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Sonos Arc vs Beam vs Playbar vs Playbase: which is best?

Sonos Arc vs Beam vs Playbar vs Playbase: which is best?
(Image credit: Sonos)

There are now four Sonos soundbars in the company's multi-room family tree, the Sonos Beam, the Sonos Playbar, the Sonos Playbase and the newly-launched Sonos Arc, with each one offering something a little different.

The newest of the four, the Sonos Arc, will ultimately replace the Playbar and Playbase in the line-up, leaving you a choice between the Arc and Beam. The big news on the Arc? The addition of Dolby Atmos surround sound.

The Sonos Beam remains significantly smaller and cheaper than the other Sonos TV speakers, yet it offers the same array of streaming and multi-room features, plus the crucial upgrades of voice control and an HDMI connection. But that doesn't mean the Playbar soundbar or the Playbase soundbase shouldn't be considered while they remain on the market.

You might be wary of splashing the cash on a Sonos product, as the company recently hit the headlines over its plans to cease software updates for older products in May 2020. The good news is that those Sonos S2 software plans won't affect buyers of the the Arc, Beam, Playbar or Playbase. 

So which Sonos soundbar is best for you? And with Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday all fast approaching, where you can find the cheapest deals? 

Read on for our thorough comparison of the features, specs, dimensions and sound – and today's best Sonos soundbar deals.

Build and design

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

(Image credit: Sonos)

The Sonos Arc is specifically designed to partner the bigger TVs that are becoming more and more popular, with its width measurement of 114cm making it just a bit wider than a typical modern 49in TV. That also makes it significantly wider than the Playbar (90cm). 

Unlike the Playbar, the Arc can't be positioned on either its front or side – it's oriented the same way regardless of positioning (the bespoke Sonos wall-mount is a £79/$79/AU$99 optional extra), and even automatically adjusts its frequency response accordingly.

The curvy design of the Arc makes it look rather svelte in pictures, but it is a not inconsiderable 8.5cm tall. There's a touch-sensitive play/pause 'button' and two context-sensitive touch panels that you'll most often use to control volume. There's also a microphone button and a single LED that indicates whether the Arc is or isn't listening for Alexa or Google Assistant voice commands.

The full Sonos Arc dimensions are 8.7 x 114 x 11.6cm (HWD), or 3.4 x 45 x 4.5 inches, and it weighs 6.25kg (13.78lbs). 

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

The Beam is the smallest of Sonos’s TV speakers by quite some margin. Measuring 65cm wide, 10cm deep and 7cm tall, it's easy to find a spot for under or in front of your TV.

Weighing just 2.8kg, the Beam will be less of a stress on your wall if you decide to wall-mount too.

Not only is it smaller and lighter, the Beam also looks prettier than the Playbar and Playbase, though the Arc may give it a run for its money.

Minimalist styling is once more the name of the game, but the little speaker’s elongated pill shape and mesh wrap combine to make something that looks just a little bit classier and more stylish.

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

The Playbar is arguably the least attractive of the four devices, with its angular design looking a little outdated compared to the rounded panels of its newer siblings.

It’s also in many ways an awkward design. At 90cm wide and weighing 5.4kg, it’s big and heavy. It’s about as wide as a 43in TV, and wall-mounters will need to be fairly sure about the strength of the wall and fixtures they use. The official Playbar wall mount (£39/$39/AU$60) is cheaper than that of the Beam (£59/$59/AU$89), while some buyers have found they need no bracket at all.

Not wall-mounting the Playbar makes its shape even more awkward. The device’s silicone feet are on what would be the back panel against a wall, and this orientation makes the Playbar less tall and therefore less likely to obstruct a TV behind it.

And even if it does block your telly’s IR receiver, a built-in repeater ensures commands from your remote get through. The problem is that in this orientation, the Playbar’s drivers are largely firing upwards, leading to a sound delivery that’s tall but lacking in directness.

To get the best sound from the Playbar, you need to stand it on its edge - which then runs the risk of obstructing your TV screen. No such issues with the new Sonos Arc.

