This isn’t the article I planned to write when I was offered an opportunity to review the new Arc from Sonos. Soundbars aren’t a new concept, in fact this is Sonos’s 4th-generation model following the highly lauded PLAYBAR, the PLAYBASE, and most recently, the Beam. Smart speakers aren’t new either; just like the latest Arc, the aforementioned Beam supports Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple AirPlay 2. Smart connectivity is pretty much par for the course these days. Soundbars aside, Sonos offers an array of connected speakers. Which leads to my next point: Sonos has been at this for a while, and I’ve become spoiled by the brand, almost to the point where I take how well my own system works for granted. My entire family uses it, young and old (me), and I’ve never heard the words, “Dad, the speaker isn’t working,” which speaks for itself. So, with the Arc, I was expecting more of the same—a new speaker from Sonos that just works as designed. What I got instead was the most enjoyable Sonos experience I’ve had to date, and arguably one of the best speaker surprises I’ve had. Sure, I could’ve saved my opinion for the closing, but allow me to explain how I reached this conclusion.
Setup and What’s New
As with most tech, installation can be a wild card. It can go horribly wrong or it can exceed your expectations. If you’re a member of the Sonos ecosystem, as I am, exceeding expectations isn’t easy. We’re already accustomed to simple but flexible system control. Sonos recently announced S2, a new app and OS that supports new features, and enables higher-resolution audio technologies for music and home theater. The majority of Sonos products are compatible with S2 (see this link for product compatibility and more information). If all your Sonos products are compatible, you can simply download the app and get started. If you have some of Sonos’s oldest products that are not supported by S2 due to memory and processing power limitations, you can continue to use your system as you do today (more information here) and split your system. Ensuring hardware releases is challenging enough—add in a new app, and the stakes rise exponentially.
The S2 app is similar in design to the one it replaces, which is a good thing. I’m not a fan of fixing what isn’t broken. Thankfully, I didn’t have to re-register my existing speaker, and adding the Arc to my system was simple, thanks to the intuitive onscreen instructions. Aside from the speaker’s design and size, one of the things that sets the new Arc apart from its soundbar predecessors is TruePlay Tuning technology, a feature I was first introduced to in its Move speaker. This feature uses your iPhone’s built-in microphone to tailor the sound of the Arc to your room’s acoustics, a feature that pays dividends when listening to multi-channel music and movies—more on that and the new Dolby Atmos integration later. Configuring TruePlay was also a breeze because the speaker emitted several test tones as I walked around my room, as instructed.
Inside, the box is very Sonos—aside from the speaker, you get a detachable power cord, setup instructions, an HDMI cable with optical adapter, and an Ethernet cable. That’s it, and frankly that’s all that’s required. My preferred connection is Wi-Fi, so in my case I got more than I needed with the Ethernet cable. I connected the Arc to the HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC)-enabled port on my Roku TV and had everything up and running from unboxing to listening in less than 20 minutes. That too, is very Sonos, in my experience. Thanks to HDMI-CEC, the Arc’s volume is controlled by my TV’s existing remote, but it’s worth noting that the Arc can be taught remote control commands from older, non-HDMI CEC-enabled setups. The most difficult part of this process was running another HDMI cable through my wall.
Pro Tip: When first running wires through walls, be sure to account for future connections.
Serious Smarts and Design
We’ve touched on the Arc’s built-in Wi-Fi, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple AirPlay 2 capabilities. Alexa is my digital assistant of choice and adding the Arc to my Alexa account was a straightforward process. My Sonos account is already linked to my Alexa account, and once I added the Arc to my system, I received notification via the Alexa app that it had recognized my new speaker and was ready for use. While I wish my echo and Sonos speakers worked in unison for whole home audio, there’s no denying that Sonos’s music prowess is the more refined of the two. Apple AirPlay 2 is icing on the cake. This allows me to send music easily from my iOS device to all my AirPlay 2 speakers and even configure speaker groups, something Sonos users are familiar with via its App. Having AirPlay 2 is just another convenience that I’m happy Sonos included, and if I’m being honest, it has become the preferred way of listening to Apple music from my phone—I haven’t opened the Sonos app in days. Regarding Alexa, all voice commands work as expected—while I can’t “drop in” to the Echo speakers in my home, whole home announcements and controlling my connected smart home devices worked without issue. My one criticism here is also true for my other connected Sonos speakers: the microphone is too sensitive; it picks up my voice from other rooms, even when it’s not the Alexa-enabled device with which I’m directly communicating. Keep this in mind if you have multiple digital assistants throughout your home.
