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Sonos Amp review: Convenient whole-home streaming audio for the BYO speakers crowd

The Sonos Amp is a tremendously powerful audio hub, but its bright sound needs to be handled with care.

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Ty Pendlebury
Ty_Pendlebury.jpg

Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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6 min read

The Sonos Amp is an intriguing product: the company is pitching it primarily at the installers who bought the majority of the preceding Connect:Amps, but it's also very well suited DIY audio and home theater enthusiasts. It is without a doubt the most flexible product the company has ever made.

The Good

The compact Sonos Amp delivers the company's class-leading multiroom audio to speakers of your choice. The system offers more flexibility other Sonos systems. It's compatible with a wide range of streaming protocols and Alexa's voice assistant.

The Bad

Numerous well-featured amps and receivers are available for less money. The Sonos Amp sounds too bright in its default mode and doesn't offer a calibration routine. The EQ settings needed to fix it are located deep within a nested menu system. To use voice, you'll need to have another smart speaker in the system.

The Bottom Line

As long as you take care during setup, the Sonos Amp offers enthusiasts a powerful blank slate to build a compact, high-performance audio system.

If you asked anyone what they thought the future of music replay was, they would probably say streaming, and perhaps even records. The Sonos Amp can do both things -- providing your turntable has a preamp -- and adds the ability to connect a television. Of course it also works well with other Sonos gear to create an easy-to-use whole-home audio system.

The main downside, aside form the price, is that the Amp needs more care in setup than any other Sonos product. Specifically, it's a very bright-sounding amp out of the box, and so requires more careful equalization to sound its best with most speakers. 

It's not cheap, but with its gutsy performance and thoughtful design, the Sonos Amp should especially appeal to music lovers who relish the chance to infuse their favorite speakers with Sonos' ease of use.

So, what is this $600 box all about?

Let's back up a minute. If you're not familiar with Sonos -- or you only know it from its speakers, like the Sonos One, or its soundbars, like the Sonos Beam -- you may be wondering what this thing is, and why it costs $600.

The Amp is a stereo amplifier that streams digital music, and unlike most of the company's other products you'll need to provide your speakers. It lacks the video capabilities, multiple audio channels, multiple HDMI inputs, displays, buttons, dials and even remotes of a typical AV receiver. Instead it's designed to connect to just two stereo speakers (although some pro installations can connect more than that in a multispeaker mono configuration) and be controlled entirely via the Sonos app or voice commands courtesy of Alexa.

Sonos was designed from the beginning as a multiroom audio system. Stick a speaker in your kitchen and one in front of the TV and they can all perform together or individually. While the Connect:Amp this replaces was strictly stereo, the addition of an HDMI port lets the Amp get audio from a TV too, and pipe it anywhere in your house.

Design, features and connections

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Sarah Tew/CNET

A component designed to hide out of sight in the depths of an an entertainment cabinet, the Sonos is a small, black unit only 9 inches square and 2.5 inches tall. The top has a curious, circular indentation whose purpose becomes clear when you flip the amp over -- it allows users to stack multiple amps, thanks to a rubber extrusion on the bottom. Sonos does advise active cooling for installations involving more than two amps.

The "guts" is the 125-watt-per-channel stereo digital amplifier (8 ohms), which Sonos claims can drive most of the speakers on the market. The amp section outputs to a pair of speaker terminals, which offer the ability to connect either bare wires or banana plugs with a proprietary removable socket.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike other digital amps at its price, the Sonos Amp's connections are relatively limited, though it does includes an onboard HDMI ARC input for connecting to a TV, alongside lip synch adjustment. Connect your TV via its ARC port to the Sonos, select External Speaker in your TV menu and the Sonos will playback whatever audio appears on your telly. The amp will also autodetect inputs (TV, analog or streaming) and switch automatically.

The amp also includes an analog input for connecting an audio device. You could hook up a turntable for example, and transmit its music around the house, to as many Sonos speakers (or Amps) as you own.

