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Sonos Beam review: Compact in size, not in sound

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Review An assessment or critique of a service, product, or creative endeavour such as art, literature or a performance.

(Pocket-lint) - This is Sonos Beam, a compact soundbar that's designed to bring cinematic sound to your living room without taking up boat loads of space.

Compact soundbars are nothing new, of course, but many tend to result in poor sound quality than a larger competitor. So how does the Sonos Beam fare? Here's our review.

Our quick take

Rather than go down the giant soundbar route, the Sonos Beam shows off what can be achieved in a compact package. So long as you intend to turn up the volume, it's a great speaker and soundbar option.

What we really like is the Beam's openness to app choice and voice-assistant integration. If you want to use the Spotify app to control your music you can. If you want to use Apple Music, no problem. Then there's voice control via Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri - and if none of those work for you then the Sonos app has you covered. You can mix and match no worries, too. This unfettered approach won't lock you in and ensures the Beam is future-proofed.

Overall, the Sonos Beam is easily a must-have to not only boost your TV's sound, but to make your living room smarter too. 

4.5 stars - Pocket-lint recommended
For
  • Compact size is ideal
  • Sounds great for both music and TV/movies
  • Multiple voice-assistants supported
Against
  • No Dolby Atmos support
  • Not great at lower volumes
  • Expensive when adding additional speakers
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While larger soundbars have moved towards offering Dolby Atmos (the 3D overhead surround-sound system) like the Sonos Arc, or carry an integrated subwoofer like the Samsung MS650, some companies like Sony have been looking at boosting TV sound without taking over the whole room.

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The compact soundbar targets a slightly different end of the field though. Sonos newer, more comprehensive soundbar called the Sonos Arc, takes care of those with the larger TVs, leaving the Beam's diminutive size to own a whole different sector of the market. We can't all have giant soundbars under the telly, after all.

The Beam comes in white or black with a fabric grille, with elegant looks that make it easily lost in among the décor. That makes it perfect for sitting on your TV stand, cupboard or a wall-mounted bracket.

As with other Sonos products, the controls found on the top of Beam are minimal. There are touch-sensitive play and volume buttons, nothing that physical protrudes from the body, keeping the design flush and minimal.

But it's with voice control that the Beam covers all the bases. Like the excellent Sonos One and Sonos Move, as well as the portable Sonos Roam, Beam supports Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant. Then there's also support for Apple's Siri, thanks to AirPlay 2 support.

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What this means is that don't really have to choose a team - supporting the big players in voice control means that Sonos can appeal to all potential customer bases. One minute you can be using Alexa to turn off your lights, the next you can be asking Siri to AirPlay something to the speaker. You can't have Alexa and Google Assistant set up at the same time, but the whole point is that you have the option to switch between them.

Alexa and Google Assistant are controlled via the Sonos app, but Siri isn't. Apple users could, in theory, never have to use the Sonos app after setup, blending the Beam into their existing or growing AirPlay 2 speaker collection.

It's nice being able to simply "cast" music from an Apple device without having to go into the Sonos app, but you needn't rule it out: even if you start playing from the Apple Music app via AirPlay 2, you can still take over control via the Sonos app (even on a different device as everything is automatically synched on the fly).

Sonos Beam can use Ethernet for a wired connection to your network, but there's Wi-Fi support for wireless connectivity too. An HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) connection is also available to sync the audio, picture and remote - and it's this connection that really sets the Beam soundbar apart from Sonos' older model - the Playbar. There's also an optical audio connection too though, which is your only option on Playbar.

HDMI ARC isn't supported by all smart TVs, so you'll need to check your existing model for compatibility first. It's not that the speaker becomes defunct if you don't have ARC, it's just you won't be able to benefit from some of the clever features like turning on your TV with your voice.

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When Beam is connected via HDMI (ARC) to compatible TVs, you can turn on the TV simply by asking Alexa or Google Assistant. If you take things a step further you can unlock more hands-free control with the latest Alexa-enabled video streaming devices, such as Fire TV. However, this doesn't work with services like Sky Q, but if you only use Fire TV then you can ditch the remote completely.  

Beam has a five far-field microphone array for listening for your voice commands and for setting up Sonos TruePlay (Sonos' technology that enables you to tune the speaker specifically for the room in which it sits). As a result, the Beam is good at picking up voice commands - better than the Sonos One was at launch, but still not as good at the Apple HomePod - with an audio beep that helps you know when Alexa or Google Assistant are ready for your command.

The Beam sounds best at louder volumes, where its innards can really let rip. Although there are Night Time and Vocal modes to help you hear without disturbing the kids trying to sleep in the next room, we don't think such low-volume listening is likely to be a worthy upgrade over your current TV speakers. So crank it up. 

On the music front, we listen to a number of tracks, ranging from classical to rock, pop and everything in-between. Our three go-to tracks for this review were Reckoner by Radiohead, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, and Lovesong by Adele.

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Reckoner by Radiohead shows off Beam's excellent soundstage, which is wide enough to fill a room. The speaker copes with the Thom Yorke's high voice tones, while the soundstage means that it doesn't suffer from a narrow sweet spot as found on some soundbars at this price point.

Likewise, the Beam coped well with Wish You Were Here and Lovesong. The compact soundbar's bass proves strong, altough not as punchy as the Apple HomePod, but it's well balanced and will certainly be enough for most living rooms or bedrooms.

Music is only one part of the story, of course, as the Beam is clearly designed for watching movies or TV too. We've watched a number of different movies, TV shows, and football matches during our time with the Beam.

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Standout tests for us during our review in 2019, included watching the space dance scene from Wall-e that really showcased the spatial capabilities of the speaker. It really gives a sense of Wall-e and Eva zipping from one side of the room to the other in audio form. Oh, and the classic T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park showed off the bass blasting capabilities - always an essential with any soundbar.

The Beam does a fantastic job on its own. However, those looking for more can expand the system quickly and easily by simply adding more Sonos speakers to create a 5.1 surround sound experience.

You can add two rear channels (Sonos One, Sonos Play:1, Sonos One SL) and a Sonos Sub to really make a difference to the sound. We did just that and were blown away by the sound - but then at an extra cost of over £1000 it's hardly a cheap enhanced setup.

The only obvious lacking from Beam's setup is the absence of Dolby Atmos surround support. This 3D surround sound system is making waves in cinemas and on home setups and it's something we're pleased to have seen Sonos invest in with the Arc, even if the Beam doesn't get those benefits.

This review was originally published in June 2018.

To recap

The Sonos Beam soundbar is compact but delivers expansive performance. From our experience, this small soundbar is a winner. Just a shame there's no Dolby Atmos support, like the larger, but more expensive Sonos Arc.

Writing by Stuart Miles.