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

If you’ve got no intention of wall-mounting, the obvious course of action is to buy the Playbase. As the name suggests, this is a soundbase rather than a soundbar, which means it’s designed to support a television – some TVs with feet at either end will straddle it rather neatly.

That’s made possible by the Playbase’s height. Measuring just 5.8cm tall, it is much wider and deeper, giving the impression of a design that puts function before form. It’s solidly built, and the precisely machined holes that cover the device for maximum air control are pretty cool.

The four Sonos TV speakers are available in black or white and the Arc, Beam and Playbase have capacitive touch controls. As the oldest of the bunch, the Playbar makes do with older-style, physical buttons.

Features

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

The core features of Sonos products are there regardless of which of these Sonos soundbars you buy.

Support for practically every music streaming service under the sun, the ability to work with other Sonos speakers in a multi-room set-up, and the option to add two of the company’s music speakers (the Play:1, One, One SL, Play:3 or Play:5) as surrounds and/or the Sub for extra bass are all here.

The differences in the four products are mostly due to their varying ages, with the Arc and Beam upping the feature ante and being much smarter than their forebears. 

The key addition on the Arc is Dolby Atmos surround sound. The other soundbars stop at Dolby Digital 5.1 as the best TV audio option available regardless of which you choose. 

Both the Arc and Beam also offer voice control, with support for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, plus some Apple Siri commands using an iPhone or iPad.

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

Unlike the Playbar and Playbase, which rely on an optical connection to get sound from your TV, the Arc and Beam uses HDMI ARC (there is an optical adapter too). The Arc also adds eARC support, to ensure it can handle those Dolby Atmos signals from TVs that can output it.

HDMI ARC and eARC do also add an extra layer of cooperation between speaker and (HDMI CEC-compatible) telly, particularly with voice control.

Turning on your TV using Alexa is occasionally genuinely useful, and you can introduce deeper integration (playing particular shows via voice command) by adding a Fire TV device.

You can add Alexa to the Playbar or Playbase (or any Sonos speaker) by adding an Amazon Echo device such as the Echo Dot to your network, but this isn’t nearly as neat or as functional.

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

The Arc, Beam and the Playbase have AirPlay 2 support, bringing with it the ability to create multi-room systems with speakers from multiple brands. You can now have a Sonos Beam in the lounge, Apple HomePod in the kitchen and a Naim Mu-so Qb 2 in the bedroom, all playing the same music, thanks to AirPlay 2.

Unfortunately, the Playbar, as the oldest of the devices (it’s over five years old now), won’t be getting AirPlay 2 support at any point. That could be a major consideration for some.

Meanwhile, no Sonos product supports hi-res audio, thought the Sonos S2 software update could change that later in the year.

Sound

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

The different shapes and sizes of these four speakers means there are stark differences in the quantity, type and arrangement of the drivers in each.

The latest Sonos Arc has 11 Class D digital amplifiers that power 11 custom drivers. Eight of those drivers are elliptical woofers evolved from those in the Beam (four along the front, two on top and one in each end), while the other three are silk-domed tweeters that are all built into the front but with two firing diagonally into the room. 

Sonos refers to the Arc's arrangement as 5.0.2, which might initially seem a little confusing but makes more sense when you think of the soundbar as attempting to replicate the soundfield of a five-channel surround sound system with no subwoofer and two height speakers. That being said, you can add a Sonos Sub if you want.

Unsurprisingly, given its relatively diminutive dimensions, the Beam has the fewest drivers, with one tweeter and four full-range, elliptical woofers working with three passive bass radiators.

The bigger Playbar has nine, individually amplified drivers: three tweeters and six midrange drivers. The Playbase has the same number of tweeters and mid-range drivers as the Playbar, but also has a separately amplified, innovatively S-shaped woofer for its bass frequencies.

Given those differences in the drivers, it’s impressive that a clear Sonos sonic signature runs through the range. It’s clear and balanced, with good rhythmic sense, plenty of punch and a natural midrange. There’s an authenticity to the presentation from Sonos products that many rivals struggle to match.

