If you were to chart the history of my audio setup, the timeline would be delineated by one thing: Before Sonos, and After.
For years, Sonos has been arguably the biggest name in home audio (with Bose perhaps the only other pretender). After being one of the first companies to master multiroom, the company has continued to iterate. Over the last few years, since I first got my hands on a first generation Sonos Play 5, I’ve slowly added Sonos speakers so that today my flat now has a speaker in every room.
And the difference once you install a Sonos is immediately notable: Having your life constantly soundtracked by, umm, in my case 90s to mid-noughties ska-punk, becomes easier. By providing not just a speaker, but a platform that works independently of any one device, and hooking directly into streaming services, my Spotify end-of-year statistics have exploded.
Previously, there has only been one missing part of my setup: TV.
If I’ve got these incredible speakers in every room of my flat, why can’t I transmit the audio from my television so I can listen in other rooms too? Why can’t I get angry at Question Time in every room? Where is the missing piece of his home AV puzzle?
Beam Me Up
Enter Sonos Beam.
To be clear, Beam isn’t Sonos’s first sound bar. The company has previously released the Sonos Playbar, and Sonos Playbase, the latter of which is an enormous slab you sit your entire TV on top of. Beam isn’t a replacement for these products, but is being very deliberately positioned as a more affordable alternative: The Playbar and Playbase are both a wallet scorching £699, while the brand new Beam is a slightly-more-justiable-to-your-partner £399. Okay, so still expensive, but 43% cheaper isn’t to be sniffed at.
So how does it perform?
Inside, the beam contains three speakers - one dead centre, and two on the left and right with elliptical woofers, angled outwards at 45 degrees - which Sonos says will help array the sound out more effectively. But what does this audiophile nonsense actually mean?
I’ve been using the Beam for a week or so now, and I’m incredibly impressed. It replaced a cheapo £100 LG soundbar that I’d previously been using, which came with a separate subwoofer unit. The Beam lacks the massive woofer, but even without it to my (admittedly untrained) ears, the sound it produces is immediately and notably richer, and more detailed. Bass sounds are a particular improvement, which makes it even more surprising. Each beat of the drum or pick of bass string has a pleasing warmth. Vocals are crisp and slice through the noise so you can pick out the lyrics and sing along to Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. (I mean, I suppose you could listen to something that isn’t ska-punk, but I can’t understand why.)
The Beam also does a good job of handling TV audio, with the three channels really creating a sense of place for the sounds - so though the Beam is one long bar, it doesn’t feel like one speaker blasting out.
Sonos Beam, of course, isn’t just a dumb speaker - that’s why it connects to your wifi and leaves a sizeable hole in your wallet. Sonos has also packed in a bunch of other features.
First off, by using the Sonos app on your phone you can “tune” your Sonos system - including Beam - to be customised for your exact living space, on the basis that not everyone lives in a Sonos showroom, and that normal people don’t live in a recording studio.
The way it works is that all of your speakers will play some tuning sound effects. The mic on your phone will then tell the system about the sonic environment in your home, and the system will intelligently twiddle the knobs to make your music and TV sound better. It makes you do it twice - first, sitting where you normally sit to watch TV, and second, it makes you wander around your living room gently waving your phone in circles.
Amazingly though, even though you feel like a bit of a dick doing it… it actually seems to work. I can’t claim any massive expertise in exactly what was happening to the sound - but, subjectively, it definitely sounded noticeably better after. Amazing.
There are also a couple of extra modes built in specifically for handling TV audio, which are immediately useful: Night Mode and Voice Enhance Mode, both of which can be triggered from a button press in the app when watching TV.
Night mode essentially flattens out the volume a little bit - so that you can watch films with tonnes of crashes and explosions without upsetting your neighbours, or without having to constantly fiddle with the volume control.
And voice enhance mode is great if you’re watching the 2010 remake of True Grit and want to understand whatever the hell it is that Jeff Bridges is saying throughout.
And finally, of course, with this being 2018 it is impossible to have a speaker that isn’t smart - and the Beam is Sonos’s first sound bar that has voice assistant functionality built in, thanks to five (yes, five) built in microphones. Like last year’s Sonos One, the plan is for Sonos to be essentially platform neutral, though at the moment only Amazon’s Alexa is supported (Google Home will be coming soon).
This works basically just as well as it does on Sonos One, with it possible to play tracks and trigger tunes with the power of your voice. This is obviously a useful feature but, weirdly, despite voice recognition technology being a machine-learning and neural-network powered miracle of modern engineering… there isn’t actually much to say here. It simply works, and works well. It’s weird how amazing things quickly become boring isn’t it?
The Missing Puzzle Piece
Essentially then, Sonos Beam is a winner. It’s a premium product, at what is still a rather premium price. But if you can afford one, it becomes the final, missing piece that completes your home audio-visual experience. Finally, TV and music are united - so you can use your expensive speakers to make the best of both.