I must confess to getting a little bit overexcited when I heard about the Sonos Arc, a Dolby Atmos enabled soundbar at a price that, while by no means cheap, is still considerably more affordable than other similarly enabled products of decent competence.
After moving house 18 months or so ago, I’d been biding my time as far as a home AV set-up goes. The fully loaded 7.1 Onkyo-powered surround system of my old house is no more - I simply don’t have the space in my new living room to house all those speakers; so I’d been thinking about a soundbar as a replacement.
Clearly I won’t ever get the precision or power of a full system with a soundbar, that much I realised, but practicalities simply have to override such things for me – and a good approximation of surround sound may well be enough to do the trick. The household has been subjected to the sound coming from my 55-inch Samsung TV for a year and a half now – and to be fair the kids haven’t been complaining too much. But what do they know?
While the Sennheiser Ambeo - a veritable beast of a soundbar - would in many ways be perfect, there’s no way I can justify spending two grand on one; so I’ve been biding my time impatiently for a more affordable alternative to come along.
I almost took the plunge with the Sonos Beam (and, as events later reveal, perhaps I may yet do so…), but didn’t really pull my finger out in time to get it sorted before the Arc was announced.
So, sitting at the dining room table that has served as my work desk for most of the period of lockdown, I waited for the team to complete its review, with fingers crossed.
One five-star verdict later, and someone (ahem…) suggested that it might be a great idea for us to really put it through its paces in a real world, long-term test.
Hopes and lofty ambitions
Having read the review and talked to the reviewers, I knew that there were likely to be issues with my set up at home. But you know how it is with these things: once you get an idea in your head, you just want to plough on regardless and hope that it all turns out okay in the end.
And, to be fair to the Sonos Arc, for the most part it really has.
First things first, though. This is a very impressive looking piece of kit. It’s certainly premium in feel and build. It comes nestled in a reassuringly solid box, with heavy-duty locking tags that make the whole thing seem even more upmarket. The unit itself is everything you would expect of a Sonos product - and, despite its undeniably beefy dimensions, looks quite at home and rather neat sitting under my television.
Set up was a fairly simple affair - which was a mighty relief to me, as I had made a half-hearted effort to use a Sonos Amp as my TV’s sound source last year, and that caused me a fair bit of trouble (due, I found out in the end, to an issue with the HDMI cables I was using). So it was with some trepidation that I plugged the Arc in to the Samsung’s One Connect box, using the HDMI cable supplied with the soundbar.
A positive handshake
Then it was simply a case of downloading the Sonos app onto my iPhone and letting the pair do their set-up thing. (The Arc works only with the new S2 version of the Sonos app, so you’ll need to download that if you’ve got legacy Sonos kit and are still on 1.0).
The phone app found the Arc quickly, and then set me on the way to setting things up. It’s an interesting process, involving, among other things, moving around the room wafting your phone about while the soundbar beeps at you, gauging the dimensions and sonic characteristics of the space it has to work in.
That reasonably fast set up process gone through, we were good to go.
It’s safe to say that the Arc was instantly impressive. Not a massively surprising statement perhaps, given that it was competing with the TV’s speakers; still, instant gratification nevertheless. Voices are precisely placed, and extremely clear, the spread of sound is in a completely different league, and there is texture and depth to the bass. It’s night and day.
What it’s not, of course, and nor could it ever really be, is a proper AV amplifier driving seven speakers - but as I’ve already explained, I have now written that off as an option, so I’m not in any way disappointed.
One of the issues I have had with the Samsung is that the volume would vary with the input - so the Sky Q box, for example, would be playing at a comfortable level, but then if the PS4 was booted up, it was always much louder, and the remote control had to be scrabbled for.
The Arc has removed this irritation for the most part. The sound from the Samsung is fed to the Sonos via the the TV's ARC-enabled HDMI output, and it all comes out of the soundbar at the same volume. This may seem a rather minor irritation but it became less and less minor as time wore on - and I’m extremely happy to be rid of it.
And the volume is controlled by the Sky Q handset, now I’ve told it to be, so the Arc sits there waiting to be of service without fuss. Turn the TV on and the Arc comes on with it. It’s all very neat and intuitive.
Won't somebody please think of the children?
I’d set all this up in an empty house, so I was interested to note the reaction of the rest of the household, and said nothing about the change in sonic setup. The kids (who, as is the way with teenagers, are astonishingly unobservant about such things in general) barreled into the living room, turned on the telly and started watching Netflix (Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I believe.)
Within 20 seconds or so, I was asked, “What’s happened to the sound?” It was only after that that the question came, “and what’s that in front of the telly?” (see comment about observation skills above).
So first impressions very good all round - even for the unobservant teenagers.
Coming down off the high
It was when I started looking into fine-tuning things and trying to test out the surround-sound capabilities that a little bit of the gloss started to come off. I hasten to add, the main issue really isn’t the Arc’s fault. And as I’ve said, this wasn’t an enormous surprise by any means, but it was still just a tiny bit devastating.
My TV won’t pass through a Dolby Atmos signal.
It’s a great TV, the UE55KS9000 (and many people have commented on its impressive picture over the past three and a half years), but it’s been left behind by Samsung on the update front. The first time this frustrated me was when the BBC started broadcasting 4K content over iPlayer. The set doesn’t support HLG, so couldn’t show any of the events (Wimbledon, the 2018 World Cup) that the Beeb put out.
And this (the fact that it won’t pass through a Dolby Atmos signal) is the second crushing disappointment it has meted out.
The best I can manage, having tinkered with the TV’s settings is 5.1 surround - the app will tell you what the soundbar is outputting.
Still a very impressive sound in 'plain' 5.1
Thankfully, the plain vanilla 5.1 sound is pretty impressive in its own right; it certainly makes a good fist at spreading the soundtrack of an action movie out wide, and giving very decent sound location. But it’s not Dolby Atmos. There’s no way around this, other than getting hold of a new TV of course, and, while I am positively itching to experience the full fat sonic abilities of the Arc, I really can’t justify replacing what is a pretty fine TV still.
It may just be, though, that the Arc is therefore overkill for me. A Sonos Beam may well do close to the same job for half the cost. Something, for sure, for the prospective Arc purchaser to investigate.
Despite my frustrations, I am still deeply impressed by the Sonos Arc - and I have a few ideas to come to see how I might improve things further; chief among these involves a visit to IKEA and the purchase of two Symfonisk bookshelf speakers to act as true surround speakers for the system.
For that, watch this space: I shall update this particular story Arc in due course, once my family and I have lived with the new Sonos soundbar for a while longer.