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Review: Sonos Arc

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A few years ago, many had hoped to see a new, more potent soundbar from Sonos replace the Playbar, preferably one with Dolby Atmos. Instead, Sonos launched its compact Beam soundbar as a more affordable option. It took an additional two years before Sonos was ready to replace the much-acclaimed Playbar with the new Dolby Atmos-capable Sonos Arc that is set to compete with a range of other soundbars with Atmos, an object-based audio format that can deliver an 'all-encompassing' surround sound experience.

Sonos Arc is sold as a stand-alone soundbar but you can connect additional speakers via the company's multi-room platform, including rear speakers (also Sonos/IKEA speakers) and the subwoofer.


Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer

Sonos Arc – specifications

Soundbar

5.0.2 channels

Dolby



HDMI in/out

Inputs 1x Ethernet, HDMI eARC, optical (with adapter)
Outputs HDMI eARC
WiFi (WiFi 3)
Yes

In the boxUser manual, Power cable, HDMI cable, optical audio adapter
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First impressions

Behind closed doors in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Sonos revealed to us the Arc over a video conference call - not exactly how these presentations usually go and we did obviously not get a chance to listen to it or touch it at that time. Not long after the presentation a review sample arrived so we have spent a few weeks listening to Sonos Arc in a typical living room environment. We have the white version. Sonos Arc is also available in black. Compared to Sonos Beam and Playbar, Arc is longer, 114 centimeters from tip to tip to be exact, and with its more cylindrical form it also has a slimmer and more organic look (versus Playbar). The front and sides have a neatly perforated surface, which at first glance could look like metal like some of the smaller Sonos One model. However, once you approach it and touch it is immediate clear that it is made from pure plastic. Of course, there is little reasons to touch a soundbar but considering the price class it feels a little cheap to slap a plastic cover on it. Material processing and joints look great but the feel is not very delicate, and I had hoped for something more akin to the fabric on Beam and Playbar. Two narrow rubber strips on its underbelly ensure that Arc stays put, and if you prefer to have it on the wall, you can purchase a wall bracket solution separately from Sonos - perhaps soon from third parties, too.

Sonos Arc Atmos soundbar

On the front of the soundbar there is, besides a fairly discreet Sonos logo, a small light emitting diode hidden behind the grille (it's off by default) and on top you have Sonos' usual touch-sensitive buttons that let you play/pause, adjust volume, and swipe left/right to change music. The back houses some rather clunky vent ducts that do little to elevate the design. You will also find screw holes for the wall bracket solution and inside a recess the HDMI ARC/eARC port, an Ethernet port, a connection button, and the power port. There is also an IR receiver and an IR emitter behind the cover to ensure that you can place Arc in front of a TV's IR receiver and still get the infrared signal to the TV via the speaker. Furthermore, the IR receiver lets control audio volume without relying on the HDMI ARC/CEC connection to the TV. There is no display on Arc to indicate signal type, volume etc.
The Ethernet pass-through port, which is found on some other Sonos products, including Playbar, has been removed, so you can no longer loop a wired network connection through the soundbar and into a TV or media player. It is not big deal - it is also missing from Sonos Beam and other similar products from other brands - but if want to ensure a stable Sonos multi-room set-up it is a good idea to have one or more devices on a wired network to act as a stable hotspot for the mesh network. Alternatively, you can connect all devices to you WiFi network but you may experience issues with coverage in some of the outer parts of your home. That is why it is useful to rely on Sonos' mesh network through wired connections to at least some of the devices. And since most devices connected to a TV often benefit from having a wired connection the Ethernet pass-through in Playbar was useful in some ways. Sonos' first product to rely on the HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) connection was Beam. In the past, you would typically connect a soundbar to the TV via the optical port. This is still possible with Arc but be aware that there is no support for Dolby Atmos via the optical connection. In 2020, we get ARC and eARC in Arc... Wait. You can probably see how the model name may confuse some buyers. In the box we also found an HDMI cable and the adapter for converting optical/HDMI for buyers who own a TV without an HDMI ARC connection. Underneath the plastic surface Arc hides 11 speaker units, including one on each side designed to act as virtual rear channels in a set-up without dedicated rear speakers. There are also two units facing forward to the sides, and two up-firing units. The rest of the units are forward-facing towards the listener.

