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Sonos Amp review: all kinds of power

Sonos reminds us that it can do almost anything

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

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sonos amp

One of the main reasons to buy into the Sonos audio ecosystem instead of the smart speakers from Amazon, Google, or Apple is overall flexibility: Sonos simply makes more kinds of audio products than any of the other players, and that means you can build a relatively custom home audio system very simply.

The unheralded key to that flexibility for years has been the $499 Sonos Connect:Amp, which is exactly what it sounds like: a small Sonos-connected amplifier that can drive any standard speakers. People (and professional smart home integrators) have used Connect:Amps in all sorts of wacky ways, from driving multiple sets of ceiling speakers in mono to hacking together TV speaker setups using a box that was never designed for that. The Connect:Amp is tremendously useful, but slightly underpowered at 55 watts per channel, and the basic hardware is getting fairly long in the tooth.

So Sonos is adding to the lineup with the new $599 Sonos Amp, which is a totally new design that offers unparalleled flexibility for a connected audio component. It is vastly more powerful than the Connect:Amp at 125 watts per channel, and vastly more capable, with AirPlay 2 support, HDMI input, and a huge variety of custom control settings and configurations.

You can use the Amp to drive a pair of bookshelf speakers. You can pair it with two more Sonos speakers and a subwoofer and build a 4.1 home theater around your TV. You can control it with Alexa (and eventually Google Assistant). You can run giant vintage speakers with it. You can rack mount it, if you are the sort of person with equipment racks in the basement. It does all of these things easily and with aplomb, and it firmly cements Sonos as the most flexible, powerful connected audio system available.

The Sonos Amp is a sleek, minimal black square. There’s a round depression on the top that adds a sense of high design, but also serves to make stacking multiple Amps easier. On the front, you’ve got the usual Sonos interface elements of an LED and touch buttons for volume and play / pause, while the back has RCA and HDMI inputs, two Ethernet jacks, a subwoofer output, the power connector, the pairing button, and the speaker connections.

sonos amp speaker adapters

Let me just say: I love the speaker connections on the Sonos Amp. The basic connectors are designed for banana plugs for a clean install, but if you’re running bare speaker wire there’s a very clever adapter that has standard screw terminals, which you then plug into the Amp. This sounds small, but it means you can fit the wires into the screw terminals without having to reach around the Amp itself — you connect the wires first and then just plug the adapter into the Amp. It’s clever, and it makes connections in tight spots so much easier.

I love the speaker connections on the Sonos Amp

Once you’ve got everything plugged in, setup is the same as any other recent Sonos device: you open the app, open the new device setup process, and hit the pair button on the back. I was using my own speakers, as I suspect most people will do, but if you buy the special Sonos Architectural speakers made by Sonance, you can run the Trueplay tuning process. (Why can’t TruePlay tune other speakers? Sonos says it can’t predict what speakers you might be using and what their capabilities might be. I still think you should be allowed to try, though.)

sonos amp speaker adapters

I tested the Amp with three speaker systems in my house, all of which are very different: the Klipsch Cornwall IIIs in my living room, which are gigantic 90-pound monsters designed in the ‘70s, a pair of Polk Atrium5 two-way outdoor speakers that hang over our deck, and the Monitor Audio Radius 270 home theater speakers in our media room.

The Polk outdoor speakers have always been connected to a Sonos Connect:Amp, and in short tests (it’s cold outside!) I can’t say I noticed a huge difference in sound quality. What I did notice was a difference in volume at different points on the volume slider: the Connect:Amp was plenty powerful for that application before, and it seemed to get louder faster than the Amp. According to Benji Rappoport, principal hardware product manager at Sonos, the increased power of the Amp is only noticeable when the volume slider is over halfway up, although the company is thinking about adjusting this in a future software update.

I never really run my outdoor speakers at levels that high, so it wasn’t a huge deal. If you’ve got a setup with Connect:Amps and you’re happy with it, I don’t think you’re going to see enough improvement to justify an upgrade, unless you are ride-or-die for AirPlay 2 or you absolutely need more power.

