Sonos Arc Dolby Atmos Soundbar Review
Californian streaming specialist Sonos is stepping up its game with a new soundbar, architecture and app, says Stephen Dawson…
In one sense, the new Sonos Arc is just another model in the company’s respected range of networked, multiroom speaker systems. In another, it’s a £799 soundbar that massively improves the sound of your television. It replaces the Playbar, but at 1,142x90x115mm it is wider – and comes complete with more speakers and amplifiers built-in.
Indeed, there are eleven drive units, each with its own Class D amplifier. Three of these are silk-dome tweeters, one being close to the centre with two elliptical woofers to its right. Going out wider towards the ends of the Arc, we see another bass driver to the left and right, then another tweeter. These two tweeters are angled to fire out at an angle to the left and right, rather than straight ahead. On each end of the Arc is another woofer, and finally on top are two more which fire upwards in a Dolby-Enabled fashion.
An inset at the rear allows for the three physical connections – 240 volts power, HDMI and Ethernet. This soundbar also supports Wi-Fi, on the 2.4GHz band only. At the centre top are three touch controls, namely play/pause, volume down and volume up. At the top right there’s a control for the built-in microphones. What’s all that about? Well, there are four of them built-in, because the Sonos supports both the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice control systems. You can choose only one of them, you don’t have to use both; I opted for Google Assistant, and it worked well.
TVs are built low these days, so the Arc has an IR repeater built in, passing remote control commands through to the TV behind it. The Arc itself does not come with a remote control as such, but can be controlled by your TV’s remote control; it took only a few seconds to set that up with my LG OLED65C7T television. Most of the time you control the Arc via the Sonos app on your smartphone or tablet.
You could say that this company’s very raison d’être is networked audio, and not just playing it through the Arc but controlling every aspect of it via the app, which works on iPhones, iPads and Android phones and tablets. The Arc and several other new Sonos products promise additional capabilities over previous generations, but the manufacturer is largely keeping mum on what they may be – although it does mention high-resolution audio. For this reason, the old Sonos app has been demoted and a new one instituted. At least the most recent previous generation of Sonos devices can be updated to work with the new app.
The app naturally looks after things like firmware updates and is perhaps the most well developed on any control system in home entertainment. For example, at one point, I had arrayed around me an Android tablet, an Android phone, an iPad and an iPhone. All four were running the Sonos app, showing me what was then playing. When I tapped the volume control on the LG TV remote control, the volume slider on the screen of all four devices moved in sync – instantly. There are few systems that work so well.
The Sonos Arc app lets you choose between the TV input, playback of music on the device carrying the app, playback of music in the Music Library, Sonos Radio (which offers a bunch of stations curated by Sonos) or whichever streaming music services you desire. There are seventy-two to choose from, including the biggies like Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Audible, Deezer, Google Play Music, SoundCloud and TIDAL. The Arc also supports Apple AirPlay 2.
The Music Library would not recognise DLNA music served up by my Synology NAS, but you can go through the slightly more convoluted process of adding network shares – typing in the network address of the NAS music folder in the form “//123.456.789.012/music”. Then the app will gradually read through the ID3 tags of all the music files in the folder. Expect it to take hours to index the first time if you have a large music collection.
The app also lets you adjust treble and bass, apply dynamic range compression for late-night movie viewing, and invoke a so-called dialogue enhancer. It also talks you through setting up the Sonos Arc, step by step. Along the way, it gives you the option of adding a Sonos Sub and two other Sonos speakers to act as surround for a full 5.1 channel system.
If you’re using the iOS version of the app, you can also run the Trueplay room calibration system. This is only on the iOS platform because there are a limited number of iPhone and iPad models, so calibration curves could be developed for their known microphone characteristics. Try doing that for the thousands of Android phones out there! The Trueplay tuning system is straightforward enough; it runs some test tones while you put your iPhone/iPad where it says. I measured the frequency response at the listening position in my room, both before and after calibration. By eye, I can’t really say that it looks any better, although it is clearly different. There were differences in sound, but they were fairly subtle and didn’t really change things much at all.
Sitting in my prime listening seat, I could hear Marillion’s Grendel emerging from the Sonos some two and a half metres in front of me, with a soundstage far wider than the width of the Arc. I also heard a tonally balanced sound with an actual thump from the kick drum and a bass guitar line that was very easy to follow. My first impressions were, “so where’s the subwoofer hiding?” After all, if you can feel a kick drum, then you’re getting close to 40Hz! That, in a nutshell, is what this delivers musically – the sense that you’re listening to something much bigger than a soundbar.
I was also impressed by its dynamism. The drum kit poked through the music in a lively manner, and at quite a respectable volume – it was peaking in the mid-eighty decibel region. When I turned up the volume further, the Sonos Arc still held things together nicely. Indeed with Ry Cooder’s Nobody, things began to approach actual audiophile performance. There was more precision in the stereo imaging, especially the acoustic guitar. The stereo image seemed a little behind the usual soundstage, further away from the listening position. The nearly a cappella male voices were beautifully and powerfully presented. There was a touch of upper-bass muddiness occasionally detracting from proceedings, but this was barely noticeable.
