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Sonos Beam: Compact $399 sound bar with Alexa, ears-on

The new, smart sound bar is the company's budget push for the lounge room, and ships on July 17. We had a listen.

Sonos Beam
James Martin/CNET

Sonos has expanded its line of multiroom audio speakers with a compact, more affordable sound bar called the Sonos Beam. It will be available on July 17 for $399 (£399 or AU$599).

Like the Sonos One, this is a smart speaker that will include support for Amazon Alexa voice control and eventually Google Assistant (more on that shortly). The sound bar uses HDMI to communicate with the TV so users can turn off the television or change the volume just with their voice. 

Sono Beam
Juan Garzon / CNET

In addition the 'bar also has support for Apple's AirPlay2 and Siri and Alexa can both work at the same time on the one device. In the example the company used, you can ask Siri to play a song (the company only showed Apple Music working at this stage) and then use Alexa to control playback -- skip, ask for song information or change volume.

Google Assistant is coming later this year to the Beam and the Sonos One, but the company was unable to say whether users will be able to use it with Alexa concurrently. The Beam will be available in two color options -- black and white. 

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The Beam has an improved, five-microphone array to better "listen" for voice commands when music or movies are blaring. Sonos touts its sound despite the compact size, including newly designed woofers and a series of passive radiators for deeper bass. There's also a night mode to reduce the impact of explosions when you don't want to disturb the neighbors.

Sono Beam
Juan Garzon / CNET

Interestingly the speaker has but a single input -- HDMI -- with no optical or 3.5mm ports to be seen. "But my TV only has optical out," you might say. Aha! Seemingly taking its cue from Apple, the company will include an optical-to-HDMI dongle in the box.  

Like the Playbar and Playbase, two more expensive TV-centric speakers that will remain in Sonos' lineup, the Beam is Dolby Digital only; it doesn't support DTS, let alone Dolby TrueHD or Atmos. The Beam name is not accidental either, as it shares its siblings' ability to "beam form" and bounce sounds off your walls. This potentially expands the sound stage to the size of your room, which even more important for a speaker that measures only 25 inches across.

sonos-beam-speakers-1890

Living room speaker Sonos Beam

James Martin/CNET

Sonos says the Beam will be able to support wireless rear speakers for surround effects -- for example, a pair of Play:1s. if you want more bass than the compact enclosure can handle, the Sonos Sub is also available.

Unlike many previous Sonos speakers, the Beam is relatively affordable. The diminutive 'bar costs $300 less than the PlayBar (which lacks microphones or Alexa support), allowing it to compete directly against other mid-priced sound bars. Unlike such competitors however, including the Vizio SB3621 and the Yamaha YAS-207, the Beam lacks a separate subwoofer. 

At this stage. the speaker's closest competition is the Polk Command Bar, which is essentially an Echo Dot ($20 at Amazon) sound bar. Polk's lack of a Google Assistant option could become a limiting factor, though.

A good first impression of sound quality

Sonos treated us to a demo of the speaker's capabilities and based on initial impressions it appears to nail the "big as a house" performance that we loved about the company's earlier sound bars. At one point the company put on Radiohead's Reckoner and the vocals were not only clear but the sound stage was huge -- the ride cymbal appeared to be coming out of the wall.

The other noticeable thing about the speaker was its crisp dialogue. During a spoilerific scene from Westworld, Bernard is talking with his [REDACTED] Dr Ford and his speech was clear and locked to the screen. Though the company played some more energetic scenes, the only thing the speaker seemed to lack was (unsurprisingly) deep bass. Though you can add the Sub, it does almost triple the cost of the system.

We look forward to reviewing the Sonos Beam in full when it gets its worldwide release next month.

Originally published on June 6 at 12:43 p.m. ET.
Update, 8:06 p.m. ET: Added ears-on impressions.

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