Sonos Amp is an AV hub built to handle complex setups

If you want streaming audio all over your house, the Sonos Amp is worth a look.
Nathan Ingraham
N. Ingraham|08.29.18

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Nathan Ingraham
August 29th, 2018

Over the last decade, Sonos has slowly built up a reputation for making excellent speakers built for the age of streaming music. The company started in 2005 with the ZP100, a product that let buyers connect their speakers to the internet for streaming music, and pair units for multi-room audio. Sonos released an updated version, renamed the Connect Amp, shortly after, but since then the company has focused more on making its own speakers and hasn't updated the Connect Amp in years. That changes, as of today.

The new, $599 Sonos Amp is a major upgrade to the old Connect Amp. At a high level, the box connects up to four speakers to the Sonos platform, which means you can stream music and other audio from over 100 services to those speakers. If you have any existing Sonos speakers, you can group them with speakers connected to the Amp. It also has line-in for CD players, turntables or other audio devices; once they're hooked up, you can stream that audio to other Sonos speakers. And you can have multiple Amps that can all talk to each other, as well.

While the new Amp isn't wildly different in features than the product it replaces, Sonos made a number of key improvements. First and foremost, Sonos has more-than doubled its power output: While the Connect could output 55 watts per channel, the new Amp pushes that up to 125 watts. That's good news for anyone who wants to hook up larger and more power-hungry speakers to the Amp.

Perhaps more noteworthy is that the Sonos Amp has been designed to work well for home theater audio as well as music playback. The Connect Amp and its predecessors had been built specifically with music in mind, but the Amp's product manager Benji Rappoport said the company had seen setups where customers basically hacked together Connect support for it, even though there were problems getting audio and video to stay in sync. "I was honestly ashamed that our integrator partners were putting their name and reputation on the line with this experience," he said, "and that Sonos was putting our own name and reputation on the line as well."

Nathan Ingraham

So, like the Beam soundbar, the new Amp has an HDMI ARC (audio return channel) port, which makes TV setup quite simple, provided you have a relatively modern set. The audio signal automatically gets mixed for two channels, presuming that you're running stereo speakers from the Amp. It also includes a subwoofer port and can wirelessly pair with Sonos' own Sub. Finally, the Amp also supports surround sound in a variety of ways. Probably the easiest option is using a pair of Sonos speakers like the One as your rear surround speakers; they'll hook wirelessly up to the Amp to provide ambient sound. If your ambitions are more extensive, you can always buy multiple Amps and use one for surround and one for the main front channels, too.

On the software front, the Amp works with the standard Sonos controller app, as well as any apps that support direct control over Spotify speakers (like Spotify and Pandora). Additionally, the Amp supports Apple' recent AirPlay 2 standard update, and you can also control it through Alexa if you have a Sonos One or Beam in your setup. But there aren't any mics on board, so there's no direct voice control here.

Nathan Ingraham

At $599 apiece, the idea of buying multiple Amps might be laughable to most -- and you'll still need speakers to plug into them before they do anything. But Sonos has years of seeing what customers have done with the Connect Amp and its predecessors, and it knows that the product can serve as the brain of complicated and expansive home audio setups. Think multiple speakers in the walls, or ceilings of every room in the house -- in situations where homeowners might be spending thousands of dollars, three or four Amps is a necessary purchase, not a luxury. There are other ways to wire a house, for sure, but all the work Sonos has done around multi-room audio makes it a logical solution if you want to stream to every corner of your home and keep all the speakers in sync.

To that end, Sonos is targeting the new Amp at the "installed solutions" market. That's basically a network of component detailers who build custom solutions for the home. Instead of picking out every single component and speakers, the installed solutions professionals will come in, determine your ultimate goal and then build a system that'll make it happen.

To make things easier for home installers, Sonos decided to make the Amp fit in a standard component rack, which is often hidden out of the way in a side room or closet. Standardizing the shape and size of the Amp made a lot of sense, but it also introduced new cooling challenges, as Sonos had to pack everything into a relatively small box (about 8.5 inches in width and depth, and only 2.5 inches tall).

"Our mechanical engineers loved [this challenge], but it was painful," Rappoport says. "They're tasked with cramming all this technology inside of the envelope that the industrial designers had defined." The breakthrough moment in the design came when the team realized they didn't need to put a heat sink on every single component. "Instead, we combined the heat sink and the [circular] chassis and mounted all of the electronics onto a single heat sink with the enclosure coming down around it."

Sonos' focus on the professional installer marketplace is showing up in its release strategy for the Amp, as well. When it goes on sale December 1st, anyone will be able to buy it on the Sonos website -- but the company will skip traditional third-party retailers for a few months and only offer the device to "professional installers," who can then bring it to their customers. It'll eventually be on sale globally through traditional retailers in February 2019. That means it'll be months before we see what kinds of setups imaginative Sonos users and home audio professionals can come up with using the Amp.

While it sounded excellent in demos that Sonos provided the press with last week, it's hard to find flaws when being presented with a best-case, fully optimized setup. But in all likelihood, anyone who might have used the older Sonos Connect Amp for a home audio setup will be even happier with what the new Amp provides, even if it is $100 more than the model it replaces. Besides, if you have $10,000 speakers to connect, what's an extra few hundred bucks here and there?

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