Sonos unveils its most affordable soundbar yet and its own voice-control feature

Confirming earlier rumors, Sonos on Wednesday announced a new soundbar aimed at more budget-conscious buyers, as well as a new voice-control feature for its existing speakers.

The former is called the Sonos Ray and will be available on June 7 for $279 (279 pounds, 299 euros). It’ll slot in beneath the $449 Sonos Beam (Gen 2) and $899 Sonos Arc as the popular connected speaker maker’s most affordable and most compact soundbar to date, measuring in at 559×95×71 mm (so, about 22 inches wide). By comparison, the similarly compact Sonos Beam comes in at 651×100×69 mm (about 25.6 inches wide). As with the Beam, the Ray’s small size should make it best suited with smaller rooms and secondary TVs, though Sonos posits the device could also work on a desktop and more generally positions it as a starting point for those interested in their first upgrade from their TV’s built-in speakers.

Paying less means you’ll sacrifice some features, though. Unlike the Beam and Arc, the Sonos Ray doesn’t support Dolby Atmos virtual surround sound. It also lacks an HDMI port, instead opting for a lower-bandwidth optical audio port and an Ethernet jack as its only connectivity options, with no additional HDMI adapters in the box. The omission of an HDMI ARC port could make the cable situation a bit messier for those with more involved home theater setups, though Sonos says the Ray can still work in parallel with your TV remote through its IR receiver.

Also missing are any sort of microphones, which means there is no native support for voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant. Privacy-conscious buyers may see this as a plus, if anything, though the lack of mics also means there’s no support for Sonos’ “Automatic Trueplay” feature, which allows certain Sonos speakers to tune their sound to best suit their placement in a given room (provided you have an iOS device). The Ray still supports Trueplay, but you’ll have to go through the tuning process manually. Like most Sonos speakers, there’s also no support for Bluetooth audio here.

In general, the Ray is a simpler piece of hardware than the Beam or Arc. This is a 3.0-channel soundbar, with all its speakers pointing out of a front-facing perforated hard-plastic grille. Internally, there are four amplifiers, two tweeters, and two midwoofers; the Beam, meanwhile, packs five amplifiers, a tweeter, four midwoofers, and three passive radiators for bass response. Sonos is now positioning the latter as its “high-definition” compact soundbar by comparison.

I was able to briefly listen to the Ray at a media event in New York City this week, and while nothing sounded particularly offensive, it’s always difficult to glean meaningful insights from an audio demo in a manufacturer-controlled environment. Sonos says it has customized the Ray’s drivers to get a greater sense of width out of the soundbar’s small size, but it’s only so possible to get around a speaker’s physics, and the slightly larger Beam already wasn’t the best at producing thumping, low bass on its own. You’ll likely be sacrificing depth of sound for the convenience of a speaker that’s easier to fit in any room, as with most small soundbars. There are alternative soundbar systems around this price that support Atmos and come with a subwoofer and discrete satellite speakers. All that said, most Sonos home speakers have offered a nicely accurate and neutral sound in the past, so we’ll have to listen to the Ray more extensively to get a better sense of how it performs.

Elsewhere, there’s still a trio of touch-based playback controls on top of a typically minimalist design, which will be available in black or white. It’ll also be mountable, albeit through a proprietary mount.

Beyond that, the core appeal of most Sonos speakers is still here. The Ray is entirely controllable through the Sonos app and thus supports a variety of streaming services. It works with Apple’s AirPlay 2 protocol, so you can beam audio to the soundbar directly from an Apple device. And it’ll pair neatly with any other Sonos speakers you own or—as Sonos hopes—may want to own in the future, allowing you to use them all in tandem in a wireless whole-home setup. If you wanted to expand the Ray with a Sonos Sub subwoofer and two Sonos One speakers as rear surrounds, you could do so with little friction, though it would be very expensive. (There’s also nothing to suggest that Sonos will be yanking software updates for these devices any time soon.) Again, we’ll have to confirm whether or not the Ray lives up to the company’s usual standard in terms of audio quality. While there are plenty of cheaper soundbars out there, but for those who have wanted to upgrade their TV audio and hop aboard the Sonos train, this could be the most approachable entry point.

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Enlarge / The actual voice you hear when using Sonos Voice Control is based on recordings of Giancarlo Esposito, the actor best known for starring roles in Breaking Bad and The Mandalorian.

