With the introduction of voice controlled speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and the forthcoming HomePod, speaker company Sonos went from being a leader in offering the most cutting-edge speaker features to lacking a component that’s become par for the course for speakers. So, when Sonos executives announced on October 4 that the company would finally be releasing its first voice-controlled speaker, the $199 Sonos One, the news felt overdue.
But the long wait set the stage for another major announcement: that Sonos One would add Google Assistant support in 2018, making it the first major smart speaker to support multiple voice platforms. Additionally, support for Apple’s AirPlay 2 will be coming to all Sonos devices in 2018.
The ability to support multiple voice platforms revealed a key advantage that Sonos has in the Amazon Echo and Google Home era: as a company that is not tethered to an internally developed voice control platform, Sonos can stay ahead of the competition by making its competitors’ platforms available to Sonos owners. However, that means that Sonos is locked into using platforms that are not designed first and foremost for its own users.
The question that remains, then is how the Sonos One fares in delivering an experience that was optimized for another device first.
The Sonos One looks nearly identical to the Play:1 though Sonos says that the speaker has been “built from the ground-up to deliver a voice platform for multiple voice services.”
For reference, I’m a first-time Sonos user and had no other smart speakers to connect to my Sonos One. To read a review of what it’s like to connect existing Sonos speakers to Alexa, read this account by my colleague Chris O’Brien. Because I did not have to connect my Sonos One to any other devices, my setup was relatively painless, except when it took me several attempts to correctly tune my speaker.
The speaker setup is done entirely in the Sonos app — except for when it’s time to add in Alexa, which has to be authorized through the Alexa app. I would have preferred to do both in the same app, ala an “Alexa for Sonos” app, but understand why the experience has to be done through multiple apps, given that Amazon and Sonos are expecting consumers to connect speakers from each of their respective companies.
The interface for the Sonos One has been redesigned, replacing traditional buttons with a smooth touch control system. You can tap the volume icons to increase or decrease the volume, swipe to skip a track, and graze your hand over the microphone icon to turn off voice control — a helpful feature if you’re trying to play music while multiple people are talking.
One complaint is that the volume icons aren’t immediately recognizable — they’re the square icons on either side of the play/pause icon. The icon on the left turns down the volume, and the icon on the right turns it up. But after just a couple minutes of playing around, I found the interface slick and easy to use.
The sound quality is what I expected from Sonos — powerful, without blowing my ears out (my landlady who has told me to keep the noise down for dropping a box too loudly did not come knock on my door once during the four consecutive hours that I played my Sonos One).
The six microphone-array picked up my voice from every room of my admittedly small, two-bedroom apartment. Whether I was listening to a soft- spoken radio host or a power ballad from a Broadway soundtrack, the sound was clear and rich.
The speaker’s sound quality really shines when you ask Alexa simple questions while playing music, such as retrieving the weather forecast or a shopping list. Alexa intelligently lowers, or “ducks” the music, so that both Alexa and the song remain audible.
Yet, the Sonos One underscores that while convenient, voice control ultimately doesn’t always provide for an optimal listening experience.
I grew frustrated having to repeat the name of a playlist multiple times if I didn’t get it exactly right — for example, if I requested Alexa to “play 90s radio station on Pandora,” Alexa asked if I wanted to play a new playlist instead of playing my 90s POP radio station on Pandora.
Admittedly, a wait time of 12-15 seconds for the correct playlist to load is a small price to pay for the convenience of voice control. But Sonos has long prided itself on taking painstaking efforts to create speakers that deliver top-notch audio at a top-notch experience. And with Google’s $399 Home Max and Apple’s $350 Home Pod both scheduled to be available later this year, Sonos will face stiff competition in convincing consumers that the Sonos One is the speaker worthy of being used as the main centerpiece of their home entertainment system. (As it did with the Play:1, Sonos is attempting to pitch consumers on purchasing two Sonos Ones in order to “pair them” and create a stereo sound. So realistically, a consumer that is considering purchasing Sonos One in lieu of a Home Max or Home Pod would shelve out nearly $400).
What Sonos will need to do to stay ahead of the competition, I believe, is work on developing features that keep the sound quality pristine and operation painless in a voice-controlled world. One simple feature that’s on my personal wishlist is the ability to “lock in” to a playlist in the Sonos app once it’s been selected, so that Alexa only recognizes one to two word voice commands like “skip” “pause” “next” or “volume up/down” — removing the possibility that someone might accidentally trigger Alexa to switch playlists. Of course, Sonos’ ability to do so is hampered by the fact that it is relying on third parties to deliver voice control.
Finally, one of the most perplexing drawbacks of the Sonos One is that it does not yet currently support voice control for Spotify — a Spotify spokesperson says that this will be “available soon, likely before the holidays.” But it serves as yet another sign as to how slowly Sonos moves sometimes in finalizing integrations — and with formidable competitors, Sonos can’t afford to move slowly.
Do you like Sonos? Do you like Alexa? Then the answer is easy — the Sonos One is essentially a marriage of existing products. As a first-time Sonos user who has yet to invest in a smart speaker, I’m tempted to shell out the extra $70-$100 and invest in a Sonos One instead of choosing between a Google Home or an Amazon Echo. For the foreseeable future, Sonos One also offers the added benefits of being the only smart speaker to support multiple platforms from Apple, Google, and Amazon– even if those integrations sometimes take a while to come to fruition.
If you are a big entertainer who is in the market for a new speaker to serve as the crown jewel of your entertainment system, I think it’s worth waiting to see how the Home Pod and Google Home review. But Sonos has proven that it’s still here to play in a smart speaker world. The Sonos One is currently available for pre-order, with a delivery date of October 24.