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Sonos is betting big on spatial audio with the $450 Era 300 speaker

There's also a new Era 100 speaker, a big upgrade over the existing Sonos One.

Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

For the last few years Sonos has focused most of its efforts on two categories: portable speakers, like the Move and Roam; and home theater products like the affordable Ray and more extravagant, Atmos-capable Arc soundbars. The company’s main pair of music-focused speakers, the One and Five, still sound great but are getting a little long in the tooth.

That changes today with two new options: the Era 100 and Era 300. The $250 Era 100 is a totally redesigned replacement for the One with a number of improvements over its predecessor, while the $450 Era 300 is the first Sonos speaker capable of playing spatial audio. As with most Sonos speakers, you can use a pair of either of them in stereo or as rear surround speakers in a home theater setup. If you have the Sonos Arc or gen-2 Beam and Sub, adding a pair of Era 300s as your rear surrounds gives you a wild 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos experience. (If you’re willing to spend roughly $2,600 for that setup, anyway).

Sonos Era 300 - home theater setup
Sonos Era 300 - home theater setup (Sonos)

The Era 300 looks unlike any speaker Sonos has released before, though it still has the company’s familiar clean design language. Its somewhat unusual knocked-over hourglass shape is largely functional: it allows for the upward-facing tweeter to fire at a slight but specific angle, which the company says will deliver more room-filling reflections for spatial audio. There are three more tweeters: one dead-center and forward-firing as well as two pointing left and right. Finally, a pair of woofers on either side of the speaker provide plenty of bass.

The Era 100, on the other hand, is more obviously a tweak to the Sonos One, itself acoustically identical to the Sonos Play:1 that was released all the way back in 2013. Put another way, an upgrade was long past due. The Era 100 features a pair of tweeters for left and right stereo channels in a single speaker, as well as a woofer that’s 25 percent larger than the One’s. It may not have the spatial audio capabilities of the Era 300, but it’s still a significant update to its predecessor.

Despite the very different price points and capabilities, both of these speakers have a lot in common. Both feature USB-C ports that let you plug in a turntable or other audio equipment with an optional line-in adapter. More significantly, they both also include Bluetooth, the first time Sonos has put the feature in a non-portable speaker. They also have a redesigned set of touch controls on top – instead of taping on either side of the play / pause button to adjust volume, there’s now a little ridge you can swipe your finger across as well as dedicated forward and back buttons. Sonos also included a physical switch to disconnect the microphones. This actually cuts the connection to the mic for additional security, rather than just muting it via software.

The new Sonos Era 100 speaker.
The new Sonos Era 100 speaker. (Nathan Ingraham / Engadget)

Both the Era 100 and Era 300 also can use those microphones for Trueplay tuning, which optimizes audio for where you place the speakers in your living space. Previously, Trueplay required an iOS device; its microphone was used to listen for optimizing the sound. If you used Android, you were unfortunately out of luck. But even though Sonos has been putting microphones in its speakers for years now, you couldn’t use them for Trueplay. This new feature means a lot more people will likely take advantage of the feature – that’s good news, because Trueplay does make a big difference.

Sonos Era 100 with turntable
Sonos Era 100 with turntable (Sonos)

I got a chance to listen to both speakers in a variety of configurations at a Sonos press event last month, and they both unsurprisingly sounded great – but that was in a carefully arranged environment that Sonos had total control over. Obviously, we’ll need to review these speakers to see how they perform in the real world, but I was impressed by the short demo I got. The Era 100 doesn’t sound totally different from the One, but the larger woofer definitely gives it more bass presence. The two tweeters don’t give it true stereo separation, since they’re so close to each other, but they definitely provide more clarity in the high ranges than you hear in the One.

The Era 300, however, sounds quite a bit different. Sonos first showed us its chops playing back standard audio, and it has significantly more volume, bass and presence than the Era 100. Not a shock, considering it costs $200 more and has twice as many drivers. We then got to hear how the single speaker did at playing back spatial audio tracks. They didn’t sound radically different, but did less like they were coming from a single point in a room; instead, the audio was more balanced and enveloping. Of the few songs we got to hear, “A Concert Six Months From Now” by Finneas was the most impressive. His multi-layered focals felt like they were coming at me from multiple angles, but it didn’t feel like a gimmick – it was just a more immersive and more intimate presentation.

The Sonos Era 300 speaker, with a focus on its redesigned touch control panel
The Sonos Era 300 speaker, with a focus on its redesigned touch control panel (Sonos)

Regardless of the competition, Sonos clearly sees spatial audio as the future of music playback. The company said there’s major interest in the format from artists and producers, and claimed that the Era 300 will be the best way to hear the details of spatial audio mixes without needing a room full of audio gear. Of course, there’s only so much we can expect from a single speaker, no matter how advanced its driver array is. So far, Amazon and Apple are the two services that are compatible with the Era 300 for spatial music, though you'd have to imagine Spotify, YouTube Music and others will likely start offering spatial audio sooner than later.

Of course, the Era 300 also is an extremely capable speaker even when playing back stereo mixes. As with the outstanding but expensive Sonos Five speaker, the Era 300 will probably be a more niche product in the company’s lineup. But if the spatial audio wave is about to crest, it makes sense for Sonos to be ready for it rather than play catch-up.

Update, 10:15AM ET: This story was updated to note that Sonos just announced the availability of Apple Music spatial audio in addition to Amazon Music Unlimited support.