Sonos Arc review: The all-in-one Atmos soundbar to beat – CNET

The original Sonos Playbar was a standout product when it appeared on the market in 2013: It was a big soundbar that offered both multiroom music and a simple one-cable connection to your TV. Its age has started to show in the seven years since, however, and I’ve grown to like numerous other TV speakers better, including Sonos’ own Playbase and Beam. After a couple of weeks listening to the all-new Sonos Arc, I can report Sonos has once again raised the bar. The Arc is simply one of the best soundbars you can buy.

How it stacks up

Like

  • Excellent sound for everything from Dolby Atmos movies to jazz piano
  • All-in-one unit doesn’t need a subwoofer
  • Feature-packed including voice assistant and multiroom music

Don’t Like

  • Single HMDI eARC port limits Atmos
  • More expensive than other single-bar competitors
  • No Bluetooth streaming

As great as the new $799 (£799, AU$1,399) Arc sounds, it’s not without its caveats. If you’re hungering for a soundbar that can do Dolby Atmos, the Sonos’ reliance on a single HDMI port means you may need a brand-spanking new TV and even a new set-top box such as the Apple TV 4K. Thankfully, the Arc sounds great with non-Atmos sources too, from stereo music to Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. It offers crisp sonics and surprisingly deep bass for a unit without a subwoofer.

It’s also not the best value in Atmos soundbars today. The fantastic Vizio SB36512-F6 and the new Sony HT-G700 both cost less and offer a second HDMI input as well as a subwoofer. Meanwhile the Sennheiser Ambeo may be the best all-in-one Atmos ‘bar I’ve heard, period, but it costs three times as much as the Arc. 

Unlike the three contenders I just mentioned, however, the Arc works with Sonos’ superb multiroom music system and it has built-in Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant (your call) for hassle-free voice control. It also brings a beautiful design, excellent sound quality and a great user experience. If you’re looking for a feature-packed soundbar and don’t require the punch of a subwoofer, the Arc is my new favorite in its price range.

Sonos Arc
Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Slim single speaker packed with features

The Arc is long and sleek at 45 inches wide, 3.4 inches tall and 4.5 inches deep. The curvaceous cabinet comes in black or white, and it certainly looks and feels like a premium product, exemplified by a mesh grill and touch-based controls. The speaker has a total of eight elliptical woofers, including upfiring drivers for Dolby Atmos effects, and three “precisely angled” silk-dome tweeters.

The Arc has a four far-field microphone array to better pick up voice commands when your music is blaring. As I tested the Sonos with a beta version of the Sonos software, I wasn’t able to get Google Assistant working, but Amazon Alexa worked just fine. The speaker wasn’t able to hear over maximum volume dialog — even when I shouted — but with music at a normal volume I was able to use my speaking voice. Compared to other smart speakers it rates as about average in terms of “listening” performance, with the Apple HomePod being the best I’ve tested.

Sonos Arc

As a Wi-Fi based system the Arc includes onboard wireless as well as an Ethernet port. Like other Sonos speakers the Arc includes compatibility with Apple Airplay and Spotify Connect, and sadly just like the others it lacks Bluetooth streaming.

The Sonos ecosystem is in the process of moving to version S2, which looks the same as the previous app, but involves a lot of background changes. One major change is that people won’t be able to update their legacy Sonos devices including the original ZonePlayers and the first Play:5, but it also means the Arc to is able use hi-res audio such as Dolby Atmos.

Note that the soundbar doesn’t include a physical remote control. Users can either opt for their original TV remote (using HDMI-CEC control) or the Sonos app itself.

One HDMI, many words of explanation

One of the main “features” of this soundbar, according to Sonos, is simplicity. It has just one audio connection: a single HDMI port. Buckle in, because the reasons why that’s a potential problem aren’t simple at all.

First off, the Arc uses HDMI ARC and its successor eARC to receive audio from your television, including the Dolby Atmos format. ARC, or Audio Return Channel, is a technology that enables the TV’s built-in streaming apps, and devices you connect to the TV, to send audio to a connected speaker over a single HDMI cable. Basically, you plug the Arc soundbar into your TV’s HDMI ARC port and your other gear into the TV’s other HDMI ports. Then sound from everything plays though the bar. If your TV doesn’t have HDMI at all, the speaker also includes an optical input for normal Dolby Digital decoding.

Sonos Arc

Because it gets audio only via that HDMI port connected to your TV, the Arc’s Atmos capability is ultimately limited by your TV. If you have a newer 4K TV then this probably won’t be a problem. Streamers like the Roku Streaming Stick PlusApple TV 4KAmazon Fire TV Stick 4K or Nvidia Shield can output Dolby Atmos streams via Dolby Digital Plus using a regular HDMI ARC connection. Connect one to a newer TV and it will pass the Atmos stream to your Arc soundbar, if one is available. 

