Release Date: June 2020
The new Sonos flagship soundbar, the Arc ($799), improves upon its near-decade-old ancestor, the Playbar, in a whole host of ways. It has an all-new design, and updated guts to work as a smart speaker with Google Assistant or Alexa, but its standout feature is without doubt support for Dolby Atmos. Unfortunately, you’ll need more than just an Arc to make use of that technology: you’ll need a compatible TV and content as well. And that unavoidable headache complicates the magic that makes Sonos ordinarily so easy to recommend.
Dolby Atmos, for the uninitiated, is an audio technology that creates its own virtual height channels so, if you’re watching a movie or show, it sounds like things are flying over your head and to the way left and way right of you; not just like the sounds are shooting out from the TV. This, obviously, requires specialized hardware and also compatible content.
The content, fortunately, is not a big problem. Not every movie and show supports Dolby Atmos, but many you can find on common streaming services do. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple iTunes and Vudu all have Atmos content, though there are stragglers like Hulu and HBO Max.
But to make use of it, every link in your audio-video chain has to be Dolby Atmos compatible. So in addition to content, you need a compatible TV, compatible speaker system, and compatible streaming device, all connected to each other with Atmos-compatible connections, which is to say, no optical connections allowed. (These are the current external streaming devices that support Dolby Atmos: Apple TV 4K, Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick (2nd-generation), Fire TV (3rd-generation) and Nvidia Shield TV.)
It can be a convoluted and complicated affair, and one that contains numerous configurations that feel like they should work, but don’t. The Arc, to its credit, simplifies this situation a little bit. As it only has a single HDMI port, it has to be connected directly to your TV (via its HDMI ARC or HDMI eARC port). This prevents you from dabbling in complex setups that involve a streaming device as a pass-through, but at the cost of requiring a fairly up-to-date TV. If your TV is older than 2017, you’re probably going to be out of luck.
There are a lot of TVs older than 2017 that have an HDMI ARC connection, but its presence doesn’t mean you are in the clear. My current socially-distancing situation includes a gorgeous 65-inch Samsung TV from 2013, and even though it has an HDMI ARC port, it doesn’t support Dolby Atmos. And so while I have the Arc — and it sounds great — I have yet to be able to try out its killer feature.
It’s this layer of confusion that seems to be the Arc’s biggest flaw. Of course it is not Sonos’s fault that Dolby Atmos compatibility is a little confusing. It does, however, mean that the Arc comes with an asterisk attached; if you want the best sound, you better make sure that you have compatible TV first. That’s far from a dealbreaker, but it is a notable caveat from a brand that’s built its name on almost magical ease of use.
Of course, you don’t have to have a TV that supports Dolby Atmos to still have a good experience with the Arc. It still works as a very good smart speaker that can be integrated with your other Sonos speakers in a multi-room system. But it just won’t be the best possible experience.
Sonos provided this product for review.
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