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

Now with the option to choose either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, the Sonos Beam is the most versatile compact sound bar you can buy.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

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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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It took two years, but the Sonos Beam, and its little brother the Sonos One, 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! 

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.

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. 

Sonos Beam sound bar: Alexa lives in a compact TV speaker

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Google versus Amazon

google-to-alexa
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
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 welcomemove. For example, I preferred being able to play music to the Sonos speaker using 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 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
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."

All this and Apple AirPlay 2

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 previously 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 functionality is great, but the big question is ultimately: Would really you use a separate device to control the speaker when Alexa works so well?  

Likewise, the company wasn't able to comment on whether Google will one day work concurrently with Alexa. It's unlikely, unless perhaps, Sonos builds its own voice system to hand off to either Google or Amazon on the fly.

Sonos Beam
Sarah Tew/CNET

Simple setup

When Sonos first integrated voice into its products, setting the whole thing up was far from the slick experience you'd expect. But the company has worked on its setup routine, and we had little hassle with the Sonos Beam -- even on a fresh iPhone 7. 

Sonos Beam

Setup is a simple process on the Sonos app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Setup walks you through each step, and it's just a matter of clicking next. Using Sonos TruePlay, which required me to wave the phone around the room for 2 minutes to calibrate the beam-forming technology, indeed felt silly, but based on our tests it does work. The newest version tests from your seat first and this did lead to better results than older versions -- most notably wider sound fields.

You'll want to take extra-special note of the step that asks you to disable TV sound in your TV's menu system. Trust me on this: I missed this step at first and the sound came out of both the TV and the sound bar, sounding phase-y and dynamically stunted. Once I realized the error, I switched the TV speaker settings to "receiver" and that eradicated the problem.

For testing, we used a Samsung UNHU8550 connected via HDMI to an Oppo UDP-205 set to PCM, in order to eliminate potential issues decoding DTS.

What does it sound like?

As long as you don't demand deep bass, the Beam is an impressive performer. 

We started our testing by using the creepy, atmospheric horror Crimson Peak, and found that the Beam indeed went bump in the night. Dialogue leapt out of the center channel, even in the default mode, and the sound stage splashed across the front half of the CNET listening room. Each little drip and sharp intake was chillingly rendered by the system. 

But how did it compare against the competition? In chapter 12, as the apparition advanced towards Mia Wasikowska's Edith in the corridor, it said something faint and tough to hear that was incomprehensible on the Beam. Only when we played the scene back through the Polk Command Bar could we make out the ghostly woman saying "leave now." The Command Bar also offered better low-down effects, as you'd expect from a dedicated subwoofer.

So, against its competitor the Polk has an overall edge in movies, but what about music? The Sonos Beam wasn't ashamed of a little rock 'n' roll. It sounded more assured than the Polk when taking on Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Higher Ground, especially when it came to reproducing Flea's bass line. The Sonos offered better bass articulation -- surprising given the Polk has that separate sub. The song sounded best on the Sonos Playbase, with an assured performance and excellent dynamics, but that's a larger, more expensive speaker.

Things flipped around between the Beam and the Command Bar with a less-hectic track like Father John Misty's God's Favourite Customer. The Polk had better stereo separation and better articulation of the instruments. The Sonos Beam was more laid-back, which suited the lounge-y feel of the song, and while it sounded wide, it wasn't as easy to pick out the individual elements.

Next I compared the higher-end Sonos Playbar, which offered more thrills with chapter 3 of Mad Max: Fury Road. Dynamics were better and explosions boomed rather than popped. Again there was very little deep bass coming from the Beam in comparison, even though the PlayBar also lacks a sub.

Sonos Beam

You can spend up -- way up -- to add a Sonos Sub for better bass and a pair of Sonos Ones for true rear surround effects.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We tried the scene again with the Sub and a pair of Sonos Ones (a $1,350 system, mind you) and the level of immersion on the Beam jumped about 20 notches. The soundtrack stretched out, becoming more dynamic as the sub took control of the bass effects and immersion deepened as effects were finally head in the rear instead of from the walls in front. The surrounds were too loud, but I was able to fix the issue in settings.

Throughout my testing I was impressed by the Beam's ability to hear the "Alexa" wake word from across the room with the music blasting. Compared to the Sonos One, whose microphones don't seem as sensitive (to me or others) as an Echo speaker or the Apple HomePod, the Beam heard me better, especially with movies. I could talk in a normal voice while various films played loudly and it worked almost every time. Things weren't always as successful with music, as you'll see in the video above, but still pretty good overall. Of course you can always resort to shouting at the TV, just like we did in the good old days!

Sono Beam

The Beam in white with the optional wall mount.

Juan Garzon/CNET

Should you buy it?

For the small subsection of people who can't wait to get a Google Assistant sound bar, the Beam is here, and it's the "cheapest". The idea of choosing between Alexa and Google Assistant on the one device is cool, but both the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini are inexpensive alternatives.

If you can stretch your budget, then both the Playbar and Playbase have better sound quality -- and the latter doesn't even need a subwoofer. We've yet to test the Bose Soundbar 500 and its dual-voice-assistant ability is also attractive, but it costs $150 more than the Beam.

Meanwhile, the cheaper, Alexa-powered Polk Command Bar is an excellent product and the Beam's stiffest competition. It has great sound quality which is helped along by the dedicated subwoofer. 

In the Sonos' favor, it has better features than the polk including superior multiroom options, wireless connectivity (Apple AirPlay 2), voice control (Google Assistant) and expandability (optional rears and sub). If that package appeals to you, the Beam is a great option.

Originally published on June 27, 2018.
Update, May 20, 2019: Added the results of Google Assistant testing, changed the rating from 7.9 to 8.0.

Sonos Beam
8.0

Sonos Beam

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 6Value 7