It took a long time, but finally Sonos has a new soundbar that can compete with the high-end devices of competitors such as LG and Samsung. This Sonos Arc is a huge catch-up compared to the old Playbar, including bringing Dolby Atmos to your living room.
The Arc is the latest soundbar from Sonos, a top model that will be next to the compact and cheaper Beam . It is an important device as it replaces the very popular Playbar that was introduced in 2013. That was an eternity ago and now a lot has changed in terms of watching TV. In 2020, people are massively watching streaming services such as Netflix and Disney + and those services offer increasingly better image and sound quality. Other brands have therefore released new sound bars that can do more, much faster. Although we must also be honest: some rivals are also clearly designed to counter specific strengths of Sonos. Just think of the many devices that you can expand with separate wireless speakers for the back of the living room.
The Sonos Arc will be available from June 10 for 899 euros. That is not a small amount, but it is comparable to what competitive soundbars with similar possibilities cost. Some rivals cost even more. For that amount, you get a large soundbar with eleven drivers and support for Dolby Atmos and full compatibility with the Sonos ecosystem. Listening to music is as important as improving your TV sound with this unit. And of course you can combine the Arc with Sonos speakers (including those from Ikea) elsewhere in the house. Like the small Beam, it is equipped with a microphone that allows you to address the Google Assistant directly.
In this review we will discuss the Arc soundbar. Due to the popularity of Sonos, we actually have to do this for two target groups: 1) readers who know Sonos through and through and are curious about what is different and 2) people who do not actually know Sonos and want to know if that Arc is a good device is to buy. For the latter group, this review may sometimes go very deeply into certain technical aspects. For them, we would like to repeat a few key points of the Sonos experience in this section. Relatively short, as we've often covered in-depth common issues in previous Sonos reviews. Are you completely up to date with the Sonos story? Then jump straight to the next intermediate title.
The Arc is the latest addition to the Sonos ecosystem. After you may wonder, “What does that 'ecosystem' mean?” Actually, you always have to look at two things at Sonos: the device itself and the wider platform on which a device runs. Sonos – more than most other audio companies – has ensured that all its products are virtually identical in terms of capabilities and that you get a lot of flexibility. What you can do with the small Sonos One speaker, you can also do with the Arc or the Amp amplifier. Every Sonos device you bring into your home appears in the Sonos app and you can control it from there. That's because all Sonos devices run the same software.
A big plus that results from this is that the Sonos app does not suddenly look different when you operate the Arc compared to when you want to play music via a Sonos One speaker. , for example. All streaming services you set up in the app work immediately on all Sonos devices. Even if you add one later.
Do you get visitors and do you want ad hoc speakers and the Arc soundbar to play the same in the downstairs rooms? Then you can. You listen to an internet radio station in the kitchen, while your partner sings along in the shower with a Spotify playlist and your friends in the living room hear the sound of the football on TV via the Arc? That is also possible. That all makes sense, but many rivals found it difficult to provide the same effortless ease of operation. Although we increasingly note that the competition has worked hard to catch up. Bluesound, for example, offers a user experience that is almost as good as Sonos. Others, such as Harman Kardon and LG, have chosen to release their own apps and work with the Google Chromecast platform where you stream music from the app of a music service. There is something to be said for that, but a big advantage of Sonos is that you have to explain everyone in the family only one relatively simple, stable app.
Yet Sonos has also opened the door to direct streaming from the apps of music services. . Do you listen via Spotify? You can work via the Sonos app, but you can also control the Sonos speakers directly from the Spotify app. The same also applies to Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Music and Idagio.
The new generation of Sonos speakers are also AirPlay 2 compatible. This allows you to control them directly from an iPhone, iPad or Apple computer. Via AirPlay you can forward all audio, so in principle also the sound of a game app, for example. AirPlay 2 also has its own multi-room function. This means that you can still combine Sonos speakers multiroom with AirPlay 2 speakers from other brands, something that many people think is impossible. But indeed, multiroom switching via the Sonos app is only possible with Sonos products (or those of Ikea Symfonisk ).
Dolby Atmos for the masses
The main feature of the Arc is that display of Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Moviegoers may not know the name of this technology, but they may have already experienced it. Atmos aims to create a 3D sound image by supplementing the classic surround speakers around you with speakers that are placed much higher. That sounds like a detail, but the presence of those height channels significantly increases the sense of realism. Not only for sound effects that take place explicitly above the viewer (such as a helicopter flying overhead), but also for the distribution of subtle sound signals that tell our brain something about the environment in which a film scene is happening. Think of how the sound is different in a small bathroom versus a large cathedral versus in the open air.