Sonos Arc Atmos soundbar

Set-up

Sonos Arc is one of the first products from Sonos that require the new software platform and app (known as "S2"). The prelude to the launch of S2 has been heavily debated since the launch of the S2 platform cuts off older Sonos products from working together with newer Sonos products (see Sonos' website for a full list of incompatible models). The graphical user interface is familiar and there is not much new here. The set-up procedure is also the same. After downloading the app onto your smartphone, you connect Arc to power. It will then start flashing green until it has been added to your Sonos account via the app. It is more cumbersome for new users to the system whereas existing users can just open the system menu and click 'add', after which Arc should appear. I encountered a small issue with automatic set-up so I had to click the 'connect' button on the back of Arc to have it connect. When adding new products you are required to install the latest firmware update but with Arc it took less time than what I have encountered when setting up previous Sonos products over the years.
The next step is to connect Sonos Arc to your TV via HDMI ARC and verify that there is a connection, after which you will be asked if you want to tune sound via Sonos' TruePlay system that uses the microphone in your smartphone - only if you have an iPhone. TruePlay is a two-part system that initially tunes TV audio, which involves that you should position yourself in your usual spot. The second part is music tuning that lets you tune whole room audio to ensure that music sounds optimal everywhere in your living room. Of course, it is not possible to make a single speaker placed underneath your TV deliver the same experience throughout your living space so you should be aware that TruePlay will compensate in various ways. It does not aim to optimize music to one listening position either - unless you "cheat" and take measurements only around your preferred listening spot. Sonos has explained that you cannot skip step two of this process so for some people it may take longer to tweak TruePlay for different positions.
If you have Sonos rear speakers and a subwoofer you should skip TruePlay optimization until you have the whole system set up. There are two ways to do this. The first one is under settings for Arc where you can pair the soundbar to rear speakers and a subwoofer that connect for the first time. The other way is to add speakers to the system as separate units first and then assign to them roles during set-up of Sonos Arc. It is important to know that once other speakers are paired to Arc (or another soundbar from Sonos) they can no longer be used as separate units or grouped with other units without first disconnecting them from Arc. For our review we used two Sonos One SL, the most affordable model from Sonos. However, you can also use older models such as Sonos Play:1 or even the IKEA Symfonisk.
There are no sound modes in Sonos speakers, which is liberating. TruePlay is responsible for tuning and the rest happens without the user having to tweak things. While listening to music you can, however, adjust the volume of connected rear speakers to decide if they should blast out music at full power or act more as ambience. The same is possible when using the speakers as rear speakers for surround sound. In my set-up the rear speakers are sitting too close to my seating position for the neutral setting to fit so I opted to turn down volume somewhat. Sonos Arc is controlled via the HDMI ARC/CEC connection to the TV that allows you to adjust volume via the TV's remote control. If you prefer to use IR commands directly to Sonos Arc instead you can in relatively few steps set up Arc to recognize remote control codes. This allows you to also control volume with a TV remote when the TV is off. All other interactions happen through the Sonos mobile app (or the touch buttons on the soundbar) where the Arc speaker is included together with other speakers in your Sonos multi-room set-up - and Sonos still sets the standard for multi-room. Sonos Arc also features built-in microphones to let you use Google Assistant or Amazon Alex to control your connected home. Or you can request music from your preferred streaming service. Apple Siri is supported on Arc via voice input to an Apple device (and HomeKit).
It was not possible to test the multi-room features with Arc during this review as the rest of my Sonos equipment is running on the "old" app but there is absolutely no reason to believe that it should work differently than in the past, and the Sonos' multi-room system is very robust. A new feature in the so-called 'S2' app/platform is that you can create groups of speakers such as "first floor" or "kids room", and as such have defined speaker groups that you can select as playback destinations. As usual, Sonos is adding new features as we go.
In 2018, Sonos added Apple AirPlay 2 support to its speakers - but not Chromecast or Bluetooth. Those capabilities are also available in Arc so if you want to control your music from an iPhone you can wirelessly push music to Arc and your speaker groups. For our review we used Apple TV 4K, PlayStation 4 and eARC TVs. Both players connected directly to the TV. Sonos Arc was connected through HDMI eARC from a Sony A8H (A8) and Sony A9F (AF9). We did not experience any issues with getting Arc recognized as Atmos compatible in this se-up but since the soundbar lacks any HDMI inputs (other than HDMI eARC/ARC), your TV must be capable of outputting or passing through Dolby Atmos audio. Unfortunately, it is not easy to identify what TV models are both Atmos compatible and feature eARC so in our guide to HDMI eARC/ARC we are maintaining an updated list of TVs that support both HDMI eARC and Dolby Atmos. To further complicate things there are two ways to pass-through Atmos via eARC:
  • Bitstream: The receiver decodes the audio
  • PCM with metadata (Dolby MAT 2.0): The player decodes the audio A device like Apple TV 4K passes Dolby Atmos only as Dolby MAT (PCM with metadata), and the same method is preferred on Xbox One. This requires HDMI eARC. It is not supported over standard HDMI ARC but some TVs are capable of converting it to make sure that Atmos still gets passed to the AVR or soundbar. The Dolby MAT Atmos method is expected to become more widespread in the future as Atmos extends to games and live-content, as it is required to keep audio delay to a minimum, so if you are buying a new TV be sure to check if it support eARC.
    Sonos Arc Atmos soundbar

