The new $279 Sonos Ray is the company’s most affordable soundbar to date, and it has two main purposes. The first, as with any entry-level soundbar, is to free you from having to listen to your TV’s awful built-in speakers. But the Ray is also designed as an enticing entry point into Sonos’ multi-room audio platform. To achieve a sub-$300 price point, Sonos removed many of the more advanced features found in the pricier Beam and Arc soundbars. The Ray doesn’t support Dolby Atmos and lacks HDMI connectivity at all. Instead, you connect it to your TV using an optical audio cable.
I spent a couple of days testing the Ray and it delivers impressive sound for such a compact soundbar. There’s a lot to like about its performance – both in terms of TV audio and music playback. Thanks to its front-firing speakers, you can place it in a narrow media stand cabinet and its sound will remain constant. But Sonos’ decision to lean toward an older-style optical input has created inconveniences and frustrations that don’t exist with the HDMI-enabled Beam or Arc.
The main problem is how you control the soundbar. Unlike the Beam and Arc, which accept volume commands from many different remotes over HDMI-CEC, the Ray only works with infrared (IR) remotes. And even then, as I’ve learned, things can be iffy. I’ve tried multiple times to get the Ray working using the TCL Google TV 6 Series remote control. I’m sure it’s an IR remote – obstacles between the remote and the TV can block the signal – but for some reason the Ray never detected it. Your experience could be better, especially if you have a universal remote. However, if your remote control communicates with the TV via radio frequency (RF) or Bluetooth, you’re screwed. (Sonos has a help page for setting up certain LG, Apple, and Samsung remotes.)
In my case, I had to use the Sonos app on my phone (or the touch controls on top of the soundbar) to adjust the volume, which got annoying. The ease of use has objectively suffered due to the lack of HDMI. This is one area where the company’s new voice control service could help if you also own one of Sonos’ smart speakers, but it won’t solve the remote problem.
The Ray is modeled after the Arc and Beam in design, with a perforated front grille and a tapered body that slopes outward at the front. This soundbar is small and light enough to easily carry around with one hand. And its dimensions would lend itself well to using the Ray as a table speaker. But here, too, the limited input options reduce this potential somewhat. If your PC doesn’t have an optical output, it might be difficult to get wired audio to work, but you’ll always have Spotify Connect, Apple’s AirPlay 2, and Sonos’ extensive list of supported music services at your fingertips. A 3.5mm aux input would have been nice. Under a TV, the Ray looks at home paired with a 55-inch or smaller set, and quite small when you place it next to a 65-inch TV. The stronger Beam and Arc make more sense for larger screens.
Considering it only has four drivers – two centered midrange drivers and two tweeters that spread sound out to the sides using physical waveguides – the Ray’s acoustics are impressive and better than my old, very basic Vizio soundbar or something something like the Roku Streambar. In the standalone configuration you only get stereo sound. However, you can expand to a surround system by adding matching pairs of other Sonos or Ikea Symfonisk speakers and the Sonos Sub.
I suspect most people will use the Ray alone, and even on its own it had no trouble filling my bedroom with sound. But I could imagine it struggling and sounding narrower in large, open living rooms. There’s very little sense of immersion or directional audio, as the Ray lacks the impressive surround-sound virtualization of the second-gen Sonos Beam or the Arc’s many additional drivers. Part of this, in turn, depends on 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 removed from the Sonos One smart speaker in terms of sound. It has a balanced, full sound with bass that I would describe as… competent. But it would benefit enormously from a dedicated subwoofer; the rumored Sub Mini can’t come soon enough. The Ray handles games fairly well. I haven’t encountered any notable audio sync issues after using my PS5 for several hours, so the optical connection isn’t without its advantages. As with the Beam and Arc, iPhone and iPad owners can enable Trueplay and use the microphone on those devices to optimize the Ray’s sound for the particular room it’s in. This feature is missing on Android.
Where the Sonos Ray shines the most is in dialogue clarity. Voices come out of this soundbar with excellent separation and stay heard no matter how busy the screen is. It’s a day-night difference compared to built-in TV speakers, where audio is often muddy and dialogue difficult to understand. The Beam and Arc are technically superior to the Ray in this department, as both have dedicated center channels, but I was perfectly happy with the crisp 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, allowing you to enjoy audio from all major music streaming services wirelessly. I love how enveloping it feels when the Play:5 and Ray are playing the same music on different sides of my room. Another neat trick is the ability to play TV audio on your other Sonos speakers around the house, so you don’t have to miss out on the news or big sports games while you’re preparing a meal in the kitchen.
Sonos struggles with a lot of competition priced at $279 (and way below). Most budget soundbars don’t offer the same Wi-Fi music playback capabilities, but many at least include Bluetooth – which the Ray doesn’t offer – and companies like Vizio often bundle a subwoofer to go along with the affordable soundbar. This makes the beam a tricky affair. If you want to immerse yourself in the Sonos ecosystem, this is a very capable starter soundbar that will be supported with software updates for many years to come. And it lives up to the company’s reputation for sound quality, offering performance that’s above most entry-level soundbars. This is especially true when listening to music.
But in the age of HDMI eARC, the Ray is held back by its single optical input. Sonos has obviously 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 having the absolute best, and many people will use this soundbar with a second TV.
Still, don’t overlook the other trade-offs. The Ray might not work with your TV remote, and some people will inevitably resent the notion of paying close to $300 for a stereo soundbar in 2022. An eventual Sub Mini feels like a much needed piece of this puzzle. But on its own, the Ray doesn’t disappoint as long as you believe in everything it’s capable of and don’t bother with the concessions Sonos agreed to in building it.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verand