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

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the Amp is set up and controlled via the Sonos app, but the company has broadened compatibility beyond just the outdated "one app fits all" idea.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 ( $179 at Amazon), 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.


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 ( $288 at Walmart) 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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