The Sonos Beam is a remarkable compact soundbar, which we already have standalone tested. But you can also extend it with a Sub and rear speakers to build a surround setup. And then there’s another question: how does it perform compared to the Sonos Playbar?
Introduction Sonos Beam
We have extensively tested the Sonos Beam in a review shortly after the release of the compact soundbar . The conclusion of the single Beam test was then: “The Beam is an adult speaker, which can easily provide a small to medium sized room with a lively, detailed and warm sound.” But Sonos also means flexibility, because you can a few minutes to extend the Beam with a Sub (699 euros) and a pair of PLAY speakers (from 400 euros for a few) to build a 5.1 set-up that can also fill larger rooms. In this review, we want to see how the Sonos newcomer performs if you indeed set it up in this way. Many buyers will also wonder how the small Beam is doing compared to the more expensive but now older Playbar soundbar. It is more robust and costs more, but thanks to nine built-in speakers, it also promises a larger sound field.
Now with HDMI and Google Assistant
In our first review we explain in full what is new and better at the Beam. Read it for sure. Two innovations that immediately stand out are the presence of an HDMI-ARC connection and compatibility with Alexa. Just like with the Sonos ONE, thanks to the latter you can select and control music through spoken commands, at least in theory. Alexa is currently not available in Dutch and the service can only get halvelings through detours. We hope that Sonos will soon support Google Assistant, although in the short term this will only be handy in the Netherlands. In Belgium, the Dutch-language Google Assistant is not yet available soon.
We find the choice for HDMI much more important. At the Playbar and the Playbase, Sonos held on to an optical cable as the only possible connection to your television, which meant that you had to take all kinds of steps to have the volume control run through your TV remote control. The installation of the Beam is much easier. Connect it via HDMI to the ARC port of your TV set, and you can immediately adjust the volume via the familiar box. However, the Beam has no additional HDMI inputs, as you can find on an AV receiver, which is a missed opportunity.
An advantage of HDMI is that it is better suited to bring real surround information to a soundbar, which with an extensive Beam 5.1 configuration is relevant. But the Beam is not better than the Playbar in reproducing surround signals. You can count on Dolby Digital processing, but not from DTS codecs or higher quality uncompressed Dolby formats. Sonos states that by stating that the Beam is intended for people who mainly watch via streaming services – and they mainly offer Dolby Digital 5.1. A statement that is largely true, even if you can stream Netflix with Dolby Atmos (the compressed Dolby Digital version of) on certain LG TVs or via Xbox One consoles. We find it a drawback, but at the same time admit that this is a rather theoretical discussion. With a compact soundbar you will never experience Atmos, no matter what signal is delivered.
Trueplay is highly recommended
For our test we did not go to our workspace, but to the living room. There we connected the Sonos Beam with an LG OLED55B7 above which a Sonos Playbar was mounted. The Beam was placed under the screen on a TV cabinet, as you can see the accompanying images. The viewing distance is about three meters, because the space is relatively large. For the rears we use a set of Play:1 speakers. Finally, we connect the Beam to a Sonos Sub. Exactly the same speakers and subwoofer we normally use with the Playbar.
Linking the Sub and the Play: 1’s is relatively quick via the Sonos app. You have to endure a few loud and unexpectedly high test tones when tweaking the phase of the sub, but that is over. Linking is in any case much faster than disconnecting again, which you seldom do as a user, but we did a few times in the context of this test. Disconnecting a Play:1 from a surround setup like this will take a few minutes. Not bad, unless you like to use those rear speakers at other times as separate speakers in another room.
We quickly noticed that the Beam performs much better both alone and in a surround setup after the Trueplay measurement. So it is really a must to do, even if you think that waving around with an iPhone or iPad is a crazy business. We do understand why Trueplay can not technically use an Android device, but still regret it. Sonos once claimed that they might still bring support for Trueplay measurements to certain good selling Android smartphones. That does not seem to happen.