In the cinema, Dolby Atmos is played by a lot of speakers, sometimes 64 pieces or more. This has to do with the immense size of such a space, but just as well because Atmos uses a lot more channels in cinema films to be even more accurate. A simpler version of Dolby Atmos is available for the home. Home theater enthusiasts often opt for 5.1.4, which means that you have five speakers at ear height, one subwoofer and four speakers that hang from the ceiling (2 at the front, 2 at the back). A soundbar like the Arc does not come with separate speakers that you have to hang high on the wall. Store your stepladder again! The Sonos soundbar does contain speakers that point to the ceiling; the idea is that sound effects reflect off the ceiling and sound (roughly) as if they came from speakers hanging there. This approach can be very effective, but it greatly depends on the room properties and where you are sitting. For the true home cinema fan who gets his nose at reverberating speakers and sound bars, this is important to realize that less optimal surround reproduction can already be a convincing experience for many people.
Dolby Atmos is not the only 3D surround technology. You still have DTS: X Auro-3D and MPEG-H (Sony also calls this 360 ° Audio). In practice, you hardly see those alternatives being used. Streaming services (Netflix, Disney +, Amazon Video and others), most Ultra HD Blu-ray releases and some games (albeit still a limited number) choose Dolby Atmos.
Very different design
Not only under the hood, the Arc is completely new. The design is also completely fresh and modern, based on the design language of the latest Sonos Five and the Beam. The 114-cm wide soundbar fits perfectly with a 55-inch television, but can certainly also be used with slightly smaller or larger screen diameters. The Arc is largely made of metal and has a curved tubular housing that makes it a softer presence on a TV cabinet. It is quite elegant and luxurious, in an industrial way. If you're a logo hater, it's a shame Sonos chose to put his brand name so prominently in the spotlight. It's not too bad now, but personally we like products that are a bit more subtle in terms of branding.
Even as you approach the Arc remains impressive. Where the prevailing trend in many premium audio products is the use of high-quality Scandi textiles – also beautiful – Sonos opts for an almost full metal housing with extremely many perforations. Our dedication to duty is great, but counting them was a bridge too far. The holes extend from the foot to almost the back, and you do not see the many drivers or speakers in the Arc, but they can spread good sound. At the back there are some openings and a foot ensures that the round Arc is still very solid on your furniture. Do you want to hang it? You can do that, even in a way that allows very seamless suspension. At the Playbar you could still choose to hang the soundbar above the screen, but that is no longer possible with the Arc.
Speaking of the Playbar : in terms of design it is contrast between the Arc and the old Sonos soundbar immense. The newcomer scores much higher in terms of elegance and sleekness. Or maybe it is just that the Arc fits better with the current design trends and the Playbar seems less fashionable.
You can also get the Arc in black or white. We visited the latter version. We wonder why no more manufacturers release a white edition of their soundbars, because if you place the white Arc close to or on the wall you get something very subtle.
eARC on the Arc
What follows can be confusing – not least because Sonos calls this soundbar the Arc and we're talking about the ARC and eARC connection. Because indeed, just like the Beam, the Sonos Arc has an HDMI connection. This makes connection to a television very easy. What's more, Sonos immediately makes the soundbar future-proof by equipping that HDMI port with eARC compatibility. What does that mean? eARC is the successor to HDMI-ARC, the technology that sends sound over the HDMI cable to an audio device. Apparently, ARC and eARC do much the same thing – namely, bring the sound from your TV to the soundbar – but technically eARC is completely different. There is even a completely different philosophy behind it, whereby the TV becomes the hub to which all sources are connected and all sound (including those source devices) is brought to the soundbar in the highest quality via the TV set. So uncompromised surround sound can also be transported over eARC, such as the Dolby Atmos variant that is used with an Ultra HD Blu-ray film. That was not possible with an ARC connection because the bandwidth for audio was too limited. Don't worry if you own a TV from 2019 or earlier, because the Arc is also HDMI-ARC compatible. Whatever technically may be different with HDMI-ARC and eARC, the Arc simply works with older and new TVs.
