Global Head of Editorial
Our Global Head of Editorial, Steven Saftig, managed to get his hands on the new Sonos Arc right before we closed our offices. He couldn’t stop talking about our newest soundbar, so we finally told him to just write a blog post about it. From setup to Dolby Atmos, he shares what it’s like to have an Arc in your home when you’re spending the entire day there. He also talked with sound engineer Chris Jenkins about his Oscar-winning sound mixing for Mad Max: Fury Road and what it’s like to hear it in Dolby Atmos, the gold standard for home theater audio.
I was on a train, coming back to Santa Barbara after visiting my family when I got the email from our head of HR: “All employees, please work from home.” We were a little under two months away from announcing Sonos Arc to the world and I hadn’t even heard what it sounded like yet. Whenever I write about our products for the blog, I immerse myself in the experience because I want to be able to share what it’s like to actually live with them. How was I going to write about our new home theatre speaker without ever having heard it? And, to be honest, I still didn’t fully understand what Dolby Atmos was—one of Arc’s most exciting features. So when I received that email, asking us to get everything we needed out of the office by the end of the day, I panicked. So I started texting. Desperately.
Hey, does anyone have one of our new, top secret speakers lying around? Just, you know, waiting to be picked up? Like, right now?
Fast-forward through a cinematic montage of secret closets, product handoffs, and I finally had an Arc in my hands—an hour before our offices shut down.
Unboxing Arc: A shape-defying design. And 76,000 individually-drilled holes.
Back at home, I began one of my favourite parts of setting up a new Sonos product—the unboxing. The experience with Arc is as exciting and dramatic as I had hoped. More importantly though, we’ve continued to look for ways to minimize the environmental impact of our products. As Michelle Enright, Senior Design Manager, Packaging Experience describes, “For Arc, we had a clean slate opportunity to design packaging from the ground up. We created a 96.1% paper-based construction—moving away from foam-based cushions, which would have been the easier and more cost effective path.”
I peeled back the final layer of protective packaging and there it was. Now, by that point I’d seen a ton of photos of Arc, but because of the subtlety of its design, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I finally saw it in person. I carefully carried it over to my media console, placed it in front of my TV, and stood back. (You can also mount Arc to the wall.) Here’s the thing about the design of Arc: It’s actually quite difficult to describe its shape. It’s not a box. It’s not a rectangle. It’s not even a cylinder. It almost appears like it’s in motion, as if undulating. The overall effect is that Arc doesn’t feel like it’s trying to compete or stand out from the rest of your home theatre setup. As Kitty Suidman, Director, Color Material and Finish says, “[Arc’s] design is purposeful, delivering a seamless, soft familiar profile. It feels like a piece of furniture in your home.”
I started to circle around Arc. And with each angle from which I observed, a new dimension of the design was revealed. There are no harsh edges, clunky protrusions, or jarring cavities. In short, it’s stunning. Turns out, this is all very intentional. “We take a 360-degree approach,” says Philippe Vossel, Industrial Designer at Sonos. “It doesn’t matter where you first look at the product—it all matters. If you look at it from the side first, that’s where it matters. If you mount it to the wall and look at it from the bottom first, that’s where it matters.” Vossel and the Industrial Design team were also thoughtful about how your eye travels along the product. “We want to make sure you don’t get hung up or distracted by unrefined details,” he said. “And in the end, it’s how these details all tie together that allows us to create a visual story about sound.”
There’s one more thing you should know about the design of Arc. Every Sonos product is the result of a creative, collaborative balance between what the hardware and software teams want to put inside the speaker and how the industrial design team wants it to look. There is a lot of technology packed into Arc. (More on that in a moment.) And the grille is the bridge that brings these two interests together—the piece that encases all of this incredible technology, while allowing the product to look as seamless and beautiful as you expect from all Sonos products. Building on the success of technological advances we made with the grilles on Play:5 and Playbase, Arc’s grille is a single seamless sheet, carefully molded and drilled with more than 76,000 holes to ensure exceptional sound and wireless performance. “It’s the latest version of something we’ve been working on for years,” says Dana Krieger, Senior Director of Design, Product.
