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Review: Sonos Arc Dolby Atmos Streaming Soundbar

Sonos goes immersive with its successor to the Playbar.

Remember back in January when Sonos practically blew up the AV world by sending out an email announcing there would be an upcoming version of its app that would no longer work with legacy products? If you’re a Sonos dealer (as I am), you probably got a flurry of calls wondering just what this meant, with people wondering if they had to replace all of their gear.

Well, the first product designed with the new S2 app in mind is here, and it’s a new Dolby Atmos-capable soundbar called the Arc that replaces the company’s existing Playbar effective immediately.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t initially a big fan of the name. First, Arc doesn’t tell you anything about what the product is. Second, it’s a “Who’s on first?” way to confuse customers with the name Arc describing the bar, and with the term ARC describing the Audio Return Channel in HDMI used to receive audio signals. But, now that I’ve had a chance to mellow on it for a while, there is a certain poetry to the name Arc, especially as it describes the sound reaching up and over you with the Atmos upfiring driver technology.

In any case, this isn’t a review of the Sonos marketing team and their product naming decisions, but rather on what is the next major technological release by a company that currently dominates the wireless streaming audio market.

A New Look

Prior to the Arc’s release, the oldest product currently in the Sonos line-up was the Playbar. While it was a marvel at the time of its release, that was way back in 2013, and now it’s time for the old gal to be put out to pasture.

If the Arc did nothing else to improve on the Playbar’s technology, it would be a worthy successor to the Playbar based on the improved cosmetics alone. The Playbar was always just kind of square and chunky looking, with awkward side-mounted controls, black cloth with titanium-grey metallic accents, standing over 5.5-inches high when wall mounted, and, at under 35.5-inches wide, looking out of place beneath modern large-screen TVs.

Where the Playbar was WALL-E, the Arc is EVE. In fact, it now even comes in white. (Pixar fans we’ll get the ref; if not, give it a Google.) Arc is smooth, sleek, rounded, modern, and dare I say stylish. Instead of cloth, the Arc’s front and sides are finished in a micro-perf thermoformed plastic grille that blends into the back and bottom. For those brand-name averse, there is a fairly discreet SONOS logo on the front, but you almost need to be looking for it to see it.

At just 3.4-inches tall, Arc will likely sit low enough on a tabletop to not interfere with most displays sitting on a stand. (I can vouch that it tucks perfectly beneath the new Sony 65-inch XBR series.) Even better, at 45-inches wide, it has the right sense of dimension to sit below larger screens.

Arc uses its additional width to pack in a total of 11 drivers, including eight elliptical woofers. Beyond two mid-bass drivers for left and right channels, there are two each at the sides to enhance the width, two upfiring drivers on top for Atmos height information, and two for center channel dialog clarity. The bar also features three silk dome tweeters “precisely angled” to improve dialog and soundstage. All drivers are independently powered by Class-D amplification.

Continuing the company’s recent trend, Arc features capacitive touch controls on top for adjusting volume, skipping tracks, play/pause, and toggling the far-field microphone array on/off. A separate LED indicates when the microphone is active so those concerned with privacy can know when it is listening. However, that LED is located where it is difficult to see unless you are fairly close and looking down on the bar. Arc supports either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, and I found the microphones quite adept at hearing my voice, even from a distance and when talking over loud music.

Arc can connect to your network either wired or wireless (2.4 GHz only), or via a Sonos Boost. Without wasting a bunch of space rehashing what Sonos products can do, I’m just going to say that Arc is a full-fledged Sonos product and offers all the music streaming services and options the company is famous for, including native Apple Music support as well as AirPlay2. If music streaming is a consideration for your clients, Arc will be a great fit.

Setup

Setting up the Arc is a simple process done via the Sonos app (iOS or Android). As I received the speaker prior to the official launch of the new S2 app — which is required to use Arc — I was given a beta version to use. While it was a beta, I never noticed any issues with the app, and expect a smooth rollout when the app officially launches. [The S2 app launched on June 8.]