The Klipsch setup was the real eye-opener. The Cornwall IIIs have a decades-old design, with massive 15-inch woofers and a powerful midrange horn. They’re usually connected to a ‘70s vintage Kenwood solid-state amp that puts out around 100 watts, and the whole rig can get incredibly loud without losing any detail. (Fun fact: vintage amps often have less total harmonic distortion than modern ones!)

sonos amp detail

The older Connect:Amp wasn’t powerful enough for these speakers, while the new Amp is definitely up to the task. But the sound out of the box is entirely too bright and precise, which is a criticism other reviewers have made as well. I had to spend some time dialing in the Amp’s EQ settings in the app (which are surprisingly minimal) to get to something that sounded more suited to the speakers and the room. This is where I wish Sonos either offered Trueplay tuning for third-party speakers or had more granular controls in the app; the Amp can fit into a lot of situations, but it’ll definitely need to be EQ’d out of its defaults in many of them.

The Amp’s sound will definitely need to be adjusted for your speakers and room

Once I had the Amp dialed in, it sounded great — clean, powerful, confident. I can’t say I love it as much as my vintage amp, but that is probably as emotional as anything, since the Amp doesn’t have VU meters or extremely satisfying switches and knobs to play with.

There was a time when we spent entire evenings picking out records and using the vintage system; that time went away when our baby was born last year. Having those speakers directly tied to Sonos without the delicate vintage amp in the middle meant that we used them a lot more, and spent more time listening to music — which ultimately makes up for the buttons and knobs, I think.

One thing the Amp does not have is a built-in microphone for a voice assistant, which makes sense: it’s often tucked away in a cabinet or rack, and it wouldn’t be able to hear you anyway. But it integrates with voice assistants the same as other Sonos products, and it was great to be able to say “Alexa, play music in the living room” and have our biggest and best speakers light up. Same with AirPlay 2, which worked seamlessly.

(One thing to note if you are an insane purist: the Amp is a digital amplifier, so while you can plug a turntable into it, it will necessarily convert that audio to a digital signal. I couldn’t really hear a difference, but if you really need an all-analog signal chain in your life, you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you’re reading this while streaming Spotify to your AirPods, you can really just move on.)

sonos amp

Sonos’ user research around the Connect:Amp revealed that a surprising number of people use them with TVs — which required jumping through quite a few hoops to make work correctly with the old box. So the new Amp has the same HDMI ARC input system as the Sonos Beam soundbar, which means you can just plug a TV right into the Amp and get to a 2.1 system with a subwoofer. (Sonos also sells an optical-to-HDMI adapter in case you need to run optical from your TV; I tried this with the Beam and it introduced a slight delay, so I’d test it thoroughly if that’s your setup.)

The TV integration worked and sounded excellent in my testing, with the same sense that the Amp might be a little bright out of the box. I definitely missed my full Atmos surround setup, but you can pair two more Sonos speakers to fill out a basic surround experience. What I surprisingly didn’t miss was my center channel speaker — dialogue sounded clear and well-placed using my two Monitor Audio towers in stereo. The only thing I’d want is the ability to set different EQ settings for music and TV, which seems like a miss.

But it’s hard for me to say how my experience will work for you — it’s all down to what speakers you have and where they’re located relative to your TV. I also can’t say that it makes sense to buy a $599 high-end amp to run bookshelf speakers as TV speakers when you can buy a Sonos Beam for $200 less, but if you have ceiling speakers or you really want to consolidate your living room audio situation around some beloved bookshelf speakers, it becomes an attractive option.

sonos amp rear

Under new CEO Patrick Spence, Sonos has not only increased the pace of new product introductions, it’s slowly expanded the breadth of ways it can deliver audio in your house. There’s the regular set of Sonos standalone speakers and soundbars, like the Sonos One and Beam, but there’s also new partnerships with traditional AV companies like Onkyo to let the Sonos Connect control receivers directly.

And now there’s the new Amp, which is designed to fill in virtually every other gap with the full set of Sonos’ capabilities, whether that’s running a set of hidden speakers in the ceiling, making your vintage speakers connect to a modern music platform, or just making your TV play nice with your audio setup in the living room. That breadth means the Sonos home audio ecosystem is still the one to beat, and the new Amp is the sort of audio product that none of the tech giants have ever really put out: competent, focused, and complete.

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