Music with Arc: More space for color
I set up Arc in the middle of a work day, so I couldn’t immediately sit down to watch a full movie. But I was so anxious to hear what it sounded like that I decided I had to at least listen to a song. And, as anxious as I was, I still used Trueplay™ to tune Arc to my living room, which is not a uniform shape. (Trueplay is, by far, my favorite Sonos feature. Not using Trueplay is like riding around in a new car without adjusting the seat and setting your favorite radio stations. You’ll still enjoy the ride, but you’re missing out on an experience that’s customized just for you.)
I queued up my test song. (You have a test song, right? I play the same song whenever I test out a new speaker: “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac. I’ve been listening to that song since I was a baby, so I know every corner of it. If you don’t have a test song, check out this playlist of tracks we created to show off your system at its best.) I then sat down on my couch and listened the way that Greg McAllister, Sound Experience Manager at Sonos taught me how to listen.
Two things were immediately obvious to me—spaciousness and clarity. What do I mean by “spaciousness”? I don’t just mean that the sound fills the room, which it does. But imagine that you were given a one inch by one inch piece of paper, 6 colors of paint, and then told to paint a picture of your house using all of the colors. With a steady hand, you might be able to create a crude depiction. But there wouldn’t be much definition to the front door. You wouldn’t be able to draw the flowers in the window boxes. And some of the colors would blend into a pool of muddy brown. Now, imagine that you were asked to do the same thing, but with a five foot by five foot piece of paper. This is the type of spaciousness that Arc gives to music. For me, it meant hearing additional layers to “Rhiannon” that I’d never heard before. And alongside that spaciousness is remarkable clarity. The vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums all sound crisp, clean, and pure. In short, the song sounded glorious.
TV shows with Arc: Sound from a galaxy far, far away
For my first TV show with Arc, I chose The Mandalorian, streaming on Disney+. Sound is integral to the Star Wars universe, so I decided that this would be a good place to start. I wasn’t disappointed.
To hear the roar of the Razor Crest’s engines and the coos of The Child with the same spaciousness and clarity that I’d heard with “Rhiannon,” was electrifying. Even without rear surround speakers, the immediate feeling of listening to Arc is one of total immersion. And that’s because, as Chris Davies, Senior Director, Audio Engineering, explains, “Arc creates an ultra wide soundstage by using highly optimized beam-forming rays. These rays bounce sound off the wall in your room to create a truly immersive sound experience.” In other words, Arc doesn’t just send sound towards you. It uses sophisticated technology (and the information you provide about the size and acoustics of your room with Trueplay) to bounce sound off the walls in order to truly envelope you in the show’s soundscape. The magic, of course, being that the sound reaches your ears at the exact same time, completely in sync.
Later, when I turned down the lights, something subtle but amazing happened. The status light on Arc dimmed automatically. Arc has an ambient light sensor that adjusts the status light based on how bright the room is—another small example of how Arc is made to seamlessly blend into your home.
What is Dolby Atmos?
As you can tell, I was beyond thrilled with my experience of Arc, completely on its own. Without Sub. Without rear surrounds. Without Dolby Atmos. But Arc was designed to evolve along with the rapid advances in home theatre technology. And that means playing Dolby Atmos, the new gold standard of home theatre audio. I had to see what Arc could do with a full Atmos setup.
But first, what is Atmos? While there are lots of videos and explanations on the internet describing this technology, I’ll describe it in my own words here. Prior to Atmos, elements of sound from a film or show had to be assigned to a particular channel (left, centre, right, rear left, rear right, etc.) With Atmos though, sounds are treated as objects—and all of the channels work together to project those sounds into different parts of the room. Here’s where it gets cool—Atmos also adds height to the equation. (Arc achieves this by utilizing upward-firing drivers that bounce sound off the ceiling.) This allows those projected sounds to be heard—not just along a horizontal plane—but anywhere in the entire three-dimensional space of your room. What does that mean for your listening experience? I was hoping you’d ask.
