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Sonos Beam review: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple AirPlay walk into a sound bar

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The Good The Sonos Beam is the least-expensive sound bar available with a choice of two voice assistants, Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. 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, even some that cost less. You lose connectivity options on TVs that lack ARC. You can't switch between Google and Alexa on the fly and there's some lag with Google Assistant voice commands.

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

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

It took two years, but the Sonos Beam ($399 at Amazon), and its little brother the Sonos One ($169 at Amazon), are the first speakers to offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. If you've been waiting for Google integration to buy this speaker, then go ahead, it works! 

Although it's more expensive than most sound bars, the compact Beam is a lot more affordable than the company's larger Playbar or Playbase speakers. It looks good, it sounds big and it's more flexible than any other sound bar available today.

Despite its newfound voice, the Beam still faces competition from the Polk Command Bar ($249) -- which sounds better, thanks to the wireless sub -- and the Bose Soundbar 500 ($549) which also offers both Google Assistant and Alexa. The Sonos speaker beats both for whole-home audio playback, however. It's a great choice for people who already have Sonos in the house and want more, or Sonos newbies who want a slick sound bar that works with multiple voice and music systems. 

Google versus Amazon

google-to-alexa
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Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Beam works like any other voice-controlled speaker such as the (much less loud) Amazon Echo or Google Home. You can ask it for the time, request tunes by name or operate the blinds, and a voice command can also change volume on the Beam itself. The speaker has a five-microphone array designed to pick up your voice even in a noisy home theater environment, and it worked well in my tests.

The Beam now comes with a choice of either Amazon's Alexa assistant or the Google Assistant, though sadly you can't choose between them on the fly. In other words, it won't respond to an "Alexa" command first and then a "Hey Google" command immediately afterward. 

When you download the latest Sonos update, it will ask you to choose which voice assistant you want. You will need to ensure you have the Google Home and Amazon Alexa apps, but if you don't, the process will help you install them.

To change between the two assistants you will need to run setup again. It's not an elegant Amazon/Google toggle switch.

Once setup, I found that Google Assistant doesn't work quite as well as Amazon Alexa in general use. I experienced lag of five or more seconds before Google responded to my command.  

Secondly, and this is more subjective, the Google Assistant on Beam misheard me more often than a Google Home Mini. For example, it replaced the query "Who is Danny Meyer?" (the restaurateur) with "Who is Jeremiah? (the prophet).

In answer to your next question, yes, you can have Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant speakers in the same system -- even the same room. But there are caveats.

There were was one minor issue when initiating radio on Alexa (which defaults to Amazon Music): I couldn't transfer the music to a Sonos Google speaker since it doesn't support Amazon. Sonos may talk to both services via the app, but Amazon and Google are still on uneasy terms when it comes to their voice assistants.

While the Google Assistant supports most features including Continued Conversation, it won't do the following yet: calling, voice match, purchases, interpreter mode, and setting routines in the Google Home app.

Design

The wrap-around cloth grille of the Beam -- a material commonly associated with the company's ultrabudget 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
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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 a choice of either black or white. Unfortunately, the speaker doesn't include a wall bracket in the box, but the company will sell you a Beam mount 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. For example, I preferred being able to play music to the Sonos speaker using Spotify itself, rather than using the Sonos app .

Sonos Beam
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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 does sell 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 while a full "5.1" system (Beam, Sub and two Ones) would cost $1,350.

Sonos Beam
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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Beam combines integrated voice assistance with HDMI CEC control system, which lets the Beam turn compatible TVs off 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 adapter in the box. So you can connect your TV's optical digital audio output to the Beam.
  • Semi-bad news: If you use the adapter, the Beam cannot turn the TV on and off or control switching.

The Sonos comes with a night mode to reduce the impact of explosions when you don't want to disturb the neighbors, in addition to a voice-enhancement feature. Unlike the Polk Command Bar, the Sonos does not offer a music mode -- everything is "wide."

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