The new $279 Sonos Ray is the company’s most affordable soundbar to date and serves two core purposes. The first, like any entry-level soundbar, is to free you from having to listen to your TV’s hideous built-in speakers. But the Ray is also designed to be an enticing gateway to Sonos’ multi-room audio platform. To hit a price below $300, Sonos has removed many of the advanced features of the more expensive ones Ray and Archery bow sound bars. The Ray does not support Dolby Atmos and has no HDMI connectivity at all. Instead, connect it to your TV with an optical audio cable.
I tested the Ray for a few days and it delivers impressive sound for such a compact soundbar. There’s a lot to like about the performance, both in terms of TV audio and music playback. The front-firing speakers allow you to place it in a sleek media stand cabinet and keep the sound consistent. But Sonos’ decision to lean on an older optical input has led to inconveniences and frustrations that don’t exist with the HDMI-enabled Beam of Arc.
The main issue comes down to how you operate the soundbar. Unlike the Beam and Arc, which accept volume commands from many different remotes via HDMI-CEC, the Ray only works with infrared (IR) remotes. And, as I’ve learned, even then things can be questionable. I have tried several times to get the Ray to work with the remote for TCL’s 6 Series Google TV. I’m sure it’s an IR remote – obstacles between the remote and the TV can block the signal – but for whatever reason, the Ray never recognized it. Your experience may be better, especially if you have a universal remote. But if your remote communicates with the TV via radio frequency (RF) or Bluetooth, you are confused. †Sonos has a help page for setting up some LG, Apple, and Samsung remotes.)
In my case, I ended up having to use the Sonos app on my phone (or the touch controls on the top of the soundbar) to adjust the volume, which got annoying. The ease of use has objectively suffered from the lack of HDMI. This is an area where the company new voice control service can be useful if you also own one of Sonos’ smart speakers, but that won’t solve the remote problem.
The Ray is similar in design to the Arc and Beam, with a perforated grille in the front and a tapered body that slopes outwards at the front. This soundbar is small and light enough to easily carry with one hand. And its dimensions would be well suited to using the Ray as a desk speaker. But here, too, the limited input options reduce that potential somewhat. Unless your PC has an optical output, getting wired audio to work can be tricky, but you’ll always have Spotify Connect, Apple’s AirPlay 2 and Sonos’ extensive list of supported music services at your disposal. A 3.5mm aux input would have been nice. Under a TV, the Ray looks good paired with a 55-inch or smaller set and quite small when placed next to a 65-inch TV. The more powerful Beam and Arc make more sense for larger screens.
Since it only has four drivers – two centered midwoofers and two tweeters that spread the sound to the sides using physical waveguides – the acoustics of the Ray are impressive and better than my old very basic Vizio soundbar or something like the Roku Streambar . In the standalone configuration you only get stereo sound. But you can expand into a surround system by matching pairs of other Sonos or Ikea Symfonisk speakers and the Sonos Sub.
I suspect most people will use the Ray alone, and even all alone, had no trouble filling my bedroom with sound. But I can imagine it struggling and sounding narrower in large, open-plan living rooms. There’s very little sense of immersion or directional audio, as the Ray lacks the impressive surround sound virtualization of the second-generation Sonos Beam or the Arc’s many additional drivers. Part of this again comes down to the optical input. The Ray only supports stereo PCM, Dolby Digital and DTS audio; forget Atmos, and even Dolby Digital Plus is a no-go.
When listening to music, the Ray is not that far from the Sonos One smart speaker. It has a well-balanced, full-bodied sound with bass that I would describe as…competent. But it would greatly benefit from a dedicated subwoofer; the rumored Sub Mini can’t come soon enough. The Ray can handle gaming quite well. I didn’t experience any noticeable audio syncing issues when using my PS5 for several hours, so the optical connection is not without its advantages. As with the Beam and Arc, iPhone and iPad owners can activate Trueplay and use the microphone on those devices to optimize the Ray’s sound for the specific room it’s in. This feature remains absent on Android.
Where the Sonos Ray excels most is the clarity of the dialogue. Voices come out of this soundbar with excellent separation and remain clearly audible, no matter how much action is happening on the screen. It’s a night and day difference compared to built-in TV speakers, where the sound is often muddy and dialogue difficult to follow. The Beam and Arc are technically superior to the Ray in this department as both have dedicated center channels, but I was completely satisfied with the clear voice reproduction on Sonos’ latest soundbar. It is also a noticeable strength when listening to music.
The Ray fits seamlessly into Sonos’ whole-home speaker ecosystem, letting you enjoy audio wirelessly from any major music streaming service. I love how enveloping it feels when I have the same music on different sides of my room on the Play:5 and Ray. Another handy trick is the ability to play TV audio to your other Sonos speakers in the house, so you don’t miss the news or big sports game moments while you’re working on a meal in the kitchen.
Sonos faces a lot of competition at (and well below) the $279 price of the Ray. Most budget soundbars don’t offer the same Wi-Fi music playback options, but many at least have Bluetooth – which the Ray doesn’t – and companies like Vizio often bundle a subwoofer to go along with the affordable soundbar. This makes the Ray a tricky proposition. If you’re committed to diving into the Sonos ecosystem, this makes for a very capable starter soundbar and will be supported with software updates for many years to come. And it cements the company’s reputation for sound quality, performing at a level above most entry-level soundbars. This is especially the case when listening to music.
But in the era of HDMI eARC, the Ray is held back by its only optical input. Sonos has clearly calculated that the target market for the Ray won’t think twice about the lack of HDMI connectivity or the immersive Dolby Atmos surround sound. Not everyone cares about the very best, and many people will use this soundbar with a secondary TV.
However, you should not overlook the other considerations. The Ray may not work with your TV remote, and some people will inevitably reject the idea of paying nearly $300 for a stereo soundbar by 2022. An eventual Sub Mini feels like a much needed piece of this puzzle. But on its own merits, the Ray doesn’t disappoint as long as you’re sold for everything it’s capable of and don’t mind the concessions Sonos made in building it.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
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