    Listening test: Movies & TV

    Sonos Arc is the official successor to the much-acclaimed Playbar, which has also been my soundbar for many years. It was known for its balanced sound and its ability to deliver clear vocals. In Playbar all units were slightly angled to make it possible to place it in different ways on furniture or the wall. Arc is designed to stand or hang in the same orientation so here the development team has opted to let the center and side channels point straight forward towards the user instead. The effect is immediately audible as sound is noticeably more direct than in Playbar. It is also clear that Sonos has worked to improve treble. If you are switching back and forth between the two, Playbar now suddenly sounds muddy compared to Arc. Voices and vocal effects are clearer and overall Arc sounds less 'trapped'. Another difference that is immediately noticeable is that Arc delivers more powerful bass. We are not anywhere close the bass performance in the Bang & Olufsen Stage or Sennheiser Ambeo but measured against Playbar, Arc delivers more punchy bass and I think it is perfectly reasonable to use alone it in many living spaces without adding the company's optional subwoofer - at least more so with Arc than with Playbar. For this test we had a pair of rear speakers connected so the side-firing units in Arc were no longer needed for this purpose, and could be reassigned to something else such as bass. In a Dolby Atmos set-up with Arc, the rear speakers work in the same way as when connected to other Sonos soundbars so you gain improved rear channel performance (but not extra up-firing units), which is something that we often miss with other Atmos-capable systems such as Ambeo, Stage and Sony HT-ST5000.

    Sonos Arc, Sub, Play

    We do not have any TV channels broadcasting in Dolby Atmos and we do not expect TV channels in general to transition to any type of object-based audio in the near future. So for broadcast TV you usually get stereo or "only" 5.1 surround. Here, Sonos Arc delivers as a soundbar, but my recommendation is to invest in a set of rear speakers if you want to enjoy surround. Arc alone is not capable of 'moving' sound behind the viewer, which is the same experience we had with other Atmos soundbars. Even in a perfect room with hard reflectors placed strategically on the wall, even a high-end soundbar like Sennheiser Ambeo struggled to produce surround effects behind the viewer.

