Driving with cabriolet top down on a particularly sunny Spring day last month, I heard the CEO of Sonos, Patrick Spence, being interviewed by Nilay Patel of The Vergecast. Spence was particularly smooth and spoke mostly in corporate talk but did take responsibility for the debacle last year where some bright spark at Sonos decided to brick older products when new software updates were applied. Even with a healthy discount, my older purchased review units were expensive and not ready for the landfill. As such, the anger was not typical of the ‘faux-outrage’ you read every day on social media. It was visceral.
The tenor of the Verge interview got me thinking about the birth of Sonos and its exponential growth based on superior engineering and brilliant marketing. Word of mouth, too. And then my thoughts turned to more challenging days – the massive layoffs, the paradigm shift to ‘smart’ speakers and how Sonos navigated those minefields. Finally, the transition to the new products and post debacle marketing.
Rather than rehash the ‘Recycle Mode’ policy decision and its fallout, please read this link.
My task in this review is to report my findings about the successor to Sonos’ fabulously successful Playbar, a product so popular, you’ll see one under a TV in most style magazines. It quickly became the choice for ‘a superior lifestyle system’. Over five years later, my units (Playbar, SUB, Play: 1 x2) are still sounding very good.
The Sonos Arc’s MSRP is $799.
SONOS S2 app
The recent upgrade path to the present began in an odd way. I’m not sure how they did it, but the new Sonos app (S2) released last week – an app to accommodate the upgraded processing power of the new speakers – improved the sound of my system significantly. As I tweeted last week, better clarity, improved quality of instrumental timbre, more bass and more coherence. Very impressive for an app update.
I was surprised my 6 year old system was compatible with the upgrade. The upgrade even streamlined my system by getting rid of the Sonos Bridge. All the diagnostics are in the app. See if your system is compatible with the app upgrade here.
Getting an Arc has been quite a challenge. Sonos products are among our most requested reviews. I’m wait listed as there are no review units out in the wild. Even the Sonos web store has them back ordered
After some scrounging around, I was able to listen to the Arc set in its natural habitat and auditioned it for a several hours with YouTube Music, Qobuz, Tidal and a few movies for the Dolby Atmos and ‘3D’ surround support. Sonos says its new internals can produce ‘3D Soundscapes’ and Dolby Atmos. Both surround features are a first for Sonos.
FYI, if you want to wall mount, the Arc uses a different version than the Playbar (with an MSRP of $89.99).
Please take into account the brevity of listening experience when reading the review.
Technology, Features and Specifications
SONOS describes its $799 Arc as ‘The new premium smart soundbar’. Double the price of Sonos’ earlier, smaller Beam Soundbar, the Arc is 45 inches long, and sheds some of the boxiness of the original Playbar with sleek rounded edges. And lots of changes within.
The Arc has 11 drivers compared to Playbar’s 9 – 3 tweeters (a center tweeter and 2 firing outward) and 8 elliptical woofers. Like every product from the Santa Barbara company, all drivers are designed in house.
Sonos speakers feature an adaptive, software-driven equalization tool on the app called ‘Trueplay’. Ensure you do this interesting tuning exercise in your own room to get the most out of your Sonos speakers. It really works.
Control is via the new app, your existing TV remote, or voice commands with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple AirPlay 2. My frustration with Alexa and my Sonos system integration led to her firing (more Alexa support problem than Sonos’ integration). It’s not you, it’s me!
The Arc’s 11 Class D amplifiers, yes, correct, 11, may seem overkill, but even without the marvellous Sonos SUB (a must for the most immersive musical experience), the Arc can rock any genre to ear busting levels.
The embargoed, online press package for the Arc debut was something to behold. Sonos could give Apple a run for its money in promotional quality materials. The basic website home of the Arc will give you all the bells and whistles filtered through corporate/marketing speak. I refer you to the link rather than recite them all here.
Dimensions H x W x D 87 x 1141.7 x 115.7 mm (3.4 x 45 x 4.5 inches)
Finish Black with matte finish / White with matte finish
Capacitive controls Tap to play, pause, adjust the volume, and mute the microphones. Swipe right to skip ahead or left to revisit a track.
Connection Single HDMI eARC
Weight 6.25 kg (13.78 lbs)
Ethernet port 1 10/100 Mbps ethernet port. Wire directly to your router if WiFi is unreliable.
WiFi Connects to your home WiFi network with any 802.11b/g, 2.4 GHz broadcast-capable router.
Infrared (IR) receiver Syncs with your TV remote for streamlined control.
I listened to the Arc in a room the size of an average 1990s walled living room, with an eight foot ceiling. No Sonos SUB or satellites were used in the long demonstration.
Within the first four bars of the Bach Concertos for organ and strings with Bart Jacobs & Les Muffatti (Qobuz), I could tell the Arc was more refined and more powerful than its two predecessors. The drivers throw the most beautiful, wide and deep sound stage with very accurate instrumental timbre. Very impressive. And for a lifestyle soundbar, very musical. Even without its aural trickery, the basic functions as a music device make the Arc a very successful soundbar. And worthy of a Sonos next step.
Whether jazzy gems like Michael Franks’ Rendezvous in Rio or full blown orchestral tests like Dudamel’s Bolivar/DG Mahler Symphony No. 7, the Arc had no problems delivering musical subtlety or a considerable wallop, each in the service of musicality and taste.
I would recommend listening to the Arc in a demo room with no SUB or satellites attached. In a smaller room, you may not need either. The Arc offers enough firepower to immerse you in any musical or visual media you desire.
Bass? My Mahler test was instructive. I use this recording in all digital demos. In the second half of the opening bar, the bass drum plays 16 32nd notes pp to emphasize the quiet rhythm before the entry of the ff tenor horn solo. It’s a magical effect on several recordings, the DG especially. The Arc portrayed it well and clearly (a very difficult task), but when played in my much larger, open plan living space on the Playbar with a SUB attached, the effect is mesmerizing – so deep and rhythmic, even with quiet dynamic markings, with the bottom, resonant octave intact. The Arc, even with superior DSP and some wonderfully effective drivers, can’t bend the laws of physics. If you’re a bass junkie, or need the explosions felt in your behind, best demo carefully.
That said, the effects and sound quality from 4K Netflix fare (on the very best Sony OLED 77” TV I have ever seen!) were incredibly good. The aforementioned aural trickery gives a good account of itself with above the head Dolby Atmos effects and the surround ‘3D’ soundstage. But, if you have the room size and the cash, I’d go for the whole enchilada – Arc, SUB and a couple of suitably placed Play 1s. FYI, the SUB and Play 1s are now called the ‘Connect Sub’ and ‘ONE SL Surrounds’.
The Arc at $799 is a worthy successor to the successful Playbar. Would I upgrade? Yes. It’s an easy decision when comparing sound and musical effects. The Arc is a superior soundbar. Sure, it’s intended for home theatre, got lots of bells and whistles, looks sexy, is beautifully manufactured and has great support, but it’s the straight ahead musical sound that it delivers that demands the upgrade.
The Playbar always had its limitations in volume, timbral accuracy, etc. The Arc improves considerably on all of these. I was extremely impressed from bar 1. And it’s so good, you may not need the accompanying speakers. Very highly recommended.