Kick out the jams with these smart speakers, soundbars and noise-cancelling headphones.
There are three audio essentials that have the ability to assist in the day-to-day restrictions and challenges of social distancing in the home. If, like many of us, you’re working from home while the rest of the house and its occupants are in the same orbit, a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones – or earbuds – is essential.
For beats to keep the spirits high and creativity flowing, decent smart speakers linked throughout the house offer the perfect solution.
And finally, when you can throw yourself down onto a couch for some hard-earned R&R, a quality soundbar will lift the action from your screen and cast it into your entertainment space.
If you’re looking for all three or just one of the aforementioned audio essentials, we’ve road-tested a handful of products that more than fit the brief.
Sonos is a name synonymous with speakers and needs no introduction. The company that gave us the Wi-Fi connected multi-room speaker concept, it continues to evolve its products to remain on the lip of the technological wave. Sonos One, released last year, is the company’s first voice-assisted speaker. I had the Sonos Play 1, sadly not compatible with the new One, as a forefront home speaker for six years. It’s never skipped a beat. However, with the advent – and consequent implementation – of voice assistant technology, the Play 1 has been relegated to the bedroom.
Weighty and sleekly designed, set-up is an absolute cinch through the Sonos app – the One was ready to play from my iPhone in around five minutes. “True Play” tuning is how the speaker assesses the room to deliver the best sound possible, and is always entertaining; using the microphone on your smartphone, which you slowly wave around the room like a digital thurible, your smartphone emits a vintage Doctor Who-like electronic throb as it tunes the room.
On top of the One are touch-activated commands to skip tracks, play, pause and adjust volume, but you’ll definitely use the app to control it – or indeed your voice. The One supports Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri through AirPlay 2, so alongside fulfilling the music requests being called out, it can tell you the latest world news. But how does it sound? Commanding. Tested in a large living room and in the garden, it compensates admirably across a playlist of everything from Edvard Grieg to Black Sabbath. Full, rich sounds that perform straight out the box. Where bass and tone can be adjusted, the factory fit is spot on.
The One’s portable sibling, Sonos Move, takes the party into the VIP lounge. Yes, untethering from Sonos’s standard Wi-Fi protocol for chaining speakers through the house, the Move features both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Ditching the One’s cylindrical design for an oval shape, the portable Move stands a little higher and also houses the controls on top of the speaker, with a handle built into the rear for portability. The “True Play” is automatically built-in.
The Move comes complete with a charging cradle and will deliver around ten hours of battery life. Water, dust and – with a thick rubber base – purportedly impact proof, the Move is suitable for any environment; press the Bluetooth button at the rear and connect to a smartphone and you’re going mobile!
Like the One, the Move nails the sound. It’s a Sonos, so you expect quality, but for a portable speaker it operates as efficiently in a large open space as it does in the kitchen. Audio appreciation is always a subjective exercise but personally, I’ve always found Sonos speakers to deliver excellent balanced performance measured to sound across a multitude of musical genres, and that is certainly the case here.
With a bit more oomph than the One, the Move is an ideal speaker for inside and out.
Soundbars provide an excellent cost-effective alternative to all the wiring that a 5.1 system requires, and where space is potentially a consideration. Compact soundbars are quite the rage for home audio solutions and the Beam is Sonos’s latest entry – compact in size it may be, but certainly not in sound.
Aesthetically, the Beam is on point featuring a non-imposing design that will fit in with most decors and can be wall-mounted (the bracket is extra) if needed. Like with all Sonos speakers, touch controls are located on top of the unit. On the rear is a pairing button, ethernet port to wire into an existing speaker system, and a HDMI ARC (audio return channel) connection. Voice command supports Google Assistant, Alexa and even Siri through AirPlay 2.
The all-important sound is equally rich for music and watching movies, but to take full advantage of the Beam’s excellent performance, you need to turn it up – this soundbar was born to be loud. And it doesn’t disappoint. The Beam has 5 x Class-D digital amplifiers, 4 x full range woofers, 1 x tweeter and 3 x passive radiators and will fill any room with a great punchy bass.
Of course, the option is available to build out the system with additional speakers to rig up a true 5.1 experience, but for most homes looking for a budget solution to beef up their home viewing options, the Beam ticks all those boxes.
No stranger to the audio landscape, Bose also has a range of smart soundbars and the feature-packed 700 is its flagship model. It has a premium look with a tempered glass top and will fit comfortably under any TV 50” and above. With Google Assistant and Alexa available straight out of the box, you no longer have to climb out of the couch to find the remote if you want to raise the volume.
Easy to install, the 700 features a remote to set up your audio preferences, or use the Bose app if you prefer (or if you can’t find the remote). Delivering a full, rich overall home theatre performance with good mids and highs, users have the option to add extra speakers to enhance those epic home cinema experiences.
With so many people currently working from home, noise-cancelling headphones have never been a better proposition. The two big operators at the higher end of the scale here are Bose and Sony, and it’s the Sony over-ear Bluetooth WH1000XM3 (what a mouthful!) that we’re looking at.
These are light in comparison to other noise-cancelling headphones and a comfortable fit for lengthy use. Touch functionality on the right ear cup controls volume, pause/play and track skipping, and for sound reproduction, if you’re not happy with the standard out of the box audio (which is very good), customisation through the app will allow for tinkering perfection. The noise-cancellation is second to none here and can also be fine-tuned to allow for some ambient noise to filter though.
A quick charge feature can take a flatliner to five hours in just ten minutes, and expect to get around 25-30 hours per full charge. If you prefer ear buds to headphones then Sony’s WF-1000XM3s are certainly worth a listen, offering top end noise-cancellation technology, exceptional sound quality, and backed with 25 hours of charge, chat and voice assist functionality – all housed in a smart charging case.