Initial review: The Sonos Ace are high-flying wireless headphones

Sonos Ace.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

To say that Sonos’ first wireless headphones have been hotly anticipated is something of an understatement. Sonos fans have been clamoring for them for years, and we’ve had a consistent flow of rumors and leaks fanning those fires for almost as long.

Now that the Sonos Ace are here, for $449, are they everything we expected?

I’m going to do something a little different this time as I answer this question. Instead of a full, scored review, I’m starting with an overall impression of these new cans. Let’s just say that given the major issues Sonos has been facing since the launch of its new mobile app, I wanted to give myself extra time with the Ace before I rendered a verdict.

So, consider this an introduction to the Sonos Ace: my high-level thoughts. I’ll follow up shortly with my final, scored assessment. But here’s a teaser: of the seven things I said Sonos needed to get right, it only missed out on one.

Buy at Best Buy

Wishing for Wi-Fi?

Sonos Ace beside Apple iPad running the Sonos app.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Let me address one very important aspect of the Ace before I dig into the overall experience of using them.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on the Sonos Ace since the official launch on May 21, you know that these are not Wi-Fi headphones, as many Sonos fans had been hoping for. All of your streaming will be done via Bluetooth, no different than any other wireless headphones you can buy. Once they’re paired to your phone, you fire up a streaming app and hit play.

It also means that you can’t treat the Ace like Sonos’ other products. They won’t show up in the Sonos app among your other speakers. You can’t stream to them from the music sources you’ve added to the Sonos app. And you can’t group them or enable things like alarms or timers. The app lets you adjust various settings on the Ace, like EQ, ANC, and spatial audio, but that’s as far as it goes.

Sonos Ace with a Sonos Arc.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I know this was an intentional decision on the part of the company, but I think it’s a missed opportunity. Sonos’ portable speakers (the Move, Move 2, Roam, and the new Roam 2) are designed to move seamlessly from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth and back again, and I think the Ace should be able to do so, too. Moreover, I think the Sonos app should work the same way whether you’re at home or not. Why spend time setting up favorites, playlists, and other customizations if you have to give them up when you’re out of Wi-Fi range?

Now that I’ve gotten that one disappointment off my chest, I need to acknowledge the one way you can use the Ace with a Sonos home system: owners of a Sonos Arc soundbar (and eventually Beam, Beam Gen 2, and Ray) can shunt TV audio to the Ace with a single gesture on the headphones. If that sound source is in Dolby Atmos, it gets rendered in full spatial audio. And if it’s in stereo or 5.1, it gets upmixed to something that will sound very close to Atmos.

I’ll discuss that experience in depth in my full review.

Inspired design

Sonos Ace full view.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Normally when we say “that’s an inspired design,” we mean that the design is inspirational, and while that could be said of the Sonos Ace, I mean it literally: you can clearly see where Sonos took inspiration specifically from Apple’s AirPods Max and Sony’s WH-1000XM5. It’s as if Sonos grabbed these two products and created a hybrid of both, then infused it with its own DNA.

That sounds like it could go sideways really fast, but Sonos’ designers have an unerring sense of simplicity, and the Ace are, in my humble opinion, gorgeous. In some ways, the Sonos Ace is more Apple than Apple and more Sony than Sony.

Sonos Ace headband slider close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The matte-finish plastic (in your choice of black or soft-white) resists fingerprints better than Sony’s, and the color-matched, tubular stainless steel headband sliders combine reassuring strength with high-end looks. The magnetically attached ear cushions (which Apple also uses) is a nice touch.

Some have complained that the XM5 don’t make their owners feel like they just spent $400. The Ace manage the opposite feat, with materials and build quality that go well beyond what we’ve become accustomed to.

Sonos Ace and Sony WH-1000XM5 side views.
Sonos Ace and Sony WH-1000XM5 side views.
Sonos Ace and Apple AirPods Max side views.
Sonos Ace and Apple AirPods Max side views.
Sonos Ace and Apple AirPods Max side views.
Sonos Ace and Apple AirPods Max side views.

These extra ingredients come with additional weight, but Sonos seems to have made some very intentional choices: The Ace weigh 11.18 ounces. That’s not quite as featherweight as the XM5 (8.82 ounces), but it’s still about 17% lighter than the AirPods Max (13.6 ounces).

The fold-flat design, while not loved by all, makes the Ace very travel friendly whether you use the provided hard-shell case, or you simply slip it beside your laptop. That’s mostly thanks to the ultra-low-profile earcups. They don’t just look good on your head — combined with the Ace’s 1-inch-wide headband, they create a thinner package than either the XM5 or AirPods Max.

Great comfort

Simon Cohen wearing the Sonos Ace (front view).
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Balancing clamping force so that a set of headphones exert just enough pressure to stay put, yet not so much that they cause discomfort (plus engineering a headband that simultaneously provides grip and cushioning) is something that even the most experienced headphone brands occasionally get wrong.

While not quite as comfy for me as the Sony XM5, I wore the Sonos Ace for hours at a stretch, and they remained pressure-free, even while wearing glasses. The ear cushions provide an excellent acoustic seal and yet never make my ears feel too hot. Or at least, they don’t get hot during normal use — exertion like running or working out will definitely push the limits of comfort. Side note: Sonos says the Ace will survive such activities, but they do not carry an official IPX rating for water or sweat resistance.

