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Sonos Ray review: A soundbar that nails the basics

With the $279 Ray soundbar, Sonos is attacking a new market. The company’s previous home theater products all cost $400 or more and were primarily aimed at people concerned about getting the best possible sound. The Ray, meanwhile, is more accessible for people who want better sound than their TV speakers can deliver, but don’t necessarily care about things like Dolby Atmos support or shaky bass. the room. The Ray isn’t exactly a budget speaker, so I investigated whether Sonos had made the right compromises here in its effort to create a more mainstream soundbar. Physically, the Ray is smaller than the already compact Beam, with a tapered design that’s wider in the front than in the back. Unlike other Sonos soundbars, however, the Ray’s speakers all face forward; that way, it reminds me a bit of a wider, flatter version of the Sonos Five speaker. This design means you can store the Ray in a media stand and not have to worry about sound bouncing off nearby surfaces. Since the Ray doesn’t have a mic for voice assistants, you also don’t have to worry about whether it can hear you if you place it in a media stand. Like almost all other Sonos products, the Ray has touch buttons on the top for starting and pausing music and adjusting the volume. There’s also an LED status light on the front, rather than on top as is the case on most Sonos speakers. Again, this is in case you put it on a shelf that would otherwise hide the light if it was on top. On the back, there’s a power socket, configuration button, Ethernet port and optical audio jack; Sonos left out HDMI support to cut costs, and since the Ray doesn’t support more advanced audio formats like Dolby Atmos, the extra bandwidth allowed by HDMI wasn’t necessary here. The setup process was simple: I simply plugged the Ray into the wall and connected it to my TV with the included optical audio cable. From there, I finished setting it up in the Sonos app on my phone. The process will take a bit longer if you’ve never set up a Sonos speaker in your home before, as you’ll need to do things like authorize the various music streaming services you want to use. But I just had to wait for the app to recognize there was a new speaker to set up, tell it what room the Ray was in, and then wait for it to connect to my wireless network. Once that’s done, you have the option to tune the Ray using what Sonos calls Trueplay. This uses the microphone of an iPhone or iPad to balance the sound from the speaker to match the sound in your room. It’s a bit of an odd process, walking around your space slowly raising and lowering your phone, but I’ve found it always makes my Sonos speakers sound better, so it’s worth the five minutes it takes to set it up if you have a compatible device handy. I’ve spent the last week watching movies and shows with the Ray and it’s a definite improvement over my TV’s built-in speakers. Sonos said it focused on dialogue quality, bass response, and a wide soundstage, and it definitely succeeded on two of those fronts. The dialogue sounds extremely clear, whether I’m watching a drama like HBO’s The Staircase or enjoying Galadriel’s narration at the start of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The latter also provided a great opportunity to hear how the Ray fared in more intense, action-packed sequences. As the Fellowship prologue continued its massive battle against the forces of Sauron, swordplay and flying arrows filled the space around the narrative in a well-rounded mix. And the rumbling explosion and massive thud of Sauron’s helmet hitting the ground after his defeat was a good opportunity to hear the Ray flex his bass muscles. Another favorite of mine for testing soundbars is Pacific Rim’s 15-minute intro. The start of this over-the-top film has it all – huge battles between giant robots and monsters, cities destroyed as panicked citizens flee, and solid heroic storytelling, which Ray faithfully reproduced in a well-balanced mix. The Ray achieves this despite much simpler acoustics than the Beam: it features two center mids, two tweeters with split waveguides to widen the speaker soundstage, a bass-reflex system that provides a surprising amount of performance low-end, and four Class-D amplifiers. It’s an efficient system, but my main complaint is that the waveguides and computer audio can’t do much to widen the soundstage. While the Ray clearly has a solid stereo presence, it’s not as immersive as the first-gen Sonos Beam I usually use. Even though my old Beam doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, its larger size and more complex speaker array give it a big advantage over the Ray. The Ray isn’t the most powerful speaker on the market either. Again, that’s not a huge surprise, as Sonos is marketing this device for use in a relatively smaller space. That’s not to say it was too quiet for me, but I usually had its volume over 50% for it to be loud enough. If I really wanted to shake things up by watching a great movie, I could get closer to 70%. If you’re the type of person who really wants cinema-style sound, you’ll be better off with a more powerful device. The good news is that, as with all other Sonos home theater devices, you can pair the Ray with the Sonos Sub for improved bass performance. You can also use two Sonos One speakers as rear surrounds for a much more immersive experience. The Ray could be an ideal choice for a first soundbar to upgrade your TV audio and then use it to create a more complex setup down the line. That said, the Sonos Sub costs $749; it’s hard to imagine someone buying a Ray and spending three times as much on a subwoofer. Although the Ray is intended to be connected to your TV, it is also a capable music speaker. Sonos says that when it builds its home theater products, the quality of the music is just as important as how well it performs with movies and shows. In my testing, the Ray sounds great – songs like Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” have plenty of low-end, super-clear vocals. Meanwhile, the hard left and right guitars in Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” were quite distinct. While still not the most powerful speaker, the Ray is more than capable of filling an average-sized room with clear, lively music. Naturally, the Ray has all the same multi-room audio features as other Sonos speakers. This means you can stream the same music to multiple speakers on your WiFi network simultaneously, or play something different on each one. You can set up custom speaker groups (just your first floor speakers, for example) and stream audio directly to the Ray using AirPlay 2. The only real feature it lacks compared to most other Sonos speakers is voice control. There’s no mic, which means you can’t control the speaker directly with Alexa, Google Assistant or the upcoming Sonos Voice Control feature. That said, if you have other smart speakers, including any other Sonos speakers with a mic, you can use them to control the Ray. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Ray is a serious upgrade from a TV’s built-in speakers. What’s less clear is how much better it is than other small soundbars, like Roku’s $180 Streambar Pro. Sonos has a long history of delivering great sound, and the Ray continues that tradition. And just as the $179 portable Sonos Roam is a good entry drug into the Sonos ecosystem, the Ray is a good first Sonos for someone looking to improve their TV audio. Yes, you can find cheaper soundbars, but Sonos is betting its reputation for excellent sound quality will make the Ray a hit. After spending time with it, I would have no problem recommending the Ray to anyone who wants an easy way to upgrade their TV audio but doesn’t care about having the best speaker. which supports most formats. For many people, especially those with smaller living rooms, the Ray will be the perfect soundbar for their space.