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Review: Sonos Amp (2019) as a TV solution

Sonos Amp 2019
Review: The Sonos Amp is a an interesting device with real surround with minimal effort and hassle. You can compare it to expensive AV receivers.
4.5/5 - (233 votes)

The Sonos Amp is a stereo amplifier that you can combine with your own speakers, but can also do much more than that. It even turns out to be a surprisingly useful alternative to an AV receiver. We have to investigate that scenario!

What is the Sonos Amp?

The new Sonos Amp is a notable appearance in the audio world. To begin with, it comes from Sonos – a brand that is one of the few people who can convince average consumers to invest in audio. What Sonos does can therefore immediately count on more attention. We bet you will find many more reviews of the Amp online than, say, a new Denon receiver? That quickly evokes a reaction from people who are more involved with surround and audio: using a Sonos box for better TV sound, that will not mean much, right?

But that is unjustified. Whoever thought the Sonos Amp is just an update for the age-old Connect: Amp is mistaken. Sonos has obviously been very thoughtful in order to ultimately create a special device that comes out surprisingly versatile.

A compact amplifier and more

If you reduce it to the essence, the Sonos Amp is a sleek one , compact stereo amplifier on which you can hang your own speakers. That may be separate speakers, but it is also designed to control built-in speakers. It is therefore intended for both consumers and installers.

The Amp naturally has all the streaming and multi-room options that you expect from a Sonos. That is a strength of the brand: whatever Sonos device you buy, it can always do everything the platform has to offer. A serious plus, because Sonos, as a pioneer of multiroom, has the widest support for streaming services and one of the best apps. So you can use the Amp with Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal and many other services, play your own files (but no hi-res) and link the Amp ad hoc with other Sonos speakers elsewhere in the house. It all may sound complicated, but in use the Sonos app makes it all very simple.

In a certain sense, however, the Amp is the opposite of all other Sonos products. Where the rest bets on one usage scenario, the new amplifier has just been designed very flexibly. You can do a lot with it: listen to music in stereo, build in a larger custom install story or use it as a solution for better TV sound. But why do we actually write “or” in the last sentence? The Sonos Amp can simply record all those roles at the same time. Add a portion of smarthome technology, and you understand why we use the word ‘special’ at the beginning of this article.

Long live HDMI

If we used to bump into someone from Sonos and drop the word ‘HDMI’, they spontaneously started misting . For its Playbar and Playbase, the brand radically clinged to an optical cable for connection to a television, and defended that choice with great conviction. Fortunately that changed with the excellent Sonos Beam – and the Sonos Amp also has an HDMI with ARC compatibility. That means that you can simply hang the device on your TV with an HDMI cable, and you can almost certainly get started right away. Even the remote of your television you continue to use. Do you still want to work with an optical cable? That is still possible, although the Sonos Amp does not have a separate optical input. You must use a Sonos adapter that fits on the HDMI input. Furthermore, the amplifier has an analog input and an output for a wired subwoofer. The Sonos Amp has very neat, recessed connections for the banana plugs of two speakers. If you still want to work with stripped cables, then place an accessory on the terminals that you put in the box.

At the back of the Amp you will find a few more connections: an analogue cinch input (handy for a turntable or CD player) and a sub-output (for wired subwoofer from another brand). You can connect the Amp to the network via WiFi or via Ethernet. Conveniently, you can use the Ethernet ports (there are two) to connect other devices to the network.

5.1, more or less

Let’s not bother: the Sonos Amp is not really a fully-fledged one AV receiver . Has no additional HDMI inputs for video sources such as Ultra HD Blu-ray players or consoles. That is an important difference, but for some people it may not be a dealbreaker. There are a lot of people who only watch services like Netflix via an app on their TV and do not care about physical media. You can of course hang a console on the TV and send the audio over the ARC connection to the Sonos Amp. That works, but there is a good chance that the multi-channel sound from an external source that you supply to the TV via an HDMI input will still be sent out in the PCM stereo format via ARC. It depends on your television; frankly this is a vague matter that makes TV manufacturers needlessly complex and obscure.