That’s a big “if,” however, in part because not all streaming devices support Atmos on all services. In addition if you have an older 1080p TV then you won’t get Dolby Atmos at all — your TV needs to be made from 2016 onwards to be able to passthrough Dolby Digital Plus.

Meanwhile 4K Blu-ray requires an even newer TV, one that supports eARC, to deliver Atmos to the Arc. That’s because 4K Blu-ray uses a higher-bandwidth version of Atmos than streaming services, one that only works over eARC. If Dolby Atmos is of utmost importance to you, especially if you have a library of 4K Blu-ray discs, then you will need a 2019 or later TV with an eARC port to get the Arc to play Atmos with every source.

Sonos Arc

And there’s another Atmos wrinkle: setup. A 2019 Sony X950G TV I used for testing didn’t support eARC by default — I still had to futz around with the TV menu for it to pass Dolby Atmos. You may need to check your own manual on how to get this to work.

I did appreciate that the Now Playing page of the Sonos app displays a Dolby Atmos logo when it detects either a Dolby Digital Plus or Dolby TrueHD-based immersive stream, so at least there’s an easy way to tell when you’re getting Atmos.

Fun sound and surprising bass

I used the Sonos Arc with a number of different TVs — the Sony X950G LCD, the Samsung D8000 plasma, the Samsung 6 series LCD — in two different rooms. I found that the sound of the room, more so than the HDMI capabilities of the TV, dictates how good the speaker sounds. If you want maximum surround and height effects you will need a square or rectangular room with the soundbar situated at one end. One of the spaces in which I listened to the Arc was the corner of an irregularly shaped room and there were almost no width effects. Your mileage may vary.

You may need a newer TV to hear Atmos effects and see that Dolby logo in the Sonos app, but if you don’t have a newer TV, you might not even miss Atmos. I listened to a host of different material over a couple of weeks — from TV shows to movies to Dolby Atmos Music to video games. In all cases, the Arc sounded excellent and balanced if perhaps a little reticent in the treble — nothing that tweaking the onboard EQ couldn’t fix. Unlike with the bass-shy Sonos Beam, I never felt like I needed a subwoofer with the Arc. This is a single speaker that can thump.

I compared the Sonos Arc head-to-head against the Sony G700 and it should have been no contest — the Sony has a wireless sub and a separate HDMI input, ensuring full Atmos compatibility. The winner wasn’t so clear-cut, however. The Arc sounded a lot more open than the boxy Sony, and especially good with tunes like Adele’s Feel My Love. Other soundbars can tend towards brassiness on this track, but the Arc’s sound was immediate and infectious — it sounded realistic from even the next room.

Likewise when I switched to Sonos’ new Brittany Howard-curated radio station. Charles Mingus’ piano on Myself When I Am Real sounded more natural than on any other soundbar that I can recall, let alone one without a subwoofer.

sonos

Gotye’s Hearts A Mess had the Arc throwing its voice around immediately, with the strings coming from the corner of the room and snare drums from the curtains. Who needs a track with 360 Reality Audio when you can listen to this? Sure it’s much more chaotic, but it’s just as enjoyable. The Arc isn’t the best option for so-called deep listening, it’s more of a fun fair. The song did sound a little more together on the Sony and more affecting too — it sounded like singer Wally De Backer was making his pleas directly to me. 

When listening to movies over my time with the speaker I was continually amazed by the amount of deep-end heft the Sonos was capable of. It would sound better with the sub, sure, but you don’t need it. 

I initially had trouble tracking down a Dolby Atmos stream of Max Mad: Fury Road, but I eventually found one with the Vudu app on the Apple TV 4K. In the opening scene, as the credits rolled and disembodied voices danced about the room, both the Sony and the Sonos offered crisp dialog and a super-wide soundstage. The Sony had more authority on the deep notes of the Charger’s engine but sound effects were more localized around the speaker with no real height information. The Sonos delivered a better sense of back-to-front motion as the pursuing War Boys lept over the camera on their bikes and cars.

Sonos Arc

Should you buy it?

The Sonos Arc is now the company’s most expensive product, but it offers sound quality and convenience that none of the other Sonos soundbars can match. While the Arc may not be worth the upgrade from the Playbase (which also had great bass) it’s worth considering for both owners of the Beam and the Playbar. Even if you don’t use the Dolby Atmos features, the soundbar offers an excellent feature set and great sound for every other kind of content — from jazz to rock to action movies. 

Unlike the Beam, you don’t need to add the new Sonos sub (which then makes that collective kit around $1,100) and that makes the Arc better value overall. Sure, you can buy soundbars that offer separate subs and a glut of features but none ooze the sophistication or the sonic clarity of the Sonos Arc. If your shoplist includes a single “smart” sound bar that does Dolby Atmos, then the Sonos Arc is the model to beat.

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