I didn’t expect much from the second-generation Sonos Beam. It has the same exact speaker components as the original, a device we already loved. The main difference is that the new Beam also has more processing power to handle Dolby Atmos surround sound. I tend to want more in a sequel, especially since in this case Gen 2 costs $50 more at $450. But even though it’s more of a revision, the new Beam still manages to deliver a wider, more immersive soundscape than before. It proves that having a dollop of Dolby Atmos can go a long way.
Gallery: Sonos Beam (Gen 2) | 9 Photos
Gallery: Sonos Beam (Gen 2) | 9 Photos
The original Sonos Beam was a predictable hit. Consumers were hungry for soundbars to beef up their flatscreen TVs, and it turned out that many people also wanted a cheaper alternative to Sonos’s two TV solutions at the time , the aging Playbar and the awkwardly shaped PlayBase, both priced at $699. Enter the $400 Beam: it was compact enough to fit in small living rooms; featured Amazon Alexa built in; and, most importantly, it sounded great. It was an accessible entry point into Sonos’s family of connected speakers, pluss an easy upgrade for existing customers.
Beam (Gen 2)
- Solid sound quality overall
- Effective Atmos
- Simple setup
- Sonos system compatibility
- No upward firing Atmos drivers
- More expensive than many competing compact soundbars
The new Beam looks almost the same as before; the only difference is that it has a perforated plastic grille around its curved exterior, a departure from the thin cloth covering on the previous-gen model. It’s still surprisingly small, measuring just 25.6 inches wide and weighing a mere six pounds. It has the same rear ports, too: Ethernet, HDMI and power. You’ll need to plug it into an HDMI ARC/eARC socket on your TV to tap into the power of Dolby Atmos and TrueHD. (But if you’ve got an older set, you can get basic Dolby Digital decoding with the bundled HDMI to optical adapter.)
Speaking of Atmos, that was a major deficiency on the earlier Beam. When that speaker was released in 2018, soundbar makers like Vizio were already exploring what was possible with Dolby’s new technology. Typically, that involved using upward-firing speakers to bounce sound off of your ceiling. And, despite seeming like a bit of an audio hack, in my experience those speakers do a decent job of replicating what you get from Atmos-equipped cinemas, which have dedicated hardware built into their ceilings. There are limits, though: Upward-firing Atmos speakers tend to max out with 15-foot ceilings, and they work best with flat surfaces.
Given the additional hardware and room requirements, why go through the trouble of getting Atmos hardware at all? Simply put, it makes for more room-filling surround sound than traditional 5.1 solutions like Dolby Digital and DTS. Those earlier technologies sent sound to specific channels — left, right, center, two rears and a subwoofer. Atmos is different: It’s object based, allowing engineers to map sounds in 3D (XYZ) space coordinates. That lets an Atmos mix automatically scale up anywhere from two speakers (or basic stereo support) to 64 in cinemas.
Sonos is no stranger to Atmos soundbars: It’s the defining feature on the $899 Arc. But what makes the second-generation Beam unique is that it doesn’t even have upward-firing speakers. It has the same basic hardware as before: a center tweeter, four mid-woofers for mid-range sound, and three passive radiators to handle the low-end. Instead, it’s relying entirely on audio processing to simulate the Dolby Atmos experience. The additional CPU speed allows it to power two additional channels: height and surround for both the left and right speakers.
When Sonos first announced the second-gen Beam, I immediately wondered how the heck it could provide any height channels without adding more speakers. It turns out, the company leaned even more heavily into psychoacoustics, or the science of how we perceive sound. According to Scott Fink, the product manager behind all of Sonos’s home theater gear, the company can tweak the audio timing and frequency to make it seem as if sound is coming from the side, or slightly above you. It’s no replacement for having actual speakers dedicated to blasting height channels, but it worked surprisingly well in my testing.