I close my eyes. When “Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones starts playing, her captivating jazzy vocals sound like they’re coming from directly in front of me, and I could be fooled into thinking there’s someone playing a stand-up bass right there in the room. Then comes “Boom” by Sevenn and Tiësto, which has a truly 3D soundscape that engulfs me in the thumping beat. Taylor Swift’s Folklore somehow feels even more intricate, and “Exile” is brimming with depth and warmth as Bon Iver joins in. When I reach “Two of Us” by The Beatles, the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney sound more distinct and come through with better separation than I can recall — and I’ve listened to that song countless times.
These are just some of the standout listening experiences that are possible with the new Sonos Era 300, a $450 speaker designed from the ground up to showcase spatial audio and Dolby Atmos more convincingly than any standalone speaker before it. It’s also the first third-party speaker that’s able to play Apple Music’s spatial library. (Amazon Music is supported as well.) Throughout the couple weeks spent testing the Era, I’ve been floored at times by what it can do.
But the current selection of spatial audio music is so uneven in quality that it can be a jarring and unpredictable listening experience. A great track will leave you thrilled about the investment you’ve made; a poorly mixed one can instantly deplete that joy.
If you’re not familiar, spatial audio (also sometimes called “3D audio”) is meant to put you in the middle of the music and leave you feeling enveloped by instrumentation in a way that goes beyond traditional stereo. There are different implementations of spatial audio: if your music service of choice offers it (currently Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal, and more), you can listen with pretty much any pair of earbuds or headphones. I’m still a skeptic when it comes to that approach, but listening to Dolby Atmos music tracks on an actual multichannel surround system has been more encouraging.
With the Era 300, Sonos is trying to deliver a credible spatial audio experience from an individual speaker — no small challenge. Apple and Amazon have attempted the same with the HomePod and Echo Studio, respectively. The only way to really pull it off is to rely on room acoustics, phasing, and bouncing sound off the walls in your space to trick your brain into thinking that audio is originating beyond the speaker’s physical footprint.
Sonos has firmly strayed from the well-beaten path of cylindrical speakers with this device: it’s got an unconventional sideways “hourglass” shape loaded with six drivers that direct sound forward, left, right, and up. More specifically, there’s a center channel, left and right drivers pointing out the sides, an upward-firing channel, and two woofers that also face the left and right. On top of that, Sonos built waveguides into the 300 to help disperse sound further. Because of those guts, it’s substantially larger than the Sonos One (and new Era 100), which is worth considering if you’re interested in pairing two 300s as rear channels for a Sonos Arc or Beam soundbar. More on that later.
I don’t feel strongly about the design one way or the other, though listening to the Era 300 made me buy into Sonos’ rationale that the unorthodox shape benefits spatial output. I’d recommend picking the white option if possible: the black models I’ve been reviewing easily show smudges, and I’ve noticed dust getting caught in the perforated holes. White plastic would help conceal these things, so that’s the way I’d go.
The Era 300 carries over some of the best new features of the more affordable Era 100 — namely, Bluetooth playback and USB-C line-in support — and is easier to disassemble and repair than past Sonos products. The two speakers share an identical topside layout, with dedicated track controls, an indented bar for easy volume adjustments, and a button that can temporarily mute the mics to prevent unintentional voice assistant responses. If that’s not enough for the privacy-minded among you, there’s a toggle around back that can fully cut power to the mics when flipped.
Careful placement of the Era 300 is essential if you want the best sound, and Sonos has some guidelines to follow when finding the right spot for it. (TL;DR: make sure there’s ample open space to the sides and above the speaker.) The company claims there’s no sweet spot to listen from, but if you want the most engrossing spatial experience, I’d advise sitting a few feet away centered with the speaker, much like you would do for a traditional speaker.
For the first time, Sonos is extending Trueplay support to Android users. A new “quick tune” feature uses the built-in mics to adjust the Era 300’s audio output for optimal sound in whatever room it’s in. iPhone and iPad owners can go a step beyond this with the “advanced” tuning that uses their device’s mic to get a better read on a room’s tonal traits.
In terms of its total size, the 300 slots in between the Era 100 and Sonos Five. That’s naturally made for comparisons to the long-discontinued Play:3 speaker, but the two products have much different purposes. The Play:3 was a fairly small stereo speaker with outdated internals and components compared to what Sonos has been using in more recent years. The Era 300 can play stereo audio just fine, of course, and does a better job at sound diffusion than the Play:3 was ever capable of.
