This compact sound bar is the first to integrate a voice assistant. But does it provide for good sound performances, both in TV use and in music?
Sonos on the offensive. In just over a year, the company has introduced no less than three new products. After the Playbase and the One in March and October 2017, the American manufacturer unveiled on June 5 its Beam, a new soundbar dedicated to televisions. New because the brand already offers two products dedicated to television: the Playbar (which already dates from 2013) and the recent Playbase.
The only downside, despite their ingenuity (especially on the Playbase), these products are rather bulky and marry especially large televisions diagonal, with interiors where the available space is not a problem. Except that homes located in large cities are rarely all lofts of 500 m² with roof terrace. This is where the Beam comes in, a compact soundbar measuring only 65 cm wide, 6.8 high and 10 deep. Dimensions that allow it to be 60% more compact than its big sister the Playbar. The price follows the same trend: to get a Beam, you have to pay 449 euros, against 799 for a Playbase or a Playbar.
A discreet and successful style
In terms of design and design, the Beam is a success. Available in black or white, the device displays a discreet style. The upper part is made of good quality plastic and integrates the tactile reading controls: pause, volume, and activation of the five microphones arranged in the same area. The rest of the device is, meanwhile, dressed in a good-knit fabric sufficiently tight mesh not to let appear the speakers.
The choice and location of these are quite special. Sonos first integrated four bass-laden woofers, two at the front and two at 45 degrees at the rounded corners of the speaker. This makes it possible to obtain a stereo image which, if it is not equivalent to that obtained with two real separate speakers, has the merit of being perceptible and convincing. In the center, on the front, is a single tweeter, dedicated on its side to acute and supposed to deal with dialogue, essential for a speaker designed to accompany a TV.
HDMI to turn on your TV thanks to Alexa
At the back, there is a button dedicated to configuration and connectivity: power, Ethernet, and HDMI… While the Playbar and Playbase offered only one optical port, the Beam finally makes the judicious choice of HDMI connectivity to be connected to the TV. This allows the speaker to be able, for example, to control the turning on or off of the TV, but also to control its volume. Just ask Alexa who is always present thanks to the sensitive microphones embedded by the Beam. However, your TV must have an HDMI-ARC (Audio Return Channel) port that has become widespread on the models marketed in the last five years. If your screen is too old, Sonos provided in the box of the Beam an HDMI-optical adapter that can transmit the sound signal, but de facto deprives you of the use of ARC features and therefore voice commands.
The installation process is still well documented from Sonos and is done through the application that guides you step by step. If you do not encounter any particular difficulty, you must still count a good quarter of an hour to get to the end. So far, we had found the Sonos configuration system exemplary, but that was before the arrival of Apple’s HomePod. He really bluffed us on his super fast installation. Hard for Sonos obviously to fight against the highly integrated system of Apple where each device designed by his care communicates as best as possible to simplify the life of the user.
The configuration is getting old because of the HomePod
On the other hand, where Sonos can clearly progress is in the True play configuration. This feature optimally adjusts the acoustics of the brand speakers according to the interior in which it is located. This makes it possible to have an optimized sound quality according to the shape of the room and the configuration of the furniture. Except that to achieve this you have to go through two processes that only work with an iPhone or iPad. While the speaker emits a series of sounds for a minute, you must first walk around the room smartphone or tablet by hand to analyze the reverberations. It is then necessary to put oneself in one’s favorite place on one’s sofa so that the speaker can best fit the configuration dedicated to watching movies or series.
The system is very efficient, Sonos had proven it in the past and once again demonstrated it with the Beam. This is not the question. With the HomePod, all this is also done automatically with the analysis of the environment in real time. No more going through the process required by Beam to achieve this. Until then champion of easy installation – or at least very well guided – Sonos takes a shot of old with the arrival in this same area of Apple. The good news is that the company is working on a Truplay system equivalent to that of Apple, according to the interview given by its CEO Patrick Spence at The Verge on June 15.
Excellent to accompany the video, a little less in music
What do you get once all this implementation is done? First of all, a rather flattering result when it comes to watching TV. Here, Sonos keeps its promise, the dialogues are clear and very understandable. The action scenes are emphasized by effective bass that can be felt when needed. For those who want to go a little further than the simple stereo rendering and central voice (3.0) offered by the Beam alone, we can add two Play: 1 for a very effective effect 5.0. Purists will even add a box to get to a real 5.1. For the first configuration, however, it will cost 358 euros more. As for the pack offering a Beam, a subwoofer Sub and two Play: 1 to get a 5.1 effect, it costs 1,606 euros.
Question music, we are a little more mixed. With four woofers dedicated to the bass and a tweeter for treble, we necessarily lack a few mediums. As soon as the songs become complex, with for example many instruments that come into play, the speaker has trouble giving relief to the whole. These instruments do not stand out enough from each other to distinguish them. In short, the result is overall satisfactory, but undeniably lacks details. For this type of use, we prefer the rendering of two Sonos One coupled in stereo.
The only offer compatible with all streaming services
Sonos devices would not be much without the application dedicated to them, the Beam is no exception to the rule. From his smartphone (or tablet) we can access two features specifically designed for TV use. The first is called “vocal improvement” and puts forward a little more dialogues. The second, “Night sound mode” is more convincing and allows to limit the variations in sound volume typical for example action movies. What to avoid waking your neighbor, your spouse or your child who sleeps in the room next door.
It is also through the application that we will be able to manage the 53 streaming services available on the Sonos loudspeakers, without question the widest offer on the market. This is certainly one of the qualities we prefer when it comes to Sonos: agnosticism. It can also use Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon Music, Soundcloud, Google Play Music, Tidal, etc. This wealth is not limited to streaming services since in addition to Alexa – which we have already tested through the Echo – the Google Assistant will arrive on the Beam during the year.
Another feature that also shows openness: AirPlay 2 compatibility that we have not yet been able to test definitively, but will be available when the market on July 17. Thanks to it, you can stream songs from the Music app on your iPhone directly to the Beam instead of having to go through the Sonos app.