I’ve had an Amazon Echo for almost a year now and it is brilliant at almost everything. It is now my alarm clock, my meteorologist each morning, and the architect of my smart home. The one problem? It is not a great speaker, and music is the main thing I use it for.
Enter the Sonos One: a Sonos Play:1 with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. Or in other words, it’s an Echo that sounds good. Better than than good, actually. It sounds awesome.
In many ways the Sonos One is the smart speaker I’ve been waiting for. Only, having spent a week with the thing, it’s a little rough around the edges - and you can blame Alexa for that. Still, if past Sonos speakers are anything to go by, the One is only going to get better.
Sonos One design: the box is back
Apparently Sonos toyed with lots of designs for the One before landing on the same cute cuboid shape that we’ve already seen in the Play:1. It’s an Apple-like approach to aesthetic consistency, and one that we’re absolutely fine with. The Play:1 was an adorable-looking speaker and the same goes for the Sonos One.
It’s got a fun wrap-around grille that dominates its front, allowing as much space as possible for its array of two Class-D digital amplifiers, one tweeter, and one mid-woofer to blast out their almighty noise. Clasped on that grille’s top and bottom is a matte-coloured black or white shell that’s a tad sleeker than what you got with the Play:1.
Similarly, the One has done away with the physical buttons of its predecessor and gone with touch controls instead. Place your digit on top of the One and you’ll be able to adjust your music’s volume, skip and pause tracks and turn its microphone on and off. Or you could get Alexa to do all of that for you instead.
To get Amazon’s voice assistant working properly Sonos has integrated a six-microphone array into the One. It’s the first Sonos speaker to have this setup bestowed upon it and the only one that’ll work with Alexa straight up. This all makes the Sonos One a unique proposition among smart speakers and a bona fide alternative to the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod.
Worried someone could tune into your everyday mutterings through the speaker’s microphones? Its six-mic array is hard-wired to a light that turns on when they’re in use. There’ll be no snoopers with this Sonos.
Sons One sound: Much better than an echo
Sonos has built the One to have exactly the same ‘sound profile’ as the Play:1, which is a fancy way of saying it should live up to the same audio standards as as its predecessor. Having placed the two speakers side-by-side, that’s exactly the case. The Sonos One doesn’t sound better than the Play:1 but it still ranks as one of the best small speakers you can buy right now. So who really cares?
Crucially, the difference in sound between the Sonos One and Amazon Echo is night and day. I’ve happily stuck on a few tunes with my Echo while frantically getting prepped for work, but I wouldn’t want to sit through the new Alvvays album in its company. It’s too coarse and unrefined for that kind of listening. In essence, the Echo is like the car radio in an old banger - you put up with it because other features are more important.
With the Sonos One, it’s a speaker first and a smart home whizz second. It’s got the power and the detail to do justice to your favourite tunes, even more so when you pair two of the things together for stereo sound. And of course as with all Sonos kit, the One can be paired with another One, or a Play: 3 or 5 or whatever.
You’ll get by just fine with the One in solo mode, though. Whether it was blasting out Brand New, Solange or Vince Staples, everything sounded pretty much spot on considering this speaker’s diminutive size. For that added finesse you’ll want a bigger, dumber model such as the Play:5 or Naim’s Mu-so QB.
A big part of the One’s powerhouse performance is down to Sonos’ TruePlay tuning. Waft your iPhone (the feature isn’t compatible with Android devices) around the same room the One is in while it pumps out some precision-tuned ambient noise, and the speaker will tune itself to your surroundings. The same thing is available in all current Sonos devices, and works just as well as ever now. Want to revert to a neutral sound? It’s easily done in the Sonos app.
Sons One app: easy does it
Sonos cut its teeth as a connected speaker company and, until recently, that’s meant its apps - desktop or mobile - have been the main way you interact with its devices. Well, unless you remember the days when it made a standalone remote.
Over the years, though, the mobile app in particular has grown a little bloated with new features that make it harder to simply find a song and press play. Fortunately, a recent update has seen it drastically streamlined; it’s now a lot more usable and just generally faster, although adjusting to the new layout does take a bit of getting used to.
Not that you necessarily need the app so much these days anyway. Spotify Connect integration last year gave users a much simpler way to control their Sonos setup, and if you mainly use that streaming service then you could easily avoid touching the Sonos app for months. Honestly, I couldn’t remember the last time I opened it before testing the One.
Of course that won’t work for everyone, particularly if you have a load of music stored on a NAS drive (AKA a network-connected hard-drive). Hence why Sonos is seeking to further simplify matters by giving us all voice control.
As ever, setting up a new speaker using the app is supremely easy: you just follow a succession of steps and everything just works. Of course, if Alexa has its way then you’ll be logging into the Sonos app less often than ever before anyway.
Sonos One voice control: more than just Alexa
Really then, the Sonos One is meant to be just like its predecessor only with voice controls, and the first step towards that goal is Amazon Alexa integration. As the most established voice assistant with support for Philips Hue, Nest, Hive and hundreds more smart home platforms that makes total sense. In case your heart belongs to another AI assistant, Sonos has also promised Google Assistant will be compatible with the One sometime next year.
So, by 2018, the Sonos One should be a smarter, better speaker than both Amazon’s Echo and the Google Home. And for the meantime? Well, that’s where this gets complicated.
The short story is that Alexa is inconsistent on the Sonos One. It’s technically capable of doing almost everything an Echo can, but does occasionally succumb to a few head-scratching foibles. For example, you’ll ask it to stick on some Bruce Springsteen and it might forget to repeat The Boss’ name back to you. Or it’ll stop you from setting an alarm if you haven’t set the date and time in the Sonos app - something you’d expect to be done automatically and not have to figure out for yourself.
Oh, and the Sonos One will only accept voice commands for Amazon Music playback at the moment: Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal playback all have to be done via an app. Although once you’ve started playing a playlist or album from one of those services, you can use Alexa to skip, play and pause song, and to control the volume.
Finally, Alexa seems to be less responsive on the Sonos One, at least compared to the Echo, meaning you have to speak a little bit louder for it to hear you. Considering my Echo will sometimes pick up an unintended ‘Alexa’ reference while I’m chatting in another room, this probably isn’t as significant a shortcoming as it sounds.
After about a week with the Sonos One, I’ve managed to get Alexa to do almost everything my Echo did - apart from playing songs straight from Spotify. Most of this, including tweaking my thermostat, checking the weather and wallowing in Southampton FC’s humdrum start to the Premier League season, was done first-time without a hitch. As much as I’d expected the One to work perfectly straight out of the box, it still pretty much delivers on its potential so long as you can put up with the odd hiccup and quibble.
Sonos One alternatives: what about HomePod?
Ignoring its current Alexa woes, the Sonos One is best thought of as sort of Echo Deluxe. It can do all the same stuff as a standard Echo (or at least it’s supposed to), but with added audio chops. That puts it in a field of its own when it comes to smart speakers.
At £89 the newly updated Echo is a significantly cheaper proposition, albeit one that can’t compete on sound quality. The £139 Echo Plus may sound a little better, but from what we’ve heard it’s still a way behind the Sonos. Likewise, the £120 Google Home costs less than the Sonos One and comes with the same detriments as the two Echo devices. Arguably more so given its smart home skills aren’t as advanced in the UK as they are in the US.
Then you’ve got Apple’s as yet unreleased HomePod, which costs a whopping great £300, claims to deliver great sound and relies on Siri for its smarts. Something that doesn’t exactly fill us with a great amount of confidence. So it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to envision the Sonos One as one of the best smart speakers around, and that’s why its voice-assistant-struggles are so frustrating. At least it only costs £20 more than the standard Play:1.
Sonos One verdict
If you care about music and have kitted out your home with at least a smattering of smart kit, then the Sonos One could well be teetering close to the top of your Christmas list right now. Trouble is, it’s not quite the finished article and that could still be the case by the time Santa comes to town.
My best advice if you’re thinking about getting a One? Wait until December rolls around. Given Sonos’ track record of continually improving its products and the fact its Alexa skill is technically in beta, most of its inconsistencies should have been ironed out by then. For now, what you’re getting is a superb wireless speaker with a few voice assistant inconsistencies.
Anyone after that elusive ‘Amazon Echo with decent sound’ will have to hold on just a little longer. I’d give it a month or two…