Sonos Era 300 Dolby Atmos speaker review: Prepare for glory

Purpose-built for spatial audio, the Era 300 is a phalanx of drivers ready to battle standard playback. So does it come back with its shield, or on it?
White Sonos Era 300 spatial audio speaker on matching stand
Tony Ware

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You only have two ears, but you don’t hear solely in stereo. Oh, you can tattoo “L” and “R” on those fleshy receivers, break out the protractor, and align your posture perfectly with a sound source. Your localization is still working in three dimensions. Reflecting on those reflections, Santa Barbara-based wireless sound system company Sonos set out to develop a speaker that recognized yet defied the tyranny of two-channel. Previewed at the company’s headquarters in February, then officially announced March 7, the Era 300 is the company’s first connected speaker purpose-built from the ground up for Dolby Atmos-powered multidirectional audio. 

This $449 smart speaker, on sale March 28, plays stereo content without upmixing, conveying the artist’s intention. But its six positional drivers yearn for more immersive mixes. With a completely original acoustic design, it’s not a refresh. But is that refreshing? Let’s look at whether a sideways hourglass-shaped speaker’s time has come.

Sonos Era 300 spatial audio smart speaker

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The build

Unique is not always utilitarian. But in the case of the Era 300’s cinched chassis, available in matte white or black, everything is deliberately calibrated to make the audio presentation stand out just as much as the speaker’s body does. Unlike the simultaneously released Era 100, which draws an obvious lineage from the Sonos One, the 9.85 lb. Era 300 has no precedent. Its 6.30 x 10.14 x 7.28 inches (HWD) present themselves as an oval when facing forward, but a closer look from any lateral angle reveals the sideways cylinder’s distinctive high-waisted style. Not everybody will love it, but it’s more compact and less concave than pictures might portray.

On the top of the Era 300 runs the “trough,” a shallow capacitive canal you can swipe to change the volume. This tactile control is intuitive to find with just a finger. Toward the front, you’ll find equally touch-sensitive Play/Pause, Rewind, and Forward icons. Toward the middle, a speech bubble allows you to temporarily deactivate your voice assistant of choice (Sonos Voice Control or Amazon Alexa). If you want to take privacy a step forward, a hardware switch on the back of the speaker cuts all power to the microphone. The back of the speaker is also where you’ll find the Bluetooth pairing button, a socket for the 90-degree flush-fit power cable, and a USB-C port. 

Yes, I said Bluetooth pairing button. While spatial audio is getting most of the fanfare for the Era 300, the acceptance that Bluetooth no longer undermines but rather underpins the habits and homes of many modern listeners is equally revolutionary for Sonos. So now Bluetooth 5.0 (with SBC and AAC codecs) has migrated from the company’s portable, rechargeable Move and Roam speakers into its multiroom line alongside the wireless networking that has long formed the foundation of the Sonos multiroom audio vision. In this case, it’s Wi-Fi 6 that’s supported, ensuring the Era 300 can place nicely with your new high-speed router for 4K streaming and all the accompanying high-resolution audio, etc.

That final noteworthy part, the USB-C port, allows you to connect an external audio source—whether that’s a CD player, laptop, cassette deck, or preamp-equipped turntable with a patch cable—via a $19 dongle featuring a 3.5mm line-in jack. A more expensive $39 adapter includes that same aux input alongside an Ethernet jack if you prefer to hardwire your speakers into your network. This speaker may be intended primarily for spatial’s sonic revolution, but it’ll play nicely with an LP’s revolutions per minute, too. It’s worth noting that because the dongle is introducing analog-to-digital conversion, it can also introduce minor signal delay.

All that and we’ve barely scratched the surface because beneath the surface is where the majority of the innovative components lie. Inside each Era 300 are four tweeters (one forward-firing, two side-firing, one up-firing), and two woofers (left/right). Each custom driver is powered by a dedicated class-D amplifier and paired with a custom waveguide to help direct and correct its response for clarity. The reason the Era 300’s control panel is pushed forward? It’s because of where the upward-facing driver’s directional horn needed to be to disperse the optimal ceiling reflection of Atmos height effects.  

As you can see, a lot went into the Era 300. And also less. Sustainability and repairability played equal parts in the speaker’s design, so to minimize waste, the Era 300 has less virgin plastic. The exterior’s specific shade of white, which differs from older product, is a result of including 40% post-consumer plastic. In addition, the speaker’s construction uses far less glue; everywhere possible, screws (stamped with a subtle “Sonos” around the head) were used instead to make repairs easier and, alongside more replaceable grilles to circuitry, promote products that last. The Era 300 even consumes less energy while idle than previous speakers (less than 2 watts). And the packaging is 100% recyclable (though it’s so thoughtfully designed, with its built-in locking mechanism, you’ll want to hold onto it if you need to move/store your speakers). All this is in service of the Sonos roadmap to be carbon neutral by 2030 and net zero by 2040.

