Matt D. Scott takes Sonos’ Arc soundbar through its paces and finds that the company continues to deliver on performance in a crowded field
The Sonos Playbar really launched the soundbar revolution. I don’t think I’ve overstated that. Sure there were a bunch of powered soundbars on the market prior to its launch but none of them were as simple to use, or played well with the burgeoning smart speaker or whole-home audio systems people loved so much. Prior to the Playbar‘s launch, multiform audio was one thing and your TV system was normally something completely different and often, completely orphaned all by itself. Playbar changed that, albeit that was seven years ago — an eternity in home technology. An absolute eternity. And yet, Playbar continued to be one of the bestselling soundbars not only to the general public, but also within our custom install channel.
In recent years, Sonos launched the Beam, which was a foray into a more affordable soundbar and it included a mic and the ability to use your choice of voice assistance but it wasn’t a replacement for Playbar, just a much needed addition to the line. The moment Beam launched, the questions started coming: “When is Playbar being upgraded?” The time has come, Arc is here. Sonos announced this new soundbar with all the goodies that people have been clambering for. I was invited to a press event where the new Arc was announced and ever since I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on one of them. That opportunity came earlier this month. Keep reading for a full breakdown on the new Sonos Arc.
Matt Scott walks us through the unboxing of Sonos’ new Arc soundbar.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. Packaging matters. I know often, especially in our custom install channel, the customer may not see the packaging and ,frankly, maybe indifferent, but the packaging really matters. Apple sorta kicked this off with their attention to detail that always included the packaging and most technology brands have followed suit. Now you may not think that this is really that big of a deal, but the expectation is there. You want to be a premium product, your packaging better reflect that as well.
The Sonos Arc definitely hits this out of the park. First, like most Sonos products, you’re greeted with high quality graphics on the exterior of the box. Gone are the hidden strips of plastic locking the cover in place, replaced by these awesome little slides, kind of like a locking tabs on a large TV box, but so much better. You slide them with a satisfying click and they unlock the cover allowing you to open the box. Tilting the top back, you see the Arc wrapped in a fitted, did you catch that … the fabric cover is fitted like a sheet … it’s crazy, protective fabric cover. Loosen the Sonos sticker holding the cover taunt and then you get your first glimpse of the Arc as you remove the fitted cover. Holding the Arc in your hands, there is some serious heft there. It’s not a light cheesy-feeling speaker — it feels solid and incredibly well constructed. Now that you’ve got it out of the box, you’ll find the product information sheet as well as a power cord, HDMI cable and an optical to HDMI adapter. Everything you’ll need is right there in the box. Before we move on, one last thing to note, just like the updates with the AMP, now all of the packaging is cardboard and can be easily broken down to be recycled.
If you’ve seen the promotional images, you’ve notice a marked difference between the the design of the Arc and the Playbar or even the Beam. It’s still a large speaker with a wider footprint than the Playbar, but because of its oval design it seems more discrete. It has this modern look and feel with micro perforations in the housing to hide all eleven speakers inside the Arc. The connections are tucked away out of sight on the rear of the unit. The top of the unit has the capacitive touch controls, just like AMP and Beam, for play and pause as well as volume controls. On the top righthand side you’ve got the mic touch control so you can mute that microphone any time you don’t want it to listen to you. The microphone connects you to the voice assistant of your choosing. I connected our demo unit to Alexa and she performed just as one would expect. Connecting the Arc to my TV was just easy peasy. I spent more time unboxing the Arc then it took to connect the Arc to my TV. Now I’m an old school purist and used my Panasonic Plasma from a few years ago and whether you’re connecting Arc to the latest TV or an older model it works just as well. Obviously, depending on your model, your surround options may be limited.
Once the Arc is all connected, you go through a standard connection to the Sonos app. But not the app you know and love, but a brand new iteration of the Sonos app. S2 is the all new app with an updated design. I’m playing with the beta version and I’m a big fan of the updated app, it’s got a more current design and it’s been really easy to use. I’ve noticed some subtle differences between the two app, but nothing shocking to where users who may be used to the regular app will feel lost and confused.
