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Monday, March 27, 2023

Sonos Debuts 3 New Speakers, Including a $799 Soundbar

Nearly two years ago, wireless-speaker-maker Sonos released a $400 soundbar that quickly became one of the company’s most popular products. The speaker, called Sonos Beam, addressed a few converging trends at the time. It was an easy way to improve the crappy sound coming out of our ever-shrinking flatscreen TVs, it incorporated voice control into the home theater with the inclusion of Alexa and Google Assistant, and its affordable price allowed the company to compete with the flood of cheaper connected speakers on the market. With the Beam established as the best choice for the frugal buyer, Sonos is focusing again on the high end of its product line.

The Santa Barbara, California, company just revealed the Sonos Arc, a $799 soundbar that’s much sleeker looking than its previous high-end soundbar, the Sonos Playbar. Its new internal hardware design makes it capable of “3D soundscapes,” Sonos says, with support for Dolby Atmos. It’s the first Sonos speaker to offer this surround-sound format.

From the outside, the industrial design differences between the Arc and the old Playbar are noticeable. The Playbar measures 3.4 inches tall, 35.4 inches long, and 5.5 inches deep, while the Arc measures 3.4 x 45 x 4.5 inches. The Arc is longer, but it’s also shorter, with rounded edges and a curved grill. Internally there are updates as well. The Arc has three tweeters—one in the center for dialog clarity, two firing outward—and eight custom elliptical woofers; while the Playbar has a nine-driver system. The cheaper, more compact Sonos Beam soundbar also has custom-designed elliptical woofers, a means of optimizing for sound but keeping the soundbar (which sits beneath your TV) relatively short. The elliptical woofers in the Arc have a similar shape to the ones in the Beam but are powered by a larger motor and move a slightly greater distance, which is supposed to push out more air and thus improve the sound.

"For a product like Arc, with sound that could come out of both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of it, we wanted to build something a lot more sophisticated than a lot of Atmos soundbars, which can be clunky boxes," says Nick Millington, Sonos’ chief product officer. "That was a top priority for us."

On the software side, Sonos says it’s using virtual speaker arrays to cancel out and fill in noise, and to steer sound around the room. And like all Sonos speakers, the Arc uses TruePlay to customize the sound or EQ of the speaker for different elements of a room. One small improvement is that the Arc will also take into account your ceiling as it measures the reflective surfaces in the room, which is supposed to improve the surround-sound experience. The Arc also has far-field microphones so you can shout commands at Alexa or Google Assistant.

The Sonos Arc costs $799, comes in black or white, and starts shipping June 10. That makes it the first Sonos hardware product to ship after the company has effectively split its operating system into two different forks—meaning owners of legacy speakers (anything older than 2015’s Play:5) who buy the Arc will have to run their old speakers and the new soundbar on separate networks.

Keep It Low

Sonos is also updating the Sub—a subwoofer designed to be paired with other Sonos speakers for enhanced bass—and the Play:5 speaker, the company’s top-of-the-line stand-alone home speaker. (The redesigned Play:5 is now just called Sonos Five.) The updates are mostly internal; both speakers will get a boost in memory and processing power. The third-generation Sub and new Sonos Five, which replaces the second-generation Play:5, will cost $699 and $499, respectively, when they ship in early June.

It’s worth noting that the new Sonos Five won’t have far-field microphones, so it won’t work with Alexa or Google Assistant. “I think that in the case of products like Sonos Five, it’s for people who really want uninterrupted premium sound in their home,” Millington says. “If you do want some light voice control, it can be paired with an Echo Dot or Google Home Mini or some other product that can deliver that.”

“I feel that [voice control] has gone through that hype cycle thing,” says Sonos CEO Patrick Spence, “where there’s that immediate excitement and people are using it a lot, and then it goes through that valley of, ‘Am I really going to use it?’ Part of our thinking now, and part of why we acquired Snips, is that then it comes back up a little bit, in that there will be real use cases and deeper experiences for voice.”

Spence acknowledges that Sonos wouldn’t be able to compete directly with Amazon or Google on voice assistants more broadly; in fact, Sonos is in the awkward position at the moment of partnering with Google for voice assistant software while also suing Google for allegedly infringing on Sonos' patents and abusing its market dominance. But Spence says he believes Sonos could offer a better voice experience that’s specific to music listening.

These latest additions to Sonos’ product line are clearly aimed at audiophiles who are either Sonos devotees or who are willing to spend several hundreds of dollars on a singular piece of home audio equipment. The Sonos Arc has been in the works for about two years, the company says, which means this release has been on the roadmap for a while. One could make the argument that a certain portion of the population is spending a lot of time in front of their TV screen at the moment, wishing the sound quality could be better and willing to spend money to improve it. But it’s also a somewhat risky time for Sonos to release its premium products, because of both broader macroeconomic concerns and because good soundbars have never been so cheap.

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