if you're lagging behind the times.
Perhaps the only bad bit of news is the sole ethernet port on Beam, unlike Playbar, which has two. This allows you to easily wire in a nearby SUB, for example, but doesn't give you the chance to hardwire to your router if needs be. Thankfully, it’s simple and cheap enough to buy a network switch, or you can just use your system over Wi-Fi.
One other small wrinkle is the fact that the physical controls have been moved from the side to the top on Beam, which could be an issue for people planning to put the speaker on a shelf under their TV.
SONOS BEAM FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The Sonos Beam is clearly intended as the entry point for home cinema enthusiasts wanting to buy into the Sonos ecosystem, but who don't want to fork out a big chunk of their wages to get it.
Based on what we've seen, it's a high-value proposition for anyone looking for a small, sleek and smart soundbar, offering great sound and a wealth of features for the $599 asking price.