Sonos Era 300 disassembled screws
It may be difficult to see, but the head of each screw in the more repairable Era 300 speaker is stamped “SONOS.” Tony Ware

The setup

Plug it in. Wait for the blinking light. Open the Sonos S2 app (available for iOS and Android). Create an account. Add in your Wi-Fi network password. Not to belittle the process, but it’s super simple whether you’ve set up a Sonos product before or not. And if you have, it’s that much easier. Add the Era 300 to an existing system or establish a new one. Whether you want to use one standalone Era 300, create a stereo pair, or group two as surround channels for a Sonos Arc or Sonos Beam (Gen. 2) soundbar, it all takes little more than a click—a guided one at that as the app is quite intuitive. 

Once the Era 300 is added to a system, you can activate Trueplay, which uses speaker-generated impulses and your smartphone’s microphone to Quick Tune the hardware for your room—a previously iOS-only feature now extended to Android. You can also access Treble and Bass sliders, as well as a Height channel adjustment. It’s worth noting that you won’t have access to Bluetooth pairing until after you’ve done the Wi-Fi network setup, but once that’s done, you can run both protocols at the same time (after all, you don’t want to give your Wi-Fi password to every visitor with songs to share).

The bigger consideration for the Era 300, more so than other Sonos speakers, is physical placement. Sonos offers guidelines that you can read later, so feel free to skip a couple paragraphs. But if you want a summary to know whether spatial is right for your space: Because of those side-and up-firing drivers, it’s recommended to place an Era 300 speaker on a surface with 8 inches of clearance on each side, and 2 feet clearance above it. Those numbers are a starting point that should be combined with common sense, however. An enclosed space is not optimal (even if the top shelf is 3 feet from the top of the Era 300). Nor are 20-foot ceilings. 

If you’re using two Era 300 speakers as a stereo pair, you might want to try more traditional sweet spot rules, with the speakers 7-9 feet apart and where you sit an equal distance from each, forming a triangle. However, Sonos claims the Era 300 is off-axis forgiving. And suppose you’re using two Era 300 speakers as L/R surround channels. In that case, you want each about 5 feet off where you sit while considering that 8-inch side clearance rule, plus keeping an inch or two between the speakers and a rear wall (Sonos produces both finish-matched stands and wall mounts for minimizing vibration/positioning reflection).

Also of importance is your source. You can stereo stream music from dozens and dozens of services through the Sonos app or send it directly to the Era 300 via lossless Apple AirPlay 2 and TIDAL Connect or lossy Spotify Connect. If you want better-than-CD quality (24-bit/48kHz), you need to subscribe to either Qobuz or Amazon Music Unlimited. 

To enjoy the spacious contours of multidimensional music, however, your options are not equally wide. You have only two choices: Amazon Music or Apple Music (following a March 28 firmware update). Plus, to be properly decoded on the speaker, the tracks must play through the Sonos app. Unfortunately, the app has no spatial filter or flags, so you can either preview a few seconds of songs to see if an Atmos label pops up or make a conveniently labeled and organized playlist in one of the native apps, then locate it through the Sonos one. It’s not as elegant a process as Apple Music on a HomePod via AirPlay, one and done, but the end results with a well-mixed album are worth the hassle.

Sonos Era 300 speaker without grill or motherboard
Don’t worry, the retail speakers are no assembly required. This is just neat. Tony Ware

The sound

I’ve spent a week with two Era 300 speakers, playing with one standalone, as well as both in stereo and grouped with an Arc and Sonos Sub to form a 7.1.4 surround system (if you have two Subs, you can even go 7.2.4). In that short period, my initial impressions on the hardware—which will be updated over the coming week as more time is spent putting the Era 300 up against speakers like the Apple HomePod (2nd generation) and wireless surround systems such as the Sennheiser AMBEO Plus—have been nothing but positive.

For starters, however, let’s put the Era 300 in context with the Sonos lineup. The 300 was announced in conjunction with the Era 100 (which we’ve thoroughly reviewed here)—a “remastering” of the Sonos One that adds two angled tweeters and a larger woofer into a familiar cylindrical form factor. And the Era 100 may set a new standard for a compact stereo connected speaker. Still, it can’t come close to the experience that is the Era 300.

I’ve also had the opportunity to listen to the $549 Sonos Five in the past, both standalone and in a stereo pair. With its three high-excursion woofers (and three tweeters), the Five still outputs more punch than the Era 300. Regarding soundstage, however, the Era 300’s directional treble adds expansiveness alongside expressiveness. The Five has more force and finesse, as each speaker has six forward-facing drivers, but the Era 300’s array wins in overall width.

Now, let’s put me in context. I’ve been playing with audio surround sound formats for almost 20 years. SACD, DVD-Audio, DualDisc, HD DVD, Blu-ray, ISOs—like Pokémon, I collected them all. I secured my fair share of speaker wires along the baseboards and under carpets for 5.1 systems. What I like about Dolby Atmos spatial audio and the Era 300 is that I no longer hear the gaps between components that could easily creep in, whether because of a gimmicky mix or poorly calibrated system. 