However, if stereo is your main way of listening, the Era is outclassed by the Sonos Five. Remember that only one of the 300’s drivers is forward-facing, so stereo music doesn’t feel as direct or full-bodied as when it’s coming at you from the more conventional Five. The Five’s bass response carries more smoothness and refinement than the 300’s — particularly with stereo content. If you want the best music fidelity that Sonos can offer, the answer is still a stereo pair of Sonos Fives. End of conversation.
But the 300 isn’t a slouch by any means. Vocals always come through with pristine clarity through that center channel, and the side-firing drivers make for nice stereo separation from a unit of this size. Against the rest of the Sonos field, the Era 300 easily ranks above the Era 100 and Sonos Move. If you’re not able to swing the Five, this isn’t a bad alternative to land on.
Don’t buy the Era 300 if you’re happy living in a stereo world
But stereo isn’t what the Era 300 is about. If you take nothing else away from this review, it should be that. Whether you’re listening to music or using the 300 as Atmos-capable surrounds, immersion is this device’s whole reason for being.
I’m not here to walk across the minefield of some “spatial audio versus stereo” debate, and you won’t hear me argue that this is the end-all-be-all future of how we consume music. I’m a music lover, so I can get a dopamine boost with the right song regardless of how I’m hearing it. Will I take the high-end headphones or fancy speakers given a choice? Sure, but I’ve got many great memories tied to crummy Bluetooth speakers and throwaway earbuds.
I’ll say this: I don’t believe spatial audio is going away. This isn’t 3D TV all over again. The music industry is deeply invested in Dolby Atmos production, Apple can’t get enough of the format, and most major new albums are being released in spatial audio more often than not. But damn, have there been growing pains. Back when Apple Music rolled out spatial audio, I lamented that many Atmos album mixes were objectively inferior compared to their stereo counterparts. Producers were leaning in to gimmicks and making songs sound too expansive and ill-defined. As we pointed out in our Echo Studio review, some Atmos reissues have included new elements that were never present in the original release.
More recently, we’ve seen that tumult start to ease. With more time and experience, audio engineers have gained a better understanding of Atmos and how to get the most from it without detracting from the source material. As Giles Martin told Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel on Decoder, a good spatial mix doesn’t always need to make it sound like you’re surrounded by instruments; the enhanced spaciousness can be more subtle than that and still work well. (It should come as no surprise that Martin’s Beatles remixes, like the latest for Revolver, sound terrific on the 300.)
As a general rule of thumb, modern albums that have been mixed for Atmos from the beginning tend to fare better than remixes that artists might have zero involvement in. If you want good examples and test material, check out recent releases by The Weeknd, Billie Eilish, St. Vincent, and Lana Del Rey. But sometimes there are older classics by the likes of Frank Sinatra that are revitalized with stunningly good Atmos treatments. And the brand-new 2023 Atmos mix of The Dark Side of The Moon is superb. Here’s my personal playlist of spatial audio highlights:
Problem is, those learnings came after an early wave of second-rate spatial audio releases. And many of those subpar mixes remain on Apple Music and Amazon Music today. Listening to many rock songs in spatial audio can be dire. (I’m looking at you, “Buddy Holly” by Weezer.) There are a lot of misses, and they diminish the Era 300’s potential to a considerable extent. I anticipate that we’ll see a lot of artists quietly push out do-overs of spatial audio albums as more speakers are released that expose the shortcomings of those rushed initial efforts. It’s not a good feeling when a record that you adore in stereo sounds like an aural mess in Atmos.
You’ll be opening the Sonos app a whole lot
I’ve never been as down on or critical of the Sonos mobile app as some people, but with the Era 300, you’ll find yourself using it more than ever before. That’s because spatial audio and Dolby Atmos music tracks can only be played directly through the Sonos app. You can’t AirPlay them from your Apple Music app or cast them from Amazon Music. Hopefully, it’ll just be a matter of time until there are more ways of starting spatial tracks, but for now, this is the way.
And if that’s going to remain the case, Sonos needs to do some serious renovating. For one, there’s no way of knowing if a song is in spatial audio until you start playing it. You don’t see any of that context when searching for a track or album: the Atmos logo only pops up after you hit play. I’d like to see some kind of spatial audio badge or indicator directly in search results. Right now, it’s just a game of pecking around until you find a song in Atmos. With so many different editions of a given album available from streaming services these days, that can get frustrating and be time-consuming. If people are going to be living in the Sonos app to get the most from their Era 300, I hope to see some UX upgrades. Sonos is rolling out a new search experience, a fine first step, but there needs to be a clearer marker for spatial content.