At the top of the Arc you’ll find highly responsive touch controls to enable or power-off the microphone, as well as play/pause, and volume controls. Another thing that sets the Arc apart from the Beam is its size—at 45" wide, the Arc is intended for larger rooms and pairing with larger displays. My 50" TV is just a couple of inches wider than the Arc, and 50 inches is probably the smallest display I’d pair with this soundbar. While it sits nicely on my TV stand, the Arc does support an optional wall mount and the speaker’s sound can be optimized for either scenario.
Sound Quality that Rivals Dedicated Speakers
Before I dive into how this speaker sounds, let’s talk about what’s under the hood. This soundbar houses a front-firing tweeter, two side-firing tweeters, four front-firing elliptical cones, two side-firing elliptical cones, and finally two up-firing elliptical cones—that’s a lot of drivers. Plenty of soundbars offer multiple speaker arrays in an attempt to emulate true surround but not all deliver. While I always promote having dedicated surround speakers when possible, I realize that soundbars exist for a reason, and not every listening environment can accommodate multiple speakers placed throughout a room. The room where I have the Arc located is one of those places. However, the Arc’s surround sound capabilities weren’t just passable, they were immersive. It’s worth noting that if your room permits it, additional Sonos speakers can be added to your listening space for true channel separation, but because the Arc handled itself so well on its own, I recommend you try it as a stand-alone soundbar before adding on. This goes for the optional Sonos SUB as well; in my space, the bass response coming from the Arc was perfect for my living room. I’m sure Sonos’s TruePlay tuning played a crucial role here, and in that, it works as designed. By all means, if you have the space, add those additional speakers. Some rooms may even require it, but you may be pleasantly surprised by the Arc as is.
A welcome feature for audio enthusiasts is the Arc’s ability to handle Dolby Atmos soundtracks utilizing the Soundbar’s onboard up-firing speakers. While my connected TV only supports Dolby Digital Plus via its HDMI-ARC input, users with new HDMI-eARC connectivity (the “e” standing for “enhanced”) can take advantage of uncompressed Dolby Atmos sound from the services and content that support it, and from the library of content I’ve seen from Netflix and Disney+, the catalog is growing. Sound via Dolby Digital Plus was fantastic; however, again delivering a believable 3D sound field, dialogue was crisp and clear, even without adjusting the EQ settings in the Sonos app.
One of my go-to demo scenes is the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Arc handled itself well as the elephants made their charge; here’s an example where an external SUB would have certainly added to the experience, but the Arc maintained its composure as the battle sequence filled with a barrage of low-, mid-, and high-frequency sound.
Sonos’s proprietary speaker technology clearly has the capabilities to rest on its laurels, and I’m happy it isn’t. With additional new speakers on the way such as the Five, it’s clear that Sonos is determined to continue to find ways to push the tech envelope.
What sets the Arc apart from the other soundbars I’ve experienced is how everything it does feels like one thing. Alexa and AirPlay 2 support don’t feel like additions Sonos was forced to make in an ever-evolving connected world; the entire feature set works very well together and delivers a cohesive experience for music and movies alike. More so than its sound and striking design, my biggest takeaway is how well all the tech in the Arc comes together, while still being incredibly easy to use.
Do you agree with my opinion? Is the Arc on your short list of Soundbars? Tell us what you think, in the Comments section.