Sonos Beam (2nd gen) review: Sonos Arc’s smaller sibling

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Last year’s Sonos Arc is a heck of a soundbar, but it’s also hella big, not to mention expensive (particularly following a recent Sonos price hike). For those with less room and a tighter budget, the just-refreshed and more affordable Sonos Beam might make for a better fit. With a five-driver array and a trio of passive radiators, the Beam delivers relatively big, wide, and deep sound from a small, all-in-one package, and you can always upgrade it with additional Sonos speakers.

While the second-gen version of the Beam ($450) looks nearly identical to its predecessor and contains the same driver configuration, it boasts a major new feature: support for Dolby Atmos, courtesy of Dolby’s virtualization technology. The revamped Beam also packs eARC support, allowing it to handle lossless audio formats over its single HDMI-ARC interface.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best soundbars. Click that link to read reviews of competing products, along with a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

Those in the market for a compact, all-in-one, and sub-$500 soundbar won’t be disappointed by the Beam, which packs an impressive punch (just don’t crank the volume too loud) and serves as a perfect entrée into the Sonos ecosystem. If you already have the original Beam, you may want to stick with what you’ve got. Yes, the new Beam has Atmos, but without upfiring drivers, the height effects aren’t all that ear-popping, and if you stream more than you play discs, the addition of eARC isn’t a game changer.

Specifications

The second-gen Sonos Beam (similar to other all-in-one systems we’ve been seeing lately) is a 5.0-channel soundbar, with discrete drivers for the left, right, center, and left/right surround channels. While the Beam doesn’t have satellite surround speakers, it can (similar to its predecessor) “steer” and “localize” sound around the room, and thanks to a beefier CPU, the revamped Beam can now deliver virtual Dolby Atmos height effect as well.

If you do ultimately decide you want physical surround speakers, you can always add a couple of Sonos Ones ($219 each), which can act as surrounds once paired with the Beam. You can also add the Sonos Sub ($749) to bolster the Beam’s low-frequency effects. But while it’s good to know that you can upgrade the Beam with additional hardware, all those Sonos speakers will cost you, with the total package (a Beam, two Sonos Ones, and the Sub) going for a steep $1,636.

As far as its internals go, the second-gen Beam is (with the exception of the new CPU) identical to the first, including four elliptical midwoofers (with the two midwoofers on the ends angled for surround and virtual height cues), a center tweeter for dialogue, and three passive radiators, which deliver (as I’ll describe later) a surprising amount of bass. Each of the Beam’s five drivers gets its own discrete class D amplifier.

Absent from the Beam’s driver array are any upfiring drivers, which many Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars employ to bounce height cues off the ceiling (a cheaper and easier alternative to installing height speakers in your ceiling). Indeed, the Beam joins a growing number of mid-range soundbars that use virtualization to achieve its height effects, and in this case, it’s Dolby’s own Atmos height virtualizer that’s doing the work.

Virtualized Dolby Atmos sound isn’t as accurate as it would be with upfiring drivers (or, best of all, in-ceiling speakers), but it can be quite effective, and if your ceiling is too high, too short, or vaulted, virtualized height effects will work better than up-fired height cues. Then again, virtual Dolby Atmos effects can sometimes sound distractingly hissy or artificial, depending on the implementation. I’ll delve into the Beam’s Atmos performance in a bit.

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