Sonos Era 300 review: A big bet on spatial audio
The Era 300 sounds excellent, but the effectiveness of spatial audio is hit or miss.
If you pay attention to the music industry, you’ve probably heard about spatial audio. The promise is that music will envelop the user from all directions without needing a room full of speakers to achieve the effect. Apple has pushed it a lot in the last few years, in Apple Music, its line of AirPods headphones and the latest HomePod speaker. Amazon’s streaming service also offers spatial audio, and its Echo Studio speaker can play back compatible tracks.
Sonos has been paying attention, as well – its recent Arc and Beam soundbars support Dolby Atmos for movies, and now the company is releasing its first music speaker designed for spatial audio, the Era 300. This beast is large and has an unusual shape to accommodate all the drivers needed for achieving these room-filling effects. At $450, you’d expect this speaker to sound excellent, regardless of whether it’s playing back spatial audio or not, but support for this new format is what sets it apart from other speakers. As such, the big question on my mind is whether this feature is a game changer, a gimmick, or somewhere in between?
There’s nothing in the Sonos lineup to compare the Era 300 to. From a size and weight perspective, it’s a large speaker, similar to the Sonos Five, but its unusual shape immediately sets it apart. Seen from the front its oval reminds me of a race track, but any other angle reveals a distinctive footprint. If you look at it from the top, it’s thinner near the middle than it is on the ends; the best way I can describe it is a knocked-over hourglass.
This is to accommodate the complex driver array inside the Era 300. There’s one tweeter pushing out from dead center, and two more sending audio out the left and right sides. Finally, there’s a fourth tweeter inside a directional horn pointed upwards; Sonos says that it’s at a specific angle optimized for spatial audio. Two woofers, again on either side of the speaker, complete the array.
The Era 300 reminds me of most other recent Sonos products. It is well-built, exceedingly sturdy and generally feels like a product that justifies its high price tag. That said, its physical appearance is definitely more unusual than the company’s other speakers. I recognize that it’s functional, but the combo of its size and strange tapering make it stand out more than you might like.
A lot of new features and changes in the Era 100 are also found in the Era 300. This includes a redesigned set of touch controls on the top panel, a USB-C port for line-in and ethernet (provided you shell out for the optional adapters), a Bluetooth toggle and a switch to physically disconnect the microphone on the back. For more on these features, I’ll point you to the relevant section of my Era 100 review. Most everything I said there applies. That said, for $450, it’s a little disappointing that Sonos requires an adapter for line in or Ethernet. The $550 Sonos Five has both of those built right in. I’m sure the company has the data showing that a small percentage of owners use those features, so I’m glad they haven’t been removed completely, but it would definitely be nice if they didn’t require an adapter.
Setting up the Era 300 is pretty simple, even if you don’t already have a Sonos system. You’ll need to download the Sonos app to your phone and set up an account; from there, the app will look and see if there are any speakers to add. You’ll also need to log in to your audio services of choice – if you want to try spatial audio, you’ll need either Apple Music or Amazon Music Unlimited. You can search for and play music through the Sonos app, but there are also a bunch of options if you’d rather stick with the music apps you’re used to. You can use AirPlay 2 to shoot audio from Apple Music and other services on the iPhone directly to the Era 300, or use Spotify Connect without needing to go through the Sonos app. That said, it’s worth noting that if you want to play back tracks in spatial audio, you’re required to use the Sonos app.
There are a few optional but useful things you can do while you’re setting up the Era 300. The first is Trueplay, a feature that tunes your speaker’s output based upon where it’s placed in your room. Trueplay has been around since 2015, but in the past it required you to have an iPhone. You’d have to walk around your room slowly raising and lowering the phone while the speaker played a test tone. The Era 300, though, can use its built-in microphones to listen and optimize its output – that process is much simpler and faster than the old technique, and Android users aren’t left out either.
I’ve been extremely happy with Trueplay’s results in the past, so I’d recommend that everyone try this out. That said, I did find that the old, manual tuning process yielded slightly better results. So while I appreciate the ease of use in the new Trueplay system, I’ll probably still walk around my room waving my phone – but I won’t judge you if you take the easier route.
If you like using voice controls, you can also add a voice assistant to the Era 300. Amazon’s Alexa has been supported since the One launched back in 2017, and last year Sonos added its own music-focused assistant. Setting up the Sonos assistant is a little easier than Alexa, because you don’t need to go linking your Amazon account, but both are pretty straightforward at this point.
One thing to note: past Sonos speakers with microphones also worked with Google Assistant, but that’s no longer the case. The Era 300 only works with Alexa and the Sonos assistant; I assumed the ongoing patent battles between Google and Sonos were the reason for this change. But Sonos let me know that "Google has changed the technical requirements for Google Assistant on third party devices." Sonos also said that "it’s a heavy engineering lift and we’ll continue to prioritize work that builds on our vision of voice assistants all working concurrently" and said it hoped it could get Google Assistant working again, but that it's "really up to Google." I personally prefer Google Assistant over Alexa, so this is a bit of a bummer. But I also mostly just talk to my speaker to play music, so the Sonos option works well enough.
