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Soundbars are great but I found this device delivers even better TV audio

Sonos Arc with TV screen
(Image credit: Sonos)

I’ve always enjoyed great sound quality when it comes to listening to music, whether it’s from one of our best record playersaudiophile headphones or streamed wirelessly via one of the best Bluetooth speakers, say. My passion for all things audio also translates to watching movies and I naturally embraced the surround-sound movement with at least five speakers and a subwoofer dotted around the room when home theater first took off more than 20 years ago. 

In fact, I was so into multi-channel sound and the immersive experience at the time, that I dedicated a room of my house to surround sound and movies, and kitted it out with a flat screen TV and a house-rattling subwoofer. At the time, this kind of home theater setup with first generation plasma flat screen — the TV tech before LCD, OLED and QLED — seemed like pure science fiction, and for myself and several friends at the time, staying in became the new going out.

FYI: A new budget soundbar from Sonos has arrived. Read our full Sonos Ray review.

Several house moves later and a shift in priorities have meant that my audio setup has become streamlined, and has shrunk to fit in with the household aesthetic as well as meet with fellow householders' approval. Plus, I no longer have the space for multi-speaker arrangements eating up valuable living space, and surround speakers just look clumsy and entirely out of place in my olde-worlde property. 

Despite the shrinking size of my TV sound system, the screen itself is now almost twice the size to when I started out. When I bought my most recent TV, I was hopeful that its sonic performance would at least get close to the striking and attention-grabbing images the screen produced, and deliver a punchy sound to match the screen's dynamic pictures. 

Sadly, that wasn't the case and, for me at least, there's a huge disconnect between the big bold images of the TV screen and the thin and weedy sound that comes from its speakers. I've tried manipulating the EQ controls to optimize it for best sound output of course, but whatever I do, there's no improving on the anemic and soulless sound delivery.   

I'm sure many will be able to appreciate that as TVs have gotten thinner, the built-in speakers have had to shrink to fit inside the tiniest of spaces. In such a confined space, this restricts the size and amount of travel a speaker driver has available to push out the air to generate soundwaves with sufficient energy across the full range of frequencies. 

I'm not underestimating the efforts of the TV's audio designers as there's often plenty of sophisticated digital signal processing (DSP) tech onboard to help get the best TV sound output possible, but even the best TV screens aren’t exempt from sounding thin and weedy.

Dolby Atmos logo on screen with a soundbar and soundscape sphere

(Image credit: Dolby)

Soundbars are pretty good at overcoming the poor sound quality performance that often results from even the best TV screens, but for me, they're not always the answer if sound quality with high-octane movie and music soundtracks is ultimately your goal. 

Don't get me wrong: The majority of the best soundbars are a massive improvement on the sound delivery from a TV's built in speakers, and several models such as ones we've reviewed from SonosBose and Bowers & Wilkins, also have Dolby Atmos to help bring an extra sound dimension to the movie experience. But in pure sound quality terms, I've found a compact hi-fi solution that sounds superior to any soundbar I've heard so far.  

Lifestyle setting showing back of Sonos Amp showing ports and cable connections

(Image credit: Sonos)

Great TV sound without a soundbar

I've listened to several soundbars at home recently across a broad range of different prices. On the face of it, each is a remarkably elegant solution to upgrade TV sound compared to the slightly cumbersome arrangement of the alternative solution I'm about to suggest, which includes three separate components to take care of specific audio tasks: a pair of passive bookshelf speakers, a powered subwoofer, and the Sonos Amp.

The Sonos Amp is something of a master stroke at $699 / £699, to which you simply add a set of passive speakers. Not only does it integrate with other Sonos products on your home network for multi-room streaming, but the control app enables geeky audio fanatics like me to adjust the audio so that it's perfectly in sync with the picture on the screen — a neat and terrifically useful facility. 

Although not as powerful as some separate amplifiers I've heard or as well-featured as the best AV receivers, the Sonos Amp is compact and comes with a useful HDMI eARC/ARC port to handle audio from your TV, plus an array of other useful data ports and wireless connectivity options.


