Smart speaker maker Sonos unveiled a new living room audio product dubbed the Sonos Beam at a press event in San Francisco Wednesday. The Beam can best be described as a compact soundbar with integrated far-field microphones for voice control. It is priced $399 and scheduled to go on sale on July 17.
Beam was all about bringing music back to the living room or TV room, said Sonos CEO Patrick Spence during a recent interview with Variety. “With home theater, it’s been trapped,” he said. “People just can’t listen to music on their home theater systems in any easy way.”
The Beam isn’t Sonos’ first foray into the living room. The company introduced its Playbar soundbar in early 2013, and followed up with the Playbase — a speaker that doubled as a stand for TVs — last year. Both Playbar and Playbase cost $699, and both primarily appeal to Sonos owners who also want to bring better sound to their TV.
The Beam is significantly more affordable, adds voice control and was also designed with a slightly different use case in mind, said Sonos director of portfolio planning Cole Harris. “When we start with a Sonos product, we start with why,” he said during a recent product demo for Variety.
The impetus for the development of the Beam was the rise in global video streaming, and the realization that most people consume that video content on TVs that look great but often sound terrible. “Only two of ten of these TVs are connected to external speakers,” Harris said.
The Sonos Beam wants to optimize audio quality for TV viewing, but also deliver great sound for audio when the TV is off. To do so, it integrates one tweeter for higher frequencies and 4 woofers for lower frequencies. Unlike other soundbar products, the tweeter is centered smack in the middle, which is supposed to help with more accurate music reproduction, according Harris. The result of this placement sounded more like “a person singing versus a wall singing,” he said.
Another key difference to the Playbar and Playbase: The Beam connects to a TV via HDMI, and can actually control the TV via HDMI CEC. This makes it possible, for instance, to ask the device to turn off the TV when one wants to switch from watching television to music listening.
The Beam will be available in two colors — all black and all white, and is covered by a cloth mesh that has been knitted in a tubular fashion, kind of like a sleeve, and cut with the help of lasers. To settle on the optimal form factor for the device, designers at Sonos measured hundreds of TVs, recalled Sonos design manager Aki Laine. “It’s not gonna block any TVs.”
To get the Beam release-ready, Sonos did the largest beta test in its history, with at times surprising results. “In our beta testing, we’ve seen people putting it in their kitchen,” said Spence. “Somebody had it on top of the refrigerator because it’s nice and sleek and it sounds great.”
Sonos isn’t the only company looking to make soundbars smarter. Roku announced earlier this year that it had teamed up with TCL to make a soundbar powered by Roku’s own assistant. And Google recently partnered with JBL for a soundbar that doubles as a smart TV streaming device.
However, the Beam will the only device of its kind that will support access to multiple voice assistants. The Beam features 5 far-field microphones and ships with support for Amazon’s Alexa assistant at launch. Support for Google’s assistant is supposed to be added later this year. Also coming as a software update: Support for Apple’s Airplay 2 technology.
And Sonos isn’t just adding all of these technologies independently, but actually wants to make them work together — something that hasn’t been done before. This will allow consumers, for instance, to launch audio playback via Airplay on their iPhone, then ask Alex to identify the song that’s playing, and finally pause playback with the Sonos app on their Android device. “We have a really close relationship with Apple and Amazon and Google,” said Harris.
The company said Wednesday that these partnerships will extend beyond the Beam. Sonos VP of software Antoine Leblond announced on stage in San Francisco that the company will support Airplay 2 on not only the Beam, but also the Sonos One, the Playbase and the company’s Play 5 speaker starting next month. “It’s been great with Apple to partner on this work,” he said.