I started whizzing through my music library. Venus by Shocking Blue struck me with its mixture of fine definition and unexpected spatial distance. This was less apparent on the chamber music of Dvorak’s Second Piano Quintet, where I became quite entranced by the smooth delivery of the violins, along with the lovely decay to held piano notes. The Arc’s stereo spread was certainly wide, but let’s not forget this is just a mere soundbar. The Ry Cooder track was served up in a less precise way than you’d expect from a half-decent pair of stereo speakers. The latter can create a sense of instruments aurally existing in the sound stage, rounded and real – but in truth, there was little of that here. All the notes were presented in proper proportion, but not in the perfectly cohesive way required to create a sense of authentic musical reality.
Does that matter? Well it depends on you and how you’re listening – if you just want some nice-sounding and balanced music throughout your room, the Sonos Arc will happily deliver, and if you like rhythms then you’ll be tapping your feet along too. Yet if you’re the kind of listener who sits still, closes his or her eyes, and focuses on the music then you’ll not be getting that focus returned. Am I being too harsh here? If you’re a real audiophile, then, of course, you won’t be buying a soundbar of any kind, I suppose. Oh, and since I’m being fussy, there was clearly a section in the mid-bass which, when pushed, sounded a little muddy. Here endeth the list of imperfections.
Two further notes on stereo music. First, which of the thirteen speaker drivers does the Sonos Arc use? All of them as far as I could tell. However, unlike with surround sound signals, it uses the upwards-firing pair for bass and low midrange duties alone, not higher frequencies. Second, I’d been hoping that this latest Sonos refresh would allow one to enjoy hi-res music. Sadly, no – 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling frequencies are still the upper limit.
SOUND AND VISION
The Sonos Arc is extremely practical when it comes to TV sound. With the default settings in the app, the input automatically changes to HDMI as soon as any sound is detected, stopping whatever network audio you’re playing. It will also temporarily ungroup the Arc from any groups that it’s in.
As for its surround sound, it was fascinating. To start with, I fired up a Dolby Atmos demo disc and selected first the Amaze trailer and then the Leaf trailer. Both of these were created by Dolby to demonstrate sound steering in Atmos. The two upwards-firing speakers were indeed producing sound – not just bass or midrange but some treble as well, just like Atmos-enabled speakers are supposed to.
One possible problem with the Arc is that without any visual indication of what signal it is receiving, you may not be certain that it’s getting the correct signal. So you must make sure that you go into your TV’s Sound menu and ensure it is set to pass-through the original audio, not downsample to two channels.
Amaze has gobs of deep bass that typically sound overblown even with a subwoofer. It was thumping and appropriately stressful through the Arc as well, although not floor-rumbling in the same way as it is when delivered by my fifteen-incher. I have to say I was impressed – indeed I’m now keen to get hold of the Sonos Sub to see what it can add…
The sound field was much wider than the actual soundbar itself. There was a great precision in the acoustic location of objects, and they had clear height and depth in addition to lateral spacing. Depth was tied to height; the higher the image, the closer to the listener it would come. Most of the activity seemed to be in this slab of acoustic space reaching somewhat in front of the soundbar, yet sounds that were up high broke free of that limitation.
In the Leaf trailer, the leaf flies around the room from front around to the left rear, ascending as it does so, then across to the right rear while still up high, and then down again as it returns to the front. The Arc doesn’t seek to fake the surround channels but does have actual physical height channels. The leaf really did come back out into the room, up high. Not quite behind me, but it clearly went over my head. Remember, the height channels in Dolby Enabled speakers aren’t just fired up at the ceiling, as there’s some secret Dolby processing going on in there to enhance the effect. I don’t doubt that if you were to add a couple of Sonos speakers in the surround positions, you’d have an extremely effective surround system. The Arc alone definitely presents more than just a frontal wall of sound.
Night mode did its job of narrowing the dynamic range – leave it off unless absolutely necessary, of course. The speech enhancer lifted the centre channel level by a couple of decibels – most dialogue comes from the centre so the effect was subtle, but it could help those having trouble understanding what’s being said onscreen. One final note – when I measured the frequency response of the Sonos Arc, it clearly reached down to 45Hz before dropping off a cliff. That was the case when measured from the listening seat, and with the measurement microphone shoved right in front of the centre of the soundbar. That’s impressive.
To what should the Sonos Arc be compared? Many of its soundbar rivals come with a so-called subwoofer which is typically a 165mm driver in an enclosure about the size of a bookshelf speaker. Sonically, the Arc eats these up and spits them out, in nearly every way. It certainly kills them for sound quality, especially thanks to the way that it serves up clear, stress-free high-volume levels. Yet there’s a caveat here, the proverbial elephant in the room. Even now in 2020 – despite having excellent general networking capabilities – there is still no support for hi-res audio. What a shame, because in so many other respects it’s a real class act. If this really doesn’t bother you, then this is an essential audition.
Stephen Dawson started writing full time about home entertainment technology just weeks before the DVD was launched in Australia. Since then he has written several thousand product reviews amounting to millions of words for newspapers and magazines around Australia.
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