Sonos is the company that single-handedly legitimised the idea of wireless, multi-room audio for the masses. And it’s built on its subsequent ubiquity not by breaking any more new ground, but by watching which way the market it inspired is going, and then delivering forcefully competitive alternatives to those products trying to horn in on its territory.
Judiciously, the gaps in its model range are being filled. The Beam soundbar from a couple of years ago put Sonos at the forefront of the ‘reasonably affordable yet high-performance’ soundbar market. Last year’s Move speaker finally addressed the brand’s need for a battery-powered, portable Bluetooth answer to the hundreds of me-too alternatives that had flooded the market while Sonos was busy giving the whole concept a bit of a think.
And now Sonos has finally pensioned off its elderly Playbar soundbar in favour of something a bit more up-to-date. The Arc is one of those soundbars that want to be a whole audio entertainment system: Dolby Atmos compatibility for some immersive surround-sound, and sufficient sonic talent to be a credible music-maker, too. It’s a measure of just how confident Sonos is that Arc will hit the spot around here that it’s charging a full £100 more than in the US.
As is usual these days, Sonos is far from first out of the blocks with this idea. But if its most recent products tell us anything, it’s that Sonos is far less interested in being first nowadays than it is in being best.
The Arc looks like all recent Sonos speakers – just longer. At just shy of 9cm tall, a touch over 114cm long and 11.5cm deep, it’s a pretty significant device – position it under a TV of less than 55in or so and it’s going to look disproportionately long. Mind you, compare it to our current favourite Dolby Atmos soundbar (Sennheiser’s Ambeo) and it looks like a pencil.
There’s a recess at the back of the bar where the Arc’s few physical connections (mains power, eARC HDMI, Ethernet and set-up button) are positioned – it’s also packing Apple AirPlay 2 connectivity. The bottom of the bar is softly rubberised for shelf- or table-top positioning, and at the rear there are a couple of screw-holes for use with the (optional) wall-mount.
Build quality and the standard of finish are unarguable, and despite the unpromising dimensions the Arc actually manages to look reasonably discreet. That’s if you go for the matte black finish, of course – it’s somehow a much more assertive looker in matte white. But no matter which of the finishes suits you better, the Sonos Arc ultimately looks like what it is. Because if function dictates form anywhere in the audio tech world, it’s with soundbars.
Sonos could give the Prime Minister a run for his money when it comes to keeping sensitive details to itself, but what’s certain is that the Arc features a total of 11 drivers. Eight of them are elliptical ‘racetrack’ mid/bass drivers – there’s one at each end of the bar, two more firing upwards from near the centre and four more firing from the front at carefully calculated angles. As far as how big they are, or what they’re made of, or how much power each one enjoys from its individual block of Class D amplification, well… Sonos isn’t saying.
It’s happy to confirm the Arc’s three tweeters (all forward-firing) are silk-dome items, mind you – but, again, how big they are and the amount of power driving them is classified information.
There are some physical controls on the bar itself: three little touch-sensitive areas covering ‘volume up’, ‘volume down’, ‘play/pause’ and ‘skip forwards/backwards’. Otherwise, operation of the Arc is achieved using voice control or the new S2 version of Sonos’s exemplary control app.
Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are available, and are easily integrated into the control app. From there, the Arc uses its four-strong far-field microphone array to take your instructions on board – these are arranged along the top of the ‘bar. So as well as the upward-firing drivers, the mics are another reason not to put the Arc in a position where it will be enclosed from above.
As far as the S2 version of the app goes, it’s available for download on June 8 – and, let’s face it, it has a lot to live up to. Sonos has established itself as one of the very, very few audio companies able to deliver a flawlessly simple and stable app experience – it’s one of the reasons Sonos is so well regarded. This test of the Sonos Arc was conducted using a beta version of the S2 software, so it’s hardly fair to judge on that basis. Just don’t mess up one of your authentic USPs, Sonos. No pressure.
Integrating music services into the app couldn’t be any more straightforward – and there is an absolute stack to choose from. In common with the rest of the technical aspects of Arc, Sonos would much rather not dish too many details of the DAC that’s on board – but during testing it proves tricky (but not impossible) to find a file format the Arc isn’t happy with.
Although the native resolution of the Arc isn’t public knowledge, it is currently capable of dealing with audio files up to 16bit/48kHz resolution – that may rise to 24bit when the S2 update drops.
It won’t deal with MQA-powered Tidal Masters audio files, though, and a 24bit/44.1kHz WAV file of Thom Yorke’s Anima is rejected by the app on the basis that it is ‘not encoded correctly’. But Yorke’s In The Absence Thereof… playlist on the integrated Sonos Radio app goes some way towards making up for it.