Another consequence of that eARC philosophy is that the Sonos Arc is only about one HMDI port (and an optical input). It is therefore not possible to connect a console or a TV decoder to the soundbar, you connect all devices to the television. As long as your TV has enough inputs, that is not so bad, although there are scenarios where it is useful if you can route all HDMI cables to your soundbar so that only one goes to your TV. That is, for example, nice when hanging up your TV. At the same time, Sonos is a company that looks very closely at trends – and it turns out that video consumption is increasingly taking place via streaming services such as Netflix, which are available via an app on the TV itself. In other words, there are less and less video sources on a television – so we may not be overcharged by the lack of HDMI inputs.
eARC: futureproof, not crucial
The Netflix trend means that the value of eARC is relative. After all, an HDMI-ARC connection is sufficient to transmit surround sound from streaming services, even when it comes to Dolby Atmos. After all, Netflix and co use Dolby Atmos embedded on Dolby Digital Plus, which takes up less bandwidth than the Atmos embedded on Dolby TrueHD (as you find with Ultra HD Blu-ray players). Is that going to change? Given that in a soundbar scenario you get relatively little in terms of quality from the step from DD + to TrueHD and that that step would consume much more internet bandwidth, we do not think streaming services will do this quickly. Should you not have a headache yet, we would like to point out that Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services offer Dolby Atmos soundtracks on certain series and movies. The recent “Space Force”, “Altered Carbon” and “Roma” for example. But not always and not on every device. It is a soup for the average consumer. Netflix on our LG C9 in the living room and the Sony KD-A9F in the test room offer, for example, “Space Force” with Atmos. But with the four-year-old Samsung TV that is normally also used for tests, you just get DD 5.1.
The above discussion is certainly relevant if you are talking about the Arc. After all, Sonos has decided not to provide an upmixing codec to extend ordinary 5.1 surround to height channels. The same Netflix series on a Samsung TV with Arc will therefore sound different than if you watch it via a Sony with an Arc. As a result, movies with Atmos on the Arc sound slightly more spectacular than if they have a regular 5.1 track.
Figures indicate that very few people still invest in an Ultra HD Blu-ray player and UHD-BR movies. Is it then relevant that you can forward uncompressed Dolby Atmos soundtracks via eARC? Perhaps not, but there is a big unknown: what will the next-gen consoles offer? We suspect that the next Xbox, like the current Microsoft console, will bet on Dolby Atmos, but it looks like Sony will choose MPEG-H with the PlayStation 5 – a 3D codec that is available in TV channels in Asia. modest advance. The Arc only supports Dolby codecs, so unless they release an update you may only experience stereo or 5.1 with that new PlayStation. Granted, this is some speculation on our part.
New hardware and new app
The Arc is also the first Sonos product to run on the new Sonos software platform from day one. For this test we therefore got access to a beta program to test the software and the accompanying new S2 app . Because we started working with test software, it is possible that small things will change here and there when consumers are introduced. We will try to keep this review up-to-date if something is significantly changed in the Sonos software.
If you look around online you will quickly notice that we are not the only ones who were allowed with the new S2 software play. In the run-up to the introduction of the Arc, a large part of the media had access to the soundbar and software under embargo, which immediately explains why many reviews appear simultaneously.
When the app appears on June 8, you get a split in the Sonos universe: new products such as the Arc will use the S2 app, older ones will continue to operate with the existing Sonos app. So you will not be able to combine the Arc and, for example, an old Sonos Play: 5 speaker together in one zone. You're not even going to be able to control them in the same app. Whether this is a problem depends on which Sonos products you have in your home and how you use them most of the time. For example, if you have an old speaker model in the bathroom that you never put together with another Sonos speaker, it doesn't really matter if you have to use a different app for that bathroom speaker. But in other situations it can be a problem.
The beta of the new app looks only slightly different from the (latest version of) classic Sonos app. We have not been able to really research some of the new promised features of the S2 app; After all, we tested the Arc with beta software and we were not allowed to apply it to the older Sonos devices that we already had in-house. Among other things, that made viewing multiroom functions impossible. But do not worry, because very soon there will be a separate review of the new app here. We have also scheduled a separate test of the Arc in combination with the (renewed) Sonos Sub and two Sonos One speakers. We will publish it in a week or two.
