Sonos Arc review: A great soundbar for any home theater, even if it’s not all that it could have been

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Sonos Arc review: A great soundbar for any home theater, even if it’s not all that it could have been

The Sonos Arc is an exceptional soundbar, and not just because it supports the immersive audio format Dolby Atmos. But the Arc has a couple of significant shortcomings, only one of which might eventually be remedied. The only way to completely get around the other limitation is to connect the Arc to a late-model TV that supports HDMI with eARC (the enhanced Audio Return Channel that has three times the bandwidth of the older HDMI ARC. You can read all about eARC in this story.)

Let me be up front: I really, really like the Sonos Arc—hence my bottom-line score. It’s beautiful to look at, Sonos is the undisputed master of mainstream multi-room audio, and it sounds absolutely fantastic with both movies and music. Also, Dolby Atmos support isn’t the only reason it’s such a great speaker. But since either or both of the limitations I’ve alluded to might be showstoppers for some, let me delve into just a little detail on that early on.

sonos arc back panel Michael Brown / IDG

The Sonos Arc’s single-biggest shortcoming: It’s equipped with just one HDMI port (it’s on the left side in this photo, opposite the power connection).

Sonos Arc limitations

The first issue is that Sonos elected to not support multi-channel LPCM audio—at least not at launch. A Sonos spokesperson told me the company plans to release a firmware update to add that feature, but couldn’t give me a date. If you’re not a gamer, you might not care about this. But if you are and the Nintendo Switch is your gaming console of choice, this will bum you out because LPCM is the only type of multi-channel audio the Switch supports (you will get audio from a Switch connected to the Arc, it just won’t be surround sound). Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation both support Dolby Atmos, although not every game developed for those platforms does (in fact, many use multi-channel LPCM audio). Even then, the Arc’s second limitation could render the Xbox’s and PlayStation’s Atmos capabilities moot.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best soundbars, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

That second issue is more problematic because it’s physical: The Arc has just one HDMI port. While that port supports both the original ARC and the higher-bandwidth eARC, it depends rather heavily on the capabilities of the TV you’re connecting it to. If you own a very recent model TV that also supports eARC, you’re golden. You’ll connect your Atmos-supporting source device—a Blu-ray player, a game console, an Apple TV 4K, or an Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, for example—to your TV’s HDMI ports, and you’ll plug the Arc into the TV’s eARC port.

If you have a recent-model smart TV, its built-in apps might even offer direct support for Dolby Atmos, so you won’t need a separate box. Either way, your TV will send audio information, including Dolby Atmos, to the Arc over an HDMI cable and all will be right with the world.

TVs with eARC, however, didn’t start trickling into the market until 2018. To get around this limitation, Sonos could have followed the example of some other soundbar manufacturers and built two or more HDMI ports into the Arc: You would have used HDMI ARC to send audio from the TV’s tuner, apps, and other sources to the Arc, and the Arc’s second HDMI port would receive audio from a Blu-ray player or set-top box. That’s how Samsung engineered our current top pick in the high-end soundbar category, the 7.1.4-channel HW-Q90R.

left end of sonos arc Michael Brown / IDG

Woofers on each end of the Sonos Arc can bounce sound off the walls on either side of the speaker to simulate front surround speakers.

And if you want the best audio experience that Dolby can deliver today—lossless audio in the form of Dolby TrueHD, and immersive audio in the form of Dolby Atmos—you’ll want to watch movies on discs played on a 4K UHD Blu-ray player. Yeah, that’s old-school, but it means you don’t need to have very high-speed internet, which isn’t available everywhere. Streaming services like Netflix embed Dolby Atmos data in the lossy Dolby Digital Plus to reduce the bandwidth requirements, but most only offer it with their 4K service tiers, which are still out of reach of those with modest internet connections. Netflix, for example, recommends having a consistent minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second to get it.

So, if you don’t have fast internet, you can’t get Dolby Atmos on the Arc from streaming services, and if your TV doesn’t have eARC, you can’t get Dolby Atmos on the Arc from your Blu-ray player. I couldn’t evaluate Dolby Atmos on the Arc because I don’t have either: The fastest internet I can get where I live is about 16Mbps, and the mid-range 2017 Samsung QLED TV I use (specifically, model number QN55Q7FAMF) doesn’t support eARC. When I connected the Arc to the Samsung, the best audio I could get was Dolby Digital 5.1, even with a high-end Cambridge Audio CXUHD 4K UHD Blu-ray player. If the Arc had two HDMI ports, or if the TV supported eARC, I could have listened to Dolby Atmos with Dolby TrueHD with the Blu-ray player.

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