For years, Sonos has been synonymous with the concept of multi-room audio, so it’s hard to know which came first. At the very least, Sonos spotted a trend long before its competitors – at most, it’s responsible for making the market what it is today.
Sonos as a system has two big advantages – breadth of choice and simplicity of use. In the time its rivals have been playing catch-up, Sonos has launched a whole family of products and got onside with a long list of streaming services, not to mention nailing the usability aspect of multi-room audio.
The most obvious way to introduce yourself to Sonos is with the Sonos One wireless speaker (pictured, above). Matching the five-star performance of the Play:1 pretty much step for step, it builds on the latter’s feature list with built-in Alexa Voice Assistant and Google Assistant) to become the company’s inaugural smart speaker offering.
It's a great little speaker in its own right. Controls on the speaker come via a touch-sensitive panel decorated with a circle of tiny, white LEDs and symbols. These represent play/pause, the microphone and Sonos’ now-familiar context-sensitive actions, while the white LEDs illustrate when Alexa is switched on. There's also a dedicated Pairing button, just above the ethernet socket.
If you want to voice-control music in other rooms, specify where (eg. “Alexa, play Bowie in the lounge”) and the One will send music to the Sonos kit you’ve ascribed to that ‘zone’ – even a non-Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker, such as a PlayBar or Play:5 (below). “Alexa, play Bowie everywhere” sets all your Sonos speakers to synchronised Ziggy Stardust mode.
A combination of noise-cancelling, something called “smart voice capture” and a custom-designed six-microphone array also ensures that she can always hear you.
Of course, you can also use Alexa on the One exactly as you do an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, so as well as playing music you can set timers and alarms, check the weather, add items to your shopping list – small features, but useful nonetheless.
The One produces a weighty, full-bodied and spacious sound that’s capable of going loud for a speaker this small. Voices are clearly projected, bass is solid, and treble is crisp and clean. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated sound, and one that’s natural and authentic.
That general sonic character also carries over to the far larger Play:5, but it’s able to produce a far bigger and bolder sound, thanks to its larger chassis and extra drivers: three 10cm mid-woofers sit below a trio of tweeters, one front-firing and two horned outwards for greater dispersion, and are powered by six matching Class D amplifiers.
This is a weighty performance that can easily fill a room without sacrificing the clarity or openness of the mid-range. It’s effortlessly listenable, with no hard or sharp edges to cause distraction.
At the other end of the price spectrum is the Sonos Roam. The cheapest Sonos speaker, it's also the first portable Bluetooth speaker in the range.
Of course you still get all the Sonos multi-room connectivity at home but now you can take the Sonos sound with you wherever you go, whether it's into the garden, to the park or on holiday (other not-inside-your-home options are available). It's solidly built and will survive water and dust, too, thanks to its IP67 rating.
The built-in battery is good for up to 10 hours of playback from a single charge, ensuring Bluetooth - and AirPlay 2 - wireless audio for a full day.
Sonically, it's good if not great, sounding punchy and delivering plenty of bass. For pure sound quality there are better portable speakers out there at this price but none of them have all the skills of a Sonos speaker.
Sonos encourages you to calibrate each speaker using the app’s built-in TruePlay feature, which measures pulses fired out from the drivers. It generally results in better performance, so it's a shame that, due to inconsistencies in Android devices’ microphones, only iOS devices can get in on the action.
There’s also a Loudness switch for each speaker, which is worth experimenting with. Turning it off can result in greater clarity and tighter bass, particularly if the speaker is placed in a corner, but it also reduces weight and scale.
Sonos hi-fi components
We’ve long enjoyed the Connect as Sonos’s means of connecting existing hi-fi systems to its multi-room network, while until recently the Connect:Amp has been the company’s go-to powered version of the streamer.
But the Sonos Amp (pictured, above) is the latest version of this product. It's available in black and with three touch-sensitive ‘buttons’ on the front: one for play/pause and two that change use with context but are mainly for the volume.
The insides of the new Amp are densely packed, with no dead space. That, of course, creates a cooling problem, but the Amp is designed to bring in air from underneath and expel it from the top, all without the use of a fan.
In terms of character, the Amp paints very much with the same bold strokes as the rest of its family, revelling in forward-sounding presentations and dealing them with gusto and a more-than-respectable level of detail.
That’s not to say the Amp is overly energetic – it doesn’t attempt to force the issue with subtler tracks as some enthusiastically forward-sounding components can tend to do – but it doesn’t need asking twice to really throw the music at you.
Organisation is wavering only when an arrangement tests the Amp at its limits, and rhythmically it is far from inept, but there isn’t quite the musicality to offer tracks their due expression or drive beats with obvious impetus on leading notes.
As part of a Sonos network, it is an admirable performer, not least for its versatility; it just falls short in terms of hi-fi separates.