A novelty in the app that we are definitely looking forward to: the possibility to create permanent groups. If you have a room with several Sonos speakers, such as a large kitchen / dining room, you will appreciate that you can now place the speakers in a permanent group. Hopefully with a fixed volume difference between the speakers, so you don't have to fiddle with multiple volume controls continuously.
For movies and TV
The Arc contains a total of eleven drivers or speakers, eight of which are elliptical racetrack drivers (those for mid-tones. and part of the bass) and three tweeters that are controlled by software to emit focused sound (a so-called phase array). Because Sonos strives for a surround sound, those drivers are spread all over the soundbar. Four woofers are placed at the front, strangely two midrange drivers are placed in the middle with one tweeter to the left. The other two tweeters are located at the extremes of the front of the soundbar, embedded in waveguides that radiate the sound at an angle from the screen. In addition, each side is also a woofer. Two drivers at the top of the soundbar complete the configuration. They emit the Dolby Atmos sound from the height channels.
One practical consideration: the Arc is best placed free on a TV cabinet or under your TV on the wall. It is more important that the speakers on the top and sides of the soundbar can do their job and are not obstructed. So don't put the Arc in a closet or deep under a TV; it will work, but less effectively.
The room in which you listen to music or watch TV always has an influence on the sound character. This means that a speaker in the store or with friends can sound different from your home. A solution to this problem is to make an acoustic measurement of the room and to tune the soundbar based on that data so that it sounds in your living room like in the manufacturer's test room. That sounds complicated (and technically it is too), but the Trueplay feature on the Sonos Arc makes it easy to do. You only have to take two small measurements with an iPhone or iPad. This means that you play test tones in your seat for a minute and then another minute as you walk around the room. After that, you can choose between the custom Trueplay view and the original sound of the Arc. You can always change that choice again.
For our test, we solved the Sonos Arc on the Sony KD-A9F that we currently have in the test room. A big advantage: this device has eARC and the Netflix app is Dolby Atmos compatible. Do you want to know if your device also offers Dolby Atmos via Netlfix or other services? Then we would like to refer to this background article about Dolby Atmos on TVs .
We also use the TruePlay tuning in our test room of approximately 25 m2. During testing, we always check in what quality the audio signal is delivered to the Arc, which can be done via “About my system” in the settings of the Sonos app. We would of course have found it more comfortable if an Atmos signal was explicitly indicated in the Now Playing screen. Maybe that will come; we believe it was promised in a Sonos tech session we attended a few weeks ago.
“6 Underground” on Netflix is the latest Micheal Bay production. We are not going to claim that this is a good movie – it could be a crime against humanity – but if you want to experience a Dolby Atmos stage of explosions and screeching tires it is perfectly suitable. You only have to wait three minutes before you get involved in a hellish chase through the streets of Florence with Ryan Reynolds. It's Bay, so in terms of bass, the Arc is immediately put to the test. He likes to add a layer of woolly rumble to the soundtrack to make sound effects more intense. The Arc is not untouched. We do not use a Sub for this test, but there still seems to be a subwoofer present. A little too present, especially with this film. Although we dare to put that on Bay's preferences. Although, when we went through Dolby's Atmos demos in advance (via an Oppo BDP-203), we found the distant thunder at “Amaze” too shaking up. In our opinion, Trueplay did not address a room fashion. Something to investigate further in the review with the Arc with extra speakers.
In the hectic Bay action film there are very occasionally moments where you can experience how Atmos can perfectly convey that spatial feeling, for example, with a brief light shot of the streets of the Italian art city, with church bells in the background and far away the doppler effect of a sports car. The police helicopter that pops up a few minutes later knows how to position the Arc very high, as it should. We also discover through the Dolby “Audiosphere” demo that the Arc positions sound effects relatively well. The tinkling from the height channels is indeed above our television, while at 'Horizon' the spaceships on the right and left pass us by. The latter even sounds very good, given that there are no separate speakers at the back. Also cleverly done: the voice of the shouting child at “Shattered” indeed seems to come from far away and somewhere outside. However, there are sounds here and there (such as the breaking glass and the raindrops) that sound a bit too artificial. The final report in terms of positioning – and that determines the sense of realism – is in any case positive for the Arc.
