If you’re in the market for a high-end soundbar, you’ve likely at least heard of Sonos. I’ve somehow managed to miss most Sonos products, but I recently got to test the Sonos ARC, the company’s top-end, modular soundbar system. It’s gorgeous, versatile, expandable, and pricey.
Admittedly, my soundbar journey hasn’t been pleasant, and that’s an understatement. In fact, all of the soundbars I’ve had in the past have had dealbreaker issues that caused me to either return or sell them. So much so, that I’ve resorted to using headphones for the majority of my home TV and movie watching.
I’m not sure if it’s my luck (or lack thereof), but most mainstream soundbars all have flaws or bugs that drive me up a wall. I’ve had systems where the wireless subwoofer would sporadically cut in and out. Annoying. Another system I’ve owned would have a two second delay in front of anything I played so it could apply digital signal processing (DSP). And other bars are simply missing basic functionality such as equalizer (EQ) controls.
Is the ARC the soundbar I’ve been looking for all along?
Hardware: Wait, It's Modular?
Setup and App: Simple and Seamless (If You're an Apple User)
Sound Quality: A Truly Immersive Experience
A Few Other Details: Maybe a Dealbreaker?
Hardware: Wait, It’s Modular?
Let’s kick things off with hardware. If you go out and buy the Sonos ARC soundbar, all you’ll get is the bar itself. No surround speakers, no subwoofer. Just the bar.
Out of the box, you’ll get a solid 5.1.2 integrated surround setup. What this means in layman’s terms is that it has three speakers up front, one on each side (that bounces off your sidewalls; two total), and two up-firing speakers.
The rather expensive subwoofer ($699), and if you follow Sonos’ recommendation, the Sonos One SL surround speakers ($170 each) will cost you extra. Combine that with the ARC’s $800 price tag, and you’re looking at $1900 for everything. Fortunately, if your budget is tight, you don’t have to buy all the parts all at once.
In terms of surround speakers, you can choose whatever speakers you want as long as you have the Sonos Amp. For some, that might be worth it as it means infinite upgradeability down the line. But most people will be more than happy with a pair of One SLs. If you decide to buy them, the great thing about the One SLs is that you can use them as standalone speakers, separate from the soundbar. Just go into the Sonos app and unpair them, and now they’re standalone speakers.
While the subwoofer is slightly less upgradeable, you can choose between using a second-generation or third-generation (latest) Sonos subwoofer. From what I can tell, the only differences between the two are aesthetics. So if you don’t care for the more “modern” look, go ahead and pick up a second-generation sub, which is likely on sale. Both variations work with the ARC, and presumably, future revisions of the first-party sub will work with the ARC.
Setup and App: Simple and Seamless (If You’re an Apple User)
Setting up the ARC will feel familiar if you’re like me and entrenched in that sweet Apple ecosystem. Simply download the app, plug the ARC in (and the HDMI cable from the ARC to your TV’s eARC/ARC port), and tap connect. Outside of a required firmware update, everything was seamless and quick.
During the setup, you’ll be asked to use your iPhone’s microphone to scan your room. You’ll need to flip your iPhone 180 degrees, so the Lightning port faces the ceiling and walk around your room for about 60 seconds, waving the phone up and down. The ARC uses this time to measure the distance from your iPhone and the bar to gauge how big your room is, where to bounce sound off of, and to tune itself. Unfortunately, if your main phone is an Android, you’re out of luck here. You can either borrow a friend’s iPhone to set up the bar or forgo room correction altogether.
As a first time Sonos user, I was surprised with the number of integrations you get for music streaming services. You can add music streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify, TIDAL, and Qobuz. This is fantastic for a soundbar, as it lets you play music without needing to keep your TV on.
The ARC supports hands-free voice assistants for both Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But if you already have a smart assistant in the same room, I’d recommend using that instead of the ARC. In my experience, the Sonos has issues hearing your voice, especially when the bar is playing audio itself.
On the app side of things, it has everything you’d expect. You’re able to control audio playback with a volume slider, a handy night mode that levels out loud sounds, and a speech enhancement mode that boosts audio from the center channel. I’ve found the night mode to work tremendously when watching TV at night to avoid angering my neighbors. This is important to note as the ARC doesn’t come with a remote. You’ll need to either use the app, your TV’s remote, or use a universal remote.
You’ll also be able to update the ARC’s firmware and add other Sonos products, such as a subwoofer and surround speakers (more on that later). In the few months I’ve owned the ARC, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of firmware updates Sonos has pushed out. That’s a far cry from practically every other soundbar on the market that pushes a few updates at launch and then radio silence beyond that.
Sound Quality: A Truly Immersive Experience
I’m seriously impressed. The ARC outputs great sound without adding a subwoofer or surround speakers, considering everything’s coming from a central point. If you don’t have space or aren’t interested in the surround speakers or subwoofer, the ARC practically blows every other soundbar out of the water in both price and size. The Atmos/surround sound effect is more convincing than any other I’ve used or tested, including those much more expensive than the ARC. And that’s without the One SL surround speakers or subwoofer. The bar has solid sound separation and soundstage, although bass can sometimes blend into the rest of the frequency range, making it a little hard to discern certain low-end sounds.
In terms of frequency response out of the box, the bass is objectively slightly recessed, and treble is cranked up just a little. Fortunately, you can tweak that within the Sonos app. My recommendation is to do +1 for bass and -1 for treble. You’ll also have an option to tweak the up-firing “height” speakers. But that’ll depend largely on the size of your room and how tall your ceiling is. Subjectively, I’ve left the treble at zero to get a bit more sparkle and sharpness out of the bar.