It seems to be a cast-iron rule that the more useful a film is for testing audio and/or video quality, the more execrable an actual movie it is. And so it’s with a mixture of anticipation and dread that Netflix’s 6 Underground is fed into the Sonos Arc – it’s an appalling, incoherent piece of film-making but it’s a Dolby Vision HDR- and Dolby Atmos-powered technological tour de force. And the Sonos Arc makes it plain where all the real effort has been expended where this film is concerned.
The Arc’s sonic presentation is much wider, much taller and much deeper than the ‘bar itself. The movement of effects across the front of the stage (what would be the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ channels of a traditional home cinema set-up) is pronounced and smooth, and the amount of width available on the soundstage makes even extreme panning of effects believable. It’s a spacious sound the Arc presents, too, with plenty of room for sounds to stand in isolation if that’s what the soundtrack demands.
Obviously the Arc is in no position to offer any meaningful impression of surround sound, but it does quite well in its efforts to bring effects that would be in the rear channels of a five-speaker set-up as close to alongside your seated position as possible. The ‘Trueplay’ feature (iOS only), heard to such good effect on products like the Sonos Move portable speaker, helps no end here: understanding the room where the Arc is positioned allows sounds to be reflected off side walls with a fair bit more purpose than they otherwise would.
Naturally, you can always add a couple of Sonos One SL speakers as wireless rears if you want to go the whole surround-sound hog.
Of course, the Dolby Atmos raison d’être is the height it brings to the soundstage – and in this regard the Arc is a success, of the reasonably qualified type. There’s no denying the sound it delivers is much taller than that served up by a more traditionally specified soundbar, and when a film lays on the Atmos effects with a trowel (as many do) that additional height is noticeable and enjoyable. Just as with surround sound, though, the Arc isn’t able to give any meaningful impression of overhead sound.
If your TV’s mounted on or close to a wall, with the Sonos Arc directly beneath it, sound can seem to emanate from the whole area of the wall. And consequently it’s more absorbing, more immersive and more enveloping than if it was coming directly from the TV or from a more straightforward soundbar like Sonos’s own Beam.
Tonally, it’s judged pretty well as far as movie soundtracks go. There’s a degree of bass, treble and ‘loudness’ adjustment available in the control app, but it doesn’t take much fiddling to get a sound that’s crisp, distinct and punchy.
The Arc is capable of frankly unlikely low-frequency presence, to the point that adding a subwoofer seems a bit pointless (although if you do choose to add a Sonos Sub, the Arc’s digital sound processing takes some of the low-frequency responsibility away from the ‘bar). Its bass reproduction is deep, textured and quite pleasingly detailed – and it’s controlled pretty well, too. For all the bass drive and attack that’s available, it doesn’t hang around or impact on the information above it.
At the opposite end, the Arc is absolutely as crisp as it wants to be. It doesn’t take much provocation – some shattering glass or shell-casings hitting a concrete floor, for example – for the Sonos to become quite hard and unforgiving at the top end. So some judicious fiddling with the EQs would seem to be in order if you don’t want to wince every time there’s an on-screen metal-on-metal impact.
In-between, though, the Arc is far more sure-footed. Dialogue is centred, rich and detailed – the more actorly a voice, the more character the Sonos gives it. It projects well forward of the rest of the frequency range, too, so voices remain distinct even if there’s audio chaos surrounding them. The centre channel is the most hard-working speaker in any home cinema set-up of any type, and Sonos has ensured the middle section of the Arc has what it takes.
About the only audible shortcoming, except for the latent treble response, is the area where low frequencies become midrange frequencies. Presumably Sonos has deployed its digital sound processing to allow some of the forward-facing drivers to deliver all that midrange fidelity, leaving the other drivers to deal with more of the lower stuff – but there’s a slight disconnect between the two. A kind of concavity exists in this section of the frequency range, a slight disconnect between bassy sounds and those higher up.
This trait is more pronounced when listening to music. All of the Arc’s plus-points – the generous size of the soundstage it delivers, the low-end punch and attack, the detail and character of voices in the midrange – carries over intact.
And now Tidal has begun offering Dolby Atmos mixes of some music, the Arc has even more opportunity to demonstrate just how expansive it can sound with a well-mastered Atmos file. But the little absence between low-end and midrange is still apparent, and the tendency for the top of the frequency range to get just a little glassy is in evidence, too.
Someone who’s already deep in the Sonos ecosystem is entitled to dismiss these shortcomings as simple foibles, certainly – the Arc gets an awful lot right, and is a valid option for anyone who wants a little taste of Dolby Atmos sound but doesn’t want to drill holes in the ceiling.
Strapping on a couple of Sonos One SLs to form rear channels and leaving the Arc to deal with centre/front left/front right duties might help even things out, too.
So once again Sonos has watched, waited and struck when it feels the time is right. And while the Arc may not be the out-and-out best Dolby Atmos soundbar around, it might just be the best at this sort of money. Even at the inflated price Sonos has set for the UK.
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