Movies with Arc: The Dolby Atmos Experience
I paired Sub and two Sonos One SL rears to Arc. I used Trueplay to tune my system again (to account for the addition of the rear speakers). I popped popcorn. And then I sat down to watch Mad Max: Fury Road. From the very first scene, it was immediately obvious to me why Atmos is the new standard in home theater sound. In the opening sequence, a flood of voices and ambient sounds swirled around me. It’s surprising and thrilling and has made me completely rethink the way I’ve used the word “immersive” in the past. Over the next two hours, I felt completely a part of what was happening in the film. The sound design of the movie is bold and vibrant—and watching it in Atmos adds so many layers to the experience. At the same time, I could hear every word of dialogue perfectly—even amidst a thunderous score and barrage of epic sound effects. As Chris Jenkins, Oscar-winning sound engineer and Sonos Soundboard member would later tell me, dialogue is the backbone of every movie. Even without Speech Enhancement turned on, Arc delivered the dialogue with detailed clarity. And then there are the quiet moments in the film—serenely beautiful scenes that offer delicate sounds and whispers. With the sonic precision of Arc, I found these scenes just as engaging as the action sequences.
But perhaps the most interesting and respectable aspect of the Atmos experience is that nothing comes across as gimmicky. While sounds do occur around you, nothing feels out of place or like a trick. You’re not suddenly pulled away from what’s happening on screen because of a random noise behind you. It all feels seamless and, ultimately, allows you to become all the more immersed in the world on your TV screen.
A Conversation With Chris Jenkins
After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I wanted to go deeper. Specifically, I wanted to see under the hood, but from a creator’s perspective. I also knew that the re-recording mixer for the film, Chris Jenkins, who won an Oscar for his work on Mad Max: Fury Road, is on the Sonos Soundboard. He helped tune Arc—which means that the way I experienced the movie with Arc was as he intended it to sound. I wanted to learn more.
So we met for a conversation over Zoom. The first thing I learned is that while working on the film, he would meet with the director, George Miller, and the rest of the team for six-hour sessions, during which they would discuss 15 minute chunks of the film. Fifteen minutes of film. Six hour sessions. That’s how integral sound is to the movie. Needless to say, Jenkins remembered every minute aspect of the film I threw at him.
Early in our conversation, Jenkins helped explain why listening to Dolby Atmos on Arc doesn’t feel gimmicky. “There are certain rules that you make—and sometimes break—with sound in movies,” he said. “If you move a human voice too far outside of the screen, it breaks the concentration of the listener. There are certain sounds you can place anywhere—music and nature sounds, for example. But the more specific a sound gets, the more we expect it to be heard from where it’s coming from visually.”
With Mad Max: Fury Road, he chose to break that rule in the very first scene of the film. “At the beginning of the movie, you hear all those little sounds swirling around you,” he said. “For example, the little girl’s voice whispering ‘Max,’ which then echoes over and over. On a lot of the release prints [before Dolby Atmos], you never got that attention to detail. And then all of a sudden you hear the Atmos version on Arc, and you’re like, ‘Oh, cool,’ because those sounds are not trying to compete for the same three speaker drivers. If you have all this space to put all the sounds into, your ear can say, ‘Yeah, that voice is here. And I hear that sound over there.’” He then went on to explain why he broke the rules of where voices should come from. “You can direct the listener’s ear to where you want to prioritize information for them. In the case of Mad Max, the girl’s voice is extremely important because she’s a pivotal character in Max’s life. Ultimately, you want the purest playback system to hear all those details that the filmmakers have put into it. And the opening of Mad Max is a great example to me of really being conscious of space, and of sounds not cluttering each other.”
Eventually, we got onto the subject of what it’s like for him, as a sound engineer, to be able to mix a film’s sound for Atmos. “There’s just so much space,” he said. “You can create separation between the sound design and music, while still keeping the dialogue protected. So you could have a very quiet whispering performance from an actor, but instead of lowering all of the music to make sure it’s heard, you can just create more space around the whisper. With Atmos, you can sculpt the soundtrack around different elements in a way that you couldn’t with just a left, center, right mix. It’s like racking focus, sonically.”
As our conversation wound down, Jenkins pulled back from all of the technical talk to focus on what really matters in the home theater experience. “It’s all about storytelling,” he said, “We want the shortest distance between the creator or the writer or the performer and the listener’s ear. So we cut out whatever we can from the middle, the clutter. And then, whether it’s dialogue from a 1939 movie, or the most current piece of content today, it’s still a matter of finding the most transparent form of getting that storytelling across.”
As this post goes to publish, we’re still working from home. And over the past several weeks, I’ve been listening to a lot more vinyl and re-watching movies I love—which feels really comforting. But hearing them with Arc has made revisiting favourites feel fresh and inspiring.
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