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Sonos Beam soundbar: A voice-controlled fix for your TV's cruddy speakers

·Tech Critic
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Sonos — which filed for a U.S. initial public offering on Friday — has been building a devoted following for its compact, great-sounding wireless speakers, perfectly suited for the age of music streaming, since 2005. (The company says that, in fact, 93% of all Sonos speakers ever sold are still in use.)

But then came the Amazon (AMZN) Echo. Voice, it turned out, was the killer app for speakers. It took Sonos some time to realize what was happening — and to start building voice assistants into its speakers. The first one, the Sonos One, came out in November — and the second begins shipping on July 17.

(Just in time, by the way, for the company’s initial public stock offering, which is expected in the next few weeks.)

It’s called the Sonos Beam. It’s a $400 soundbar for your TV — with Alexa built in.

The Sonos Beam is only 25 inches long.
The Sonos Beam is only 25 inches long.

Meet the Beam

Soundbars have always been great companions for flat TVs, because the built-in speakers in those TVs are terrible; there’s just no room for them. As TVs get even flatter, and their bezels get even thinner, the need for a good, inexpensive soundbar is greater than ever.

Sonos imagines the Beam for “small- to medium-size” rooms like apartments, kitchens, and bedrooms — and for those, it’s perfect. The thing is 25.6 inches wide, available in black or white. The top surface is gently concave; there’s nothing up there but volume up/down buttons, a play/pause button, and a Microphone Off button, which makes Alexa stop listening for commands. (If you want to wall-mount the Beam, you can buy a $60 matching bracket.)

The slightly concave top surface has a few touch-sensitive buttons.
The slightly concave top surface has a few touch-sensitive buttons.

You connect the Beam to your TV with a single cable: a standard HDMI cable, plugged into your TV’s “HDMI ARC” jack.

Most TVs made in the last five years or so have this Audio Return Channel jack, which channels the TV’s audio signal to external gear (like soundbars). And most of those TVs understand CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), a protocol for sending commands among your components. In the Beam’s case, ARC and CEC mean that you can turn on the TV just by saying things like,

  • “Alexa, turn on the TV”

  • “Alexa, set the TV volume to 80%”

  • “Alexa, turn it up”

  • “Alexa, mute.”

You feel like a god.

On the back: power, “discover me” button for setup, Ethernet, and HDMI.
On the back: power, “discover me” button for setup, Ethernet, and HDMI.

If your TV doesn’t have an ARC jack, you can connect the Beam instead with the included optical audio cable adapter — but then you can’t command the TV by voice. (All other Alexa commands still work.)

Alexa + Sonos

After a bit of setup in the Sonos app, the Beam is ready to do what Sonos is so good at: Streaming music from just about every music service on earth: Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music, Amazon Music, Tidal, Pandora, TuneIn, Sirius XM, Audible, and 50 more.

But the Beam is also a full-blown Amazon Echo, ready to do everything Alexa can do for you, like giving you the time in Berlin, setting a 20-minute timer, reading last night’s sports results, speaking an NPR news update, summoning an Uber ride, ordering a Domino’s pizza, setting your Nest thermostat, or telling you a joke. (“Why does Where’s Waldo wear a striped shirt? Because he doesn’t want to be spotted.”)

And, of course, you can ask it to play any music in the world (if you have a subscription).

If you’re a multi-Sonos family, you can summon music in other parts of the house. “Alexa, play Springsteen in the kitchen,” you can say, or “Play Duke Ellington in the living room.” Boom.

When setting up the Beam, you have to link it to your Amazon account to make all this work. I’m happy to report that this process, which once involved hopping between the Sonos and Alexa apps on your phone roughly 437 times, has been radically simplified; it now takes about two taps.

The sound

The Beam sounds great. It has that characteristic Sonos sound: a crisp, solid presence, with clarity and volume that’s surprising for the speaker’s size.

Inside, the Beam has four full-range woofers, one tweeter, and three passive radiators; they create left, center, and right channels of sound. Two of the woofers, angled out at 60 degrees, manage a surprising amount of stereo separation; I was startled to hear a piece of space debris fly across the bedroom in “Gravity.”

This exploded view shows the positions of the woofers (red dots) and the tweeter (blue dot).
This exploded view shows the positions of the woofers (red dots) and the tweeter (blue dot).

Given the Beam’s compact size, though, you can probably guess its weakest link: the bass. It’s there and it’s musical, but it’s not the least bit thuddy or percussive. It won’t exactly be shaking loose any plaster dust. Like most soundbars, this thing screams out for an accompanying subwoofer.

Actually, that’s where things get cool with the Beam. As you grow older and richer, you can add components. (The company notes that 38% of Sonos owners eventually buy another Sonos.)

You can buy a Sonos Sub ($700), for example. Or buy a couple of Sonos Play:1s ($300 for two), for example, to serve as the rear surround speakers. Then, after you set them up in the Sonos app, the Beam automatically changes its own audio performance. For example, it hands off the bass to the subwoofer, and dedicates more of its power to the midrange and treble.

I tested this effect by adding a pair of Sonos Play:1 units as rear speakers, and sure enough: The resulting power and richness were greater than what I’d have expected from the combination of these three. At that point, the space debris felt like it was going right through my head.

When you’re playing TV sound, the Beam app also offers on/off buttons for two interesting sound-processing effects:

  • Night Sound boosts soft audio and suppresses loud audio, for a diminished dynamic range. The idea is to keep explosions from waking up the household, while still allowing you to hear whispers. I couldn’t hear much difference, though.

  • Speech Enhancement does a really good job at equalizing the audio track to make dialogue clear, especially against background music.

So, the Beam doesn’t sound as good as Sonos’s earlier soundbars, the far more powerful Playbar ($700) or Playbase ($700), and of course not as good as a real surround-sound system. It does, however, sound much better than the built-in speakers of your TV.

Future plans

Affording additional Sonos speakers isn’t the only thing you have to look forward to. Later this year, Sonos intends to add Google Assistant (GOOG, GOOGL) to the Beam (and to the earlier Sonos One), making it an incredibly unusual beast: a single device that responds to commands from both voice-assistant companies, arch rivals Google and Amazon.

Sonos also says that in July, it will add AirPlay 2 to these speakers — the first time Apple’s (AAPL) wireless audio technology has come to Sonos. It means you’ll be able to send audio wirelessly to your Sonos system from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. And if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you’ll be able to ask Siri (on your iPhone/iPad/Mac) to start playing a track, album, or playlist — and it will play on your Sonos system. (And then, at that point, you’ll be able to ask Alexa “What song is this?”— a truly crazy multi-rival mashup on a single product.)

You’ll never get any of this corporate neutrality from Apple, Amazon, or Google. That independent stance is a unique advantage of Sonos, according to Sonos; you’ll never be locked in.

The Sonos Beam is the speaker your TV wishes it had.
The Sonos Beam is the speaker your TV wishes it had.

Companies are building Alexa into just about everything with a power cord these days: toilets, showers, cat feeders, vacuum cleaners, surveillance cameras, ovens, refrigerators, and so on.

But if you’ve got to combine Alexa with anything, a wireless speaker makes incredible sense — and few places demand more a little audio help than the modern TV. The Sonos Beam won’t exactly cave in your ribcage with roaring mad power. But it will convince you that, for $400, you’ve bought a well-conceived, easily set up, voice-controlled, impressive-(for-the-money)-sounding audio hub for your small- to medium-size room.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on June 27 and was updated after the company filed for an IPO.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.

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