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Sonos Amp $699 @ Adorama (opens in new tab)
The Sonos Amp connects to external speakers, turntables, TVs and more to bring your existing kit into the Sonos world. Once connected it will act as any other Sonos speaker for group play and multiroom audio over Wi-Fi.


Music sounds better with you

I haven't specified a particular pair of speakers to partner the Sonos Amp, as pretty much any pair of good speakers from a reputable audio brand will be suitable — think along the lines of hi-fi names such as Q Acoustics (opens in new tab)Klipsch (opens in new tab), or Bowers & Wilkins (opens in new tab) etc.. In my book, if a speaker can handle vocals and delivers music well, it should sound pretty great with TV sound too.

I haven't specified a subwoofer either, as this depends on your speakers. If your speakers are up to the job in terms of their bass output delivery with music, you're unlikely to need a subwoofer. Unless, if like me, you like your movie soundtracks and TV dramas to come with plenty of high-octane energy and gravitas, good sub options can be found at SVS  (opens in new tab)and REL (opens in new tab). Both companies offer plenty of great models at a range of price points.

It's not a one-stop solution and the combined price comes out to be around $999, but from what I've listened to so far, this Sonos Amp and speaker setup outperforms any soundbar in terms of dialog intelligibility with TV dramas and movies. Even without a subwoofer connected, a medium-sized bookshelf speaker should produce enough bass to deliver explosive effects that blow you away on the sofa, and music in any movie soundtrack simply sounds better and far more engaging in this arrangement. 

You won't get Dolby Atmos or any kind of pseudo surround effect to tickle your ears, of course, but with audio quality this good, you really won't miss these extra tricks as you'll be too engrossed in what's happening on the screen and the high-quality stereo sound treating your ears.

Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.