The Beam, despite its small size, has a pretty good layer extension. There is quite a bit of bass, making films and TV series sound pretty good. The Sonos can undoubtedly measure itself with other compact soundbars. But the addition of the Sub provides a noticeable improvement, especially in films that focus on spectacle. We even put the Sonos Sub under the sofa as an experiment, which yielded a powerful result. The Sonos Sub is pretty powerful and can easily deliver bass and vibrate your seat. By default, the Sonos software will adjust the Sub quite loudly and thus present even after the Trueplay measurement. Via the app the subwoofer which is quieter tuning is almost always necessary. You may also need to adjust the rear channels for better results, especially if the two rear speakers are not at the same distance. We do miss some fine-tuned settings for fine-tuning in this area. A classic surround setup with AV receiver has the advantage here that a calibration system does all this for you, but then you’re connected with cables through the room.
In terms of surround sound you get with a Beam, Sub and 2x PLAY speakers no exact representation of surround effects like a surround setup with discrete speakers. However, you can get something that comes close, and that is going to be enough for many people – especially when they come from modest TV speakers.
Compared to the Playbar
We also compare Beam with the Playbar. A first observation is that the Playbar is starting to show its age. The Beam – which is more compact and cheaper – is not really inferior. Of course, with the new Sonos you also have the new features, being HDMI and voice support. The Playbar can only be connected to a television via an optical cable.
When switching back and forth between the Beam and the Playbar, without Sub and Rears, streamed at ‘The Avengers’ via Netflix we look a bit surprised. It turns out that the Playbar is actually not much better than the Beam. Even more, the small Sonos makes more of an impression in terms of low-level reproduction. The Playbar sends audio more widely into the room, which makes music sound better and more open. But for films, the Beam is without a doubt the more spectacular choice. A note is that the compact Sonos soundbar obviously uses all sorts of tricks to produce a powerful layer, which sometimes counteracts intelligibility in action scenes where dialogues also occur. This is especially true when you turn up the volume higher.
Switching between the Beam and Playbar, each time with Sub and Rears, is not as smooth as with the A/B testing of the two Sonos soundbars without extras. You can not transfer the subwoofer and the two Play speakers from the Beam to the Playbar on 1-2-3 and vice versa. Nevertheless, after some difficult turnouts we can draw conclusions.
Both at the Beam and the Playbar, the Sub is a valuable addition. The Sub supports the Playbar better, which together with the broader appearance of the more expensive Sonos soundbar ensures a room-filling result. Or put differently: the Beam with Sub is superior to the lonely Playbar, but the Playbar with Sub is still slightly better than the Beam with Sub. But to be honest, it is high time for Sonos to renew the Playbar. In recent years, major steps have been taken to make sound bars better, including the Californian sound lab from Samsung, which puts our expectations for a soundbar with a subwoofer at this price point higher. We also expect Sonos to have this planned.
And what about the addition of two Play 1 speakers at the back? Their influence is completely the same at the Beam and Playbar. The rean channels provide more immersion and room filling, but we often do not find it a real surround experience. When listening to music we also have a double feeling about it. You can set the rean channels in the Sonos app to deliver ‘atmosphere’ (ie a part of the audio format) or simply reproduce the music completely, and we often chose the latter. The atmosphere setting removes a song mixed in stereo in an artificial way.
This second test of the Beam is focused on surround and the comparison with the Playbar confirms that the latest Sonos soundbar is quite good performs. We would advise you to think carefully before choosing the Playbar, because the Beam is stronger on some surfaces. If you use the money you save because you do not go for a Playbar to (partly) finance a Sub, you end up with a setup that sounds better than a standalone Playbar. Especially for film. However, the total price of a Beam, Sub and two Sonos ONE speakers is quite high: around 1,600 euros. At that price point there are still a number of premium soundbars that sound better in our estimation, such as the LG SK10Y, the Yamaha YSP-5600 or perhaps the new Samsung HW-N950 (based on the performance of the HW-K950). You will miss the integration with the larger Sonos system.