Sunday, August 12, 2018

The New Sonos Beam Television Soundbar

Photo by Salt Water New England
Sonos has often been called the Apple of sound devices.  The company's products are high quality, well built, expensive, and adaptive.  Sonos products work better together, so while one of their products is great, two or three (or ten) are better.

It is easy to imagine that their new soundbar, the Beam, will be the first Sonos product for quite a few households, which have not been overly obsessed with sound (and whose old graphite Bose Wave Radios - their last splurge - still work just fine for NPR, thank you very much).

The Sonos Beam is a soundbar to park under the modern television.  It does immediately invoke such terms as "home theater" and "expansive" in a small or medium size room.  Watching The Crown, one picks up dialogue previously missed, and feels the pipe organ as well as hears it.  (Season One, of course.  Season Two did not seem to, er, warrant rewatching.)
Some nitty gritty:

Expensive compared to $100 soundbars, one of the most appealing parts of the Sonos Beam is how much it does.  While not completely future-proof, the longer you own it, the likely the more it will do.

Initially, after downloading the Sonos App and following the directions, the soundbar sounds wonderful.  (The initial set up required about fifteen minutes, with a configuration that used the optical sound port. While easy, at one point, the speaker had to access a router through an Ethernet cable, which seemed a bit odd given wireless connections.)

The iOS version of the app has a tool for optionally calibrating the speakers to the acoustics of the room, which is worth the few minutes that it takes.  The integration also allows an iOS device to play any sound (podcast, video) on the Sonos speakers for higher immersion.

To use voice control, one can also use the integrated Alexa feature.  This does basic things very well ("Set volume to 4"), but also rewards exploration.  If this is a first Alexa device, and one likes learning about such things, that alone is worth a quarter or more of the price.  One can say, "Alexa, play NPR" and it will shift to a live feed of your nearest NPR station.  Or, one can specify most radio stations by call number, such as "Alexa, play WCBS."  The Bean has a hard-wired "microphone off" option if one prefers no sound control.

If one's current or next television has an HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC), Alexa can be told to turn on the television, change channels, and apparently access many streaming services by show title through the Amazon Fire stick.

To this uncluttered set up, one can still add more speakers over time, including wireless back speakers for surround sound (which do plug into the wall), or a dedicated subwoofer.  These may be necessary immediately for a large room.  Or one can add more Sonos speakers in different parts of the house, and have them work together in various futuristic ways.  The speakers have their own WiFi hubs, so they form a mesh network that can increase their coverage.  Depending on placement, one can have a speaker somewhere that had not previously had WiFi coverage.

Sonos also updates the software in all of their products fairly regularly, so the products should subtly improve over time.  (This is not without some risk, as one may remember the flawed Google Nest "update" that drained many of their thermostats' batteries.)

Even nearer the end of life, say a decade or more out, one can imagine this speaker shifting gracefully from its primary role to one more auxiliary, in the kitchen or as a computer speaker.

Both Sonos speakers and the Alexa voice service have been notable popular successes of the past few years.  Unquestionably, the price of Sonos, especially if one wants an immediate true 5.1 system, is high.  But for the Beam itself, one almost asks, considering the functionality and the ecosystem to which it provides access, why isn't the price higher? 

4 comments:

  1. I connect the outputs of my television and blu-ray player to my hifi. The amplifier and speakers were made in England. The sound is many times better than anything that can be obtained from a soundbar or soundbase, especially .

    The motto of Yorkshire's Sudgen Audio (now 50 years old) is "rescuing music from technology". I could not put it better myself. Even with equipment that's over 20 years old, LPs and CDs sound much better than digital downloads that are often (e.g. from Apple's music store) compressed files.

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    1. Ken, You can get much better quality from apple and itunes. Select "lossless." This is uncompressed and does not have that 'digital sound.'

      The Brits have always seemed to be advanced when it comes to sound, especially speakers. Vintage Rogers studio reference monitors come readily to mind, as does KEF, and as do today's Bowers & Wilkins superb loudspeakers. I think the latter are the best I've ever heard.

      Aiken

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    2. I know as I ripped my CDs to my hard drive in the Apple lossless format. However, the Store Apple tends to sell compressed formats as standard. I always buy physical CDs and LPs as Apple's licensing T&Cs are ridiculous.

      Most Bowers & Wilkins speakers (like Kef and Monitor Audio) are now made in China. If you like vintage Rogers monitors, the best British speaker brands are Harbeth, Graham Audio, ProAc, Spendor, and Stirling Broadcast. If you love natural sound, especially voices and acoustic instruments, you can't beat them.

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  2. It's amazing the things one learns on this blog!

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