Sonos’s suite of home cinema components all share the character of the rest of the family. Further testament to their talents, is their consistently high ratings in our stand-alone tests: the Playbase and Sub were both awarded four stars, with the Playbar, Arc, Beam and now Beam 2, all achieving five stars.
The Beam 2 and Arc are the two latest soundbars and certainly the ones we'd focus on if we were looking to add an AV element to a Sonos system.
The Arc may have arrived late to the Dolby Atmos soundbar party but it quickly proved to be one of the very best performance-per-pound soundbars you can buy. It's designed to partner bigger TVs than the more compact Beam. At 114cm (45"), it is a bit wider than a typical modern 49-inch TV and is proportionally best partnered with a 55-inch model.
At the back of the Arc are the power socket, an ethernet connection for wired networking, and a single HDMI port. An optical adapter is included for those with older TVs, but the intention is that you use HDMI and use the ARC/eARC (Audio Return Channel) functionality to get the sound from your TV to the Arc.
The Arc's Dolby Atmos sound field is generated by 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. The Arc uses its array of speakers to bounce sound off your walls and ceiling to create a 3D audio effect, and the soundfield is once again tailored to your room using Sonos' Trueplay technology.
The Arc runs exclusively on the Sonos S2 platform, so all your other devices will need to be updated to S2 in order to work with the Arc, and it's worth remembering that some older Sonos devices are entirely incompatible with this latest software (and the benefits it brings).
Crucially, the Sonos Arc delivers one of the most convincing Atmos presentations of any soundbar we’ve heard. It's detailed and expansive, handling big dynamic shifts as well as it delivers more delicate sounds. There's weight and punch as well as clarity in the higher frequencies.
As for the Beam 2 it's more of the same but in a more compact package.
The new Beam not only lives up to the high bar set by its predecessor but exceeds it by a margin that more than justifies its higher cost. The decision by Sonos to use processing power and forward-facing drivers to recreate Dolby Atmos has paid off with a more capable and effective handling of the format than many more expensive soundbars with upward-firing drivers.
The Sonos Beam Gen 2, much like the Arc, is the best Dolby Atmos soundbar at its price, and it elevates itself yet further with its streaming smarts, compact design and expert handling of motion, depth and space. And regardless of Atmos, it sounds incredible, confidently delivering deep bass, a refined, smooth treble, and a wide dynamic range.
The Sonos app is a large part of the system’s charm. As well as walking you through set-up, it’s where control of your system takes place, enabling you to see what music is playing where and to group speakers together.
It also offers the widest choice of streaming service compatibility of any multi-room system, giving you access to all of your music in one place. Even Spotify is properly integrated into the app, where most rivals force you to use Spotify Connect. On Sonos though, that’s merely an option.
Having everything in one place is one of Sonos’s greatest strengths, largely because it enables genuine universal search. Search for an artist, album or track and Sonos will browse through all music services and local sources connected over a home network, such as iTunes libraries and NAS drives.
It’s a nice touch, especially when most competitors only search one source at a time. You’re also able to build playlists and on-the-fly queues directly within Sonos, and again from multiple sources.
Thanks to the S2 update, Sonos filled the high-resolution gap that previously existed, streaming up to 24-bit/48kHz FLAC files courtesy of streaming service, Qobuz. The S2 platform supports FLAC and ALAC files in up to 24-bit depth from your music library. TIDAL HiFi is limited to lossless FLAC at 16-bit/44.1kHz.
Elsewhere, Sonos supports all the main file formats, including MP3, WMA, FLAC (up to 16bit/44.1kHz), WAV, AAC and AIFF, recommending FLAC format for lossless files to ensure the most accurate indexing.
Sonos also supports Alexa voice control and Google Assistant. Buying one of Sonos's own smart speakers gives you the best, most seamlessly integrated experience, but adding the cheaper Echo Dot to an existing Sonos system gives you the option to control the music across your house using your voice.
The constant updating of its app is testament to Sonos’s dedication to endlessly improving, upgrading and evolving the offering, though how long Sonos S1 products will continue to be viable following the launch of S2 remains to be seen. For now, the two platforms don't talk to each other so you need to choose one or operate two apps, should you have a system of old and new products.
Despite being the first multi-room system to win a What Hi-Fi? Award, the company hasn't had things all its own way in recent years. The emergence of hi-fi rivals, such as Bluesound, cheaper alternatives, such as Audio Pro, and the ability to build systems using Chromecast and AirPlay, has kept Sonos on its toes.
In 2021, Sonos has really delivered. The Roam has successfully added a portable, Bluetooth speaker to the family, while the new Beam has brought excellent Atmos sound to a more affordable price.
And while the S2 update has marked the beginning of the end for some of the company's legacy products – unwelcome if far from uncommon in the tech world – it has brought with it some clear upsides for the latest Sonos devices.
Offering a full suite of good to great multi-room speakers for music and movies, we're happy to recommend Sonos to anyone eager to explore the world of whole home wireless audio.