Sonos Amp Streaming Amplifier Review Page 2

The new Sonos Amp's back panel is simple and unadorned. Although it keeps the main connection ports from the Connect:Amp (analog audio in, subwoofer out, two Ethernet ports, stereo speaker connections), they're all recessed, making the panel totally flat. The loudspeaker connections accept standard banana plugs, but Sonos includes two custom-designed, threaded, dual banana plug-style assemblies. These are things of engineering beauty, with the red and white designations printed on the side of the plug visible when you're leaning over the Amp looking for where to insert cable ends.

Got ARC?
With just a single HDMI connection, the Amp obviously doesn't do video switching. Instead, the jack is there to take advantage of HDMI's Audio Return Channel (ARC) and Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC) features. For instance, when the Sonos Amp is connected to a TV's HDMI-ARC port, the Amp will automatically begin playing audio from the TV when the set is turned on—even if it had previously been playing music as part of a group of Sonos devices. The Amp's volume level can be controlled by the TV's remote, and the system volume level is displayed on the TV's screen whenever a change in level is made, either via the TV remote or through the Sonos app.

Sonos threw in a number of other features worth noting. For example, there's an optional optical digital-to-HDMI (female) dongle that allows you to connect a digital audio source device, such as an older TV that lacks an HDMI ARC-enabled port. AirPlay 2 is supported, and the Amp can stream AirPlay 2 audio—or audio from a TV or a source like a turntable connected to its analog RCA inputs—to any Sonos speaker(s) in the system.

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The Sonos Amp can also be used for the front amplification in a 4.1-channel or the rear amp in a 5.1-channel (mostly) wireless home theater system. In the former setup, the Amp powers the front left and right speakers while creating a phantom center channel. A variety of options exist for wireless rear speaker setups—including adding a second Sonos Amp to power a pair of passive rear speakers. In my case, I used a pair of Play:1s. If you use a pair of Alexa-enabled Sonos Ones for the rear channel, you can use the Alexa Sonos skill to operate some basic controls (pause/play, for instance), although an Echo Dot in the room will provide the same functionality. A Sonos Sub can be added for a wireless .1 channel, or another company's wired sub can be connected to the Amp's subwoofer output.

Oomph is as Oomph Does
Here comes the fun part for someone like me who has one of the cushiest, flippin' awesomest jobs (reviewing A/V gear) that any nerdist or Dudeist (yeah, look it up) could ask for. Imagine you review knives and swords and, maybe, saws once in a while. Your editor gives you a Swiss Army knife and says, “Review this!” It's not one of those little knives with a corkscrew and a nail file. This is the big one with everything from a pliers to a wire stripper to a chainsaw. Where do you begin? More importantly, when do you end?

While the new Sonos Amp doesn't include wire strippers or a microwave oven (it does come with those cool thumbscrew banana plugs, though), it most certainly is the Swiss Army knife-equivalent in the Sonos product line. I couldn't test all of the possible configurations, but one thing I discovered immediately was that, for two-channel audio, the Sonos Amp is definitely a ballsy powerhouse. It had more than enough “oomph” to convey the strong bass lines in both Benny Blanco's “Eastside (with Halsey & Khalid)” and Charlie Puth's “The Way I Am” without losing any punch. At the same time, the vocals and guitar interplay in the unadorned, acoustic version of Lotte's “Auf beiden Beinen (Akustik Version)” showed the Amp's delicate side. I heard a total absence of coloration, along with a beautiful sense of space, on both the melodic, laid back “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Triple Standard and the more boisterous, live version of "Juste One P'tite Nuite" by Canadian band Les Colocs.

I must say, however, that the Amp can sound a bit bright out of the box, a trait that could be annoying at louder volume levels depending on which speakers I had hooked up. I only noticed a slight edginess on vocal sibilants and the brassiest horn sections when using a pair of GoldenEar Technology Invisa Signature Point Source in-wall speakers. The zippy high end became much more aggressive when I switched to a pair of much larger Legacy Classic HD speakers, though, with the soft-dome tweeters in the Legacys sounding more shrill than the folded-ribbon drivers in the GoldenEars. In both cases, however, bringing down the treble setting a notch or two quickly eliminated the issue.

The Phantom of the Center
The Amp doesn't do any creative, faux-rear surround processing for movies, but it does do a splendid job of creating a phantom center channel that's nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing. The “speech enhancement” setting was also very useful for increasing dialogue intelligibility. When I watched the opening segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on Netflix, for example, engaging the speech enhancement setting brought Buster's voice out into the forefront of the scene, and it did so without detriment to the left and right audio channels. Ditto when the bank teller's monologue picks up speed in front of an agitated thief played by actor James Franco in the following Buster Scruggs vignette, “Near Algodones.” The performance here was very impressive considering it was all done without the use of a discrete center channel.

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Configuring a pair of Play:1s as the rear speakers in my system through the Sonos app required only a couple of button presses, choosing the distance from the listening area to the surrounds, and waiting two or three minutes for the settings to kick in. For so little effort, the system's seamless, cohesive performance when it came to side-to-side panning and front/surround speaker integration was quite amazing. I was also surprised to hear that subtle effects were clearly present. For example, when the robbers in Baby Driver successfully finish the first job and are speeding into the parking garage, the concrete pillars distinctly and convincingly whooshed by from right to left. Also, as the crew in Guardians of the Galaxy fought to escape the prison and the missile-firing drones, the sound of projectiles retained their integrity from their launch in the rear of the room to their impact in the front.

Conclusion
Even though the new $599 Sonos Amp does almost everything, it's absolutely not for everyone. If all you're looking for is something that'll let you use better speakers than your TV's crap built-in ones, there are plenty of other, cheaper options. On the other hand, if you have, or are going to build, a multiroom audio system with other Sonos speakers, the Amp becomes, well, not a bargain, but definitely a versatile addition that's worth every penny. The Sonos folks told me that after 13 years of shipping products, 93 percent of them are still active. I have no doubt that the new Sonos Amp will continue that tradition of longevity.

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COMMENTS
palpatine's picture

Have you heard anything about Google Assistant integration? This has become even more important now that Chromecast Audio has been discontinued.

Darryl Wilkinson's picture
I haven't heard anything official from Sonos about when they might roll out the integration of Google Assistant, but I do know that they're working on it.
John_Werner's picture

I'm officially "too old to...care". Yep, if this is the face of Hi-Fi and a real juggernaut of a power amp I must be officially "out to pasture". Stuff like this will simply make great separates as we had even into the early 90's non-existent. Separates will be mostly ridiculously priced high end audio jewelry. Thanks Millennials and Sonos.

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