Gizmos

How Sonos Is Trying to Future-Proof the Smart Speaker

The Sonos Beam is designed for longevity. Including all three major virtual assistants is a nice touch too.

Sonos sound bars and speakers, including the Beam and the One.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sonos.

As smart speakers gained popularity, a big name in the space seemed to have fallen by the wayside. Sonos pioneered a high-quality connected home-theater speaker system in the early 2000s. In 2016, it began making a shift to support streaming music services on its products. It shipped its first assistant-laden speaker, the Alexa-enabled Sonos One, in 2017, but has now taken that idea even further.

The company, on Wednesday, unveiled Beam, a smart sound bar, which will soon be virtual assistant agnostic: It’s shipping with Alexa, gaining Siri control with AirPlay 2 in July, and adding Google Assistant compatibility later this year. While many smart-speaker products—like Apple’s HomePod—aim to lock you into a specific brand-and-assistant ecosystem, Sonos is taking the opposite approach, hoping to appeal to a wide variety of users by accommodating whatever virtual assistant they prefer.

And it does this with a unique form factor for the smart-speaker space. The Sonos Beam is a $399 sound bar designed to sit below your TV in your living room. It has a five-microphone array for picking up your voice (and cancels out noise from the TV to do so); for audio playback, it has four woofers and three passive radiators for bass and midlevel audio, and one tweeter for highs and dialogue. According to Sonos’ director of hardware design, Dana Krieger, the company tried to make the Beam “as accessible as [they] could” by keeping the device’s footprint and price point as small as possible.

The Beam is smaller than the company’s other sound bars, the $699 Playbase and $699 Playbar. The speaker is 25.6 inches long, just fewer than 4 inches tall, and 2.7 inches deep, with a woven grille encircling its perimeter. It has a slightly concave top marked with pinholes for its far-field mics and buttons for optional nonvoice control. The speaker has three ports (power, Ethernet, and HDMI-ARC) on the back and a hidden IR receiver for operation with remote controls.

While both Google (with its Google Home Max) and Apple (with its HomePod) have smart-speaker products that focus on high-end music audio, the home-theater arena has not yet been targeted by digital-assistant makers themselves. Sonos, between its TV room–friendly form factor and its eventual access to all three major virtual assistants, is setting itself up to be a leader in this space.

At $399, the Beam isn’t as palatable as a $50 Echo Dot, but it’s also targeting a different consumer market: people looking to add both assistant smarts and better-quality audio to their living room. In a demo of the technology at an event in San Francisco, the Sonos Beam did indeed offer rich, powerful, room-filling audio that can emulate some of the benefits of a surround-sound setup. While its performance isn’t quite as good, from a home-theater perspective, as Sonos’ more expensive sound bars, it’s far better than your typical built-in TV speakers or an Amazon Echo–size music player. It can deliver two-channel audio for music and three-channel audio for TV and movies, which offers some degree of audio tracking as action moves across the screen.

Beam was a natural next step for a company like Sonos. In its design and performance, the speaker stays true to the company’s roots while bringing it up to speed with the latest home-technology trends. And while its $199 Sonos One competes directly against options like Google Home and the Amazon Echo, the Beam has far fewer competitors. For buyers, it makes sense as well. It’s a narrow, neutral-looking black or white speaker that won’t tie them down to one particular software or assistant ecosystem or dated aesthetic. If you’re spending $399 on a product, you don’t want it to become irrelevant when you eventually decide you prefer Google Assistant over Alexa or don’t like the color coral so much after all. While we grapple with the issue of planned obsolescence in so many of our personal electronic products, it’s refreshing for a company to put longevity and future-proofing at the forefront.