Sonos Ace in the Review: The first ANC-headphones are simply a success

Sonos Ace in the Review: The first ANC-headphones are simply a success

Sonos Ace

The Sonos Ace represents a bold step for the company, known for its high-quality home audio systems, as it enters the competitive market of personal audio devices.

The Baltic Review

After much speculation and three years of development, Sonos has unveiled its first headphones, the Ace. The over-ear headphones offer active noise-cancelling, a transparency mode and 3D audio and can be connected to a compatible Sonos soundbar to transmit its sound to the headphones.

Sonos Ace goes on sale from June 5 in black and soft white colours at a recommended retail price of 499 euros. In addition to the headphones, buyers will receive a travel case in which a small container for the cables supplied by the manufacturer can be stowed alongside the Ace. These are a USB cable and an AUX cable from 3.5 mm to USB-C. The small container is held magnetically in the case and fits between the headband and ear cups of the Ace.

Sonos Ace: Magnetic ear cushion

The Sonos Ace has a slim, simple design with internal cables and stainless steel elements around the headband and hinges. The ear cups can be rotated forwards, but cannot be folded in. The ear pads are made of soft foam with a cover made of vegan imitation leather. They are held in place magnetically and can therefore be easily changed at any time. In the test, they provide a good seal against ambient noise and are very comfortable to wear. It is not yet possible to judge how durable the imitation leather will prove to be. The workmanship and feel of the Sonos Ace are excellent.

Sonos Ace in a travel case | Photo: The Baltic Review

The Sonos Ace weighs 316 g and measures 191 × 161 × 85 mm (H × W × D). This makes it neither particularly large nor excessively heavy, but heavier than the Bose QuietComfort Ultra (test), for example, which weighs just 250 g like the Sony WH-1000XM5 (test). The Apple AirPods Max weigh 385 g.

The Sonos Ace travel case weighs 350 g including cables. By comparison, the smart case of the AirPods Max, which does not fully enclose the headphones, weighs 134.5 g (without cable). In total, the Ace weighs 666 g if you take it with you in your hand luggage when travelling.

Sonos has not given the Ace an IP rating. There is therefore no official classification of how the headphones are protected against dust and water. However, they should be able to be worn during sports or in the rain without being damaged.

As a little extra, Sonos has designed the inside of the ear cups on the right and left in different colours (black and grey for the black model, white and green for the white version) so that you immediately know how to put the Ace on without having to look for the markings first. For this reason, the Sonos logo is only placed on one of the two ear cups.

The headband can be extended continuously by around 33 mm on each side. The resistance is well chosen by the manufacturer, the ear cups hold reliably in the set position and never slip back unintentionally. The headband is flexible and does not exert any annoying pressure when worn. The wearing comfort of the Sonos Ace is therefore also high and offers no cause for criticism. Listening to music for hours on end is no problem.

Sonos has distributed the controls, connections and status LED on both ear cups. The button for switching the Ace on and off and pairing is located on the left ear cup. The status LED and the USB-C port for charging and music transfer via the AUX cable are also located here.

On the right ear cup, on the other hand, there is a slider, called “Content Key” by Sonos, and a button for controlling the ANC and transparency mode. The content key has several functions. On the one hand, it is used to control the volume by moving the slider up (louder) or down (quieter). However, the slider also functions as a button. Pressing it once briefly starts or pauses playback or accepts or ends a call. Pressing it twice skips forward one track, pressing it three times skips back one track. A long press can be used to reject calls or transfer the sound from a Sonos Arc soundbar to the Ace – more on this later.

Sonos Ace: USB-C, power button and grille above the microphones | Photo: The Baltic Review

The arrangement and different shape of the controls ensure that the Ace is very easy to operate and you never hit the wrong button.

For wireless transmission, the manufacturer relies on Bluetooth 5.4 and aptX Lossless via Qualcomm Snapdragon Sound for lossless audio transmission. Sonos also refers to the Ace as “LE Audio ready”, which means that the headphones will receive an update for LE Audio at some point, but will not support it at launch. This limits the choice of audio codec to SBC, AAC and aptX Lossless, which also means aptX, aptX HD and aptX Adaptive.

Bluetooth multipoint for connecting the Sonos Ace to two devices at the same time to switch playback between them at any time without having to disconnect one device and connect the other is supported after it has been activated in the Sonos app.

However, as already mentioned, sound can also be transferred to the headphones via the Sonos Ace’s USB-C port. To do this from an analogue source, the USB-C to 3.5 mm audio cable is included. In order to play music via USB-C, the Ace must be switched on – so it cannot be used with an empty battery.

Dynamic 40 mm drivers are responsible for the sound. Sonos has not yet disclosed any technical details.

Sonos has installed a total of eight microphones in the Ace. The number of microphones used depends on the mode and environment. They are located under the mesh grilles, which should reduce wind noise during phone calls. However, the software also provides support here, for example by deactivating the forward-facing microphones in transparency mode in windy conditions and only using the lower microphones to relay the surroundings to the wearer.

Sonos Voice Control has not yet made it onto the Ace at launch, but is expected to follow with an update. However, the button on the right ear cup for controlling the ANC and transparency mode can be used to call up the voice assistant of the connected smartphone when the button is pressed and held.

The battery life of the Sonos Ace is specified by the manufacturer as up to 30 hours when ANC is activated. As usual, ‘The Baltic Review‘did not simply accept this information, but tested it itself. A colourful music mix covering all genres was used and played back at medium volume via Bluetooth with ANC activated. To give the ANC something to do, changing street noises are played via a loudspeaker. In the test, the Sonos Ace achieved a playback time of 29 hours and 52 minutes, which is very close to the manufacturer’s specifications.

A quick-charging function via USB-C ensures that power is available for a playback time of 3 hours after just 3 minutes. Fully charging the headphones, on the other hand, takes just over 2 hours when they are fully discharged. The internal battery has a capacity of 1,060 mAh.

When charging the Ace, it can still be used without restriction via Bluetooth.

As already mentioned several times, the Sonos Ace features active noise cancellation and a transparency mode. While the former is designed to switch off the surroundings as effectively as possible, the latter ensures that the ambient noise is passed through to the wearer via the headphones’ microphones so that they can still be heard even when wearing the headphones.

Sonos Ace: Wear detection and different coloured nets in the ear cups

The Sonos Ace also features wear detection, which is implemented via infrared sensors in both ear cups – it is quite rare to implement this on both sides of the headphones.
However, anyone who thinks that it is enough to lift one side of the headphones or turn one ear cup to pause playback will be disappointed. Both ear cups must always be lifted or the headphones removed from the head to activate the wear detection and pause playback. If only one ear cup is lifted or turned, nothing happens. In everyday use, the wear detection function works reliably and quickly when the Ace is removed.

The Sonos Ace supports 3D audio and head tracking with Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio from Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal and Deezer. Sonos plans to add TrueCinema, which adapts the virtual surround sound of the headphones to the room, with a software update.

A unique feature of the Sonos Ace is the ability to connect it to a Sonos soundbar via Bluetooth by pressing and holding the content key while the soundbar is playing content. This function is intended for evenings when you are sitting in front of the TV as a couple, but your partner falls asleep and you want to continue watching TV quietly through the headphones. Only one pair of headphones can be used per soundbar at a time. This means that several people cannot sit in front of the TV with multiple headphones.

If the playback button on the Ace is held down, the sound switches from the soundbar to the Sonos Ace. Room sound and head tracking can also be used here. Both can be deactivated individually in the Sonos app. If head tracking is active, this ensures that the sound continues to come virtually from the TV by adjusting the sound when the head moves. An “Inertial Measurement Sensor” (IMU) in the Ace recognises the head movements and sends the signal to the Arc soundbar – which then adjusts the sound before the signal is transmitted to the headphones. According to Sonos, this is the better way as the soundbar’s processing power is significantly greater than that of the headphones.

As mentioned, spatial audio and head tracking can also be deactivated manually. However, if you move too far away, for example because you leave the room to get something, it is automatically switched off and reactivated as soon as you are closer to the soundbar again.

The Baltic review was able to test the function extensively. It works flawlessly in everyday use, both with and without virtual surround sound, which also applies to head tracking. There are no dropouts during transmission, nor is there any annoying latency that tears the picture and sound apart. There is also nothing to criticise about the sound, although playback via an Arc soundbar is generally preferable to playback via the Ace when watching TV – at least in the author’s personal opinion.

In order to use the function, both the Sonos soundbar and the Ace must be added to the Sonos app – under iOS, as the pairing of the two devices does not yet work with Android. The “Add TV Audio Swap” option is then available under “Home cinema” in the Ace settings. Once the two devices have been paired, the Ace can be used to receive content from the Arc.

The Sonos app offers comparatively few functions and customisation options for the Ace. It shows the battery status and the currently connected device(s) and allows you to switch between ANC, transparency mode and deactivation of both modes. If 3D audio is being played back, head tracking can also be switched on and off in the app.

It also offers the aforementioned function for connecting to a Sonos Arc soundbar and controlling spatial audio and head tracking when transmitting from the soundbar.

Using the Sonos app, it is also possible to customise the sound using the equaliser. However, it only allows a comparatively rudimentary adjustment of the treble and bass by five points up or down. In addition, the balance between left and right can be changed, which again only very few headphones offer. The option to boost bass and treble at low volumes can be switched off in the app and is active by default.

When controlling the headphones, the user can specify in the app whether the ANC button should be used to switch through all three sound modes or only through ANC and transparency mode. Wearer detection can also be controlled and used either for playing music only or for answering calls, which is activated automatically as soon as the headphones are put on.

Last but not least, firmware updates for the Ace can be installed via the app. Firmware 2.8.2 was used in the test.

What the app does not offer in particular is an adjustment of the noise cancelling and transparency mode to control their intensity. Sonos also does not offer the extensive options for sound optimisation or location-dependent control that are offered by the Sony WH-1000XM5 (test), for example, or a listening test for individualising the sound to the wearer’s hearing. Although many functions are ultimately not used in everyday life, the manufacturer takes a simpler approach here.

The Sonos Ace delivers a pleasantly unagitated sound that doesn’t try to attract attention with too much bass boom or sharp, exaggerated highs. Anyone who appreciates balanced music with a clear, differentiated sound will be happy with these headphones. A Sony WH-1000XM5 (test) or a Bose QuietComfort Ultra (test) focus much more on the bass than the Sonos Ace. In terms of sound, the latter is more in the direction of a Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless (test). Nevertheless, it can still deliver bass in a concise, powerful and convincing way when the music demands it. At maximum volume, however, trebles start to hiss slightly. However, if you turn the volume down just a little, this is also a thing of the past.

Two points are also interesting. On the one hand, ANC has a minimal effect on the sound if you listen very carefully – but this is positive and not negative. This is because quiet bass, which otherwise threatens to be lost, becomes more present and clearer when ANC is activated. ANC actually makes the Sonos Ace sound even more balanced and better overall.

On the other hand, the Sonos Ace manages to reproduce the low bass in St Jude by Florence + The Machine well even when played back quietly – but only if you leave the factory-activated entry in the equaliser in the Sonos app that treble and bass are boosted during quiet playback switched on. If you deactivate it, the low bass is completely lost during quiet playback. Overall, the Sonos Ace sounds excellent.

The Sonos Ace’s ANC delivers good results. On the one hand, it doesn’t cause annoying noise when activated. In absolute silence, a slight whispering can be heard in the ear. However, it doesn’t interfere with music playback or quiet podcasts.

Low and monotonous frequencies are eliminated excellently, but typing on a keyboard can still be heard, albeit more quietly, even with ANC switched on. Overall, the ANC performance of the Sonos Ace does not quite match that of the Sony WH-1000XM5 (test). The latter filters more frequencies and is stronger overall, making it even quieter underneath than underneath the Ace. Although thunderstorms are filtered just as well, the Ace remains slightly louder overall than the WH-1000XM5.

It is therefore not enough for the ANC crown in its debut. However, the ANC performance of the Ace is still very good.

Strong wind is still slightly transmitted to the ears of the wearer of the Sonos Ace when ANC is activated, but is not disturbing. The mesh grille does indeed provide good insulation here. Wind is therefore no reason to deactivate the headphones’ ANC, as there is no less wind to be heard when ANC is switched off – in fact, there tends to be more.

The transparency mode of the Sonos Ace is excellent. If you have activated the transparency mode, called “Aware Mode” in the app, and are not playing music, you won’t hear any difference when you wear or take off the Sonos Ace. The environment is transmitted at exactly the same volume as it would be without headphones and even sounds identical – impressive. Sonos is the first manufacturer in the test field to be able to keep up with the Apple AirPods Max (test).

However, when the music is played loudly, the surroundings fade into the background so that you can hear what’s going on around you, but you still have to pause the music or quickly take off the headphones to hear conversations or announcements.

As already mentioned, not all eight microphones of the Sonos Ace are used for the transparency mode, but the system switches between them dynamically – or so the theory goes. In practice, wind noise is definitely audible on the headphones, but Sonos primarily uses the downward-facing microphones for transparency mode so that they are not transmitted as strongly. If wind hits the front-facing microphones, a slight adjustment can indeed be felt, which reduces the wind noise somewhat, but does not completely eliminate it.

The Sonos Ace does not filter out all the ambient noise around the wearer during phone calls, so that street noise and birdsong, for example, can also be heard by the other party. Although the voice does not sound crystal clear, it is a little noisy and distorted in some places, it is largely natural. The Sonos Ace can therefore be used for the odd phone call, especially in quiet surroundings.

In terms of latency, the Sonos Ace without LE Audio does not yet have access to an audio codec – either standardised or proprietary – that could reduce the delay between picture and sound. With AAC and aptX (HD), the well-known, comparatively slow codecs are used and so the usual latency of 160 to 180 ms occurs in the test, which corresponds to a visible offset between image and sound if the software does not synchronise. aptX Adaptive in conjunction with a smartphone that supports this codec can reduce the latency, but does not do this on the Sonos Ace compared to the other codecs.

For pure music playback, all these considerations are, as always, insignificant.


Sonos Ace in the package | Photo: The Baltic Review

The Sonos Ace has made a successful debut.

Sonos’ first headphones deliver a very good sound, are extremely comfortable to wear, are very easy to use and have an excellent finish, while the simple design is also very appealing. The transparency mode is particularly outstanding and actually reproduces the surroundings exactly as you would hear them without headphones. The magnetic ear pads are very easy to change and small details such as the coloured mesh on the inside show the attention to detail.

With aptX including HD, Adaptive and Lossless, at least one audio codec is offered that delivers better quality than SBC and AAC, even if it can only be used with a smartphone that supports this codec. The Sonos Ace does not yet have LE Audio at launch – a missed opportunity to stand out from the competition in this respect. However, sound can also be played back via USB-C – the manufacturer supplies a suitable adapter cable to 3.5 mm jack.

The functions offered by Sonos do their job flawlessly, and head tracking and 3D audio also work reliably. The option of pairing the Ace with the Sonos Arc soundbar and sending the sound from the headphones to the headphones at the touch of a button is practical for anyone who frequently uses headphones with their TV. The interaction between the two devices works very well and reliably – something that cannot be said of every combination of TV and headphones.

However, it is surprising that the wear detection function only kicks in when both ear cups are lifted. The equaliser in the Sonos app is also too puristic to convince music lovers.

The only problem is that the recommended retail price is high. The Sony WH-1000XM5 are already available for 299 euros and the Bose QuietComfort Ultra (test) have also fallen sharply in price and are now available for 365 euros. In terms of price, the Sonos Ace is on a par with the Apple AirPods Max (test), which is currently available for just over €500. Despite Sonos’ proximity to Apple and the “Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod” certificate, Sonos cannot integrate any Apple-exclusive functions such as integration into the Wo-ist? network or automatic switching of playback between Apple devices, which Apple reserves as a unique selling point.

Andrzej Vilenski
Andrzej Vilenski, the Baltic Review correspondent is a PhD student at the University of Vilnius, studying policy.

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