Wireless speaker company Sonos recently debuted voice support in two forms: pairing its speakers with an Amazon Alexa-enabled device like an Echo or Dot, and with Sonos’s first voice-enabled speaker, the Sonos One.
The Sonos One takes the form-factor of the popular Sonos PLAY:1 speaker and adds a six microphone far-field voice array to it, allowing the speaker to listen on its own. Form-factor isn’t the only thing the Sonos One borrows from the PLAY:1, it also inherited its US$199 price point, making the Sonos One an easy purchase decision for anyone looking to create or add-on to a Sonos wireless speaker system.
After years of controlling music with a computer or an iPhone, moving to voice control is liberating. Selecting the specific music you want to hear can certainly – and very quickly – highlight the current limitations of voice parsing technology, but saying things like, “play me music for washing the dishes” or “play me something for late at night” can work brilliantly. The best, though, is telling your speakers to play, pause, turn up, turn down, or skip to the next song. That’s where voice control shines. The icing on the cake? “Alexa, what song is playing in the kitchen?” can be the best kind of conversation starter.
Right now voice control for choosing your music on Sonos One is limited to those services which are supported by Alexa, but all the rest of the controls, including asking Alexa which song is playing, work for anything playing on your Sonos. That means you can use the Sonos app on your iPhone to start playing your Apple Music on Sonos and then take over voice from there.
In my house, we love listening to music while we cook dinner each night, and being able to casually tell the speakers to turn down or switch to the next song without having to free up our hands is blissful.
One nice perk of doing this with the Sonos One versus the alternative solution of pairing your non-voice-enabled Sonos speakers with another Alexa unit is that the Sonos One knows what sound is coming out of it. This means it can filter its own music out of the equation and discern your speech much more clearly. Our tests proved this in spades. Trying to control loud music with an Amazon Dot next to a Play:1 proved frustrating, the same experience with a Sonos One worked perfectly.
Alexa to Start, Google Coming Next Year
One big benefit to the Sonos One is that it’s not solely an Alexa device. Next year, a free software update for Sonos One will give users the ability to connect to Google Assistant. That means instead of saying, “Alexa” you could control your speaker with “OK, Google.”
It’s worth noting, too, that while Sonos One offers a large degree of Alexa functionality, it doesn’t currently support the entire feature set. Flash News Briefings and Voice Calls are the two big things we found missing from Sonos One’ Alexa capability list. In chatting with Sonos execs at the launch event earlier this month we were told that these things are not impossible, they just chose not to include them at launch and instead wanted to focus on getting voice control to work well for music.
Still, setting timers and alarms, asking about the weather, connecting to third-party services like OurGroceries, and asking for traffic and directions worked just fine on Sonos One in all our tests. It’s mostly a fully-Alexa-capable device… just missing a few things.
The Sonos One Looks Like a PLAY:1, But It’s Not
Sonos made it clear that while they took the PLAY:1’s enclosure and worked to fit the Sonos One inside it, the guts are largely all re-engineered. The sound of the Sonos One is notably different from the PLAY:1 when you compare the two. The Sonos One has a natural reduction in mid-range sound with more articulation from the highs and high-mids.
Enabling Sonos’s TruePlay speaker/room tuning on both a Sonos One and PLAY:1 brought their sound much closer to one another, perhaps a reflection of just how well TruePlay achieves its vision of delivering a consistent sound regardless of environment.
Still, the two are different speakers, and cannot be paired with one another to create a true stereo setup. If you want stereo sound from your Sonos One, you’ll need another Sonos One (color doesn’t matter) to create that. Similarly, if you’re considering adding a pair of surround speakers to your PLAYBAR in the living room, you need to match the models. Mixing and matching a PLAY:1 and Sonos One in any “official” pair will not work. They’re different beasts, despite their looks.
As with any always-powered device in your home with a microphone, it’s worth at least being aware of the privacy implications, and Sonos has gone to great lengths to ensure this device is as private as possible. In addition to regularly flushing any logs on the device and not sending data to Amazon unless and until it hears the watch word (“Alexa”, by default), Sonos provides visual indication of the microphone’s status.
A light right under the microphone icon atop the Sonos One lights when the mic is active and is off otherwise. Sonos engineered the light and the microphone into the same circuit so that it’s impossible for one to be on without the other. As Giles Martin, Sonos Sound Experience Leader says, “light’s on, mic’s on.” Tapping the microphone icon disables the mic – and the light – and it won’t listen unless you turn it back on. If you want the mic off full-time, you can just press-and-hold on the microphone each time you want the Sonos One to process voice commands. In this mode, you don’t even have to say, “Alexa”, but you do have to use your hands.
In addition to the microphone, the Sonos One has a suite of touch controls on top of it, similar to the PLAYBASE and current-generation PLAY:5. Touch controls allow the speaker to have a sleek, flat top, and also make the control surface easier to use. Just swipe for next/previous, tap for both play/pause and volume up/down. It may not seem like much, but the touch controls are a nice upgrade to the physical buttons on the PLAY:1.
As mentioned, the Sonos One retails for $199. I would imagine the PLAY:1 will remain in Sonos’s lineup simply so that folks who already have PLAY:1s will be able to buy matching speakers to create pairs. Otherwise, there’s no reason not to get the Sonos One.