I’m sure there is lots of new stuff going on in the background of the S2 app, but to be honest I hardly noticed any visual differences between the two apps. After going back and forth a few times, there are some subtle tweaks. A new, slightly larger and bolder font is used for text, now playing info is aligned to the left of the screen instead of centered, the transport and volume controls are a bit larger, and the background is now gray instead of black. It’s definitely safe to say that anyone familiar with the original app will be right at home with the new S2 version.

Arc can be wall-mounted using a separately available mount ($79), but the mounts weren’t available during my review so I can’t offer any comments on the installation.

Arc’s primary purpose is improving TV and movie audio, and this requires a connection to your display, which is where we get to my principal criticism of the Arc: it features only a single ARC/eARC capable HDMI input. While an optical to HDMI adapter is included, you cannot get Dolby Atmos audio from an optical audio connection.

While lots of TVs feature an ARC connection, eARC is still relatively new on displays and is required to pass full bandwidth Dolby TrueHD Atmos signals. In fact, I didn’t have a TV in my home that supported it, so I tried to “game” the Arc by connecting the audio-only HDMI output of a 4K Blu-ray player and Kaleidescape Strato to the Arc’s HDMI input, but no go; it didn’t recognize the signal. Fortunately, luck and happenstance meant an eARC-equipped Sony XBR65X950H TV arrived for review at the same time, giving me an opportunity to test the Arc’s full potential.

I feel it was a real oversight that Sonos didn’t include at least one additional HDMI input, with many other bars having two or three. I get that this simplifies installation and the user experience by not requiring any input switching, but it limits the Arc’s usability. Of course, in a year or so when every new TV has an eARC connection, this will be a non-issue. Also, in my experience ARC can be a bit finicky on recognizing and connecting consistently, though, to be fair, I didn’t experience any connection issues between the Sony and the Arc.

Once installed and connected, the app prompts you to run Trueplay, Sonos’ version of room correction using the microphone in an iOS device. (Android devices are still not supported due to the wide manufacturing variances in Android devices.) Arc adds a new step to the Trueplay process where you take an initial measurement at eye level at the primary seating location followed by a minute where you walk around the room slowly waving your phone around.

Listening Tests

Even though TVs and movies are the Arc’s main jam, I started off listening to music. (Especially since I lacked an eARC display until the Sony arrived!) My immediate impression was just how full the Arc sounds, producing bass notes far deeper and richer than you’d expect. In fact, many music listeners will probably be perfectly happy with the Arc on its own without a sub.

The opening of “Flamenco Sketches (Alternate Take)” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue starts off with deep plucks on a double bass that the Arc delivers with true depth and weight, yet it presents the delicate cymbal taps off to the right side with Miles’ trumpet bright and brassy in the center.

Coldplay’s “Fun” from A Head Full of Dreams is a fairly heavily engineered track that has a ton of ambience, and Arc presented it with a nice big soundfield. Audio didn’t so much wrap around me, but created a large soundstage across the front wall, especially at the song’s echoey conclusion, which plays well beyond its boundaries.

There are some pretty hefty electronic bass notes on Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Arc didn’t shy away from going deep, producing notes on the song “xanny” that fell just short of producing tactile bass I could feel. Just going low isn’t good if it is just a bloated, one-note tub; however, the Arc produced bass that is not only deep, but also with plenty of detail and texture. It also delivered a really wide image on her “when the party’s over,” producing reverb of Eilish’s voice that reached out to the side walls of my room.

I also listened to a fair bit of Dolby Atmos music content streamed from the Sony TV’s Tidal app. Interestingly, the Atmos audio from Tidal is significantly lower in volume — 10–15 dB lower — than regular content. I never felt there was too much height information in the music mixes, but it did provide a greater sense of width, and the At Home: Jazz mix benefitted from some lift to the vertical soundstage that seemed more like you were in a small club.

Proving the bar’s music capabilities, it was time to move on to movie watching. First, I like how the Arc immediately switches to TV audio when you turn the TV on. This will save a lot of, “I can’t hear the TV audio!” service calls should someone forget to switch the inputs back. You can manually override to get music playing again with the TV on should you wish.

