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Sonos Arc review: an immersive soundbar that home theater enthusiasts can love

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Sonos Arc review: an immersive soundbar that home theater enthusiasts can love

One of the best soundbars you can buy — if your TV supports Dolby Atmos

The new Sonos Arc soundbar is perhaps the biggest flex of the company’s design, engineering, and technology advancements that we’ve seen yet.

Whereas the $399 Beam was aimed squarely at the massive market of people looking to upgrade the dull, lackluster sound coming from their TV speakers, the $799 Arc represents the pinnacle of what Sonos can do in the living room. I suspect it will also be the introduction for many people to Dolby Atmos audio in the home. 4K TVs are everywhere, but many people might be more reluctant to invest in sound beyond your token $200 Vizio soundbar. Hearing the Arc will make you want to own it. It’s a reminder that even as Sonos ventures into services, voice AI, and evolving its platform, it still knows how to make damn fine speakers.

However, it’s important to note right at the top that to get the most out of the Arc, you’re going to need a TV purchased within the last couple years. Sonos made a key design choice to only put a single HDMI port on the Arc, meaning you’ll need a TV that can send Atmos out through its HDMI ARC port in order to hear the fullest possible surround sound. If you have a TV from before 2017 or so, it may not be able to send Atmos out through HDMI, and you can’t plug an Atmos device like an Apple TV into the Sonos directly. This was a limitation in our testing: the 2016 LG B6 OLED in Nilay’s media room can’t send Atmos out through its HDMI port, and Sonos sent him a newer Sony TV so he could test Atmos on the Arc.

That said, most recent 4K TVs should be capable of sending Atmos audio from apps like Netflix to the soundbar through the TV’s HDMI ARC port. And the very newest models from LG, Sony, and others have an updated version of HDMI ARC called eARC (enhanced audio return channel), which offers more bandwidth, faster data transfer, and supports lossless Atmos from Blu-ray players. eARC also synchronizes the audio and video signals automatically — eliminating the slight lip-sync issues I’ve sometimes encountered when sending surround sound signals to the Beam and a Vizio soundbar that I also own. Sonos includes an HDMI-to-optical adapter in the box, but you lose out on Atmos altogether if you use optical audio, so I really don’t know why anyone would bother.

If you’ve been eyeing the Arc, you might already be familiar with a lot of this terminology. It’s a soundbar meant for home theater enthusiasts who, for whatever reason, aren’t interested in going all-out with in-ceiling speakers and a full 7.1 surround experience. If that’s you, I think the Arc delivers a phenomenal audio experience for its price. You’ve just got to be sure your TV is capable of unlocking that potential. It’s a strange limitation; at this price point, it’s reasonable to expect an HDMI passthrough so you can experience Atmos without potentially having to upgrade your TV.

A detail shot of the HDMI port on the Sonos Arc.
The Sonos Arc has a single HDMI port.

The Arc is a very wide soundbar that’s clearly meant to be paired with large TVs. At 45 inches long (a 10-inch increase over the Playbar), it takes up nearly the entire width of my TV stand and is almost as wide as the 55-inch TV I’ve been using it with. If you’re dealing with tight quarters in a small apartment, the Beam is far easier to fit in. The Arc can be mounted to the wall, and when in this orientation, it automatically adjusts frequencies and reduces bass resonance to avoid rattling your living room. The outer shell is all matte-finish plastic, but nothing about it feels cheap. The clean, perforated design — Sonos drilled 76,000 holes into the thing — refocuses your attention on style instead of materials. The black Arc that I’ve been using looks fantastic beneath my TV. Sonos is also selling a white one, but even without seeing it in person I know I’d find it too distracting. Nothing should ever pull your eyes away from what’s on the TV screen.

An overhead view of the capacitive buttons at the top of the Sonos Arc.
The Arc has the same capacitive touch controls as the Beam.

On top are Sonos’ usual set of capacitive controls. The LED status light on the Arc automatically lowers its brightness based on the ambient light in the room so as not to be annoying, but you can also turn it off altogether. Around back is the HDMI port and an Ethernet jack if you find Wi-Fi performance to be lacking, but I didn’t run into any problems using it on my 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network.

Used by its lonesome without a Sub or surround speakers, the Arc can serve as a 5.0.2 Atmos system: that means you’ve got five horizontal channels (left, left surround, center, right surround, right), and the two upward-firing speakers that reflect sound off your ceiling for that sense of height and presence that’s the hallmark of Dolby Atmos. This is what makes it feel like sound is happening all around you instead of just coming from in front or behind. Adding the Sonos Sub to the mix lets the Arc offload bass frequencies and completely focus on the highs and mids for a fuller overall experience. As for surrounds, you can use pretty much any matching pair of speakers from the Sonos lineup (excluding the Move). Sonos recommends the One SL speakers for this purpose, but you can use two Play:5s or even two of the Sonos / Ikea Symfonisk lamp speakers as rear surrounds. The only rule is that you can’t mix two different speakers; they’ve got to be two of the same product.