Sonos’ new voice helper: Gus Fring

Alongside the new hardware, Sonos unveiled Sonos Voice Control, a new voice-control feature explicitly designed for controlling music and playback on Sonos speakers without having to dive in to the Sonos app. It’ll launch as a free update for all “voice-capable” Sonos speakers using the Sonos S2 app—so, not the Ray, since that device lacks built-in mics—on June 1 in the US. Sonos says it’ll then arrive in France by the end of 2022, with availability in additional markets coming sometime later.

Based on a demo Sonos gave at the aforementioned media event this week, Sonos Voice Control appears to work much like the music-control features of digital assistants like Alexa and the Google Assistant, which Sonos already supports on its voice-enabled speakers. You activate the feature by saying “Hey Sonos,” then can request a specific song, playlist, or artist, adjust volume, pause or skip tracks, mark songs as favorites, turn on a connected TV, and so on.

If you have several Sonos speakers, you can use Voice Control to group different devices together or command it to adjust one speaker group only. For instance, you could say, “Hey Sonos, stop playing in the Living Room and play in the Bedroom,” if you wanted to move your music or podcast from, say, a soundbar under your TV to a Sonos One by your bed. If you’re closer to another voice-enabled speaker with its mic on, you could say “Hey Sonos, play here instead” to move playback there. The tech will also work over Bluetooth on compatible portable speakers like the Sonos Move and Sonos Roam.

Sonos says you can mix certain requests as well, allowing you to say something like “Hey Sonos, play Daft Punk quietly in the Kitchen” to start a song from that duo at a lower volume on a specific speaker group. In certain situations, you can also make quick follow-up requests without having to say “Hey Sonos” each time: Just saying “louder” after an initial request of “Hey Sonos, turn it up” will work, provided you do so within about six seconds of your initial command.

Sonos Voice Control will work with Apple Music, Amazon Music, Pandora, Deezer, and the company’s own Sonos Radio service at launch. Sonos says it will add more services over time, though the lack of Spotify is a significant omission (for weirdos like me, YouTube Music isn’t supported either). According to Sonos, Voice Control commands will default to whichever service you select in the Sonos S2 app.

The actual voice of Sonos Voice Control is based on recording sessions with Giancarlo Esposito, the actor best known for his role as Gus Fring in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. He has a far warmer tone than that fictional drug kingpin here and doesn’t sound overly robotic, if my demo was any indication, and like other assistants he’ll sometimes respond with a “sounds great” or “excellent” before completing your request.

As for why you’d use this over a general-purpose voice service like Alexa, Sonos claims its helper will be better about privacy. The company says all Voice Control requests are processed entirely on your Sonos device, with no recordings sent to the cloud, recorded and stored, or accessed by company employees. Because everything is handled on-device, and because the assistant is only designed to handle a relatively narrow set of use cases, Sonos pitches that it’ll be faster and more accurate at taking your requests as well. Everything worked without a hitch during my demo, but again, we’ll have to use the assistant more extensively over time to see how those claims hold up (and the most privacy-conscious decision would be to just not have mic-enabled speakers in your home at all).

That said, since it’s more of a feature than a full-on platform, Sonos Voice Control isn’t designed to replace Alexa and the Google Assistant for those who find those services useful. You’ll be able to use Alexa and Sonos’ alternative simultaneously on the same speaker, if you wish, activating either with their respective wake words. That won’t be possible with the Google Assistant to start, though Sonos says you can still have both helpers active within the same system.

Details of the Sonos Ray and a new Sonos voice assistant were first reported by The Verge.

The Sonos Roam portable speaker will be available in a trio of new colors starting May 11.
Enlarge / The Sonos Roam portable speaker will be available in a trio of new colors starting May 11.
Jeff Dunn

The new feature arrives on the heels of larger tiffs the company has had with Google and Amazon. Sonos successfully sued the former for patent infringement, forcing Google earlier this year to make minor downgrades to how its software handles volume controls and multi-room audio playback. It has publicly accused Amazon of similar offenses and accused both companies of anticompetitive pricing tactics. Now that it’s rolling out its own voice-control tech for music-related tasks, Sonos appears to be deemphasizing its ties to its farther-reaching frenemies.

On a more frivolous note, Sonos also announced on Wednesday that it is releasing new colorways for its Roam portable speaker. If you’re interested in buying that Wi-Fi/Bluetooth hybrid speaker in a color other than black or white, you’ll be able to grab it in a “Wave” light blue, “Olive” green, or “Sunset” orange starting Wednesday. It’ll still cost $179.

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Listing image by Jeff Dunn

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