When Amazon first released the Amazon Echo, the speaker that kick-started the voice assistant revolution in the home, there were two main criticisms that people levelled at the new device.
The first were centered around Alexa, the voice assistant powering the device. As an entirely new service, Alexa launched with pretty limited functionality at first, and people found it more useful as a novelty than a serious addition to their home.
The second was sound quality. The original Amazon Echo didn’t have the greatest sound to it, and was distinctly lacking in the bass department.
The intervening years have seen numerous improvements made on the first point with the addition of countless pieces of functionality to the ecosystem, but now Sonos is here to do what it can with the second criticism with its first Alexa-enabled smart speaker, the Sonos One ($199 / £199 / AU$299).
[Update: When the Sonos One was first released, we criticized it for not supporting the use of voice controls with Spotify. However, as of a recent update this has now been rectified.
The functionality works excellently, and means that you'll be able to use your voice far more to play music rather than having to rely on the app.]
The multi-room company’s previous speakers have shown that it knows a thing or two about packing impressive sound into compact speakers, so at the very least we were expecting the Sonos One to offer a significant boost over the existing Amazon Echo’s sound. (Which it has.)
But more surprising was how pleasant the addition of Sonos’ multi-room ecosystem was, which goes some way towards filling the gaps left in Alexa’s ecosystem.
And while Sonos has done a fantastic job with its Alexa debut, there’s still some work to be done before this speaker is feature complete – Google Assistant isn’t due until next year.
Although the Sonos One’s design is broadly based on the company’s existing Play:1 smart speaker, there have been a number of improvements made.
On the top you’ll find a touch-sensitive surface that’s a great deal sleeker than the Play:1’s trio of volume and play/pause buttons. Swiping right or left skips forward and backwards through your current playlist, while tapping in the center of the surface plays and pauses your music. Finally, tapping the left and right halves of the panel raise and lower the volume.
It might be a simple series of controls but, as has always been the way with Sonos speakers, you’ll spend most of your time controlling them via the app. The physical controls are nice when you want to quickly skip a track, but you’re unlikely to use them much, especially now that voice control is also an option.
To facilitate this voice control, Sonos has equipped the speaker with six internal microphones to allow it to hear you drunkenly ask to play ‘Hey, Jude’ just one more time, and these are joined by more or less the same guts as the Sonos Play:1; namely its pair of Class-D amplifiers and a tweeter / mid-woofer driver combo.
On the top of the device you’ve also got a power-indicating LED alongside a small light to let you know when Alexa is listening. This second LED is hardwired to the microphones, and Sonos promises that the microphones cannot listen to you if it’s not illuminated.
A small LED light illuminates to show you that Alexa is enabled, and this turns off when you stop it listening to you. It’s a far cry from the Echo’s bright red ring, and means that the speaker still looks the part even if you’d prefer to disable its voice recognition.
Thanks to the combination of Amazon’s and Sonos’ services, the setup of the Sonos One is a little more involved than your average Echo device, but thankfully not horrifically so.
The process involves installing the Sonos and Alexa apps, and you’ll need to sign into both your Sonos and Amazon accounts, as well as any other music streaming services that you’ll want to listen to using the speaker.
You’ll also be encouraged to go through a ‘Trueplay Tuning’ process, which requires you to walk around your room with your phone as your speaker plays a number of test sounds. Your phone listens to how the speaker sounds in its environment, and tunes its sound accordingly.
Of course, you can also manually adjust the treble and bass levels of your speaker if you have more specific preferences, although we were content to leave them at their default levels.
You’ll also need to assign the Sonos One a room to allow you to identify it from the Sonos app, and it’s here that you’ll also have the ability to pair the Sonos One up with another speaker to have them play music in stereo. Unfortunately you can’t pair it with a Sonos Play:1, despite the similarities in form-factor.
Given that this is a Sonos speaker, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Sonos One sounds pretty fantastic.
Throw Elegie by Mouse on the Keys at the speaker, and sound has real punch and energy to it. The song’s kickdrum...well...has kick to it, and drives the energy of the song. It’s an impressive amount of power from such a small speaker.
The speaker even deals admirably with more complicated pieces of music. Silent Earthling by Three Trapped Tigers sounds clear and crisp, despite the multiple layers of instruments circulating throughout the song.
That said, the speaker doesn’t offer the separation of a pair of stereo speakers with the way the music is squashed into a single channel, but it does a solid job at its size and price point, and naturally its ability to be paired with more Sonos speakers enhances its sound further still.
Alexa, the Sonos app and future developments
Sonos is known as the company that invented the multi-room system but in the years since many others have thrown their hats into the ring, including Amazon itself. Its Amazon Echo speakers can be grouped together into a multi-room system, but unfortunately – and weirdly – the Sonos One can’t join them to sync music across the different types of hardware.
Of course, much of what’s written above could also have been said of the original Play:1 when it was first released back in 2013. The real story here is about how voice control is integrated – it is simply wonderfully executed.
Almost, nearly perfect.
While at launch the functionality seems a little more limited than we were expecting due to the absence of its integration with Spotify, this has now been rectified via a software update.
It's great news, as Spotify is one of the more popular streaming services out there. Being able to simply request songs by using your voice is far more convenient than having to dig into an app on your phone.
With Spotify now added, the Sonos One is an impressively featured multi-room speaker. It’s backed by the same great Sonos app that has seen continuous improvement and development over the years, and now integrates with all major music streaming services.
Otherwise the speaker acts pretty much as you’d expect an Alexa speaker to. It integrates with all the same smart home products, you can ask it about the weather, or just have it tell you stupid facts and jokes.
You can also, thanks to the recently released Sonos Alexa skill, use voice commands to get music playing on other Sonos speakers throughout your home. The skill is still in beta and is hence a little buggy (it refused to play the radio on “kitchen speaker”, but was fine with “kitchen”), but when this sees a full launch it will be another helpful feature.
And that’s not all. In 2018 Sonos has announced that it’s bringing Google Assistant to the speaker in addition to Alexa. Details on how exactly this will work are currently slim (will we be able to access both, or will we have to pick one from the app for example), but this will have a number of advantages including allowing you to sync the Sonos one with any Chromecast Audio-connected speakers in your home.
We’ll keep this review updated as this functionality gets added.
It feels as though the Sonos One could eventually end up being the perfect Alexa speaker. Fundamentally this is because it’s underpinned by audio quality that’s a step above what’s available on Amazon’s current generation of Echo hardware, but it’s a speaker that also integrates fantastically well with the rest of Sonos’s multi-room lineup.
Yes, it was certainly a shame that it launched without support for the most popular streaming service in the world, Spotify, but kudos to Sonos for bringing out the update in good time. The speaker is now just as effective as an Amazon Echo at playing your music, and sounds much better than Amazon's own speaker.
With Google Assistant support expected in 2018 and many more updated to Alexa sure to come over the years, the Sonos One is only going to get better over time.
- Don't miss our Amazon Echo Plus review