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A $399 Alexa-enabled soundbar for the streaming era

alk into any of Sonos’ downtown Santa Barbara, California, offices, and you could almost convince yourself you’ve been transported back north to Silicon Valley. There are the requisite kitchenettes, bikes, and happy dogs padding about as endless video conferences take place in meeting rooms. (Sonos also has offices in Boston and London.)

You’ll also find evidence of Sonos’ technical roots. These are deep speaker nerds doing deep speaker nerd things. They design everything in-house, no off-the-shelf parts. The labs have dogbone-shaped tables so everybody can stand close to each other and to their prototypes (Some of those tables are hooked up to a 24-hour-a-day video conference system to identical tables in other offices.) There’s a room where a hundred speakers have been entombed to play at maximum volume for months on end.

But thinking of Sonos as just a transported Silicon Valley company misses the point entirely. It’s something different, something much more interesting. Sonos participates in the fast-paced world of tech, but it’s trying to translate that quarterly cycle of innovation onto a more humane timescale.

The latest product to come out after spending two years in those labs is the Sonos Beam, a new $399 soundbar that will be available on July 17th. It’s a carefully designed, premium speaker that needs to work at two radically different speeds: the lightning-quick, fast-paced feature cycle of the overall tech industry and the slower pace of the living room. It encapsulates everything Sonos is and everything Sonos needs to get right.

The Sonos Beam is a new soundbar designed to take on not just other TV speakers, but the high end of the smart speaker market. It’s priced at $399, which is $300 less than Sonos’ other TV-connected speakers, and it will be available July 17th.

Measuring just over 25 inches across, it’s much smaller than other soundbars. It looks nothing so much like a Dieter Rams-designed digital baguette. In black or white, it’s also less imposing than other soundbars, with rounded edges, subtle design touches like a seamless fabric grille that runs around the entire device, and an IR receiver that’s virtually impossible to see.

As this is Sonos’ second smart speaker (after the Sonos One), it has the necessary microphones for Alexa and, perhaps most intriguingly, just a single HDMI input.

It is Sonos’ most forward-looking and ambitious speaker yet. Sonos wants it to both become the de facto best smart speaker for the living room, and also expand Sonos’ customer base by appealing to customers who might not otherwise invest in a soundbar. It takes on other top-end smart speakers like the HomePod and the Google Home Max by offering TV features they don’t and a platform-agnostic philosophy that supports Alexa, AirPlay 2, and (eventually) Google Assistant.

With a rumored IPO looming, the Sonos Beam is the company’s best argument yet for why it needs to exist. In a world where every other company is trying to lock consumers into a vertical ecosystem of products, the Sonos approach is to be a neutral translator. It doesn’t provide all of the media services you want but instead makes them talk to each other.

Here’s Sonos’ pitch for the Beam: you want a smart speaker in your living room, but you also don’t want one. It’s another thing to set on a shelf, another thing to have to upgrade in a couple years, another thing to configure. If you’re going to put a speaker in that space, it should do something beyond setting timers and playing music. And the most obvious thing it can do is make your TV sound much better.

The so-called golden age of TV has changed the audio equation. Just as production budgets for premium TV shows have gone up, the quality of speakers in ever-thinner TVs has gone down. “Sound has become more complex for the consumer TVs. At the same time, TVs are becoming worse at sound,” says Giles Martin, Sonos’ sound experience lead.

Simple enough, and slightly ahead of the rest of the market: there aren’t many soundbars with integrated smart assistants out there right now. And most soundbars, in general, are ugly and imposing products. The Beam is much friendlier by comparison. It’s meant to be seen.

It’s also simpler than other home theater products — or at least it’s attempting to be. That comes down to the way you connect the Sonos to your TV: HDMI. It seems counterintuitive because HDMI is generally used to send audio and video to your TV, not the other way around. But back in 2009, a new feature called “Audio Return Channel” (ARC) was added to the HDMI spec. ARC does what it says on the tin: it sends audio back out of a TV to a speaker system. Most TVs are smart TVs with full-on app stores and ecosystems now, and ARC is how you get sound from your smart TV’s streaming apps to a soundbar like the Beam.

When HDMI-ARC works, you plug a TV into your soundbar, it gets immediately recognized, and all sound is then routed down to it. Your TV’s remote adjusts the soundbar’s volume instead of the TV, and everything just works. (The Sonos Beam doesn’t come with its own remote.)

Except with HDMI, nothing ever really just works. Different HDMI ports on your TV might provide different functionality. And new HDMI features hit the market at a glacially slow pace: early TVs were haphazard at best in adding support for ARC. Even now, they don’t all do it elegantly.

But nearly 10 years after ARC was introduced, Sonos believes that support is widespread enough to bet on it. “We measured hundreds of televisions,” says Jeff Derderian, product creation lead at Sonos. His estimate is that 80 percent of new TVs will automatically work with ARC, while others might require some menu digging to enable it. Most older TVs also support it, too, though it is more likely you’ll have to go through your TV’s menu to turn it on.

The decision to go with HDMI is a good example of how Sonos thinks about making products that work on the fast tech lane and the slow home speaker lane: the company wants to wait until the tech is good enough to be worth a long-term investment in your living room. “It finally kicked over. There are finally enough televisions out there that support HDMI-ARC,” Derderian says, “and there’s finally enough experiential benefit to the customer.”

Sonos is bundling its own custom-made HDMI cable in the box to avoid that other pervasive problem: not all HDMI cables are created equal, and older HDMI cables don’t support every new feature. It’s also bundling a short little adapter that converts optical audio to HDMI, so you can fall back to using your TV’s optical audio out if you don’t want to give up an HDMI port or your TV doesn’t support HDMI-ARC.

Since it is using HDMI, Sonos could have chosen to insert the Beam into the middle of your home theater setup, as many other soundbars do. It could have included additional inputs and outputs and made the Beam the central switcher for everything. But Sonos would much rather put its effort into being the middleman for your music, not the middleman for everything video.

Let’s face it: there’s a rat’s nest of cables behind your living room TV, and the less Sonos can be held responsible for some failure point in that mess, the better it is for Sonos. It already has enough to deal with trying to figure out how to make its system integrate with voice assistants. Still, connecting via HDMI presents Sonos with lots of interesting opportunities — some of which it took, some of which it chose not to.

The one it took was turning the TV on and off via Alexa (and, later, other smart assistants). That uses HDMI “Consumer Electronics Control,” or CEC. HDMI-CEC is another one of those HDMI standards that has been implemented in so many different ways that many home theater aficionados have given up on it. But in what I’ve seen from the Beam, it works quite well for basic on / off. For whatever reason, turning a TV off via a smart assistant has been hard to get right, but on the Sonos Beam, simply saying, “Alexa, turn the TV off” worked every time.

The opportunity Sonos didn’t take was outputting any video. There’s no set-top box or streaming apps built into the Sonos Beam, for several reasons.

The most obvious is that smart TV apps are actually pretty decent nowadays — or at least good enough for a lot of people. There are a ton of TVs in living rooms without that rat’s nest of cables; they’re just plugged in and used with their built-in apps. The Sonos Beam, the company hopes, would make a great companion to those TVs while bringing a smart speaker to the same space.

The second, less obvious reason is that Sonos wants this product to last a very long time — much longer than the lifespan of any set-top box. Again, the company is operating at the slower speed of the living room. “Can we really tell our customers that this product will keep up to date with all of the latest and greatest [streaming apps?]” Derderian asks. The answer is clearly no.

(Ironically, a lot of TVs require a video signal for HDMI-ARC to work, so the Sonos Beam can output a little video. Think moving wallpaper, not iTunes visualizer. But you don’t have to turn your TV on if you’re just listening to music. It’s only there just in case.)

Another reason there aren’t any streaming apps built in is that Sonos takes its role as a kind of agnostic middleman between tech companies and your sound output very seriously. It doesn’t want to just partner with Amazon; it wants to partner with everybody — just as it has with music services.

Sonos also recognizes that it doesn’t really know anything about building a set-top box. Leave that to Roku and Apple. It’s the same reason that Sonos hasn’t tried to build its own voice assistant but rather customize on top of others. “Sometimes it’s better to not try and come up with a half solution, but let the people that are really good at that experience run with it,” says Mieko Kusano, senior director of product management at Sonos.

But how does it sound?

We’ll wait for an actual review to give you a real judgment since I was only able to hear the Sonos Beam in Sonos’ offices. Still, I spent an hour or two just listening to different kinds of music, TV, and movies, and I came away with some impressions.

Mainly, I’ll say that Sonos is not creating very opinionated sound here. It doesn’t do some of the very impressive, real-time audio mixing that the HomePod can. But it nevertheless filled a moderately sized room without issue. Sonos’ Trueplay tuning system still requires you to wave an iPhone — it only works with iPhones — around a room, unlike both the HomePod and Google Home Max.

Sonos’ Martin tells me, “We’re not changing the equalization of the speaker. The last thing we want to do is mix or alter the content that’s being provided. We want it to be as it was intended.”

”As intended” is a loaded term in any creative endeavor, but Sonos believes in it. Martin and Hilmar Lehnert, Sonos’ senior director of audio systems engineering, work together with producers and artists across the music and TV industry and simply ask them if their speakers are accurate. For example, the Sonos team specifically sat down with the producers of Game of Thrones to ensure that the Beam makes that “as intended” audio.

”More often than not, they tell you ‘that sounds wrong,’” says Lehnert. “And that’s actually more helpful because then we can go back and add it in.” For Beam, Sonos paid special attention to tuning the sound for television and movies — specifically dialogue. “If you can’t hear what people are saying, you’re dead,” says Martin. Just like the Playbar and Playbase, the Sonos Beam can detect when it’s getting audio from a TV and change modes to emphasize dialogue and switch back to a music profile when you’re streaming tunes.

The Beam has four “full-range” woofers, one angled on each end and two front-facing. There’s a single tweeter in the middle and three passive radiators. It has a single, sealed sound chamber in its enclosure with wires, circuit boards, and antennas all carefully placed for minimum interference and maximum repairability. Again, it’s meant to last a long time.

The design means that the Sonos Beam puts out more bass than you’d expect. Even the optional wall mount is designed to increase bass. It’s actually a custom-designed shelf that keeps the speaker a small distance away from the wall to increase its output. But there’s no getting around the physics of a smaller speaker. So though it sounds good, it’s not going to hit you in the chest.

What it does do is present a very broad soundstage. It has superwide stereo separation, which is much better than I expected. Derderian pointed me to some incredibly tiny drill holes on a bevel inside the speaker. The millimeter-high rise in plastic was enough to change the sound profile of those speakers, and so it was drilled out to make it better.

Those five speakers create just three audio channels: left, right, and center. You can add a pair of Sonos Ones and a Sonos Sub to build out a 5.1 surround system, but there’s no Dolby Atmos support here. I asked pretty much everybody (including random people in the hallways) why not, and the answer boiled down to Sonos believing that Atmos’ time hasn’t come yet. “So far, there hasn’t been a [soundbar] that does Atmos really, really well. And part of our ethos is we want to do sound really well,” Martin argues. It’s a shame, especially since Apple just announced Atmos support for the Apple TV. But the Beam isn’t necessarily meant for home theater setups. Derderian says he expects Beam owners to scale up to a 5.1 system at a lower rate than people with the full-sized Playbar.

And if you’re wondering if the Beam is going to replace that existing Sonos Playbar: it is not. “We don’t believe in the replacement cycle that’s going on in consumer electronics,” Kusano says. “If you want to spend money with us rather than having you replace your product, we want you to buy a new product so you can extend your product.”

