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Gadget of the Week

Sonos Era, like extra ears

The Era 300 and 100 are billed as the future of immersive listening. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK puts them to the test.

What is it?

One can tell the Era 300 is different from the moment the unboxing begins. Aside from the packaging being made from recycled material – even the plastic-seeming handle is paper-based – an unusual plastic clip system on the sides of the box for unlocking it introduces a premium experience.

The speakers are enclosed in a soft fabric, resting on top of a neatly packaged user guide and power cables.

Of course, it is what is inside the speakers that ultimately makes the difference. It is equipped with spatial audio, a form of digital surround sound that gives the listener a sense of being immersed in the sound. 

The introduction of Dolby Atmos a decade ago, geared to cinemas but increasingly built into mobile devices, gave consumer devices the first sense of immersive audio by introducing an overhead channel to surround sound. On a tablet, for example, the sound can appear to come from somewhere outside the device. Spatial audio takes the concept a step further by giving the sense of sound moving around one’s ears.

It was broadly introduced to the world by Apple Music in 2021 and Netflix in February 2023. While it is possible to enjoy spatial audio on tablets and smart TVs, and say “wow” because one can hear sound from different directions, it has remained a pale shadow of what can be experienced with a multiple set of speakers designed for surround sound. Or from a single speaker with multiple sound sources built in. 

That’s where the Era 300 enters the picture.

It incorporates six drivers that direct sound left, right, forward and upward, delivering a breakthrough form of Dolby Atmos. Sonos says it “wraps its beautifully complex acoustic architecture in an elegantly cinched hourglass design, with every angle, proportion and perforation enhancing the direction and dispersion of sound to truly surround you”.

Dolby CEO Kevin J. Yeaman himself gives it a seal of approval, saying: “Sounds and music come alive with unparalleled clarity and depth.”

It has been launched along with the Era 100, an update of the Sonos One smart speaker, with more advanced acoustics and more detailed stereo sound. Two angled tweeters send high frequencies left and right, and a larger midwoofer creates deeper bass. Two of the units can be paired with a soundbar to create a surround sound system.

Oh, and both devices look great as pieces of furniture.

The Sonos app remains both a joy and a frustration. With a couple of taps, one can use Trueplay, which measures how sound reflects off walls and other surfaces, to optimise sound for the unique acoustics of one’s listening space. However, it demands one’s smartphone be on the same Wi-Fi network as the speaker. That feels like a hangover from early Wi-Fi connected printers.

Ultimately, it is about the sound, and here the Era 300 goes large, delivering a wonderful, satisfying immersive audio experience that seems almost impossible from a single speaker. It’s like having extra ears.

What does it cost?

Distributed in South Africa by Planetworld, the Era 300 is available at R10,999 and the Era 100 at R6,499. 

Why does it matter?

First, on the listening experience, Patrick Spence, CEO of Sonos, says: “In an age of constant background noise, quality listening matters more than ever. The Era family is the next generation of smart speakers, epitomising our commitment to sound innovation, responsible design and a deep connection to the creator community.”

Giles Martin, VP for sound experience at Sonos, says: “Just like the shift from mono to stereo, spatial audio is the next evolution in listening – creating a sound experience that wraps you in music.”

Secondly, the Era 100 and Era 300 are made with “post consumer recycled” (PCR) plastic and packaged in 100% sustainably sourced paper, while engineered to reduce power consumption. with under two watts idle power consumption and a new advanced sleep function.

Kitty Suidman, Sonos design director for product sustainability, says: “We bring the same forward-thinking mindset to responsible design as we do to creating powerful new listening experiences. Our commitment to sustainability is embedded in our design process from the start, with the Era family marking a major step forward in our journey to create products that last beyond expectation, perform more efficiently, and use safer and circular materials.”

What are the biggest negatives?

  • Sonos remains obstinate in its refusal to support external standards like Google Assistant, Chromecast, although it has added Amazon Alexa voice control and Bluetooth streaming.
  • Needs an adapter for USB connectivity, again highlighting an obstinacy about external influences.
  • The speakers are expensive, although this must be seen relative to what they deliver.

What are the biggest positives?

  • The Era 300 is the first non-Apple speaker to support Apple Music spatial audio.
  • Both speakers are elegant and gorgeous additions to a modern living environment. 
  • Wonderful audio experience, with the Era 100 providing great sound at all volumes, and the 300 almost impossibly immersive.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.

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