    Sonos Arc Sonos Arc next to Sonos Playbar

    Dolby Atmos content is more readily available through streaming services, especially Apple iTunes that currently has more than 350 titles available in the format. (see our full list of Atmos movies on iTunes here). Apple TV+, Netflix, and Disney+ also offer Atmos and the latter offers something that you will not find on Apple iTunes; 4K, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos for Disney titles, including Marvel and Star Wars With Atmos lit, I fast-forwarded to some of my favorite sequences such as Blade Runner (scene with the casino gets attacked), Venom (multiple scenes where Venom talks in Brock's head), the helicopter scene towards the end of Mission Impossible 6, all action sequences in Fantastic Beasts (1 and 2), and now also Star Wars and the many Marvel sequences with fly-over action. After having tested multiple Atmos soundbars and knowing how some of the best manage to fill out the room with more immersive sound, I must admit that Arc disappoints in this area. There is not much spatial sound (besides classic surround), not even in movie scenes that usually highlight these effects. Of course, we are talking about a soundbar that costs a third of Sennheiser Ambeo and around half of Beosound Stage but compared to Sonos ST5000 and Samsung HW-Q90R, I miss something. Arc delivers very good sound in the horizontal space and sound is also elevated somewhat to eye level but the sound/feeling of bullets whizzing over your head or similar effects is not as pronounced as we had hoped. The sound stage feels wider and fuller but does not extend much above the head.

    Sonos Arc Atmos soundbar

    Arc delivers good, clear vocals, decent bass, good stereo separation for movies, and in combination with rear speakers, good surround sound effects. It is just that the Atmos effects are limited. Measured up against Sonos Playbar, Arc is an overall better soundbar that delivers a better sound stage in all areas, and with a relatively small premium over the starting price of Playbar one may argue that this is "good enough". Both Sony ST5000 and Samsung Q90R deliver more immersive sound but were also more expensive than Sonos Arc at launch. Should you replace your Playbar with Arc? If you miss the advantages of the HDMI ARC/CEC and if you can get a decent price for your Playbar, or if you want more fullness in the sound stage, then yes. If you just want to upgrade the surround effect to Atmos, I think the answer is less clear. Personally, I would not prioritize adding a subwoofer to Arc but rather opt for rear speakers first. You can then evaluate if there is enough bass power in Arc alone for your living environment. For my relatively small 20 square meter living room it delivers good bass performance. Arc does not go as deep as Beosound Stage but Bang & Olufsen's soundbar could, at times, feel a little too dominant in my space, so here Arc feels more balanced. It should also be noted (also see specs table) that Sonos still lacks support for the DTS formats so if you watch movies primarily from an external player, you will run into trouble. Whether support for DTS will be added later is speculation but it is worth noting that the other soundbars from Sonos have been available for years without gaining DTS support. Sonos has confirmed that multichannel PCM will be added via a later firmware update.

    Listening test: Music

    In many living spaces, a soundbar doubles as a music system placed in a central location of the room due to its link to the TV. This is not necessarily the same spot where you would prefer to listen to music and another challenge is that soundbars are rarely wide enough to deliver good stereo separation. On the other hand users are increasingly looking for multi-room solutions to having music available in various locations throughout the house, and since these speakers are often relatively compact, a soundbar may be the home's preferred device for music. As mentioned earlier, Sonos products now support Apple AirPlay 2 allowing you to push music wirelessly from an iPhone/iPad to the Sonos system. If you are not using an Apple device you can add your favorite music service in the Sonos app and control everything from there. The interface is not as nice and polished but most services are available after all, and the app can also stream music from local storage devices such as a networked hard drive (NAS) - but not a USB thumb drive. I have my test files on Apple Music so as an iPhone user I have several ways to input music into Arc.
    Starting with Miss Hemmingway, Arc struggled a little bit with handling Mary Chapin Carpenter's powerful voice when volume exceeded 50% of Arc's capabilities. It is almost as if it oversteers and then struggles to keep it in place. For this particular track, Playbar surprisingly delivered better performance in an A/B listening test. However, if you stay below 50% volume, you can steer clear of most of these issues. The same problem arose when listening to Cassandre McKinley's I Wish It Would Rain where midrange became a bit ringing and uncontrolled. Norah Jones’ vocals in Turn Me On were handled in a more convincing manner, since her voice is lighter and not as demanding in terms of midtones controls as Mary's, and these less midrange-demanding tracks generally sound better. TruePlay can be activated or deactivated, and I quickly noticed that in my living room - the effect is room-dependent - adjustments help make vocals clearer and to some extend cancel the aforementioned issues. The sound was more diffuse and unfocused without TruePlay tuning in this example. Butterfly by Jason Mraz was delivered with balanced bass, and vocals are in the right end of the frequency band. The drums also sounded better than on Playbar. Bird on a Wire by Jennifer Warnes has good width and clear vocals, and it was one of the very positive experiences in terms of music testing. Here Arc feels very balanced, although perhaps lacking a little bit of punch in the deep tones. As for more contemporary pop music the differences between Playbar and Arc are less pronounced. However, deep bass, clearer vocals and more direct sound are still notifiable differences between the two. Bass-lines that go "too high" up into the frequency range will still force Arc out of balance but overall sound is generally comparable to Playbar. I did not miss bass, which is a result of a soundbar not being an ideal form factor for a music speaker so there were other more pressing limitations that affected performance - including a narrow stereo perspective. If you want more powerful bass you can of course add the company's subwoofer but it comes with a hefty price tag, which would bring it closer to Ambeo and Beosound Stage, both of which are better music systems. Sonos Arc is not compatible with subwoofers from other brands. Like the majority of soundbars available today, Sonos Arc does not excel as a music system. It is not its primary goal either. I would personally not prioritize music performance but if the alternative is Sonos Five, Arc is not a bad choice as a combined TV and music speaker solution.

    Conclusion

    With Arc, Sonos has launched its first Dolby Atmos-capable product and the ability to wirelessly connect rear speakers and a subwoofer to the soundbar make it versatile choice with a reasonable starting price, although the full package is as expensive as the most premium soundbars on the market. In the most premium segment, Arc struggles to compete on all parameters. Sonos is synonymous with multi-room and Arc can be fully integrated into the company's ecosystem, which is a big advantage if you own other products from Sonos. The American company is still the leader in this segment but competitors have made gains in recent years. It will be interesting to see what is planned for the new S2 software platform. At this time, there is not much new to report. In terms of design we were disappointed to find that Arc is basically a long plastic tube, although perforated to look like other Sonos products from a distance. We miss HDMI inputs to make it possible to connect playback devices directly to the soundbar since Atmos via HDMI eARC is not widely supported in TVs yet, meaning that some TV owners will face challenges or limitations. The option to control the soundbar via IR lets you set up Arc to be controlled with a TV remote control even when the TV is off. As an Atmos soundbar, Arc fails to deliver an immersive sound experience, partly because it struggles to deliver overhead sound effects but also due to other shortcomings. By adding rear speakers to the set-up you get a significantly improved surround experience - you can add them later on, if you prefer to start out soft. For a soundbar Arc delivers good bass and it is a markedly improvement in several areas (including clearer vocals) over the now discontinued Playbar. For music, Arc's clearer vocals also put it above Playbar although it sometimes struggles to balance midrange, more so than Playbar. TruePlay tuning can help compensate for this. If you already own Playbar, Arc is probably a too expensive upgrade if you expect to gain a more immersive surround experience. Compared to the competition Samsung and Sony offer soundbars with better Atmos performance. On the other hand Arc delivers overall improved sound performance and Sonos Arc' strengths lie in its multi-room ecosystem that allow you to expand the system over time, for example with rear speakers and a subwoofer. However, if you are thinking about buying the full Sonos package you should also consider Sennheiser Ambeo.

    Price and retailers:

    US retailer
    UK retailer
    DE retailer


    Improved sound stage vs. Playbar
    Decent bass, clear vocals
    Dolby Atmos support via eARC
    Expandable: Rear speakers & subwoofer
    Sonos multi-room


    No HDMI input (only eARC)
    Unconvincing Atmos
    Lacks mid-range control
    Choice of materials


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