There’s a ton to talk about in terms of the Arc, from the design, the software, the codecs supported, all the cool new enhancements, etc., but what good is all of that if it doesn’t sound good? Well, luckily for me, this thing rocks. In my family room I’ve had a bunch of different speakers and soundbars in here from powered soundbars to passive LCRs; really every expected option and configuration under the sun. Before I installed the Arc I previously had a Beam in its place. After completing Trueplay, the Arc was ready to go. Sonos speakers are well known for their strong lower end but while the Arc continues that tradition, it does surprisingly well with mid range and specifically the clarity of the high end was unexpected. I’ve played an assortment of music tracks back through the Arc and on multiple tracks you can hear the frequency separations distinctly that hasn’t always been the case on Playbar and Beam. On “Young Blood ” by The Naked and Famous, the background vocal comes through while the bass drum lays down a solid beat with no problem. The plate reverb on Jaren Johnston’s vocal on “Dirt Road Nights” by The Cadillac Three comes across with great clarity. The acoustic guitar and Brandon Lake’s gravely vocal on “Graves Into Gardens” by Elevation Worship has some distinct clarity while the backing choir isn’t lost once the drums join the mix. Chis Botti’s trumpet on “Hallelujah” is stunningly clear and fills the room, which is no small task for any speaker or system. Last but not least, John Mayer’s guitar riff on “Belief” is handled very well as he strums the bass string while playing the higher notes.
When it comes to movies and TV shows, the Arc seems to equally excel. Normally while watching something like The Expanse or Treadstone on Amazon Prime, the dialog mode needs to be activated to allow you to listen to the BEAM at a lower volume and still understand the dialogue during action sequences. Not the case with the Arc, those three tweeters seem to really be up to the job of reproducing the dialog without sacrificing the mid range and the lower frequencies.
Watching a variety of everyday viewing from a variety of sources and streaming platforms the Arc delivered with unexpected clarity and fullness. To experience the surround sound performance of the Arc, I moved it from my living room to my office where I paired it with the AMP powering a pair of Polk Bookshelves. Once I added the AMP onto the S2 Beta app with the Arc, connecting the two was a simple as adding the device and awaiting the subsequent software update to get everything on the same page. Going through Trueplay again makes sure everything is tuned up and ready to go. This time playing some demo material through the Arc in surround mode from an AppleTV was an enlightening experience. I watched the new Extraction Netflix movie staring Chris Hemsworth. An interesting film which really boils down to a 60-minute run where Hemsworth tries to get a hostage 4km to a helicopter extraction point, hence the name. Now there isn’t a ton of meaningful dialog in this film, but there are some impressive vehicle scenes and a whole lot of gun fire. The surround effects in the fight scenes are reproduced quite well and hearing the gunfire and bullet impacts behind you is as impressive as you’d expect from any regular surround sound system.
I then transitioned to Ready Player One, a great film full of atmospheric effects. During playback again I was impressed with the quality of the surround reproduction and mainly the the clarity of the vocal without sacrificing the mid and low end. Typically with any non-receiver-based system, its blatantly obvious that the you’re not listening to separate speakers and a receiver. Yet Arc doesn’t seem to have that issue, the playback is better than expected and continually surprised me with the sound quality.
I’ve been working with the original Sonos app for years in its multiple iterations, some versions being better than others. My current complaint has been that it’s too many clicks to navigate between rooms and music sources. With the new S2 app (I’m currently working with the beta of the S2) I’ve found the streamlined approach to be a lot better and I’m a big fan of the updated look as well. One of the biggest concerns I’ve had was that the use of two apps in a blended situation would be annoying if not downright confusing. While I can see how it has the potential to be quite confusing, for most users I think it will be an acceptable solution versus replacing multiple devices that won’t work on the S2 app. Again, this is one of those situations where with a little bit of planning and organization you can eliminate the majority of this frustration yourself, or you can ask your integrator to assist you with it.
I’m quite impressed with Arc and have really enjoyed using it. It’s a great replacement for the aging Playbar, and it looks and sounds great. The new app continues the great tradition of Sonos having the best user experience for multi-room audio in the game. The new shape and look of Arc is fantastic, it will look completely at home in todays clean, modern home designs. I’m intrigued with the 4in. gap required as in most custom install situations we’d prefer to get these speakers as tight as possible to the bottom of the TV. The unit is a little deeper than I’d like but it’s the trade off to have the options and feature set that Arc has. Like anything, this may just a situation where we have to adapt. That being said, this a fantastic upgrade and a speaker that you’ll love to have in your home.