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Sonos Beam review: Alexa, Google and Apple walk into a small, affordable sound bar

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MSRP: $399.00
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The Good The Sonos Beam offers the promise of multiple voice assistants, with Amazon Alexa now and Google Assistant in the future. Its expansive sound can fill a small room. HDMI connectivity includes the ability to power up and control TV input switching via voice command. Apple AirPlay 2 support should please iPhone users.

The Bad The lack of a subwoofer means the Beam lacks deep bass compared to sub-equipped competitors. You lose some connectivity options on TVs that lack ARC. Google Assistant hasn't been added yet.

The Bottom Line Although some cheaper options sound better, Sonos Beam is a feature-packed, voice-operated sound bar with unmatched flexibility.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Sound 6
  • Value 7

Review Sections

In many ways Sonos is the Apple of audio. Its speakers and software are easy to use with thoughtful design and attention to detail, it has its own well-developed wireless ecosystem that "just works" and its products are priced at a premium. Until now if you wanted a Sonos sound bar you'd have to spend $700 (£700 or AU$845) on the Playbar or Playbase and optionally another $700 for the Sub. In no way do those qualify as budget speakers.

That's why the $399 (£399 or AU$599) Sonos Beam smart sound bar comes as such a pleasant surprise. It shows that the company, which just went public, is serious about getting into as many households as possible. If the superb Sonos One smart speaker was the Trojan Horse, the Beam is the invading Greek army.

Just like the One, the Beam has Amazon's Alexa smarts and far-field voice recognition built-in, now with support for Apple's AirPlay 2 plus the promise of Google Assistant coming... sometime. The Beam's no sonic powerhouse, but it offers a wide sound stage, performs quite well with music, and will make your TV sound a hell of a lot better.

The Beam isn't the only voice-activated sound bar, however, and Polk's $299 Alexa-powered Command Bar, which includes a subwoofer, offers serious competition. In my side-by-side listening tests the Polk sounded better than the Beam with a lot of material, but the Sonos beats it for whole-home integration -- Sonos' speciality -- and voice compatibility beyond Alexa. To even the playing field between the Polk and the Sonos you can also add the aforementioned wireless Sub to the Beam, but doing so increases the price significantly.

Overall the Beam isn't the first sound bar I'd recommend to people who just want their TV to sound better. It is, however, the best for people who already have Sonos in their house and want more, or who want the ability to work with other voice and music ecosystems too. It looks good, it sounds big and it's more flexible than any other smart sound bar on the market, regardless of price.

Design

The wrap-around cloth grille of the Beam -- commonly associated with the company's ultra-budget competition -- comes as a surprise on a Sonos product. Yet, the speaker retains a Sonos look with its plastic top and the touch control panel that debuted on the One.

Sonos Beam
Sarah Tew/CNET

The pill-shaped Beam is smaller than most other sound bars at just 25.6 inches wide by 2.7 inches high and 3.9 inches deep (68.5 by 651 by 100 mm). You can get it in black or white. Unfortunately, the Beam doesn't include a wall bracket in the box, but the company will sell you one for an extra $59.

While most manufacturers include a remote with their sound bars, this is not the case with Sonos. Instead, the Beam comes with a number of alternative ways to control it, starting with the Sonos app for phones and tablets. The comprehensive setup routine lets you use your TV remote as well as the app, and your voice with the integrated microphones.

The Sonos app has undergone many different changes over the years, but the latest version places the emphasis on music search and the devices in your house rather than a laundry list of the different music services. Given that Sonos has been moving toward third-party control -- such as via Spotify Connect or AirPlay -- this is a welcome move. I preferred being able to play music on a Sonos speaker using the native app, such as Spotify itself, rather than using the Sonos app.

Sonos Beam
Sarah Tew/CNET

Beamed sound, TV control

Sonos touts the 3.0-channel Beam as its "most advanced sound bar." Its speakers are designed to bounce (or "beam") sound off your walls, and include a center channel with two woofers, two more woofers for left and right channels and a single tweeter. At the front of the unit are two passive bass radiators with another one at the rear. 

The system comes without a wireless subwoofer, though you can add the $700 Sonos Sub if you like. Sonos sells the two together for $1,000 ($100 off the price of both separately), or a "three-room set" that includes a Beam and two Sonos Ones for $650 ($50 off). Two Ones can also be wirelessly paired with the Beam for rear-channel surround effects. A full "5.1" system (Beam, Sub and two Ones) would cost $1,350.

Sonos Beam
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Beam combines both HDMI and integrated voice assistance for the first time in any sound bar. The HDMI connection includes the CEC control system, which allows some clever gymnastics with compatible TVs -- it lets the Beam turn the TV off and on, using just your voice. It lets you use the TV as an HDMI switch, too. You can plug all your gadgets into your flatscreen and feed the sound bar Dolby Digital 5.1 (though not DTS) sound from your TV's audio return channel (ARC)-capable HDMI port.

Seems perfect, but what if your TV doesn't support ARC?

  • Bad news: There's only one audio port on the Beam, and it's HDMI. No optical or 3.5mm input.
  • Good news: Sonos bundles an HDMI cable and an HDMI-to-optical cable adaptor in the box. So you can connect your TV's optical digital audio output to the Beam.
  • Semibad news: If you use the adaptor, the Beam cannot turn the TV on and off or control switching.

Hearing voices

The Beam comes with Amazon's Alexa assistant straight of the box and the speaker has an improved, five-microphone array designed for use in a home theater environment. It basically works just like familiar Alexa devices such as the (much quieter) Echo -- ask the time, play tunes, operate the blinds -- as well as change volume on the Beam itself. 

The Sonos range, including the Sonos One, Play:5 and Playbase as well as the Beam, now feature Siri integration alongside the much anticipated AirPlay 2 compatibility. I tested the Sonos Beam with the updated AirPlay 2 firmware and found that it integrated seamlessly. 

After adding the Beam within the Apple Home app I was able to use the speaker in much the same way as I would Apple's HomePod speaker. I found I could play music to the Beam via Siri on the HomePod, or iPhone, and then switch to Alexa to control it. I was also able to play to both the Beam and the HomePod at the same time without lag -- whether it was through iTunes, Siri or the Spotify app. The funcionality is great, but the big question is ultimately: Would really you use a separate device to control the speaker when Alexa works so well?  

Although Google Assistant had been promised for 2018, the company is now saying "watch this space." Likewise, the company wasn't able to comment on whether Google will work concurrently with Alexa in the same way as Siri does. My educated guess? The two won't work together, at least initially, unless Sonos builds its own voice service to hand off to either Google or Amazon on the fly.

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