Smart, simple controls

Sonos Ace earcup controls close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sonos has almost entirely shifted to touch controls on its speakers, including a new gesture-based volume slider on the Move 2, Era 300, and Era 100. But one of the hallmarks of good design is knowing when to keep an existing approach for the sake of consistency, and when to change course for the sake of usability.

For the Ace’s controls, Sonos went with three physical buttons. The right earcup has a button for switching between active noise cancellation (ANC) and transparency modes (and triggering voice assistants), and a clever multifunction button/slider for playback, volume, and call management.

The only other control is a small button for power and Bluetooth pairing that sits on the bottom edge of the left earcup. Each control can be used while wearing gloves.

Sonos Ace ear cushions.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Supplementing these controls is a pair of wear sensors in each earcup that can be used for auto-pause and auto-resume of music when you take the Ace off your head or replace them.

The multifunction control works seamlessly. Press once for play/pause, twice to skip forward, and three times to go back. Sliding it up or down once (it’s spring-loaded) bumps volume up or down one increment, while holding it in one of these positions provides a continuous change. The gestures produce subtle feedback tones to let you know everything is going as expected.

Better yet, the multifunction button has an entirely different tactile feel from the ANC button. My thumb never failed to find the right control at the right time.

The ANC button is slightly less effective. To avoid loud clicking sounds inside the earcups, Sonos has used a soft-touch mechanism. It’s perfectly silent. But sometimes — even though I thought I had pressed it deeply enough to trigger the mode change — I needed to press it again a little harder.

Still, when the presses are recognized, the shift from ANC to transparency happens very quickly.

ANC and transparency

Sonos Ace lying flat.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sonos says it developed a proprietary solution for the Ace’s noise management system, and it shows.

Though it can be hard to nail down precise numbers without calibrated measurement gear, my time comparing the Ace to its rivals has convinced me that Sonos has once again threaded the needle between Apple, Sony, and in this case, Bose too.

The Ace are more effective at masking external sounds than the AirPods Max, and at times, they even seemed to surpass Sony’s XM5 — an astonishing accomplishment. Only Bose’s class-leading QuietComfort Ultra Headphones outflanked the Ace in the silence department, and even then, it was a close call.

The one area where the Ace trails the competition is wind noise. Even a very light breeze could be heard despite the ANC system’s best efforts to squash it.

Transparency also was excellent, though in this category there is Apple and then there’s everyone else.

Which is to say the Ace provide very clear reproduction of your surroundings. From that point of view, it really doesn’t feel like you’re wearing headphones. The only telltale sign is when listening to your own voice, which doesn’t sound quite as natural as the AirPods Max. But we’re really talking about small differences. Unless you repeatedly put on the Ace and then the Max, you probably wouldn’t notice.

Straight-up sound

Sonos Ace with one ear cushion removed.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sonos has given the Ace a set of 40mm dynamic drivers — by far the most common size in wireless headphones. Out of the box, they produce a very pleasing, balanced sound. They’re the first Sonos product I haven’t felt the need to immediately increase the bass in the EQ.

There’s very good clarity across the frequencies, and plenty of detail in the midranges, where it counts. Bass is warm-toned and carefully controlled, providing a strong, grounding presence without stomping on the mids or muddying the highs. The Ace aced my usual torture test of playing Billie Eilish’s bad guy at 75% to 80% volume, letting Eilish’s whispery vocals make their way to my ears without being trampled by the song’s insistent and powerful bass notes.

I’ll say a lot more about the Ace’s audio chops in my full review, including their lossless audio capability and their rendering of spatial audio sources like Dolby Atmos, both with and without head tracking.

Call quality

Simon Cohen wearing the Sonos Ace (rear view).
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I really like making calls on the Sonos Ace indoors. Voice pickup is excellent. And if you switch to transparency mode, you’ll get the same benefit as I described earlier: hearing yourself clearly, which is the key to reducing fatigue when using earbuds or headphones for calling.

Even in the busy hubbub of a crowded coffee shop, your callers will be blissfully unaware of your surroundings.

Outdoor settings can prove more challenging. Traffic noises tend to be a lot louder than any sounds you get inside. The Ace almost entirely eliminates them, but doing so can take a toll on voice pickup. At times, your voice may simply disappear as the algorithms fight to suppress unwanted sounds while keeping your voice audible.

Battery life

Sonos Ace inside travel case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sonos states the Ace get 30 hours of playtime with ANC engaged, and considerably more when it’s off. So far, that seems to be accurate. My only hesitation is that Sonos has historically had trouble with battery life not quite living up to expectations. The Sonos Roam, for instance, initially tested well, hitting close to its 10-hour rating. However, over the following months, many users reported dramatically lower battery life.

Still, even if the Ace end up lasting less than the advertised 30 hours, it won’t be a total deal-breaker. The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones top out at 24 hours and Apple’s AirPods Max only get 20 hours of life. I suspect for most people, that’s enough.

Stay tuned …

If you’ve gotten this far, I’m sure you’ve grokked that I like the Sonos Ace. In fact, I like them a lot. For a company that has never produced a wearable product in its entire 22-year history, these headphones are a remarkable achievement.

Look out for my full review. It will cover much of the same ground, but with more thoughts on the Sonos Ace sound experience. I’ll also tackle this thorny question: If you don’t own a Sonos Arc soundbar, should you buy the Ace anyway?

… to be continued.