  • Combat1
    That's exactly what I did. The sound quality from my Sonos Amp and B&W 607 S2 speakers were in a completely different league from my previous Samsung and Bose soundbars and subwoofers. So much so that I've now got a dream of partnering the Bluesound Powernode and a pair of Buchardt S400 MKIIs. Unfortunately my move from Sydney to Ireland resulted in me selling the Sonos and B&Ws and my short term fix (until we buy a house) is the Samsung Q800a soundbar.
    Reply
  • FLLWfanatic
    I have looked through this article a few times and haven't found a link to the Sonos amp mentioned. There are at least 10 links to other products, but I could not find one link to the Sonos amp. If I missed it, please help me locate it. Thanks.
    Reply
  • NoToTom
    Amazing that a link to Sonos couldn’t be found, because the article appears to be a paid advertisement for Sonos. If the point is that stereo speakers and an amp sound better than sound bars of similar cost, then say so. “Any” speakers? Hard to believe. Little class D Sonos amp sounds better than every other integrated stereo amp for $700? Nope. You could have first made a case for stereo, then tried to make a case for the simplicity of the Sonos amp, comparing it to others. The better speakers you mentioned would have pushed the total cost north of $1000. pretty quickly, and a sub would have pushed the total outlay WAY beyond. Just saying the Sonos amp is a “solution” strains credibility of the review, and I fail to see the point as anything but paid advertising.
    Reply
  • whattheFate
    NoToTom said:
    Little class D Sonos amp sounds better than every other integrated stereo amp for $700? Nope. The better speakers you mentioned would have pushed the total cost north of $1000 pretty quickly
    My thoughts exactly. It isn’t anything new or unexpected that ANY three channel speaker set-up sounds better than a sound bar. But a sound bar actually saves space when compared to alternative equipment l. Plus, If someone has the money to spend on B&W speakers and doesn’t have the space, why not do in-wall speakers? Then you can get the best sound without compromise.
    Reply
  • sonicmustard
    FLLWfanatic said:
    I have looked through this article a few times and haven't found a link to the Sonos amp mentioned. There are at least 10 links to other products, but I could not find one link to the Sonos amp. If I missed it, please help me locate it. Thanks.
    hi there, there isn't a link to the Sonos Amp as Tom's Guide hasn't reviewed this product on its site. I have one at home though and you can find a link to the model here: https://www.sonos.com/en-us/shop/amp
    Reply
  • sonicmustard
    whattheFate said:
    My thoughts exactly. It isn’t anything new or unexpected that ANY three channel speaker set-up sounds better than a sound bar. But a sound bar actually saves space when compared to alternative equipment l. Plus, If someone has the money to spend on B&W speakers and doesn’t have the space, why not do in-wall speakers? Then you can get the best sound without compromise.
    (y)
    Reply
  • sonicmustard
    NoToTom said:
    Amazing that a link to Sonos couldn’t be found, because the article appears to be a paid advertisement for Sonos. If the point is that stereo speakers and an amp sound better than sound bars of similar cost, then say so. “Any” speakers? Hard to believe. Little class D Sonos amp sounds better than every other integrated stereo amp for $700? Nope. You could have first made a case for stereo, then tried to make a case for the simplicity of the Sonos amp, comparing it to others. The better speakers you mentioned would have pushed the total cost north of $1000. pretty quickly, and a sub would have pushed the total outlay WAY beyond. Just saying the Sonos amp is a “solution” strains credibility of the review, and I fail to see the point as anything but paid advertising.
    Hi there and thanks for your comments. My article is not a paid advertisement and neither is it a review. Tom's Guide hasn't covered the Sonos Amp, and my post is based entirely on my own experience and opinion following my trials at home. I've not suggested that the Sonos Amp is any better than any other stereo integrated at the same price, but I did mention its multiroom flexibility and useful lip sync abilities. I've tried this amp with several passive speaker designs, including Acoustic Energy's (old) Aegis One, Q Acoustics 3020i, Sonus faber Lumina i and the Klipsch R-51PM. All have delivered exceptional stereo performance with TV and movie sound with more natural-sounding dialog, good levels of bass energy and an entirely musical sound and outperform all of the soundbars I've heard so far. There are plenty of soundbars for me still to hear of course, and will continue to enjoy the journey to find one that sound just as good.
    Reply
  • NoToTom
    sonicmustard said:
    Hi there and thanks for your comments. My article is not a paid advertisement and neither is it a review. Tom's Guide hasn't covered the Sonos Amp, and my post is based entirely on my own experience and opinion following my trials at home. I've not suggested that the Sonos Amp is any better than any other stereo integrated at the same price, but I did mention its multiroom flexibility and useful lip sync abilities. I've tried this amp with several passive speaker designs, including Acoustic Energy's (old) Aegis One, Q Acoustics 3020i, Sonus faber Lumina i and the Klipsch R-51PM. All have delivered exceptional stereo performance with TV and movie sound with more natural-sounding dialog, good levels of bass energy and an entirely musical sound and outperform all of the soundbars I've heard so far. There are plenty of soundbars for me still to hear of course, and will continue to enjoy the journey to find one that sound just as good.
    OK. Thanks for your response. Maybe I misunderstood the point of your comments. Your "...combined price comes out to be around $999..." threw me. I agree that soundbars are a compromise; I just think the Sonos products are also...not necessarily a bad thing, but they charge for the convenience.
    Isn't the KlipschR-51PM is a powered speaker?
    Reply
  • sonicmustard
    NoToTom said:
    OK. Thanks for your response. Maybe I misunderstood the point of your comments. Your "...combined price comes out to be around $999..." threw me. I agree that soundbars are a compromise; I just think the Sonos products are also...not necessarily a bad thing, but they charge for the convenience.
    Isn't the KlipschR-51PM is a powered speaker?
    Apologies, you're quite right, it is indeed. So many model names to remember... I did mean the R-51M.

    Also, I agree of course about Sonos. I was just trying to make point about there being an alternative, compact and flexible solution that gives greater sonics rewards in my view than many soundbars. Sonos isn't the only solution but even so, it's a step in the right direction in terms of over all TV sound quality.
    Reply
  • NoToTom
    👍
    Reply