The real magic happens when you add the Sonos Sub to your setup. Suddenly, it goes from a “pretty good” experience to a “truly exceptional” experience. Unlike other subwoofers from most other soundbar manufacturers, the Sonos Sub has a relatively flat and neutral bass response. There’s not too much sub-bass (bass you can feel) that causes an overwhelming amount of rumble, and there’s not a ton of mid-bass (bass you can hear) to cause a “boomy” effect. It’s perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
Adding a subwoofer to the mix removes the load off of the ARC itself, giving you better clarity and a better perception of space. Both the second and third-generation subs feature force-canceling woofers built-in. And if you don’t know what that means, essentially, the sub will cancel out any sort of rumble and rattle from the sub itself. You’ll still get the room-shaking experience, but you won’t be able to feel it rumble if you put your hand on it, for example.
And thanks to the force-canceling characteristics, you’ll be able to place the Sonos Sub practically anywhere and in any form. The sub stands tall but relatively narrow. This means that if your couch has enough clearance, you can place the sub on its side underneath it. Saving you a good chunk of space and giving you a more “clean” setup.
I have my sub sitting next to my couch, which is almost right up against the wall. Playing Atmos content on the bar creates that infamous invisible bubble in my living room. You can pinpoint if sounds are coming from behind you, to the right of you, in a specific corner, above you, or even behind you. It’s truly exceptional despite it “only” being a 5.1.2 setup. This is all thanks to the whole wand movement you did with your iPhone while setting up the bar.
As a self-proclaimed audiophile chasing the purist of sound, I’m happy to report that the ARC respectfully plays audio in its original format. Stereo plays stereo, 5.1 plays in 5.1, and Atmos plays in Atmos. Most other bars will upsample everything to surround sound/Atmos, which is complete and utter trash.
And with a recent firmware update, Sonos has enabled the ability to add a second subwoofer to your setup. While not common, especially with soundbar systems, adding a second subwoofer is useful if you have a larger home theater/living room where a single subwoofer may not fill the room. For my setup, it’s unnecessary, but it’s nice to have the option down the line (again, love the modularity!). Just note that at least one of your subs will need to be a third-generation sub to have a dual sub setup.
For the sake of the review, I also purchased and used a pair of One SLs with the ARC for a few days. For the most part, I’d say avoid them. The addition of the subwoofer should be at the top of your upgrade list. The One SLs add little to no benefit over the ARC + subwoofer setup. They lack up-firing speakers for a better Atmos experience and make a small difference to the overall sound experience.
A Few Other Details: Maybe a Dealbreaker?
But of course, not everything is rainbows and daisies. The only real complaint about the ARC is that it has a hidden sleep timer that can’t be disabled. If I pause a video or leave the bar idle for a few minutes, the ARC goes into a sleep mode which inadvertently mutes the bar entirely. Upon resuming, the bar has to unmute and reconnect to the TV, which cuts off the first few seconds of audio. Not a dealbreaker as most content I watch is from video streaming services, so rewinding a few seconds isn’t the end of the world. But if you watch a lot of live content, this could be annoying. Hopefully, Sonos can add an option in a future firmware update to let you choose to set a longer timeout time or disable it entirely.
What might be a potential dealbreaker for some is the lack of HDMI expansion on the bar itself. It has a single HDMI port, and that’s dedicated to eARC/ARC (audio return channel). I don’t personally care because I have enough HDMI ports on my TV and prefer HDMI CEC, but I could see this being an issue if your TV only has two or three HDMI ports. Especially considering the bar itself takes up one HDMI port.
A smaller issue I ran into (and it could be my TV itself) is that there’s no visual volume indicator on my TV. For reference, I have an LG OLED from 2020 running the bar over eARC. The only way to see the real volume is to go into the Sonos app. It’s a strange experience at first, but I’ve learned to turn it down low and start playing content if I’m unsure what the volume level is.
Lastly, if you own a Blu-ray player or any other device that uses the DTS format instead of Dolby for surround sound, you’re out of luck here. As is the case with all other Sonos products, the ARC does not support DTS whatsoever. If most of your content viewing is with a Blu-ray player or any other device that supports DTS instead of Dolby (as opposed to both), you’ll want to avoid the ARC altogether. Fortunately, most streaming devices and game consoles support both formats.
Overall, I’m extremely happy with the Sonos ARC + single subwoofer setup. It’s definitely a “high-end” soundbar, especially if you factor in the cost of the subwoofer. But it offers such a unique and captivating experience. I have no desire to pick up anything beyond the subwoofer in the near-term future. And with Sonos’ history with its other hardware, I’m confident the ARC will continue to push firmware updates and add new features for years to come.
As someone who’s tried and used a dozen or so soundbars over the past five years or so, I’m happy to say that I’ll be keeping the Sonos ARC for the foreseeable future. Maybe, I’ll add another subwoofer if I end up moving into a larger space. But that’s a big if.
My only real desire is for Sonos to update the One SL speakers to have up-firing speakers. That way, you can have an even better Dolby Atmos experience. Maybe then I would consider adding surround speakers to my setup.
Here’s What We Like
- Superb overall sound with realistic Atmos effect
- Simple setup and intuitive app
- Support for Google Assistant and Alexa
- Modularity makes it easy to upgrade and replace components
- Frequent firmware updates for bug fixes and new feature additions
And What We Don't
- No visual volume indicator (at least on my TV)
- No additional HDMI ports
- Lacks DTS audio codec support