The Era 300 feels like the beginning of something great

OPINION: It’s that time of year (spring if you must know), where launches are coming thick and fast. New devices are blooming and in the Sonos Era 300, we have a speaker that does something that genuinely feels as if it’s pushing the wireless audio market forward.

By now, Dolby Atmos isn’t a ‘new’ thing by any means. It’s been around for more than ten years, infiltrating cinema, home cinema, headphones, wireless speakers and filtering through to gaming and even smartphones. The Amazon Echo Studio is the first wireless speaker I knew of where it was built from the ground up to play Dolby Atmos music. So, it’s not as if the Era 300 is ground-breaking or innovative in that sense. Even the Apple HomePod can output in Atmos.

But it does feel as if, while Dolby Atmos continues to cement its status as the top audio dog in the film and TV marketplace, it’s struggled to make the same waves in the music market.

It has not been for a lack of effort. More music is being made and mastered with Dolby Atmos uppermost in artists’ considerations. There are more and more mastering suites popping up (I’ve been to at least three of them in London), and streaming services are picking up and releasing music in Dolby Atmos, from Tidal to Amazon Music and Apple Music. But the ways in which to hear all that music is still limited, at least for wireless speakers.

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Which is why the Sonos Era 300 could live up to its name and be a genuine move forward for Atmos and spatial audio. Amazon and Apple’s speakers are arguably too tied to their ecosystems to really have a wider impact; most people who pick up those speakers will be Amazon Prime subscribers or iOS users. While the Era 300 supports features from those respective ecosystems (Alexa, AirPlay 2), Sonos’ unbiased approach with its platform also frees it from those restrictions. A Sonos speaker is one that anyone could have in their home.

And that really is what spatial audio needs to take off with music; a product offering a sense of three-dimensionality in a room and not just in your head like a pair of headphones. It’s debatably what has kept Sony’s 360 Reality Audio from gaining more traction within the market, that it hasn’t been picked up by more services and brands; and possibly what’s defeated many other 3D audio tech, though there is a company called Audioscenic that’s looking to change things. Keep an eye out for them…

But back to Sonos, and the Era 300 can fire sound upwards and to the sides and, depending on the right track, even fire music towards the listening position. There are drawbacks, as always, in that I’ve found this spatial effect to be very directional, i.e. you need to be sitting in the sweet spot to get the best effect. Another problem is that like a stereo track, not every Atmos track is engineered to produce the same effect. Each artist and engineer have their own philosophy and notion about how Atmos can serve their track.

But that is what’s interesting about Atmos, that it can be so varied in its execution, and the Era 300 brings that out more successfully than other speakers I’ve listened to. Listening to music in the home needs a bit of jolt, and the Era 300 is that bolt of lightning that could give it some more juice.

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