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Sonos Beam review: living room upgrade

Exactly what it says it’ll do

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

It’s extremely tempting to overthink the Sonos Beam — it’s the first really new product from the company after new CEO Patrick Spence took over 18 months ago, it’s among the first soundbars with integrated microphones for Alexa, and at $399, it’s priced just aggressively enough to suggest Sonos thinks it can serve as a beachhead into your home.

But there’s a simpler way to understand the Beam — people really want to upgrade their TV sound, they want smart speakers, and they really don’t want multiple speaker systems in their living rooms. When I reviewed Apple’s HomePod, the single most common question I got was “how well does it work with a TV?”

The Beam was designed to specifically answer that question, and I think it answers it well.

The Beam comes in black or white, and it’s a remarkably compact thing — just a little over two feet long, 2.7 inches tall, and 3.94 inches deep. On the back you’ll find power, HDMI, and Ethernet ports alongside a connect button, and on the top you’ll see touch buttons for volume the microphones, a microphone status LED, and a power LED that can be switched off in the app. My only aesthetic issue with the Beam is the large Sonos logo on its front; you do not need to be reminded of your speaker brand every time you so much glance in the direction of your TV. But that’s a small thing.

Set up is as easy as plugging the Beam into your TV and opening the app

Setting up the Beam is straightforward: you plug it into power and the HDMI ARC port on your TV, and then open the Sonos app on your phone to connect it to your WiFi. The app walks you through the rest of the setup, including making sure your remote controls volume on the Beam and not your TV. You’ll also be prompted to run Sonos’ TruePlay sound tuning on your phone (provided you’re using an iPhone), which happens in two stages on the Beam: once with you seated on the couch to tune the TV sound, and again with you moving around the room to dial in music.

TruePlay only works with iOS devices, but Sonos CEO Patrick Spence told me on the Vergecast that the company’s plan is for Sonos devices with microphones to tune themselves automatically, the way that the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod do. But for now, you’re stuck doing the TruePlay dance around your living room, waving your phone up and down while a series of chirps pings out of the speaker.

If you don’t have HDMI ARC on your TV, you can use the included optical adapter to get digital audio out of your TV’s optical-out port. Setting up volume this way is a little more convoluted: you’ll have to manually disable your TV’s speakers, and then use the Sonos app to program the Beam to recognize your TV remote’s IR commands. It’s not difficult, but it is some extra steps. You’ll also lose the ability to turn the TV on and off using voice commands, since that only works over HDMI. In testing with my ancient-but-beloved Pioneer Kuro, the optical connection worked fine, but I couldn’t dial in the audio sync — the Beam was always a hair delayed. But honestly, if your TV is a decade old, it’s probably worth upgrading the picture before you work on the sound.

Moving back to the present, the Beam worked seamlessly over ARC with my 2016 LG B6 OLED TV, with no setup of any kind required to have the remote control the Beam’s volume. The Beam outputs a black-and-white screensaver because some TVs need a video signal to open the HDMI connection, but there’s no interface of any kind displayed on the TV. You control the volume using the TV remote or your voice, and handle all other settings in the Sonos app. And you’ll also need your TV remote to handle input switching if you have multiple devices, since they’ll all have to be plugged directly into your TV. If you have a lot of game consoles and streaming boxes, giving up an HDMI input to the Beam might cause some headaches.

Voice controls include everything Alexa can do elsewhere, plus turning your TV on and off

Voice controls on the Beam are exactly what you’d expect: there’s everything Alexa can do, plus the ability to turn the TV on and off if you’re connected over HDMI. And… that’s really it, unless you have an Amazon Fire TV, which integrates with Alexa. This is a little mystifying, since play / pause would have been incredibly useful, but Sonos tells me the inconsistency of CEC implementations across TVs prevented a larger feature set. (To be fair, CEC is incredibly inconsistent, but not having the ability to say “Alexa, pause” seems like a miss.)

The Beam has five built-in far-field microphones for voice assistants, and it was very good at hearing me across a large room. When I was playing music or movies loudly, I definitely had to speak up, though — the HomePod and Google Home Max are better at letting you speak at a normal level during playback. Sonos products also support Alexa’s ESP system, so if you have an Echo in one room and the Beam in another, only one will respond at a time. (Not every third-party Alexa device does this, which is criminal.)

Sonos has also said that Google Assistant support is coming “this year,” but Spence didn’t offer a more specific timeline when I asked him on the Vergecast, except to say that the hurdles are technical, not contractual. Let’s hope it arrives sooner rather than later. If you are opposed to the idea of voice assistants, you can skip setting them up entirely — the Beam will just be a regular Sonos speaker and the mics won’t do anything, which is nice.