Our Samsung UE60KS7000, for example, converts the bitstream input of an NVIDIA Shield that Dolby Digital plays via Netflix to stereo and then via the HDMI ARC cable to send outside. We can’t even check the “Dolby Digital” option at the Audio Format setting – although the Shield is sending this to the TV. By the way, we can choose Dolby Digital if we watch Netflix via the built-in app on the Samsung TV. Be sure, because otherwise the Amp will get a stereo signal. That upgrades the Sonos amplifier to 5.1, but that is noticeably less good than if the Amp of the TV receives Dolby Digital. Hopefully you are still with us now; the message is that even with a simple device like the Sonos Amp you have to look carefully if the sound settings of your television are correct. But that is not due to Sonos, but to the chaotic implementation of audio over HDMI-ARC. We hope that eARC will make this all clearer – but that is future music.

 Sonos Amp 2019 The Sonos Amp can therefore process Dolby Digital 5.1, which works out well. That is exactly what you can expect from TV apps from services such as Netflix and Amazon Video. With two speakers connected you of course only experience stereo (actually pseudo 3.0, see further), for surround you need additional devices. You have several options. 5.1 requires a subwoofer (a third-party wired or wireless Sonos Sub) and two Sonos rear speakers in the room. You can also have the rear channels handled by a second Sonos Amp with its own pair of passive speakers. That seems to us rather something for a built-in scenario.

“But wait,” we hear you shout, “with two rears and two speakers in front plus a subwoofer you only get 4.1, not 5.1?”. That’s right, there is no connection for a center speaker, nor can you use a Sonos speaker for that. That would have been a nice idea – imagine you could use a Beam as a compact center speaker! – but Sonos opted for a different solution. When the Sonos Amp plays multi-channel audio, it creates a phantom center channel with the left and right channels. Surprisingly, that works pretty well. With the intriguing “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix, the spoken interviews do indeed come out of the screen. You want that too, because nothing is as distracting as dialogues that seem to come from other than the actors’ lips.

We have ensured that the two Bowers & Wilkins 606 speakers are at an equal distance from the screen and one of ours. That is crucial for realizing that ghost center speaker. To get it right, the tweeters of the speakers must also be at the same height as the center of the screen; that was not entirely the case with us, because our test TV hangs a little higher. With the two Dali Rubicon LCRs that are stuck next to the screen, the center display is completely right. The placement of your speakers is therefore something to pay attention to if you think the surrounder experience is important.

Quick setup

Compared to a modal surround receiver, the Sonos Amp is very easy to set up. There are fewer cables to connect and you have no room measurement. Sonos does have a room correction function (TruePlay) on its speakers, but the Amp does not offer this. TruePlay is therefore a customized solution for the wireless speakers that Sonos designed itself; as it currently exists, the function is not suitable for measuring speakers from other brands as well.

When you configure the Amp, you are asked if you want to use it with a television. Everything is set via a step-by-step plan. If you go for surround, then the step-by-step plan continues. But there are not many steps, with just moments here and there that you really have to do something. For example, when setting up the Sonos Sub, you will be asked if one of two test signals sounds louder (this is how the phase is determined) and you must specify the size of your wired speakers. With small bookshelf speakers, the subwoofer has to do more work than with a large floorstander who already spreads solid basses.

In the step-by-step plan, frequencies are not mentioned, but experts can crossover the point manually (set the frequency point where the subwoofer stops working and the wired speakers begin) and set the sub volume. Playing with these two things is quite interesting if you want to fine tune the surrounder experience – but you don’t have to. The Sonos step-by-step plan already delivers solid results. The rear speakers are even easier to adjust. You need two of course, after which you indicate which speakers play the role of the left and the right behind. Just enter at what distance the two rear speakers are, and you’re done. Here too you can intervene at a more expert level through the room settings. We find it very positive, for example, that you can set the rears not to play when listening to stereo.

Brokkenmakers

You might not expect it, but ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive is a Netflix series with a great soundtrack. Without music, of course, but full of spectacular detail. Cars that tear through bends, debris flying around, exuberant screams from the commentators, it keeps even cool car lovers watching. It is really exciting when you hear the Dolby Atmos version via an Xbox, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 version that our Samsung UE60KS7000 delivers to the Sonos Amp can also be there. The first thing we find strong: the integration of all speakers is pretty good. In the second episode of the F1 series, devoted to a disastrous race in Baku, Azerbaijan, where countless cars crashed, you hear rims and debris flying around the room. Perhaps it is not entirely realistic, but it is powerful. And that without room measurement and with a combination of passive speakers in the front and two Play: 1s at the back. You would think that this would be very unbalanced, with speakers in the front that sound louder than at the back, for example. But the Sonos app managed to coordinate everything with little effort.

