Saturday, March 2, 2024
Gadgets

Sonos Era 100 and Era 300 review: The next generation of great, reliable multi-room sound

Sonos has two new speakers going on sale Tuesday, March 28, and they’re both significant new models that occupy a couple of key spots in the overall Sonos line-up: The Era 100 is essentially the replacement for the Sonos One, arguably the ‘default’ starter speaker for anyone looking to build out a Sonos system.

The Era 300, its larger sibling, is the first Sonos speaker to support spatial audio, and occupies a place somewhere between the now-defunct Play:3 and the Sonos Five. We took both for a test drive, and found plenty of reasons to get excited about Sonos’ Era era.

The basics

The Sonos Era 100 basically drops in as a replacement for the Sonos One in the existing product lineup, and it’s got a design to match. Unlike the Sonos One, the Era 100 is a true rounded cylinder (instead of a 3D rounded rectangle like the One) and is slightly taller than the One, but with a more svelte appearance overall thanks to being more narrow side-to-side.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch

The Era 100 connects via Wi-Fi to your Sonos system, and includes Apple AirPlay 2 like its predecessor. It also has a mic and supports Sonos’ own voice control as well as Amazon Alexa (unlike on older devices, Google Assistant is no longer an option). It has a physical switch for disabling the mic on top of the touch control mute from prior models, and the redesigned top touch surface has a dedicated volume slider, play/pause and skip controls.

New to the Era 100 and the Era 300 are two additional connection options: Bluetooth, and physical line-in. These are both welcome, but it’s important to note the USB-C port used for line-in on both requires the addition of the Sonos Line-In Adapter for connecting to 3.5 mm sources. I thought that since it was USB-C, it would be easy to just connect a source like a MacBook Pro directly and have it recognized as an external audio device, but that doesn’t work — nor does using existing USB-C-to-3.5 mm audio adapters that I had on hand.

The Era 100 also gains two separate tweeters for the first time in a speaker this size from Sonos, as well as a larger subwoofer. The result should be more clarity and natural sound versus the Sonos One. More on how that delivers later on.

Sonos Era 300 smart speaker

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch

The Sonos Era 300 is a much more net-new speaker for the company, though it roughly occupies the place in the lineup left behind by the discontinuation of the Play:3, which was not immediately replaced by another model at or near its price point. The Era 300 is quite different, however, both in terms of its design – it looks like an hourglass laid on its side – and its feature set, since it includes support for spatial audio for the first time.

Sonos designed the internals of the Era 300, which packs four tweeters facing in all directions but down, as well as a pair of woofers, to be able to fill a room with sound from a single point. It can reproduce both stereo and spatial mixes, and doesn’t artificially manipulate stereo audio to sound spatialized, thankfully. Sonos also provided the Era 300 with the ability to act as rear speakers for a Sonos surround setup, which means if you have a basically unlimited budget, you can get two speakers plus an Arc and a Sonos Sub to create a virtual 7.1.4 sound system.

Of course, both the Era 100 and Era 300 can join an existing Sonos setup and gain access to all the synced multi-room playback features that Sonos is known for. Both also feature both quick tuning (which uses tones to automatically adjust sound) and TruePlay tuning, which uses the built-in mic to adjust sound to best fit your room along with you walking around your space with your mobile device. Also, if you have the input adapters, you can play back audio from your line-in source across your various Sonos speakers.

Design

Both these Sonos speakers achieve new highs for the brand in terms of design, in my opinion. The Era 100 is a straight across the plate, fundamental bookshelf speaker with just a hint of edge thanks to the oblong shape. It seems more innocuous in situ across a range of domestic settings, including in the kitchen or when set up as rears thanks to some subtle tweaks, like the fact that the speaker grill goes almost all the way to the top of the speaker, unlike on the Sonos One, which had a band of solid surface near the upper edge.

Sonos Era 100 smart speaker

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch

The new volume rocker indentation is a welcome change and adds some tactile benefit to distinguishing it from the forward/back buttons, and the subtle vertical logo on the front grill is a nice bit of branding that doesn’t mar an otherwise very covert look.

For the Era 300, Sonos obviously went a bit more adventurous, coming up with a shape that tapers to the middle and then flares back out towards the back. This is likely at least in part functional as well as aesthetic to provide the Era 300 with its spatial audio and height channel surround capabilities. It makes for a much more striking design vs. the Era 100, but it’s one that I think works quite well in a range of settings. It’s definitely a bit more attention-grabbing, but since it ends up looking like a modern architectural mini sculpture, that’s not at all a bad thing. In fact, I would say the Era 300 is maybe the best-looking speaker Sonos has ever made.

Features & Performance

Let’s get the basics out of the way first: Sonos’ new speakers are just as reliable in terms of the core Sonos magic as any that have come before. They provide rock-solid, multi-room synced audio playback, and will integrate instantly with your existing setup should you have one.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about what these speakers uniquely provide that Sonos’ existing lineup hasn’t offered.

Sonos Era 100 smart speaker

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch

The Era 100 has internal hardware changes that the company claims provides better sound than the Sonos One. Based on testing, that does indeed seem to be the case, with a couple caveats. The first is that I would say if you’re looking to use an Era 100 on its own, you definitely get a lot better audio quality versus a Sonos One acting solo. The added tweeter and bigger woofer do deliver more accurate sound with less muddied mixes, especially at lower volumes.

If you’re debating whether or not to upgrade an existing Sonos One pair to Era 100s, I think things get a lot more murky. The fact is that in most settings, for most setups, you likely won’t get enough of a difference in overall experienced audio quality to justify the price of upgrading. But if you’re coming to it new, or upgrading from a much older pair of Play:1s, it’s definitely a great-sounding speaker — alone or together.

As for the Era 300, it’s far easier to recommend this more broadly, in part because there’s nothing really equivalent in Sonos’ recent history to compare it against. It genuinely provides terrific, room-filling sound with surprising clarity and sophistication given its footprint and size. The Era 300 is a great sole speaker for any room where you want audio (versus having a soundbar or home theater system for a TV), and I found it was even comparable to the more expensive and excellent Sonos Five that the company still sells, in terms of overall quality.

Sonos Era 300 smart speaker

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch

Of course, the Sonos Era 300’s big, fancy new feature is support for spatial audio, which it provides if you use Amazon Music Unlimited as a source, or Apple Music via a forthcoming update, for tracks mastered with Dolby Atmos Audio. I tested this with compatible tracks from Amazon Music Unlimited and found that it does indeed make a difference and sounds great — I just couldn’t really say for certain that it sounds better than the same song rendered in stereo only.

To be fair, that’s generally been the case for me and spatial audio: with Apple’s AirPod lineup and Apple Music, I can definitely tell the difference, but can’t usually say definitively that I prefer one over the other. I wouldn’t make spatial audio support the deciding factor in a purchase, but your mileage may vary there depending on how you feel about the technology.

Bottom line

Sonos has rarely had a real miss with its product lineup, and both the Era 100 and the Era 300 stand as clear hits. The Era 100 is a smart and subtle evolution of the company’s ‘default’ starter offering and the Era 300 is a unique and outperforming product in a sea of options that includes Apple’s just-updated HomePod. While each sounds great in its own right, the differentiator for Sonos will always be the flexibility of its multi-room audio technology, and that remains a huge highlight of both of these products that you can’t really get anywhere else.

I wish that Sonos had either just made the aux inputs on the back 3.5mm (the argument against being that with USB-C, they also support Ethernet adapters for wired network connections), or that they’d included their proprietary adapters in the box. But the fact that they have these options, as well as Bluetooth, is a major nice-to-have upgrade that has been lacking in most of Sonos’ lineup for years.

You won’t be disappointed with either of these speakers, and as always with Sonos products, if you’ve got the money, they perform even more spectacularly in stereo pairs. The Era 300, in particular, is a super strong offering with few real competitors out there.

Sonos Era 100 and Era 300 review: The next generation of great, reliable multi-room sound by Darrell Etherington originally published on TechCrunch

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