It’s another trade-off between the cutting edge and building something that will work well for everyone in the long term. Compared to what most people are hearing from their TVs, the Beam will sound great. But if you’re chasing the ultimate in living room sound, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Sonos may not technically be able to lay claim to being the first soundbar with an integrated digital assistant, but it’s not far behind. Alexa works as expected. It was able to hear me even with loud music playing, and it was better at doing so than the Sonos One. Because it’s plugged into the TV, Alexa can do some of the aforementioned TV stuff, like turning it on and off, adjusting the volume, and muting.

If you have a FireTV, Alexa can also bring up shows for you — no need to hold the mic button down on the remote. (Presumably, it will work similarly with a Chromecast once Sonos adds Google Assistant support later this year.) But because of the way Alexa works on the FireTV, it didn’t quite get to actually playing the show when I asked for it. I’d have to specifically say “Play FireTV” or hit the play button on the remote.

That hassle isn’t Sonos’ fault, but it’s all too easy to blame it on the thing you’re actually speaking to, the Sonos speaker. Just like it has with HDMI, Sonos is stepping into a complex thicket of digital assistant technology.

Sonos has done a lot of work to make paths through the thicket. Instead of having to issue a daisy-chained string of commands to get music playing, it has customized its Alexa skill to let you just ask for music with a few words. Instead of demanding that you upgrade every speaker in your house, adding just one Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker (or a supercheap Echo Dot) adds Alexa features to your entire Sonos system.

By creating a software layer that understands what other services are doing on it, Sonos is able to extend and improve those services. For example, if you start music with AirPlay 2 and then ask Alexa what’s playing, it knows because Sonos can read the AirPlay 2 song metadata. Sonos’ Room setup will also integrate with AirPlay 2. “Once you add an AirPlay speaker to your Sonos system, you can group any other speaker with it,” says Antoine Leblond, vice president of software at Sonos.

Beyond AirPlay, Sonos’ software layer just makes the basics easier from other music streaming services. If you play music from another streaming service and then leave the house, it… still plays. If somebody else starts a song with Tidal, you can still open the Sonos app and hit pause yourself instead of tracking them down and asking them to do it.

Sonos’ marketing term for this is “continuity of control.” The company’s challenge is trying to make dozens of music services, two different phone platforms, TV set-top boxes, Alexa, AirPlay 2, and the Google Assistant all talk to each other. “We are trying to give people a choice, and being open at the same time. We need to keep it simple,” Kusano says.

There are a million risks associated with that approach. A partner might get huffy and pull support for a music service or a digital assistant. A customer might blame Sonos for any number of failures that aren’t Sonos’ fault. Sonos itself might end up introducing feature creep, biting off way more than it can chew when it comes to software.

Striking the right balance comes down to getting those two paces of technology right. Sonos makes products designed to be replaced on a decade cycle, not yearly. Kusano tells me that “over 90 percent of all the products [Sonos has] ever shipped — and we started shipping in 2005 — are still operational and being used.”

Focusing on that timescale can (and often does) slow Sonos down and make it overthink what tech horses to bet on. Sonos has to move more quickly to adopt technologies like Alexa and also make speakers that will still feel relevant in 10 years when some new trend is shaking up the industry.

It’s obviously too early to say if the Sonos Beam can pull that off. But after spending the day with it, here’s the most important thing I heard: 38 percent. That’s the number of people who, having bought one Sonos speaker, will eventually buy another one. That could make the Beam an oblong Trojan horse, expanding Sonos’ customer base.

At $399, the Beam isn’t cheap, but it’s markedly less expensive than Sonos’ other TV speakers. It’s the same price as the Google Home Max and only $50 more than Apple’s HomePod. But because it also works as a soundbar, it offers more utility than either of them. And because Sonos is trying to mediate between all these different ecosystems, it works (often better) with more services than either of them.

And that is ultimately Sonos’ entire bet: that you will trust the company to look at the swirling, frenetic pace of the tech industry, make choices for you, and provide products that link everything together. The Sonos One was a start, but now the Sonos Beam has to take on a lot more complexity. It’s a very big task for a very small soundbar.

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