When you flip on your TV, the Beam automatically switches to play TV audio. If you want to play music, you can simply ask Alexa, which works with Amazon Music and Spotify. You can also use the Sonos app, which integrates many more services, including Tidal and Apple Music. And if you have an iOS device running iOS 11, you can use AirPlay 2, which allows you to stream to the Beam from virtually any app on your phone. You don’t need the TV to be on to play music, and switching back to the TV audio is simple: if the TV is off, you just turn it on. If it’s on, you just press a volume button. It all worked seamlessly in my testing.

Once you’ve got everything set up, the Beam sounds very good for its size. In two smaller living room spaces, the Beam more than filled the room, with excellent stereo separation and a surprising presence. Sonos doesn’t claim the Beam is designed for anything larger than a medium-sized room, but it also did a fine job with general TV audio and music in a large open-plan living room. (I’d want something larger for movies in that space, though.) And since it’s a Sonos device, you can easily send your TV audio to any other Sonos speakers you might have — you can fill your entire home with the sound of Westworld’s plot collapsing in on itself, if you wish.

The Beam’s sound is tuned for TV first, music second

But there are some caveats to the Beam’s sound. It’s very clearly designed as a TV speaker first and foremost, and that means it emphasizes midrange so it can put dialogue front and center. (There’s a dialogue enhancement button in the app if you want to push it even more.) That works great for TV watching, but it means you lose a little precision when you listen to music — side by side, I definitely preferred the sound of my Sonos Play:5 and Sonos Play:1 for music, since they were each more balanced. That’s not to say the Beam sounds bad — it sounds very good for a general purpose speaker. But if your overwhelming priority is music playback, you’re better served elsewhere.

The Beam also doesn’t offer a ton of low-end — the HomePod and Sonos Play:5 offer much more thump. You can add the Sonos Sub to the mix to get additional low end, but the Sub is almost comically expensive at $699. Getting $1100 deep into the Beam just for a little extra bass seems like overkill.

The Sub’s pricing also turns things upside down if you want to build a 5.1 surround sound system around the Beam: at $399 for the Beam, $699 for the Sub, and $400 for two Sonos Ones to serve as the rear surrounds, you’re looking at $1,500 for a 5.1 system that requires you to run power to every speaker location and doesn’t support the newest surround formats like Dolby Atmos. For that money you have an almost-limitless set of options, including any number of high-end Atmos soundbars. I wouldn’t buy a Beam with the intention of building a 5.1 system around it, and Sonos itself has said it expects fewer people to expand Beam systems than it does with its larger Playbar.

But for most people currently listening to music on an Amazon Echo or a Bluetooth speaker and using their built-in TV speakers, the Beam represents a huge upgrade in audio quality. That’s a lot of people, and I suspect almost all of them will be very happy with what the Beam does and how it sounds.

The Sonos Beam shown on an entertainment center with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson displayed on a TV.

As I was reviewing the Beam, I kept a little list in my head — a series of duels. Would I buy a Beam instead of a HomePod? Yes. Instead of a Sonos Play:5? Depends on the room. A cheaper soundbar? Yes. A full home theater system? No.

In the end, it became clear that the Beam is that rare product that does exactly what it sets out to do — it upgrades the sound of the average living room and adds solid microphones for Alexa. It does not do more, however: if you’re a Playbar owner waiting for that HDMI upgrade, I’d keep waiting. If you’re thinking about replacing your big 5.1 system with a smaller soundbar, you might find it too much of a downgrade. If all you really care about is music playback, it won’t quite hold up. If you need to manage HDMI switching for tons of devices, it might not work for you.

The Beam is the easiest way to add a smart speaker to your living room and upgrade your TV’s sound at the same time

If you’re tweeting party emoji when streaming services add Atmos support, you are my people, and we should all seek help together.

But if you have a reasonably new smart TV with HDMI ARC and you’re still using the built-in speakers, the Sonos Beam is an excellent upgrade for its $399 price. (And it would be a no-brainer if it matched the HomePod at $349.) You’ll get a huge upgrade in TV sound quality, solid Alexa performance, and music quality that you, listener of built-in TV speakers, will thoroughly enjoy. The Beam is a well-designed, extremely competent all-around smart speaker for grown-up living rooms that aren’t otherwise full of tech.

I think that’s a lot of living rooms.

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