Here’s the full rundown of audio formats that the Arc supports:

  • Dolby Atmos
  • TrueHD (for external Blu-ray players)
  • Dolby Digital Plus
  • Dolby Digital

DTS and multichannel LPCM remain absent from that list. Sonos has long refused to adopt DTS, so that doesn’t surprise me anymore. Frankly, I never find myself missing it. But the lack of multichannel LPCM means you won’t get surround sound from the Nintendo Switch or many PC games, and some prospective Arc buyers aren’t happy about this omission. Thankfully, there’s good news: the latter is coming in a future software update for the Arc. Sonos isn’t saying exactly when customers can expect it, but the commitment to add LPCM is there.

If you’re ever unsure about what kind of audio the Arc is currently playing, you can check the “about my system” section of the Sonos app. For Atmos content, you’ll also see an indicator on the Now Playing screen.

A detail shot of the front of the Sonos Arc, showing the Sonos logo and many perforated holes in the outer casing.
The Sonos Arc has a matte plastic design that doesn’t draw much attention.

We tested the Arc two ways: by itself in an apartment and paired with a Sonos Sub in a medium-sized basement media room that also has a traditional 5.1.2 Atmos surround system with speakers in the ceiling.

And the Arc more than impressed — in fact, paired with the Sub, the Arc delivered sound as immersive as the multiple-speaker Atmos system. If you didn’t know the Arc was bouncing sound off the ceiling and rear wall, you would easily believe that there were speakers there. Compared to the traditional Atmos system, the Arc sounded different — it’s definitely tuned to deliver very loud dialogue, and it’s still a soundbar, so the overall left / right soundstage isn’t as wide — but it delivered a surround effect that was easily as convincing. Take the opening scene of Baby Driver: it sounded like there were cars flying across the screen, helicopters overhead, and sirens whizzing by. Mission: Impossible — Fallout’s final helicopter scene was equally immersive. The Arc with a Sub is expensive — $1,498 when purchased together — but compared to the cost and complexity of a standard receiver and at least seven speakers with two installed in the ceiling, it more than makes the case for itself.

But if you don’t have a room that’s essentially a flat box, the Arc’s ability to bounce sound goes away — in a large open living room with a double-height ceiling, the Arc didn’t really deliver any surround experience at all. That’s not a knock — the thing is designed to bounce sound off walls — but be aware of that limitation.

To fully optimize the Arc’s sound based on your living room, you’ll need to run the company’s Trueplay tuning feature — but this is still only available on iPhone or iPad. I wish the built-in mics could make some automatic sound profile adjustments in the same way as the Sonos Move, but that’s not an option with the Arc. Since the room (and even the height of your ceilings) factors in so heavily, walking and waving your phone around still gives Sonos better readings to use.

I also tested the Arc in my Brooklyn apartment in a standalone setup with no Sub. Like Nilay’s LG, my TCL P-Series Roku TV is a few years old at this point and is unable to pass Atmos over its HDMI ARC port, and so the best the Arc could do for me was Dolby Digital Plus. But even then, the sound output was a noticeable upgrade from the Playbar and absolutely trounces the Beam. With eight woofers and three tweeters, the Arc delivers a wide, rich soundstage. And since my place has low ceilings and nearby walls surrounding the soundbar, the surround effect was convincing. Despite no Sub, I still found the low end to be rumbly and strong; anything more, and my neighbors would probably get upset. There’s a Night Sound mode to tamp down the volume and oomph of the Arc if you don’t want to disturb anyone, and also a Speech Enhancement feature for emphasizing dialogue. I never found the latter necessary, as voices come through the center channel very clearly.

A detail shot of the back of the Sonos Arc, showing the ethernet jack and power button.
There’s an Ethernet jack on the rear of the Arc.

The Arc retains a lot of features from the Beam, including built-in microphones for voice commands from either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. Apple’s AirPlay 2 is also supported. In my experience, I’ve found that these features are mostly useful for music listening, and even then, I often ignore them completely. For non-TV audio, my instinct is still to use the Sonos app on my phone or use a different device if I want to interact with a voice assistant.

Speaking of the Sonos app, the Arc, along with the new Sonos Five and refreshed Sub, are the first products designed for the new “S2” update that Sonos is rolling out for its speakers this month. There’s a brand-new Sonos app to go along with it, though it looks and works a lot like the old one. Sonos says this S2 platform opens new possibilities for high-resolution sound and other upcoming features. You can only use the Arc with the new Sonos app, not the previous version that will remain available for older Sonos devices. If you’re confused, the company has a big FAQ on the update here. The key takeaway is that unless you’ve got very old Sonos products in your system, your current speakers will get the S2 upgrade.

The Sonos Arc is a success from a performance standpoint, but the experience you get will depend heavily on what TV you have. It’s an unfortunate reality of home theater that you’ll have to spend time mucking with your TV’s settings for this $800 soundbar to receive the right audio signal and sound its best. But if you’ve got a TV that supports Atmos over HDMI ARC — and if that TV is in a conventionally shaped room — the Arc delivers immersive sound that will help enhance your favorite movies and TV shows far beyond the lower-priced Beam. It’s the Atmos soundbar to beat if you’re invested in the Sonos ecosystem. And even for those who aren’t yet, the Arc is still easy to recommend as a starting point.

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