Take the track “No Reason” by the Chemical Brothers—mentioned in passing during a February presentation by Sonos Sound Experience Leader (and legendary mix engineer) Giles Martin as an Atmos session that elicited immediate elation from the artist when played back in the studio on a prototype Era 300. There’s an ability in this pairing of hardware and 360-degree encoding to have discrete elements remain in motion without as perceivable a disconnect as the old channel-hopping daze. The intro to “No Reason” begins as diffuse trills and fills until it finally coalesces into a more centralized martial rhythm before fanning out again in waves of whoops and puddles of reverb, stomping up percussive splatter.  

Played back on just one Era 300, the song is a day-glow procession, with plentiful though slightly loose low-end. Pair two Era 300s, and everything is magnified—more sprawling but no less anchored. The inward-facing channels are digitally deemphasized to avoid a shouty center image. The sound never reaches fully behind you, but it flanks you convincingly.

Turning to a standard stereo track like Massive Attack’s “Angel,” there’s obvious processing, a Sonos saturation, but it maintains much of the honesty from the buoyantly menacing bassline. No, it’s not so articulate it will convince me to give up the KEF LS50 Wireless II and KC62 subwoofer. But It’s also not really fair to compare an $898 pair of speakers to a $4,298 listening station. The KEF kit is for an audiophile that wants to sequester with old acquaintances, while the Era 300 is for anybody that vibes off of making new friends. It’s an attainable, out-of-the-box wow factor that’s welcoming for everybody. A great way to have a party or check out a hot producer’s lewk. That doesn’t mean you can’t fine-tune the response, however. 

Integrate the Sonos Sub with the Era 300, which you can do with one or two speakers, and the midrange opens up noticeably. Handing off the bass opens the Era 300’s headroom and does what a well-integrated sub should do: refines rather than merely reinforces. It might initially feel that the bass quantity dips, but it’s in the pursuit of quality. Really what’s happened is stray resonance has been corralled, and the sense of separation has increased. You may prefer thick kick, while I like things a little less congested. This is not a choice you can make with Apple’s closed hardware ecosystem, for comparison, and the HomePod can get surprisingly, sometimes distractingly rumbly.

The gradients fill in even further with the Era 300s as surround speakers with the Arc. Tethered via eARC to a TV connected to an Apple TV, the Arc can receive object-based audio directly from Apple Music and render the most immersive expression of any track. Are you going to be disappointed at times? Sure, there’s nothing that Sonos can do about a bad mix. And there are plenty of bad Dolby Atmos mixes. They can’t all be Giles Martin’s take on the Beatles’ Revolver. But you’ll be engrossed more than grossed out most of the time. One note: Adding the Era 300s as surrounds deactivates Bluetooth and the USB-C port; it’s Wi-Fi streaming only from now on.

I know I’ve dedicated a million words to music, so I’ll just touch on movies briefly (check back later for thoughts on where post-Era 300 Sonos ranks in wireless surround sound systems). I’ve watched a smattering of films—standard demo fare like Top Gun: Maverick, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049, Dune, Baby Driver, and John Wick. Well, in the words of Mad Max: Fury Road, “Do not, my friends, become addicted to Atmos. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” You get, well, constantly unfurling atmosphere. Pinpoint cues and disembodied voices. Tension and release. The Era 300 has gone to battle against the ordinary and emerged victorious.

Sonos Era 300 as rear speakers in a home theater
This isn’t me, but it could be you. With new Era 300 speakers and your loved ones, you, too, can be embraced physically and sonically in multiple dimensions. Courtesy of Sonos

The conclusion

In the Venn diagram of immediate-immersive-impressive, the Era 300 sits in a roomy overlap. That overlay broadens with two Eras, and it becomes closer to a single circle once you’ve graduated to an Arc+Sub+Era 300×2 setup. But you don’t need more than one Era 300 to enjoy gratification. On some tracks, you’ll hear more elements fly around the room. Sometimes you’ll just hear more room. All without a room-filling setup. If you’re more interested in simplicity than specs and don’t mind the slowly unwinding song distribution system, the Era 300 is expensive but a splurge that will pay off as artists embrace spatial audio’s full potential.

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Tony Ware

Editor, Commerce

Tony Ware is the Editor, Commerce & Gear for PopSci.com (and PopPhoto.com). He’s been writing about how to make and break music since the mid-'90s when his college newspaper said they already had a film critic, but maybe he wanted to look through the free promo CDs. Immediately hooked on outlining intangibles, he's covered everything audio for countless alt. weeklies, international magazines, websites, and heated bar trivia contests ever since. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and an 8-pound Aussie Shepherd-Japanese Chin mix who loves exploring national parks and impressing the thru-hikers.