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

The Atmos-toting Sonos Arc uses Dolby's 3D sound technology to great effect. In fact, it delivers one of the most convincing Atmos presentations of any soundbar we’ve heard. It's also the most musical of the quartet, capable of handling big dynamic shifts without breaking a sweat, and conveys plenty of subtle texture. There's a slight lack of directness to music, but that's really our only criticism of the Arc's sound.

The Beam sounds exceptionally spacious and weighty for a device its size, stretching right across the front of a small- to medium-sized room and delivering bass with a depth and authority that’s entirely unexpected - as is the volume it’s capable of producing.

The Playbar is weightier, richer and more authoritative than the Beam. It will go even louder and is capable of filling even the largest of rooms. It’s little surprise that this is a bassier delivery than that of the Beam, but that it goes deeper than the Playbase is unexpected. However, a slight artificiality to the Playbar’s bottom end suggests it’s having to work hard to compensate for its comparative lack of physical volume.

sonos arc vs beam vs playbar vs playbase

And while the Playbase doesn’t go as deep as you might expect, the integration, tonality and naturalness of its bass frequencies is impressive. There’s a cohesion through the tonal spectrum that the Beam and Playbar can’t match.

But the Playbase, unlike its siblings, has an Achilles heel: bright, sibilant treble. The top end is really too aggressive, veering from sparkle to sharpness all too often and proving an irritation over time.

All four models are worth considering but if you're after the most complete surround-sound experience the Dolby Atmos-capable Arc is the obvious choice. Only the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar is better in this regard, and that costs significantly more.

Verdict

The addition of Dolby Atmos sets the Arc apart and it offers a superior surround sound experience than the existing models. It's more than just a soundbar, too, thanks to app- or voice-controls and access to practically every music streaming service.

If you're not bothered about Dolby Atmos, the choice between the Playbar and Playbase will largely be based on your needs. If you have your TV on a wall mount, then the Playbar makes more sense of the two. If your TV is on a stand, put it on a Playbase instead.

The Playbase is the weak link in terms of sound, with the treble spoiling what is otherwise an impressive presentation. On the other hand, the Playbar is a physically cumbersome and rather awkward proposition, and its styling and feature set is starting to show its age. That it misses out on AirPlay 2 will be a deal-breaker for some.

On balance, the Sonos Beam is the pick of the three current models, so it's perhaps no surprise that it will soon sit on its own alongside the Arc as the two Sonos TV speakers to choose from in the new-look range.

In some ways the Beam is obviously less sonically capable than the Playbar and Playbase, but its performance given its size and price is really exceptional. What’s more, its compact dimensions make it far easier to find space for and its more advanced features, voice control in particular, make it extra compelling.

The Playbar should still be considered by those with very large rooms, and the Playbase remains the right choice in specific set-ups, but for most people and most rooms, the Beam is the best Sonos soundbar solution. 

But if it's within budget, the Sonos Arc is the one to beat.  

Sonos Beam

FIVE STARS

FOR: Affordable; compact; voice control; impressively weighty, spacious sound for the size and price

AGAINST: A bit of brightness at high volumes and with poor quality source material

VERDICT: The most feature-packed of Sonos’s TV speakers, and the best performance-per-pound proposition

Sonos Playbar

FIVE STARS

FOR: Big, open, weighty delivery; very deep bass; loud and authoritative enough to fill the largest rooms

AGAINST: No voice control; no AirPlay 2; slightly inauthentic bass; somewhat awkward design

VERDICT: It’s showing its age in terms of design and features, but the Playbar is still the best option for large rooms and those looking for extra bass

Sonos Playbase

FOUR STARS

FOR: Practical, solid design; excellent tonal integration; natural, rhythmic bass; AirPlay 2

AGAINST: Quite prominent brightness and sibilance to treble

VERDICT: The soundbase design will suit some, but the Playbase’s irritating treble spoils an otherwise excellent presentation