It was over a year ago that Sonos announced its strategic partnership with Amazon, saying it would bring Alexa voice integration to Sonos speakers. Fast forward 14 months and that integration is finally here for existing Sonos device owners who also own an Amazon Echo product. The Echo acts as the microphone for voice controls. However, there’s also a new device, the $ 199.99 Sonos One, which works with Alexa without needing an Echo or a Dot.
I’ve spent a week with a loaner Sonos One and overall, I’m very impressed. here are some limitations worth noting if you’re a current Echo device user. And just to level set my observations, I’ve never owned a Sonos product before, while I have purchased one Amazon Echo, an Echo Tap and two Echo Dots.
For those not familiar with Sonos, the company has pioneered Wi-Fi speakers and multi-room audio. Sonos opts for Wi-Fi over Bluetooth because the former can transmit more information, so audio files aren’t as compressed and sound better. Wi-Fi also allows the same audio to be sent to multiple devices, although you can do that with Bluetooth 5.0 to a lesser extent. The Sonos product line boasts compatibility with more than 80 unique streaming services, ranging from Apple Music to Tidal and just about everything in between including Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, SiriusXM, TuneIn, Napster and more. Essentially, if you can stream it, chances are good that Sonos speakers can play it.
Simple setup in just a few minutes
For this review, I used a beta version of the Sonos app, which could be tweaked or different from the app when Sonos starts shipping the One next week. Setup was super simple: I plugged the speaker into an electrical outlet and then pressed a button on the back of the One to start the pairing process.
I signed in to the Sonos app on my iPhone, walked through a few steps to get the One on my Wi-Fi network and told the app which room my speaker would be in; useful if you plan to put speakers in different rooms.
Once the speaker was connected, the app walked me through an optional Trueplay Tuning activity. This fired off test tones for about 3 minutes while I walked around the kitchen waving my phone up and down. Sonos uses the microphone in your handset to gather spatial data and then custom tunes the One for optimal sound in that room, which is clever. You can skip the TruePlay Tuning if you want (sorry Android folks, it’s an iOS-only feature), and there’s also EQ Settings in the app if you prefer to customize sound on your own.
Of course, you need music before using the speaker, so the next part of the process is where I connected the Sonos app to a few music services. In my case, I used Amazon Music and Apple Music although I was able to use other music services without directly connecting them to my Sonos account – I’ll explain that in a bit.
Lastly, I set up Alexa on the One, which connects your Amazon account to the app. I also had to download the Sonos skill for Alexa, which is the secret software sauce to support voice services. Overall, expect to spend 10 minutes at most to set up a One.
Excellent sound plus voice controls
The new Sonos One looks similar to the existing Sonos Play:1 speaker, but don’t judge this book by its cover. The company tells me only two minor parts of the speaker base are re-used in the updated model: Everything else has been redesigned inside and out.
With just a quick look at the two, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The most obvious difference, however, is the top of the speakers. Instead of hard buttons, the new Sonos One has touch sensitive controls for play/pause, volume up/down and a mute button for the microphone – remember, Sonos One has Alexa built in, so there are far-field array of six microphones listening like an Amazon Echo.
Inside is a pair of Class D amplifiers, one tweeter for high frequencies and one mid-range woofer of mid- to low-frequency sounds. I can’t compare the output to an older Sonos device, and to be honest, sound quality can be fairly subjective.
To my ears, however, the audio output is excellent: Crisp and clear highs and midrange tones along with strong, but not overwhelming, thump-y bass you can feel. The rich sound is more powerful than I expected in a speaker that’s 6.36 x 4.69 x 4.69 inches in cubic volume. In fact, I used a decibel level app on my phone to compare the output of the same song on both my original Amazon Echo and the Sonos One with both devices at 50 percent volume. The Sonos sound levels were typically 10 to 13 decibels louder at the same test distances and with no audible distortion that I could hear.
While you can control and choose all of your music with the Sonos app — the app acts like a centralized repository for all of your music services — the big improvement in this iteration is the addition of voice controls using Alexa.
The experience was no different than doing the same thing on my Echo devices, which is to say, it’s pretty good. I rarely experienced any hiccups when voice controlling the One for music, even with the music volume up fairly high. I’d say the microphone array is at least as good as the one in my Amazon Echo, if not better. Those touch screen controls work well too for changing volume or tracks but I rarely used them because the voice controls are so good.
I should note that even though I didn’t link my SiriusXM account with the Sonos One, I could still use voice commands to fire it up. Saying, “Alexa, play channel 18 on Sirius XM” started up my beloved Beatles Channel on the speaker, likely because that music service is tied to my account in the Alexa app.
Exactly what you’d expect as a smarthome assistant
Music is clearly in the roots of the Sonos One, but adding microphones, Alexa Voice Services and the Sonos skill to the speaker turns it into a solid smarthome assistant. There’s no need to set up any smarthome integrations on the Play One if you’ve already done so previously with an Echo device. Everything just works as it does on Amazon’s own devices for lighting controls, smart locks, thermostats and more.
There’s not much to say here because Sonos is — smartly, in my opinion — tapping into Amazon’s existing smarthome control services. Put another way: If you can control a smart device by voice with an Amazon Echo, you can do it with a Sonos One.
It’s not an Echo device but that may be OK for some
While I came away impressed by everything the Sonos One with Alexa can do, there are things it can’t do. Remember, this is not an Amazon Echo device, so some features found in an Echo aren’t here.
For example, you can’t use the Alexa Drop In feature on a One, so you won’t be having any intercom conversations around your house. Alexa can do voice calls too as of a few months ago but only if she’s inside an Amazon Echo device: You can’t make voice calls from a Sonos One.
And when it comes to grouping speakers for multi-room playback, there’s a bit of a hitch unless you’re all in on Echo or Sonos devices. I can group my Echo speakers in the Alexa app and play music on some or all of them at the same time, but I can’t add a Sonos speaker to a group in the Alexa app. Likewise, I don’t see a way to add Echo devices to a Sonos room or group. If you have other Sonos speakers, or Amazon Echo devices for that matter, you can tell them which Sonos speaker to play on, however. I told the Echo in my living room to play music in the kitchen on the Sonos and it worked just fine.
Alexa’s Flash Briefing isn’t yet available on the One but Sonos says it’s coming soon. Sonos will also be adding additional features over time to Alexa inside the One. At launch, Alexa voice controls for music are limited to Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM and TuneIn. Spotify is expected soon soon after the launch, however. And until then, you can easily control music in the app, like I had to for my Apple Music tunes.
Are any of these deal breakers? Not for me, but I’m sure some folks might raise an eyebrow over these limitations when considering what smart speakers to purchase: Something we recently discussed on video to help understand all of the different choices currently available or coming soon.
After such a positive experience with the Sonos One review unit, I’m leaning towards buying one or two of my own while retiring a pair of Echo units. I can live without the Alexa Drop In and voice calling features while still using Alexa to control my smart home with a Sonos One. I’d also get what I think is better sound quality and what I know is device that supports more music services. Looking ahead, the Sonos One will be getting Google Assistant integration in 2018, making it more agnostic when it comes to voice assistants.
Keep in mind that Amazon has new Echo speakers available later this month, Google recently announced its Home Max, and Apple’s HomePod is also on the way before year end. We’ll be sure to compare each of these to each other and the Sonos One as these products launch.
Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis