OPINION: When the Sonos Era speakers leak was published earlier this week, Sonos loyals and tech fans alike collectively voiced a particular hope for them: that they will make ideal surround speakers for the Beam and Arc soundbars, with upward-firing drivers able to deliver the height channels of Dolby Atmos immersive audio for an added rear-channel experience. It’s something our own Editor-in-Chief said would let him create the Sonos home cinema setup he’s always wanted, and I agree that such a comprehensive, Atmos-inclusive AV offering would add a strong string to the company’s bow. Not least if Sonos also rolled out the ability to use new or existing Sonos speakers as discrete left and right channels, which is on many Sonos users' wishlists... but that’s another story.
It’s true, I have my doubts about whether Dolby Atmos or any other kind of spatial audio technology will really stand the test of time within the music replay context, despite 'spatial audio' being adopted by wireless speakers and headphones left, right and centre. While I recognise that spatial audio music can offer an effectively immersive, wraparound sound that some may like – we certainly liked its delivery on the HomePod 2, particularly through two paired together – I don’t think it’ll revolutionise music listening for most people and leave stereo music in the dust. Perhaps it still has more to offer, doing what the Amazon Echo Studio started (through its support of Sony 360 Reality Audio).
But from what is expected to be Sonos’s next potential wireless speaker, I want it to hoist the sound quality benchmark of what is currently available at that level, and push Sonos further into the hi-res audio realm it entered when it started supporting 24-bit/48kHz hi-res streams from Qobuz and Amazon in 2021. "Your options for listening to hi-res audio will continue to evolve. And so will we," said Sonos just over a year ago.
Wireless speakers to take advantage of hi-res audio?
There’s a very real discussion about what level of audio hardware even warrants having hi-res support – are the drivers and processing in many of today’s wireless speakers advanced enough to lay bare the extra insight hi-res recordings harness? The Sonos One supports 24-bit hi-res from those aforementioned music streaming services, but would you be able to tell whether it was playing a 16-bit CD-quality stream or a 24-bit hi-res stream through it? Probably not. The same would be true of the Sonos Five. And the Echo Studio. And the HomePod. And even the pricier, multi-Award-winning Naim Mu-so Qb 2nd Gen.
Considering it isn't a given that you’d truly benefit from hi-res over, say, CD-quality listening through even the market's more expensive single-box wireless speakers, hi-res audio and one-box wireless speakers are typically at odds with one another. So along its pledged h-res journey, does Sonos have a speaker in its sights that could do hi-res proud? Possibly, and I am quietly hopeful that an Era speaker – whether it’s the rumoured ones on the near horizon or a subsequent release – might just be it.
After all, the Era 300 – the bigger of the two rumoured speakers and likely a replacement for the Sonos Five – is expected to deliver the best sound performance of any Sonos product to date. Remember, Sonos acquired a Dutch audio start-up presumably to make use of its HeartMotion balanced membrane driver/transducer technology, which has been explicitly designed to offer bigger sound from smaller packages – so this could translate into a Sonos Five-sized Era speaker with a much-enhanced sound. Or, better yet, a physically bigger speaker with a sound output unrivalled by existing accessible, one-box solutions.
Sonos to leverage hi-res audio elsewhere?
After all, how else could Sonos leverage its platform’s hi-res streaming support? Last year the company revealed plans to enter four new product categories, including one this year – and the Era smart speakers are clearly not that. So we still have that to come. Sonos wireless headphones could well break cover before anything else and, as well as possible TV-listening, multi-source-switching and music hand-off features, they could even have hi-res support over wi-fi, in addition to the usual Bluetooth.
There's an expectation that Sonos will enter the video streamer market, though the company has made it clear that its ambitions first and foremost – albeit not exclusively – lie in premium home audio. So what else could we be in for? A pair of higher-end streaming stereo speakers akin to the KEF LSX II, or even a floorstanding speaker version? Might there be a more premium Amp (streaming amplifier); both a more accessible priced, dongle-like Port (music streamer) and a better-connected, higher-end model; or an AV receiver that can drive existing surround sound speaker packages?
Whatever kit transpires, Sonos has a lot of potential areas for growth in front of it, and I pray it doesn’t lose sight of evolving sound quality as spatial technologies seemingly take centre stage. I trust it won't.
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