 Sonos Amp 2019

In terms of atmosphere, the ‘Roma’ soundtrack is about the most radically reversed of the Drive to Survive F1 chunks that you can to imagine. It is subtle and filled with micro-detail, such as household sounds, birdsong, calling street windows and playing radios. Combine that with sometimes very long shots panning and moving through spaces (causing sound sources to move subtly in the space), and you end up with a soundtrack that perfectly illustrates that George Lucas was right when he stated that sound is fifty percent of the film experience. Thanks to that attention to audio design, the Alfonso Cuarón film is highly recommended for testing your surround setup. And that while no space ship or robot is involved – and the film is actually about very little. What the Sonos Amp can’t do is reproduce all the subtleties of this soundtrack mixed in Dolby Atmos . Of course you miss the vertical dimension, because there are no height speakers. Via the Netflix app on the Samsung, we also only receive DD 5.1 (the Atmos version is only available via the Xbox or LG TVs). We also miss the enormous depth here and some micro details almost disappear, but the Sonos Amp still delivers a lot of the atmosphere of Mexico City in the seventies. Enough to immerse ourselves in the film. And that is exactly the intention of surround.

Versus Playbar – and the rest

For Sonos fans we like to make it crystal clear: the Sonos Amp with its own speakers, Sonos Sub plus two Play speakers delivers better surrounder experience than a Sonos Beam or Playbar with Sub and Play speakers. It depends on which speakers you connect to the Amp, of course, but the total cost of a 5.1 setup with an Amp does not differ much from a surround setup around a Playbar. With our Bowers & Wilkins 606 (700 euros / pair) or KEF R3s (1,600 euros / pair) you get much higher. But you don’t have to spend that much to get something nice. We get a set of Q Acoustics 3020i’s from 300 euros / pair, and that actually sounds excellent. The 3020i’s are another recent purchase for our test speaker library, very compact and very good in terms of sound, given their modest price.

We don’t think you can compare the Sonos Amp as a surround solution to a classic AV receiver setup, although in terms of price may not differ that much. An entry-level receiver and a surround set such as the Jamo Studio 8 may cost less. But the Sonos Amp is a solution for other people, people who don’t want a big device and a lot of cables in the living room. And then there is the complexity of an AV receiver.

 Sonos Amp 2019

Yet the Sonos Amp as a surround solution is not entirely unique. Yamaha is the only one offering a truly comparable alternative in the form of its latest AV receivers with MusicCast Surround. Then you can also work with a wireless subwoofer and two wireless rear speakers, just like with Sonos. The advantage of Yamaha is that the compatible receivers (there are several models, from around 400 euros, we have tested the RX-V685 ) also have HDMI inputs for consoles and video sources. It is a bit more complex.

Still note that the Sonos Amp also yields an interesting TV sound enhancement only with two stereo speakers. If you opt for speakers with a broader appearance, such as Q Acoustics or Dalis, you will already be served a very broad sound stage. And that’s a whole lot better than the TV speaker or a cheaper soundbar. In any case, you enjoy better reproduction of music in stereo, depending on which passive speakers you purchase.

Conclusion

The Sonos Amp is a very interesting device for anyone who wants to enjoy real surround with minimal effort and minimal hassle. You can compare it to expensive AV receivers and talk about Dolby Atmos, and then it falls short. But that is not what the Sonos Amp aims for. It is a very compact device that is very good at music streaming and can offer a solid surrounder experience. Very nice, although you should not underestimate the cost. A Sonos Amp plus two passive speakers, a Sonos Sub and a few Sonos One’s can easily cost you more than 2,000 euros. So it is certainly not a very cheap solution to build a 5.1 set-up. But a surprisingly effective – and very user-friendly.

Cons

  • No HDMI inputs
  • Center channel provision missing
  • Sonos Sub not subtly adjustable
  • No room calibration

Advantages

  • Compact and very powerful
  • User-friendly app with many streaming options
  • Enough settings to fine tune yourself
  • Support for wireless rear speakers and subwoofer
  • Smarthome integration and AirPlay2

 

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