Reviews

The Sonos Arc sounds phenomenal. Too bad Dolby Atmos is a disaster.

Getting theater-quality Atmos surround sound at home with the Arc soundbar is simple and frustrating at the same time.

The synths rain down from above me and then fade in through my left and right ears. A helicopter’s rotors spin loudly — but distinctly — overhead. Whispers echo and reverb from one side of the room to the other.

I’m not in a movie theater (and likely won’t be in one for while), but it feels like I am even though I’m sitting in my modest-sized apartment. I’ve got Sonos’ new Arc soundbar plugged into my TV and spitting out Dolby Atmos virtual surround sound from its front, side, and top speakers. I expected it to sound as good as Sonos’ discontinued Playbar, but it's doing better than that. It's knocking my socks off. The Arc sounds phenomenal.

The Arc (and many Atmos-enabled soundbars) is by far the simplest way to add surround sound to a home theater setup without messy multi-channel speaker arrangements around the room. It’s just one long tube that pumps out loud, clear, 3D spatial sound.

But experiencing and enjoying Atmos isn’t as simple as hooking up the Arc to your TV. As I found out, it’s a lot more complicated. There’s never been a better time to upgrade your TV setup since you’re probably watching more content than ever before, but if like me you’re new to Atmos sound in your home, things will get messy. Really messy.

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Killer sound

Tubular. Also comes in black.Raymond Wong / Input

The Arc is not a complicated device. Its 45-inch length is 10 inches longer than the 35-inch Playbar it replaces. But it’s also not as deep (4.5 inches versus 5.5 inches). It’s heavier, though: 13.8 pounds compared to the Playbar’s 11.9 pounds. It’s a sleek, minimalist soundbar and it just fits on my dual-unit IKEA Besta media center.

I had the Arc up and running in a few minutes. There are only two cables to connect: power and HDMI, which connects into your TV’s HDMI ARC or eARC port (it’ll be labeled on the back so make sure you’re not plugging it into a regular HDMI port). Something important to note: the Arc runs on Sonos’ S2 software, which is incompatible with some legacy Sonos devices that run S1 software.

Then you open the Sonos app and wave an iOS device around your room to tune it. Anyone who’s ever set up a Sonos speaker knows all about the Trueplay-waving-calibration process. It still doesn’t work with Android, which is confounding. Trueplay is quick, but the waving is annoying when auto room-calibration technology exists in Sonos’ Move and other speakers like Apple’s HomePod can also automatically adjust the sound based on the acoustics of a room. I asked Sonos what the deal was and a spokesperson sent me its usual boilerplate response: “Trueplay is currently available on iOS devices. The consistency of the microphones across the range of Android devices does not currently allow for a consistent tuning experience.”

Sound shoots out the side, front, and top speakers.Raymond Wong / Input

From a sound quality standpoint, the Arc sounds terrific. It gets really loud and even at its highest volume keeps distortion low so movies don’t sound like garbled Transformers having sex. I placed the Arc in front of my TV and, let me tell you, hearing the 11 drivers push out Atmos’ virtual speakers above and around me is an aural and visceral feeling that really elevates movies. The bass is thick, the mids are crystal clear, and the highs are crisp enough to reproduce the gentlest of notes with audible separation. I can’t speak for every other Atmos soundbar, but I can say the Arc delivers powerful sound regardless of whether it’s pushing out Atmos or not.

It gets really loud and keeps distortion low so movies don’t sound like garbled Transformers having sex.

This being a Sonos speaker, you can also pair the Arc with any other S2-enabled Sonos products like the Sonos 5, Sonos Sub, etc. to get multi-room sound. The Arc is not going to be a replacement for whatever bespoke sound system wealthy people get professionally installed. But for everyone else, Sonos’ new soundbar is a sweet spot for affordable premium home surround sound. I feel as if my Atmos-enabled Blu-rays just got a major upgrade. The Lego Batman Movie was more high-octane with the full force of explosions and sounds of bricks breaking apart emanating so clearly around me. Hans Zimmer’s scores in Blade Runner 2049 are more eerie and chilling (I can hear the wider sound stage) compared to my 2.1 stereo speakers.

The phenomenal sound is in addition to AirPlay 2 support and built-in Alexa and Google Assistant voice controls. The voice assistants work fine, but I noticed Alexa is maybe a half-step slower at processing my voice commands than my first-gen Echo Plus.

Jumping through hoops

Make sure your TV can pass an Atmos signal through its HDMI Arc or eArc port.Raymond Wong / Input

Does your TV support Atmos? — Now for the ugly part: getting all the right pieces together. If your TV was purchased in the last couple of years (and isn’t a completely budget, low-on-features display), there’s a good chance it’ll be able to output an Atmos signal to the Arc and your setup is going to basically be plug and play.

At first, I thought plugging in the Arc to any HDTV or 4K TV would automatically enable Atmos sound. Isn’t that the whole point of buying an Atmos-enabled soundbar? Apparently that’s not the case.

In order for the Arc to output in Atmos, your TV (most released in 2018 or newer with HDMI ARC or eARC) needs to be able to pass the audio signal either directly from it or via a compatible streaming device (I’ll get to that in a sec). Some TVs can output in Dolby formats like Dolby Digital, but can’t send Atmos sound to the Arc.

For some other Atmos soundbars, the solution is simple if your TV can’t output Atmos: connect the soundbar via its HDMI IN port to an Atmos-enabled streaming device and then connect the soundbar to your TV via its HDMI OUT port. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible on the Arc because it only has one HDMI port. So make sure your TV can pass Atmos audio.