When testing, we often also reach for the opening scene of “Gravity” (the rare Diamond Luxe Edition with Dolby Atmos soundtrack). Director Alfonso Cuarón and sound designer Glenn Freemantle do incredibly clever things in terms of sound in this space film. Subtle things, like the voices of the astronauts moving around the room as they float through space, and the frightened voice of Sandra Bullock playing in the back of the room to make you seem to be in her shoes, create a lot of involvement. That is also the case with the Arc, although we do run into the limits of a soundbar. The Arc (but also other sound bars) cannot really envelop it. Bullock's voice when she floats helplessly through space and you look through her eyes, you do not really hear behind you, but rather far away in front. That makes the transition to when you see the astronaut again less strong. We wonder how good that will be if we expand the Arc with additional speakers.
Because Sonos chooses never to upgrade sound, it does perform differently when you watch regular TV broadcasts or movies that come with a DTS. soundtrack. The great, exuberant “The Grand Budapest Hotel” by Wes Anderson, for example, has been released with a DTS HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, which is reduced to a stereo soundtrack at the Arc. The Arc is still able to present that beautifully, even with all the small playful effects and frisky music intact, but it is not the same. We asked Sonos why they didn't give users an option to upmix stereo or 5.1 to Atmos, their response was that such upmixing technologies sometimes sounded good. Because the result is unsettled according to Sonos, they prefer not to do it. It should also be noted that the Arc uses the speakers that are not needed in certain circumstances to function as additional woofers. That's very smart.
In terms of TV sound, the Arc really performs very well with Dolby Atmos soundtracks. But whoever buys a Sonos may also do so because they want to listen to music. That is not difficult at all to do. Via the Sonos S2 app you can use streaming services or play your own music files. What's new is that you can now even listen to your own hi-res files, although that did not work as expected during testing. This may have to do with the beta status of the software; as the final software comes out, we'll update this article.
Most of the music appears in stereo, but recently it just got a little easier to listen to songs mixed in Dolby Atmos. This can be done via the streaming service Tidal and via certain televisions and audio devices. Our Sony with Android TV and Tidal app turned out to be one of the lucky ones, so we could browse through a surprisingly large Atmos library. Naturally, this includes a lot of material that was only mixed afterwards to Atmos, which sometimes resulted in results that were sometimes unsuccessful. But on Tidal you will also find, for example, the Atmos release of “Automatic for the People” by REM, a very successful remaster that was recently only available via an expensive luxury edition on Blu-ray. The Arc makes it very beautiful, partly by placing the classical orchestra in the chorus of 'Drive' very large and more to the rear, while Michael Stipes' voice echoes through a large room with much more echo than in the normal stereo version
Of course most music can be heard in stereo. How's the Arc doing there? Very good for a soundbar, especially with modern urban genres. At “Shangri-La” by EOB (a solo project by Radiohead guitarist Edward John O'Brien) we look at how good the stereo separation is. Sound bars normally do less well in this area, which means that some of the listening pleasure disappears. The Arc performs much better, even compared to the old Playbar that we also have in the test room. Daft Punk's “Motherboard” and “Contact” also sounds very sleek and compelling. Where the Arc hits its limits is with musical works that rely on a great stage and dynamics, such as a symphonic performance of Prokofiev's “Dance of the Knights” (in a performance with Lisa Batiashvili). The heavy percussion thumps through the room, but we miss the fine, layered layer of the violin. But that's what you're going to get with a soundbar like this, we suspect.
The Arc is a real tour de force. The soundbar performs well when you feed it with Dolby Atmos content and benefits from all the assets of the Sonos universe. Think of the broad support of streaming services, the ease of use and the multiroom function. The price is even quite competitive for the segment, although the price tag grows sharply if you want to expand the Arc with a Sub and two Sonos speakers. We immediately add that we think that because of the smart speaker setup you will less likely need Sub – although we will elaborate on this in a follow-up review of an extensive Arc setup.
All in all the Arc is a very successful soundbar that offers a lot and is very competitive. Although we can think of negatives. There is currently no way to display the rear Atmos height channels, something that Samsung's HW-Q950R can do, for example. As always, Sonos opts for an Apple-ian easy to operate, which is just right for many people. But we would still like to have a little more control, for example, about the volume level of the top speakers. An option to upmix 5.1 to a virtual Atmos experience would also have been a nice extra.
Still, we think the Arc has everything to become one of the most popular sound bars in the world. Not only is it a good choice for those already in the Sonos universe, but it is also a competitively priced soundbar that outperforms many rivals and has unique benefits.