This is a long read - if you’re impatient or don’t have time to read this, just read the title again, and there’s your Cliff’s Notes.
I’ve owned the complete Sonos Playbar 5.1 HT for at least 5 years now. I found limitations quickly: no DTS, no HDMI, no expansion beyond 5.1, less-than-great stereo music performance (to my ears).
I also was not a fan of one particular Sonos app update that forced everyone to enter an email address to continue using the system.
I figured out a way around the account problem without giving up any personal info, I dealt with the DTS problem by ignoring it, I lived with the optical limitation, and I stopped worrying about using the HT for music - I decided to put together a really great analog system for my very large music collection.
Many, many people joined my concerns about the Playbar HT. To all of us, Sonos appeared to be limiting itself to apartment-dwellers who stream everything, and us home theater enthusiasts who wanted to hear the sound coming off the DVD and Blu-ray discs we’d owned before Sonos came along were pushed off to the side. As if to thumb their nose at us, Sonos came up with a couple of gadgets that made no sense - the Beam and the Playbase. Instead of a better sound bar, they introduced a less-capable one, loaded with microphones? Instead of Atmos, we were shown a piece of plastic you could stand a tv on?
I wasn’t expecting for a 13.2.4 system, but it would have been really great to get a couple of height channels, and perhaps add another sub. And I get the obsession with IoT. But for the rest of us who don’t live the internet-attached life, how about some new products that don’t have spyware mics in them?
We were told by Sonos reps that we weren’t the target market, that “the vast majority” of Sonos customers wanted to stream, not own physical media, and want everything from their microwave to their toothbrush hooked to the internet and waiting to accept voice instructions. Frankly, I get it - its the future and anything that hooks to the internet must be good. Thats where the money is and Sonos must go to where the money is. But that also meant Sonos wouldn’t be going where MY money is.
There were more than a few people like me who were customers or wanted to be customers, but were looking elsewhere since so many companies were stepping up to the plate. Sennheiser and Creative were huge news, but the established hifi names like KEF, Denon, B&W, Levinson, Polk, and Canton were showing up as well. Nakamichi, the in-name-only, pale zombie shadow of the once industry-leading hi-end brand, introduced the Shockwafe, which despite the awkward name and eye-searingly bad marketing turned out to be a very capable 9.2.4 WiFi Atmos system. So many options, and with Sonos we were stuck with optical and DD5.1 and the very public statements from the company that “you’re not the target market”.
Things came to a head about two years ago, and I posted in a thread here that I was done. I built out that awesome stereo I mentioned earlier, and I purchased an 11.2 AVR for a true home theater. The Playbar and associated stuff still worked very well, within its limitations, so that would go to a casual viewing area and work until it died. If some of my concerns were addressed I’d take another look at the Sonos ecosystem, but otherwise - I was out.
So imagine my surprise when I found out about the Arc last fall.
It has Atmos, HDMI, and with the new Sonos app, the customer can add a Gen 3 Sub to any existing Sub, providing double the cone area for LFE and the chance to play with room placement for bass optimization. Some of my big wants had been satisfied. I was interested, but there was still the matter of the spy mics Sonos seemed determined to put into everything.
So imagine my complete and utter surprise when I found out about the Arc SL last week. Not only HDMI and Atmos, but no mics! Could this be what I was waiting for? Yes.
A few tiny issues remain: DTS is still not available (workarounds exist, so its not a dealbreaker for me - not when I have Atmos and HDMI!) and as I’ve said in prior discussions, I’d like to see Sonos come up with a soundbar that could be extended by adding more channels. My suggestion: offer a standalone box, one that would handle processing and connections for the various speakers, bars, and subs. When the HT standards outgrow the original processors and interfaces (like whats happened with the Playbar) only the box needs to change while the customer can keep everything else in service.
I look at the current Sonos lineup, and I can almost see that plan taking shape. The new Port and Amp are great products, and they seem to be headed for a convergence in line with what I described. The day is coming when we’ll see a Sonos Box (for lack of better term) that will sit below the tv and interface with your digital sources and tv via HDMI, and offer analog stereo I/O. It will have user configureable channels, perhaps 5.2.2 to start, and you’ll be able to switch between HT and stereo modes without having to unpair speakers like we’ve had to do for years now. It’ll have a DTS license, a gig of memory - maybe even upgradeable storage space via SSD that can serve music?
Perhaps the Box could put existing products to new uses? The Beam that I ridiculed earlier would make a very interesting satellite (especially if Sonos introduces a Beam SL and gets rid of the spy mics) that could be used in vertical or horizontal positions, or even ceiling mounted. Imagine having the Arc handle the front L/C/R, two Subs, and then 4-8 Beams mounted on the walls for 11.2.2 sound, all managed by the Box. As the formats get updated and expanded, the Box would get firmware updates. One day it would cease to be able to keep up - it gets replaced but the room full of speakers can stick around, and if the customer decides to upgrade speakers, they previous ones have a higher resale value because they’re not limited by format technology. The Sonos customers who complain about future-proofing (and rightfully so, having been burned once by the elimination of support for the original ZP components) would now look at a substantial increase on the lifespan of their speaker products, and Sonos could look forward to satisfied, confident customers driving their market.
That will truly be interesting, and I hope they can bring this to market with the ease of setup and use we’ve all become accustomed to. Think of what the reaction would be if they offer a Box bundled with a pair of One SL or Beam SL, and you were able to easily add that to an ARC HT: three AC plugs and one HDMI cable, plus a software update, and you’ve just gone from 5.1.2 to 7.1.2 without having to throw anything out.
Until that happens, I’m really happy with the Arc SL. I put my money where my promise was: this post isn’t coming from an existing customer complaining about Playbar limitations or illogical behavior from Sonos, its coming from a returning customer who is happy that Sonos listened, and appears to have a proper direction now.