While you can pair the amp with the Sonos Sub, the device handily includes a subwoofer out for adding your own sub. If you want to add rear speakers, you also have the option of adding either a pair of Sonos speakers or even adding a second Amp.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Though it lacks the Alexa microphone of the Beam or One, it still offers transport controls on the front of the unit. Like all Sonos products the Amp is set up and controlled via the Sonos app, but the company has broadened compatibility beyond just the outdated "one app fits all" idea. The amp also offers control via Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect and Pandora , and if you pair it with the Sonos One, for example, you can also control it with Amazon Alexa now, or via Google Assistant in 2019.

How does it sound?

This is a dynamic amplifier and one that will sound great with music or movies. We tested with a number of different speakers from the Q Acoustics 3050i to the prominent treble of the B&W 606 to the compact funhouse of the Klipsch R-51M. The Amp handled them all but with one major caveat.

How likely are you to dive into the settings of your device to tweak its performance to your satisfaction? If your answer is "none" this is not the Sonos product for you. While many A/V receivers and Sonos speakers alike offer autocalibration the Sonos Amp is an entirely manual affair. Adjusting settings such as crossovers for subs and rear speaker levels is done with a series of sliders, some not even marked with numerals.

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Bring your own speakers and TV

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why is this important? To put it bluntly, the Sonos Amp is a very bright amplifier. Unless you have very warm speakers -- think Wharfedale Diamond 8s -- then the Amp might push metal-domed tweeters in particular to steely new heights.

I started testing with rock and experimental dance and these were pretty difficult to listen to, even when compared to a typically exciting sounding A/V receiver . With the Q Acoustics 3050i in tow the Amp brought out the most abrasive elements of Dalliance by The Wedding Present: the song's ragged guitar lines made me wince. On the other hand, the Onkyo TX-NR585 receiver made the sound warmer and richer and encouraged listening further.

How do you fix this? It was a simple enough process, you can adjust the treble within the Sonos app (More>Settings>Room Settings>Amp>EQ) I backed off the treble by about a third and the edginess diminished while keeping the cues that enabled singers to be locked in the center of the sound stage.  

Throughout my testing, though, one thing kept occurring to me -- this is a very dynamic amplifier -- and thoroughly trounced the Onkyo in this regard. While the Onkyo tended to round off dynamic peaks making them a bit "friendlier," the Sonos was able to give the music a hip and shoulder when it demanded it. This is definitely a hi-fi component in that respect, and offers performance  we'd usually expect from a stereo amplifier.

Like all of Sonos products the loudness control was set to on by default, but unlike the standalone speakers the effect it produced in the Amp wasn't as profound. Even so, The loudness control did highlight the bassline in Nick Cave's Red Right Hand, but at times it made it stick out like elbows in a worn-out sweater. After testing the setting with more bass-heavy tracks I found that "loudness off" worked best.

I turned then to home theater and found the dynamics I heard in music replay to still be present. Though the app offers lip-synch adjustment when I was playing Oppo UDP-205 through a Vizio TV and back through ARC I noticed no problems with lip-syncing.

With action movies the amp offered the expected wallop. As dumb as The Rock vehicle Rampage is, Chapter 9 is an exhilarating ride. I had fun watching this scene with both the NAD D 3045 digital amp ($699) as well as the Sonos Amp. The main advantage to the Sonos was that I could add an SVS SB4000 subwoofer for extra low-end slam. Adding the Sonos Sub didn't offer the same level of authority -- and at half the price it wasn't surprising -- but it needed a lot more tweaking (adding a 100Hz crossover and boosting the sub volume) before the sound blended seamlessly with our main speakers

Should you buy it?

If you want a set-and-forget system, then the Sonos Amp may not be for you -- it needs more setup care than both a stereo amplifier or a Sonos wireless speaker. If you're willing to get involved -- and hopefully already own a Sonos system -- then a stereo or home theater system with the Amp at its center will provide the kind of performance you couldn't usually expect from something this small or (relatively) affordable or stream-y. The Sonos Amp is like catching lightning in a bottle -- it's tremendously powerful but it needs to be handled with care.

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7.9

Sonos Amp

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 7Value 7
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