Sonos Ace Review: Basic, for now…

Sonos has finally released a pair of high-end headphones, and I’m obsessed with how comfortable they are. They also look awesome, and obviously, being a Sonos product, they sound fantastic. Hell, I’ve already sold two people I know on getting them instead of AirPods Max, and I’ll continue to wax on (poetically) about them in this review. But there’s something that just doesn’t sit right with me about them.

In my eyes, Sonos was magic. The attention to detail on its products was right up there with Apple, and the sound that came out of the Sonos One family of speakers really shifted the paradigm of how much sound you could pack into a smart speaker. Then, the company conquered the living room with its excellent soundbars and wireless connection technology. The only place left was portable audio.

However, as Sonos has moved from a niche smart home speaker company to one of the world’s biggest speaker companies, it’s had to make a lot of compromises on the way, and it’s also had to learn a lot about what makes a good speaker.

Now, here we are. Five years after the launch of Sonos’ first Bluetooth speaker, the company finally feels ready to realize its dreams of making wireless headphones. However, a lot has changed in the headphone space since the pandemic, and people are asking more from them than ever before. And with how few software features are packed inside the Sonos Ace, it’s hard to tell if they have enough to take a piece of the pie Sony, Apple, and Bose have been sharing.

Welcome to headphone city

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There’s no denying how good the Sonos Ace and their case look.

Pulling your Sonos Ace out of the box, you’re greeted with a premium experience that first reveals the case that comes with these headphones. It’s made of recycled materials that feel like a hefty form of felt. It reminds me a lot of Microsoft’s Surface devices’ Alcantara material. When you open it up, the inside is the same fabric but an offset colour. The headphones don’t fold up, but you do need to collapse the arms to fit in the case. In the centre there’s a small oval pouch magnetized in place to hold a charging cable and a USB-C to AUX cable.

At face value, I love this case. It looks really nice, and the soft mint interior is bringing me back with its nostalgic vibes. That said, the fact that it’s a coarse white fabric means it’s likely going to pick up dirt really fast. Even lint from your bag can get trapped in the fibres. Beyond that, the zipper, while very minimal, jams all the time. So far I’ve been able to wiggle it free every time, but with expensive headphones, you want a case that’s built to last.

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His little pouch magnetizes into the case and it’s awesome.

The excellent design of the case carries over to the headphones. Both plastic earcups are minimal, with slender silver vents on the top and bottom. The right ear has a single power/Bluetooth button on the bottom, and the left ear has the ‘Content Key’ and a button to swap between active noise-cancelling (ANC), and Sonos’ transparency mode. The Content Key is really good, and it’s easily up there with Apple’s Digital Crown for easy and reactive headphone controls. Just being able to control the volume with precision with the Content Key makes it a big upgrade over Bose’s button-heavy earcups and Sony’s annoying touch panels.

The earcups and the soft cushion on the headband are made of matching vegan leather over memory foam which gives them a comfy, but secure feeling on your head. The small metal arms remind me of the classiness of the AirPods Max, but without all the extra weight of the metal earpieces. Overall, the Ace have an understated look, that’s more elegant than other plastic options from competitors like Sony and Bose. I would argue that the Bose 700s also carry a stylish elegance with them, but in my opinion, the Sonos are much nicer looking, and comfier, which is half the battle with over-ear headphones.

One trick pony… for now at least

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The ‘Content Key’ is smartly designed and easy to learn.

Sonos has been in hot water recently because it rushed out a new app with several missing features. The working theory, at least online, is that the app needed to be out in time for the Ace launch. That said, the Ace are out, and just like the app, they’re missing a few features.

Sonos says, it’s working on it, and it has made good on re-adding some old features back into the rushed app, so the missing Ace features will likely appear at some point.

Realistically, I would have loved for Sonos to slow this down and launch both products when they were ready, but hey, what are shareholders good for if they’re not putting undo pressure on the workforce and dropping down arbitrary deadlines?

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If you need to clean your earcups they’re only attached with magnets.

All of this is a long way to say that the Sonos Ace only have one really special software feature at launch. It’s called ‘TV Audio Swap,’ and right now, it only works with the Sonos Arc soundbar. The company says it is bringing the feature to its other soundbars, but not having the main selling feature of headphones working 100 percent at launch isn’t a great look. The Arc is Sonos’s best and most expensive soundbar ($1,099), but notably, both the Beam 2 and the Sonos Ray soundbars are newer than the Arc, so they should have the same tech inside. It makes it all the more puzzling that this feature only works on the Arc (for now).

When testing this feature with the Arc, it worked well with no noticeable audio lag. In my experience, this is likely the only way to use the Sonos Ace with a TV. Regular Bluetooth to my Apple TV 4K, or living room PC was unusable with lots of dropouts and lag. Even when it rolls out to all Sonos soundbars, I still think it’s going to be a tough sell. Especially when an Apple TV with AirPods or a Roku with a headphone jack are both more affordable options for listening to your TV quietly. Sonos can emulate surround sound in the headphones, and it’s pretty great for movies. Plus, since it works via your soundbar, it does allow you to game and use headphones with all your TV’s inputs. The Apple and Roku options I mentioned only work when you’re watching content on those devices. That said, you can pair two sets of AirPods to an Apple TV, which is handy for when two people need to watch something quietly.

Thet soundbar-based nature of these headphones makes them seem really primed for gaming, and they work great for single-player games, but you need to connect them to your controller with a wire if you want to use the microphone on them while gaming.

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There is no AUX jack on these headphones, but there is an included USB-C to AUX cable.

The other interesting software feature packed in the Ace is support for Spatial Audio, but like most non-Apple headphones, it doesn’t work very seamlessly. Don’t get me wrong it sounds awesome, but to make music play in Spatial, you need to lock your Apple Music app to be only Spatial. With AirPods, the headphones are smart enough to know if a song supports spatial, and they’ll switch to that format automatically. This lets you listen to a vast majority of music, which was recorded in stereo or mono, as it was intended. It’s a small thing, but I expect a lot of Sonos customers are semi-audiophiles, so be warned that you’ll be unable to change music formats on the fly.

To make this feature feel more immersive, Sonos has added head tracking to the Ace, but in my experience, it’s hit-and-miss. Sometimes, it’s subtle and works nice, but other times if I get up and move, the music locks to one ear and I’ll need to pause/play quickly to get it to centre again. You can disable this feature if you find it annoying, which is what I did.

Beyond all that, I could go into how I find the new app confusing to use, but I think in time I’ll learn it. The other thing I want to mention is the ANC. While it’s good, it’s not perfect and without music playing, I can still hear sounds from my girlfriend’s computer if we’re in the same room. Even as I was writing this, she finished something, let out a huge sigh, and I was able to hear it clearly with ANC on. Most of the annoying sounds are blocked out, but compared to the AirPods Pro that I use all the time, it doesn’t block out as much. The transparency mode is also fine, but not as good as on AirPods Pro, and there is no adaptive mode that can adjust ANC based on my surroundings – a feature I’ve had turned on for my AirPods Pros since it launched.

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