The right media device — After you’ve got your TV compatibility sorted out, you need to check that your streaming device or Blu-ray player/game console supports Atmos, too. Like TVs, not all media devices can output Atmos content. For example, I was deeply upset when I learned my PlayStation 4 doesn’t work with Atmos (nor does the PS4 Pro). The only game console with Atmos support is the Xbox One (original, S, and X). Many popular streaming devices like Chromecast Ultra, Roku, Nvidia Shield, and Amazon Fire TV have limited support with Atmos. The Apple TV 4K (non-4K versions won’t work) is the only streaming device that works with Atmos on the most video services.

Apple TV 4K is the best streaming device for Atmos content. It also clearly tells you when Atmos is supported unlike other services. *cough* Netflix *cough*Raymond Wong / Input

Streaming inequality — This segues perfectly into my next frustration with Atmos: service compatibility. Atmos content on Apple TV 4K works with iTunes, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu. Roku streaming devices and the Nvidia Shield only support Atmos content on Vudu and Prime Video. Chromecast Ultra only on Vudu. Amazon Fire TV only on Prime Video. It’s a nightmare trying to figure out which devices work with which service.

On top of having access to the right service, you also need to make sure you’ve got the right subscription tier (if there are any). Before reviewing the Arc, I was on Netflix’s $12.99 Standard plan because I didn’t need the 4K Ultra HD streaming and additional device streaming support included in the $15.99 Premium plan. Turns out, if you want Atmos sound you need to be on the Premium plan. That’s unfortunate because Atmos and 4K aren’t mutually exclusive.

Read the fine print.Screenshot: Raymond Wong / Input

I’m lucky to have both an Apple TV 4K and Xbox One X so I’m set for Atmos sound through streaming services on the Apple TV 4K and Atmos via Blu-ray on the Xbox One X. But if you’ve only got one streaming device, you’re going to be limited to whatever it supports. Service compatibility is a real problem and Dolby should aim to get device makers to support all major services like the Apple TV 4K.

Finding Atmos content — Finally, you need to find content that supports Atmos because not every movie or TV show on a streaming service is mastered in the audio format. On Netflix, you’ll see an Atmos icon pop up next to the content description. If you don’t see it and you think you’ve got all your equipment set up correctly, something is wrong.

I wouldn’t bother with Amazon Prime Video since there’s next to no Atmos content to experience, which basically rules out the Fire TV as a streaming device option at all. Vudu has a decent library of Atmos-enabled movies, but I’d go with iTunes because it has way more and Apple upgrades all your existing content with Atmos for free if a studio remasters it with Atmos.

Not all Blu-rays support Atmos. Check the case.Raymond Wong / Input

You can also buy Blu-rays with Atmos. But your mileage will vary there as well. I’ve accumulated a nice collection of Blu-rays over the years (I need that uncompressed resolution fidelity without the blocky blacks) and counted only about a quarter of them have Atmos. My Steelbook versions of Inception and complete collection for The Godfather that I bought last year? No Atmos. I’m super bummed my Blu-ray of Parasite in 1080p that I bought earlier this year doesn’t have Atmos. If I want it, I need to pick up the 4K version of the Blu-ray, which is ridiculous in my opinion. Dolby tells me there’s no requirement or recommendation that content owners only include Atmos on 4K Blu-rays (which usually cost more). That leaves me with only one conclusion: content owners are greedy jerks who want to milk more from consumers.

The most annoying part of finding Atmos content is that none of the streaming services keep a running master list of what is and isn’t available in Atmos. Probably because there’s not much to boast about. And the lists that are on the internet aren’t updated frequently. Honestly, who can blame them when content on Netflix comes and goes every month and jumps ship from service to service when license agreements end? It’d be a real chore to keep an up-to-date list of all the rotating and revolving Atmos content on every service. Not even Dolby has a list of Atmos content on its website.

What about non-video Atmos content like games and music? There’s not much there either. At the time of this writing, there are only 20 Xbox One games with Atmos, a teeny fraction of 2,000+ games available on the console. Dolby just added Atmos on Tidal last week, but you’re out of luck if you’re one of the 124 million+ Spotify Premium subscribers or 70 million+ subscribers to Apple Music.

Perfect TV Buddy

The money's worth it.Raymond Wong / Input

Ten years ago, I bought an overpriced premium HDTV with top-of-the-line bells and whistles and a PlayStation 3 vowing to go all-in on an A/V setup that would bring a movie theater experience into my home. I recall spending many late nights on audio forums trying to extract knowledge from audio and cinephiles on which receiver, 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround sound speaker system, and subwoofer to get. Then, more months waiting for gear to go on sale.

It was all needlessly complicated. It also made little sense to cram more electronics into my already cramped living room. My neighbors living above, below, and across from my apartment also would have killed me if I cranked the volume. Plus, I spent very little time at home. So I gave up on that dream.

But with COVID-19 keeping me at home for the foreseeable future and all the time I’m spending watching Netflix and Blu-rays, I can now justify the Arc in my life. Its simple setup, terrific Atmos (and non-Atmos) virtual surround sound (so long as you have all the right parts), and modern design cross off all of the reasons that gave me pause all those years ago.

I can’t dismiss the Arc’s hefty $799 price tag — there are more affordable Atmos-enabled soundbars out there — but the sound is too damn good to ignore. Like great picture quality, you shouldn’t scrimp on sound if you’re a movie lover. Your ears deserve Arc-quality sound. Now, I just need to figure out how to gift my ears this soundbar without selling a kidney.