Sonos wants to be more open and partner with Amazon, Apple, and Google. The Sonos Beam is a compact soundbar that builds on those pillars with Airplay 2 and multiple voice assistants. But can the company pivot from being the pioneer of multiroom to being just a participant?
Sonos Beam – a compact soundbar
At an event where Sonos fired shots at Facebook, twitter, screens in general, and competitors’ products; suggested that its products are open; suggested that it had invented the smart speaker; and spent lengthy sessions demonstrating how Apple’s Airplay 2 and Amazon’s Alexa work, the company also announced a new compact soundbar.
While many had hoped to see a successor to the Playbar, the company instead pulled out the Sonos Beam. It is a compact soundbar that will be part of Apple’s Airplay 2 family once the software update arrives. The soundbar will of course also connect to Sonos’ multiroom system, and the company was quick to point out that it is not only building products. It is building “systems”.
The soundbar will be compatible with several voice assistants. Amazon Alexa will be available at launch and work in the US, UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France. Once Airplay 2 arrives, Sonos Beam can be controlled through Siri from an iPhone/iPad. Additionally, Sonos will add Google Assistant at a later point, promising to give it its very own special moment.
- "In a smart speaker category increasingly filled with tech clutter, poor audio quality and ulterior motives, Beam is the best example yet of what makes Sonos different," said Sonos CEO Patrick Spence. "Our open approach, obsession with design, maniacal focus on quality and commitment to building a system that's easy to use and gets better over time are at the heart of everything we do. We believe we've created the best, most versatile, smart speaker in the world."
Sonos explained that the speaker has been designed to deliver good sound while enjoying movies, music, and TV. The company says that “the result is a product that faithfully represents the artists' work and delivers an unparalleled listening experience”.
- “Beam produces a surprisingly wide soundstage for a speaker of this size, with four custom-built elliptical full-range woofers and three passive radiators delivering deep, warm bass and superior mid-range performance, while a single tweeter ensures crisp and clear dialogue,” the company added.
While competitors are stepping up their efforts these days by including Dolby Atmos, DTS:X or other advanced audio technologies, Sonos is keeping its eye on the large segment of consumers who want a simple and compact solution. Sonos Beam will not support Dolby Atmos. It will not even support the last generation of HD audio formats. It only has one HDMI port, meaning that it relies on the HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) in your TV for sound. ARC has very limited bandwidth. HDMI 2.1 will bring eARC that supports far more bandwidth for audio but Sonos clearly did not want to go down that route with Beam. Perhaps a second-generation Playbar will fit into that space.
If you can't beat them, join them
A good portion of the event was dedicated to demonstrating Apple’s Airplay 2 system. Of course, Airplay 2 is not unique to Sonos. It will come to a long list of speakers ranging from Bang & Olufsen and Bose to Polk and Libratone. Airplay 2 will even allow you to pair speakers from multiple brands in a multiroom setup.
Airplay 2 will not be available at launch and will not be added to all Sonos products, the company said.
- “AirPlay 2 will be available on Sonos in July via a free software update. With AirPlay 2, customers can play music and podcasts from their iOS devices directly on their Sonos speakers, including the new Sonos Beam, Sonos One, Playbase, and the second generation Play:5.”
Sonos stressed that Airplay 2 builds on top of its own multiroom system and it demonstrated how a user can start a music stream via Siri and then proceed to ask Alexa what song is playing. Beam can also control the TV with simple commands through the HDMI CEC protocol.
The new market order that Sonos is trying to fit in to
Still, the event underlined the new market order that Sonos is trying to fit in to. The company pioneered multiroom sound but systems like Airplay 2 as well as voice assistants are existential threats. Sonos is quietly acknowledging these facts by partnering with the giants rather than fighting them but there was also a hint of inner conflict in the voice as Sonos fired multiple shots at the products from the very same companies.
Sonos has decided not to develop its own voice assistant and the company now wants to be more open. It emphasized that Sonos speakers support more than 80 music services, which of course is far less than the amount of services supported by systems such as Chromecast or Airplay 2.
The company also imagines a future where it can be neutral and offer consumers choice. However, that comes with the risk of becoming jack of all trades, master of none. On the other hand, people will keep asking for good sound, which is at the core of Sonos’ mission, and the company may be able to carve out a segment of the market with consumers that fear being locked into an ecosystem. There is some irony in here somewhere because that it exactly where Sonos started its journey.
Sonos Beam has been designed to fit on “credenzas or under wall mounted TVs”. It is only 65 centimeters long. It comes in black or white fabric for $399, and will ship globally starting July 17. Pre-orders can be placed on sonos.com.
Sonos Beam - specifications
Audio Four full-range woofers ensure you’ll hear the faithful playback of mid-range vocal frequencies plus deep, rich bass. One tweeter creates a crisp and clear dialogue. Three passive radiators help move air around inside the compact Sonos Beam and add warm sound to the bass. Adjustable bass and treble controls let you customise your sound by individual room or groups of rooms. Five Class-D digital amplifiers perfectly tuned to match the speaker drivers and acoustic architecture. Five far-field microphone array uses for advanced beamforming and multi-channel echo cancellation. When the microphone LED is on, Alexa is ready for a voice command. When the light is off, the microphone is off.
General Dimensions - H x W x D: 3.94 x 25.625 x 2.70 in. (100 x 651 x 68.5 mm) Weight:6.2 lbs (2.8 kg) HDMI ARC: HDMI Cable connects to your TV’s HDMI ARC input. Optical Audio: Optical Audio Adapter to connect to your TV. Allows Sonos Beam to support DOLBY DIGITAL and stereo. Top-panel features: Capacitive touch controls for volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause, microphone mute. LED indicates status, mute status and voice feedback.
Power & Networking Power supply: Auto-switching 100-240 V, 50-60 Hz AC universal input. Ethernet port: One 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port. Wire directly to your router to operate your Sonos if WiFi is unstable. WiFi: Connects to your home WiFi network with any 802.11b/g, 2.4 GHz broadcast-capable router for uninterrupted wireless streaming. Connects directly via rear surrounds or Sonos Sub to 5 GHz broadcast. AirPlay compatible: Works with AirPlay on Apple devices [iOS 11.4 and higher]