Audio quality and the spatial experience
Putting aside the potential of spatial audio for a moment, the Era 300 sounds excellent – as it should, given its price. It doesn’t quite match the stunning detail and bass presence of the Sonos Five, which remains the most impressive audio-focused speaker Sonos sells. But for $100 less, you’re getting a premium experience that far surpasses the Era 100 and other speakers like Apple’s HomePod. I was very impressed with the Era 100, but playing the speakers back side-by-side shows just how much better the Era 300 is at making each separate component of a song shine. Bass, vocals and instrumentation are all reproduced in excellent detail that smaller speakers simply can’t match.
But the real question with the Era 300 is the value of spatial audio – does it really provide a new and worthwhile listening experience? For me, the answer is a big “sometimes.” Right now, I think that the trick of spatial audio, to a large extent, remains just that: a trick. I spent a lot of time bouncing between Atmos versions of songs on Apple Music and Amazon, comparing them to the standard versions on Spotify. I could always tell there was a difference, but I also didn’t always feel that it was an improvement. Broadly speaking, spatial audio tracks did feel less like they were coming out of a single point in space. But a lot of times, the immediacy of the song’s original mix was lost and the vocals felt drenched in reverb rather than being right up close.
In some cases, especially when I listened to older albums that were remixed for spatial audio, the results were simply worse. The excellent guitarwork and vocals on the Alice in Chains classic “Down in a Hole” from 1992’s Dirt sounded a million miles away. I had high hopes for the multi-layered doom rock of “Rain When I Die,” but again the mix felt mushy and poorly defined. Alice in Chains’ 1990 debut Facelift was also released in Atmos recently, and it sounds far better than Dirt, so it’s clear that older albums and spatial audio aren’t inherently incompatible. Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut Ten didn’t sound bad, but there was still a lack of definition to too much of the mix. By contrast, the recently-released Atmos mix of 1998’s Yield was an enjoyable listen, but I’m not convinced it’s better than the original. For the record, this isn’t a fault of the speaker, but rather a fault of these mixes – I noticed the same issues when listening through Apple’s HomePod or AirPods Max.
Newer songs and albums that are likely recorded, produced, and mastered with spatial audio, in mind sounded better. The acoustic guitar and hushed vocals of Billie Eiish’s “Billie Bossa Nova” felt wonderfully close, and the club beats of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia were lively and impressive. In most cases, though, the mixes that sounded best to me were only slightly different than the originals, and I still often felt like the Atmos versions put too much reverb into the mix. This was particularly true on Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest album The Loneliest Time. Instrumentation sounded lush and vibrant, but the vocals lacked impact. In a best case scenario, with a single Era 300, the difference between the best spatial audio and standard mixes is often going to be fairly subtle.
I will admit that when I simply put on a playlist of new songs (many of which were in spatial audio) and stopped thinking about it, I enjoyed myself a lot more. It helps that newly-released songs generally sound much better in Atmos than the remixes of older albums I’ve come across. When I wasn’t obsessively comparing the new mixes to old versions of songs I knew inside and out, it was easier to appreciate the Era 300 for the great-sounding speaker it is. But that’s the case whether you’re listening to an Atmos version of a song or the standard mix, so spatial audio shouldn’t be the main reason to buy the Era 300.
Like basically all Sonos speakers, you can pair two Era 300s together for stereo playback, though I’m not sure “stereo” is the right word when we’re talking about spatial audio. The fact that you can’t adjust the left / right balance between them kinda proves that point. Regardless of what you call it, two Era 300s provide an absolutely massive experience that does a better job of delivering on the promise of spatial audio. With two speakers, there’s no real sweet spot; instead, music sounds consistently excellent regardless of where you are relative to the speakers. And if you want to get really wild, you can use a pair of Era 300s as rear speakers along with a Sonos Arc or second-gen Beam soundbar to get Dolby Atmos home theater playback. I don’t have the right living room or soundbar setup to make this work, but I can say it was impressive in a demo Sonos gave the press last month. Of course, considering how much an Arc and two Era 300s costs, it had better be.
The Era 300 is in a slightly strange place in the Sonos portfolio. Its higher price means it’s not going to be as broadly appealing as the $250 Era 100. It’s closer to the $550 Sonos Five, which is probably a superior speaker despite lacking spatial audio capabilities. But, for $100 less, the Era 300 still provides a premium audio experience and has a handful of improvements over the Five, including built-in microphones and automatic Trueplay tuning. For $500, you could also buy a pair of Era 100 speakers and run them in stereo – those speakers sound great, and you’ll get excellent coverage with two of them working together.
And, of course, there’s the messy potential for spatial audio. After spending a lot of time listening to the Era 300, I don’t think it’s a game-changer yet. In the best cases, it provides a different listening experience, but it’s not always better – in fact, I’ve been surprised at how often it has been worse. While lots of new music is being released in spatial audio, most older music is only available in good old stereo, so the catalog of songs available in the new format is comparatively small.
Fortunately, the Era 300 is a great speaker, whether or not it is playing songs in Dolby Atmos. It’s crisp, loud, detailed and has lively bass – and when I’ve stopped thinking about spatial audio, it has been a joy to listen to. Spatial audio is a potentially interesting feature, especially if more and more musicians and producers embrace it, but I’d recommend that you not buy the Era 300 with only that in mind. Buy it if you’re really interested in a premium speaker that does a great job filling a room with sound, whether it’s an Atmos mix or not.
Update, 4/1/23, 9AM ET: This story was updated with details from Sonos on why Google Assistant isn't available on the Era 300 speaker.