The listening room’s size and shape is one of the biggest factors affecting performance of speakers utilizing upfiring Dolby Atmos, so whenever testing a new Atmos bar, I always like to start off playing a series of 5.1.2 test tones from Dolby’s test disc to get a sense of what the bar is doing with surround and height information. On the surround test signals, you get an image that is less surrounding/behind you and more far out to the left and right. When the height test tones played, Arc painted clear spots of sound left and right of my position overhead.

Fortunately, I had tons — well, more literally terabytes — of TrueHD content stored on my Kaleidescape Strato to check out a variety of Atmos-encoded movies to see how the Arc handled a variety of effects.

Vin Diesel’s latest film, Bloodshot, was one of the theatrical casualties of the pandemic, and it features an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack with some significant bass. The bar did a great job of throwing sounds way off to the sides when appropriate, such as cars or motorcycles racing offscreen to greatly expand the soundstage, and it did a great job keeping dialog clear and intelligible regardless the mayhem. While there were moments when sounds were happening overhead, on the whole it seemed less like discrete overhead sounds and more like the front audio height was expanded well above the TV and that surround sounds were high up on the wall to the sides of me.

Top Gun was recently given a 4K HDR makeover with new Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and I know from watching this on my reference 7.2.6 system that the early flying scenes where Maverick (Tom Cruise) confronts the Soviet fighters feature some nice overhead flying audio. Again, the bar delivered loads of engaging atmospheric sounds aboard the deck of the carrier, with jet engines racing well off camera, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” filling the front wall, and the clear audio and spatial differences between being in and outside the cockpit. As the big F-14s confront the MiGs, the Arc puts the jet engines high up, making them streak overhead, with the jets flying well beyond the width of the bar.

The first race from Ready Player One has become one of my Atmos demo go-tos, and, again, the Arc impressed with how wide it was able to place images. While never feeling like sounds were behind me, they were clearly out to the far left and right sides of the room. As with other demos, height effects were less pronounced, and more sounding like a large soundstage up front, with the occasional moment of “that was right overhead.”

Results

While the Arc was fully capable on its own for bass information for music, I think it would definitely benefit with an added sub with movies, as it was never quite able to deliver those lowest notes or produce tactile bass. A great example was the bomb exploding from the opening of Unbroken, where there is a delay from the flash followed by some subsonic bass that the Arc just wasn’t able to deliver.

When playing Dolby Atmos content, the Sonos app clearly displays “Dolby Atmos,” letting people know it is doing its thing. Unfortunately, there are no other indications (Dolby Digital or DD+) to let you know what it is receiving at other times, and there are no adjustments for movies or music or any ability to adjust the levels of the upfiring speakers.

While I just used the Arc for this review, it can pair with a Sonos Sub for added bass and with rear speakers for a full 5.1.2 experience. Sonos says when additional components are added, the Arc automatically reconfigures itself to produce better sound. For example, with the Sub added, Arc’s woofers produce more mids and highs, and when rears are added, the side woofers will produce more deep bass. In my experience, adding rear speakers greatly helps with the sense of audio immersion, and is the only way to truly place sounds behind you.

Even with the least expensive rear speakers, the full surround setup would run $1850, putting buyers in the premium soundbar surround system category. Of course, none of the other setups would offer all the Sonos streaming secret sauce or be able to integrate as part of a whole-home music system.

Without question, Arc is a huge improvement on all fronts when compared to the Playbar, and it makes a terrific addition to the Sonos lineup. Provided it is paired with a capable display, customers will love its looks, its sound, and its ease of use.


800-680-2345; Sonos.com

Kudos: Surprisingly deep bass; terrific dialog intelligibility; it’s a Sonos

Concerns: Single HDMI ARC/eARC connection; height effects a bit restrained

Product Specs:

  • Dolby Atmos-capable streaming soundbar
  • 11 drivers including eight elliptical woofers and three angled silk-dome tweeters with individual Class-D digital amplification per speaker
  • HDMI ARC/eARC input with adapter for Toslink optical digital audio
  • Far-field microphone for Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa integration
  • Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz) and Ethernet connection to network
  • Supports numerous streaming services; Apple AirPlay2
  • Capacitive touch controls for volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause, microphone on/off

Dimensions: 3.4 x 45 x 4.5-inches (HxWxD); 13.78 pounds

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