Throughout the Era 300 review period, there’s been no way of turning off spatial audio for tracks that offer it. I could only listen to the Atmos version, with no way of falling back to stereo in cases where I got stuck with a wretched mix. Sonos tells me there will be an option added to settings by the 300’s March 28th release day for disabling spatial audio, but even that’s a little too ham-fisted. Ideally, you’d be able to switch back and forth between spatial and stereo right from the now playing screen and quickly get a sense of which you prefer. Amazon Music handles this better than any other music app, in my opinion, and considering how terrible at software Amazon generally is, that’s saying something.
The new Bluetooth and line-in capabilities have worked without a hitch, though you’ll need Sonos’ $19 USB-C adapter to get line-in working. (Your other dongles are unlikely to work since Sonos is doing an analog-to-digital conversion instead of the other way around that’s common for headphone adapters.) And spatial audio doesn’t work over Bluetooth, not that anyone should be surprised by that. Sonos has outfitted both Eras with more robust connectivity: they include Wi-Fi 6 now, but you’ll need a compatible router to take advantage of the more reliable, faster wireless signal.
Era 300 as Atmos home theater surrounds
If you combine two Era 300s (a $900 spend) with either the Sonos Arc or second-gen Beam, the new speakers can act as rear surrounds that now include upward-firing Atmos channels. They also deliver more expansive horizontal sound compared to the Sonos One or One SL since there are more drivers to work with. The Arc setup (including a Sub or Sub Mini) will be a 7.1.4 configuration, while the Beam will be 5.1.4. (The Era 300 is not compatible with the Ray, first-gen Beam, Playbar, or Playbase.)
Compared to the Ones and Symfonisk speakers I’ve previously tested as surrounds, the Era 300 noticeably outputs more atmospheric audio thanks to the higher driver count. The widened rear left and right soundstage are very apparent. But as for any Atmos height channels, those heavily depend on factors like ceiling height and other criteria that impact room acoustics. My ceilings are a fairly standard height, so I was able to discern the height effects when watching Dune, Black Adam, or nature documentaries on Netflix.
If you’re spending so much on a pair of Era 300s, you should absolutely run Sonos’ Trueplay process to ensure you’re getting peak performance from your home theater system. You’ll need an iOS or iPadOS device for this purpose since the Era 300s can’t fine-tune the audio coming from your soundbar. Quick tuning only optimizes sound from the Era itself, so this calls for the advanced process and waving your iPhone around to gauge a room’s characteristics.
I don’t think anyone purchasing the Era 300 for surround purposes will be disappointed or underwhelmed. It’s just a very expensive way of improving upon what you might already have with two One SLs or Symfonisk picture frame speakers. It’s objectively better and the best Sonos living room setup you can get, but it’ll cost you.
Beta testing the future of music
There are moments when the Era 300 is genuinely spectacular. When you land upon a thoughtfully produced spatial music track, there’s no other individual speaker on the market that sounds like this. It can be mesmerizing and brain-deceiving. If you’re willing to spend over $400 to keep chasing that feeling, and if you don’t mind ignoring all the dud mixes, the Era 300 is a promising glimpse of the future of home audio. And it takes Sonos’ home theater powers to a new level, which will be reason enough for some people to splurge on two of them.
Stereo music isn’t going anywhere — ever — but when everything clicks and Sonos’ new speaker is performing at its best, stereo can start to sound a little ordinary by comparison. Even knowing how much work lies ahead for the music industry to make this experience more consistent, I’m starting to become a believer in spatial audio. The HomePod didn’t get me there, but the Era 300 has met the challenge.
That said, I’m still feeling some inner turmoil about the direction we’re heading. This new “era” of having no choice but to subscribe to music streaming services indefinitely to enjoy Atmos content — you can’t buy spatial audio albums digitally, and the only physical media that has it is Blu-ray discs, which, come on — continues to strike me as strange.
I’ve got reservations, sure, but I’m still going to stick with Sonos’ Era 300 speaker over the next several months and will revisit this review to see if the value proposition changes as more deliberate Atmos mixes continue to reach streaming services.
But unless you’re flush with cash and want the absolute most from your Sonos home theater system, there’s no rush for most people to jump in right at the outset.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge