The Sonos Ace headphones are here, and they are damn impressive

There’s so much riding on the new $450 Sonos Ace headphones. With demand for the company’s speakers and soundbars waning since the pandemic, Sonos could use a hit product — or at least a strong debut in a huge product category . The Ace certainly could be, but these headphones come in the shadow of Sonos’ recent app redesign, which has angered many customers who were left without many features after the update.

Sonos has promised to restore these software features in the coming weeks, but the whole situation – and the unshakable feeling that the app overhaul was rushed out – has shaken trust between the audio brand and some of its most loyal customers. This is not where Sonos wanted to find itself ahead of what CEO Patrick Spence has described as the most in-demand new device ever. But it’s where we are now, with the Ace headphones available for pre-order ahead of their June 5 release.

Last week, the company hosted media in New York City for a first look at the Sonos Ace. I got to test the noise-cancelling headphones – not long enough to make any serious judgments about the sound quality – and experience their main feature, which is the ability to instantly transfer TV audio from a Sonos soundbar to the headphones with a press of a button. on the button a button. The Ace headphones support spatial audio and head tracking, delivering a cinematic private listening experience at times when you might otherwise need some quiet time in the TV room. (Spatial audio can also be used while listening to music regularly.)

Use the content key (metal slider) to adjust the volume, play/pause, and send TV audio from a Sonos soundbar to the Ace.

During the briefing, I sat down with Spence to discuss the headphones, which he says have been requested by “tens of thousands” of customers. Rumors that Sonos would enter this space have been circulating for years. There were many prototypes along the way, but the Ace hardware you see here underwent a development period of about two years. And they certainly borrow some ideas from their contemporaries.

These look like what you’d get if you put Sony’s WH-1000XM5 and Apple’s AirPods Max into a blender. The pleated ear cushions are magnetic and easily removable, although Sonos adds some thoughtful touches; the inside is color coded so you can easily see which goes on which side. There’s a fingerprint-resistant coating on the outside of the headphones to reduce smudges – especially useful for the black pair. And the memory foam headband has different levels of padding to avoid putting too much pressure on any one part of your head.

Fortunately, the Ace are much lighter than the AirPods Max. There isn’t as much metal in them, but they still feel very well put together. And they felt wonderfully comfortable on my ears. “We’ve done more work on this product than anyone in the industry to ensure it fits a variety of heads and ears – both men and women – and I think these are going to be the most comfortable premium headphones yet, Spence told the media.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find any obvious first-gen hardware bugs in my short time with them. Maybe they’ll reveal themselves when I review the Ace, but on first impressions it’s clear that Sonos pays attention to the small details. (As another example, the fabric carrying case contains a pocket for the USB-C and headphone cables Also attaches magnetically.) The controls are also well done, with physical buttons for everything and no taps or swipes to remember.

The Ace’s vegan leather ear cushions are magnetic and easily replaceable. And the inside has different colors, so you know what goes where.

But if you were expecting the Sonos Ace to inherit the same functionality as the company’s home audio speakers, you’re in for a disappointment. These do not play music via WiFi. The best you get is aptX Adaptive on modern Android devices for higher bitrate Bluetooth streaming from compatible music services. You can’t group the Ace with Sonos speakers or set the headphones as their own “zone” in the app – yes, you need the divisive new app to change settings or adjust the EQ – and while I’ve been there I’ve long dreamed of intelligent automatic transfer between headphones and speakers when you get home, but that’s not there either.

You can privately listen to TV audio sent to the headphones from the company’s soundbars.
Image: Sonos

Right now, the Ace’s only big Sonos-y trick is their ability to receive audio from the company’s soundbars for private listening. (Only the flagship Arc will support this feature at launch, with the Beam Gen 2, Beam and Ray coming later.) You press and hold the ‘content key’ – that’s the metal slider that also controls volume and play/pause – and within a few seconds the soundbar beams Dolby Atmos audio to the headphones, complete with spatial audio head tracking.

This works for any input device that runs through the soundbar. Stream boxes? Certainly. Gaming consoles? Bill. You can walk around the house and continue listening to a sports game in the background while you clean up or concentrate on other things. TV Audio Swap will be available exclusively to those with iOS devices at launch, with Android support for this important feature coming “soon.” So Android users can benefit from better Bluetooth audio (thanks to aptX), while the iOS side can enjoy the key home theater trick.

The headphones contain a sensor that can detect when you move, after which the head tracking is turned off.

Stereo content is upmixed by default in home theater mode, but you can always turn off spatial audio if you prefer to hear good stereo without any wizardry being applied. Sonos’ sound guru Giles Martin told me the company is being “cautious” about how aggressively it virtualizes stereo. The head-tracking effect is quite subtle because, as Martin noted, people will probably just turn it off if it’s too obvious or gimmicky. The headphones can detect when you’ve gotten up to grab something from the fridge, and in those situations it will temporarily disable head tracking until you stand still again.

All the intensive audio processing and binaural encoding is done on the soundbar side, but here’s something interesting: Sonos is use Wi-Fi to send audio to the headphones in this home theater mode. However, it is not lossless. One of the company’s engineers told me it is 345kbps and also confirmed that this Wi-Fi streaming reduces battery life, which is normally 30 hours (with ANC enabled). But Sonos doesn’t share battery estimates for home theater playback, partly because the headphones support fast charging if you ever run out of power.

The Ace is available in black or white – and Sonos was really obsessed with that white shade.

The memory foam ear cushions are covered in vegan leather.

Private listening between TVs (or streaming devices) and headphones is by no means a new concept; you can listen to the Apple TV with Apple’s AirPods. Roku has had a headphone jack on many of its remotes for years. And you can pair Bluetooth earbuds with any number of Google TVs.

But Sonos believes the Ace can take immersion to levels far beyond its competitors, and this is partly thanks to a new feature the company calls TrueCinema. Your soundbar performs a calibration of the room’s acoustic properties – a bit like TruePlay – while the microphones on the headphones help you determine your seating position and tailor the spatial audio to your unique space. Theoretically, this data will make the spatial 3D audio surround sound feel all the more compelling, as if you weren’t wearing any headphones at all. I need more hands-on time to determine if TrueCinema is really a difference maker. As it stands, the feature won’t roll out until later this year.

The fabric carrying bag has a compartment for accessories.

Can Sonos really collaborate with Bose and Sony on active noise cancellation? Will the Ace’s aware/transparent mode sound as natural as the AirPods Max, which remain unbeaten in that department? And how will the sound quality stack up after longer listening time?

Stay tuned for our full review of the Sonos Ace in the coming days, and if you’re curious about anything in particular, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *