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Sonos Beam Gen 2 review: Atmos, Alexa and the best music streaming get even better

Excellent features and sound quality make this compact soundbar worth the money.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

With the right movie or TV show, a soundbar with Dolby Atmos onboard can help transport you out of your living room and into another world -- from the nuclear wastelands of the Outback to the battlefields of Europe. Yet not all Atmos soundbars are created equal. Some include physical, upfiring drivers and some, like the Sonos Beam Gen 2, rely on fancy processing to create Atmos effects. After listening to the new Beam I was surprised at how good that processing can sound.

The $450 Sonos Beam Gen 2 is a tweak of the company's original Sonos Beam soundbar and adds Atmos compatibility as well as a better processor. Without changing the physical design beyond a new grill, or adding any extra speakers, the Beam Gen 2 does indeed sound bigger than before. It's not worth upgrading if you have the original -- save up for the Sonos Arc instead -- but for people looking to explore Dolby Atmos who want built-in voice assistant(s) and best-in-class whole-home music streaming, the Sonos Beam Gen 2 is a great choice.

Like

  • All-in-one system offers astoundingly wide sound
  • Choice of Alexa or Google Assistant onboard
  • One of the best streaming music apps around

Don't Like

  • Expensive
  • No dedicated Dolby Atmos speakers
  • Not able to compete with systems with subs

Sonos isn't for everyone, though, as it can be costly to build a whole-home system, especially if you need to buy the $449 Port adapter for an existing stereo. The Sonos ecosystem is excellent however and no other company offers the same level of support for music streaming services. As an alternative you can buy a full 5.1.2 system with "real" Dolby Atmos for only 50 bucks more -- the excellent Vizio M512a. It does sound better, but it involves a lot more boxes with wires and no Wi-Fi or voice assistant built-in. 

What it is

Apart from a couple of key improvements, the Beam Gen 2 is very, very similar to the original Beam. It has the same size (2 foot wide), the same shape and number of speakers. These drivers consist of four elliptical midwoofers, one central tweeter and three passive bass radiators. Actual upfiring drivers, which are required for "true" immersive playback, are absent on the new Beam.

Instead, the Gen 2's main upgrades are on the inside with a more powerful processor and a new phased array (which can operate five separate audio zones versus the original's three). The two new arrays are dedicated to surround and height information and provide the simulated Dolby Atmos playback. 

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The Sonos Beam (fabric grill) sits on top of the Gen 2 (plastic grill) 

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The other notable upgrade on the Gen 2 is HDMI eARC compatibility which brings with it HDMI 2.1 and Dolby Atmos streams. If your TV doesn't have an HDMI port you can use the HDMI-to-optical adapter in the box for Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding.

The Beam is also a smart speakers and offers a choice of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. The onboard microphone array appears to be the same as before and was reasonably sensitive to my commands -- even when the movie is blaring.

Why would you choose this speaker over a host of cheaper soundbars? Because it's Sonos. Whether you have an existing Sonos system -- say a One or two -- or are looking to strike out into home streaming Sonos still offers one of the most robust music platforms available. There are dozens of supported services from Apple Music to TuneIn to Sonos' own Radio HD. The speaker also boasts Spotify Connect and Apple AirPlay 2.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Beam 2 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 much of its competition, the Sonos does not offer a music mode -- instead everything is "wide."

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Adding a Sonos subwoofer and Sonos One rear channels to the Beam brings the total to $1600.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Setup is simple and straightforward and the app walks you through each step. If you have an iOS device you can take advantage of Sonos TruePlay, which requires you to wave the phone around the room for 2 minutes to calibrate the beam-forming technology. You may look and feel silly, but based on my tests it does work. 

Like all Sonos soundbar systems the Beam is able to be supplemented by additional speakers. The most cost-effective upgrade is a pair of Ikea Symfonisk surrounds for $198 -- they add the needed ambience for surround soundtracks and are fairly unobtrusive at the same time. Adding a pair of Sonos Ones ($419) is overkill -- especially as using them as surrounds disables the microphones anyway. You could buy the microphone-free One SLs, but that would still cost $398.

You can also forget the Sub -- at almost twice the price of the Beam the $800 sub is a better match for the Arc (which paradoxically doesn't need it as much as the Beam does). The company sorely needs a $400 subwoofer -- and a $100 adapter for existing speakers while it's at it.  

For my testing, I used a Samsung QN65Q80T TV connected via HDMI eARC with an Oppo UDP-205 as well as a Roku Ultra.  

How it sounds

The question I most wanted to answer was "Does the Beam Gen 2 justify the $50 increase compared to the original Beam?" The simplest answer is "yes." 

The idea of any home cinema system, Atmos or otherwise, is to create a bubble of sound. The Beam managed to do so despite the fact that all of its speakers are housed in a from a single enclosure.

Compared to the original Beam, the Gen 2 was certainly able to generate more atmosphere with Mad Max: Fury Road for example Iit flung effects all around and seemingly from back of me, which is quite a feat without physical rears. The original Beam also offered a large bubble but the sound was focused more toward the front of the room. On the other hand neither speaker was able to generate above-the-head effects, which occur in the scene where the little girl asks "Where are you?" for example.

The Gen 2 offers a clearer sound than the original, which helps to make it more understandable during TV shows and adds an airiness when watching movies. While the sound of the Beam changes when you add a sub -- offering the appearance of an instant upgrade -- the Gen 2 sounds more like the sub-connected Beam all the time, whether the sub is on or not.

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The Beam's top panel

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

I also compared the Gen 2 to the Vizio M512a-h6, a multi-speaker Atmos system in the same price range. The Vizio offers excellent music and movie replay and its impact was obviously helped by the included sub. I started with Turnstile's Alien Love Call -- featuring Blood Orange -- and found the uncharacteristically psychedelic track was suitably swirly on the Vizio, while the just-there kick drum was quick and fast. The track held up surprisingly well on the Beam too, where the swirliness suited the speaker perfectly, and though the bass was not as deep the vocals were clearer.

Next I shifted to the audio-visual achievement that is the movie 1917 in Dolby Atmos. While it was able to offer a sense of height, as a fronts-only system the Beam couldn't compete with the Vizio in surround effects. There was no front to back movement in the flares that fly overhead at 1hr 08min, for example. However the pings of the rifle shots as our hero scarpers deeper into the ruins did have a greater sense of urgency on the Beam.

So far the Beam was keeping up but when I fed them both a meaty soundtrack -- the lobby shootout scene from the Matrix -- the Vizio shined. Ambience was better, immersion was better and I could hear the synth bass soundtrack all the way through, whereas it only peaked through occasionally on the Beam. If you want home theater oomph and don't care about the rest, get the Vizio.

Should you buy it?

If you own the Sonos Beam you sadly won't be able to get the upgrades that the Gen 2 offers via a software update and it's not worth buying again just for a little more ambience. The Beam is definitely a great upgrade for people who own a Sonos One and want to expand their systems, although the true upgrade is in the bigger, and better-sounding, Sonos Arc.

The Sonos Gen 2 benefits from the addition of Dolby Atmos while keeping all the things I love about the original. If you want a compact, attractive system with a bunch of useful features, it's my top pick at this price. That said, Vizio's M512a is still the leader for the money, with better sound and more inputs to play with.