Sunday, 19 November 2017
Reviews

Sonos One review: A speaker that music lovers will finally enjoy talking to


Voice assistants seem to represent the best of what films offered us in the future: the ability to control your home, your music and everything else about your life simply by talking to a digital butler. But science fiction never had them sounding quite so bad.

Despite all the hype around voice assistants, they have mostly been confined to things that make them sound terrible when they speak. Siri mostly comes out of your phone speakers, for instance, and the best the Google Assistant can do is the little rounded Google Home.

Until now. The Sonos One represents the first time that you can talk to a voice assistant and actually have its voice – and anything else it does – sound good.

You’ve spent a lot of time listening to your home speakers, Sonos or not. Now you can make them listen to you.

The new Sonos One, which integrates Amazon’s Alexa on top of one of the company’s great speakers, might represent the first time for music lovers that they can actually seize on the much hyped voice assistant technology. And no matter how much of an audiophile you are, this is the smart speaker to buy; for the tech companies, this is the home for your voice assistant to beat.

Here’s a quick thing to get out of the way: if you’ve used a Sonos Play:1 before, and if you’ve used one of Amazon’s Echos, then you already know what this does. That’s not to say that’s all the new Sonos One is – though that would be more than enough. Instead, it just means that if you’ve already heard the precision and beauty of a Sonos speaker, and experienced the strange wizardly of Alexa, you’ve got some inkling of the treat that you’re in for.

If you haven’t, then here’s a brief catchup. Sonos makes stunning speakers that are particularly notable for just how transparent they sound despite their small size, with none of the frustrating distortion of other small speakers, and which can be conveniently placed throughout your house, taking their music from the internet and doing so entirely wirelessly. Alexa has until now mostly lived inside Amazon’s Echos, and is probably the most notable of the various voice assistants, if only for the fact that she knows what you’re saying almost all of the time.

They’re both almost certainly the best things you can get at what they do. Sonos speakers connect up easily and are undoubtedly the best way of getting wireless music in your house – and throughout your house, if you buy multiple speakers and use Sonos’s app to control them. The Echo and Alexa have built up a wide range of skills and are good at both listening and responding to what you’re saying. 

The problem until now was that every iteration of Amazon’s Echo smart speakers sounded terrible, good only for listening to the radio, as you’d perhaps expect a tiny little speaker shoved into a cylinder to. And Sonos could only be controlled from its app, meaning that you had to take your phone out every time you wanted to put a new song on.

The One fixes all of that. Sonos is calling it the “smart speaker for music lovers”, and for once marketing spiel turns out to be true: they were already the internet speaker for music lovers, of course, and they’ve just smartened up.

Practically, that means that Alexa – and Google Assistant, from next year – have been slotted inside of a Sonos speaker. (That speaker resembles Sonos’s existing Play:1 – despite the fact that the company claims only two parts are the same, it looks almost identical and sounds the same, too.) So you can simply shout somewhere near your speaker – you don’t have to be right next to it – to ask for a song, playlist, album or whatever else, and it will start playing.

That might sound a little silly, and you’ll probably feel silly when you first use it. But it doesn’t take long before you realise that it’s very worth it – that the ease of being able to yell requests to your little, square, electronic DJ more than makes up for having to shout in your empty kitchen.

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(Sonos)

(The kitchen is the best place for this speaker, by the way – it’s loud enough to fill most normal ones on its own, and it’s perfect when your hands are covered in flour or marigolds.)

And yell you will. For the moment you can only ask for songs through Amazon Prime Music (though you can do other things like play and pause, and Spotify is on its way), but that restriction is more than made up for how good Alexa is at searching for things on there. Misremember the name of something and it’ll start blaring out, for instance, or recite some lyrics to a song you half recall and Alexa will do the rest.

As mentioned, none of this will be surprising to anyone who has used an Echo, or Amazon’s music app on phones. But what does come as a surprise is just how good all of that sounds, with Alexa coming through a quality speaker and then playing music that actually sounds like you’d hope it would when you asked for it.

Sonos seems to be very relaxed about how you play music through its speakers. It’s not only letting Alexa in, but it’s already allowing you to start your music from within the Spotify app. And the same thing will happen with almost everything on your iPhone, including Apple Music, next year – Sonos is adding support for AirPlay 2 when it comes out, meaning that you’ll be able to send music or the audio from YouTube straight from your phone.

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The Sonos One at its launch event

Combined with the addition of Alexa controls from your Sonos, this is almost as much of a significant update as the One itself. It will come to most speakers through a software update, and doesn’t require you to buy anything new, but represents a significant change and improvement in the way that you use your speakers.

Despite that, the app has undergone a complete redesign, and Sonos appears still to be focused on that as a way of listening. As has been the case for a long time, the app is probably the most disappointing part of the experience: the new look is appreciated, and mostly helpful, but fails to get rid of some of the frustrations and complications that have been part of the Sonos experience for a long time.

That’s despite a whole host of incredible features. Sonos’ TruePlay, for instance, uses the app and your phone to adjust the sound of your speaker to best suit your room. And the sheer number of sources that it can deal with is incredible. But there’s still something fundamentally confusing and slightly too cumbersome about the app, despite the various and very worthwhile fixes.

Part of this is perhaps inevitable, since the app has to function as a hub for a ridiculous amount of content: millions of songs from every streaming service you can think of, and many you’ve never heard of. Even Apple Music and Spotify – which only have to look after their own libraries, and play them to one set of headphones – don’t always work properly and have trouble keeping up. And the app is improving, certainly.

What’s more, all of this is also what makes the One so exciting. Once the speaker has gone through its very quick and easy set-up process, you don’t actually ever need to open up any app ever again – you can just talk to the Sonos One, or indeed any other Alexa-enabled device, and have it play music around your house.

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The new Sonos speaker is a little more square, but is otherwise remarkably similar (Sonos)

That’s because the Sonos One arrives with proper Amazon integration throughout the Sonos line – even for the speakers and Echos that are already in your house. Just tell Alexa what to play and in what room to do it, and your speakers will start doing it. It’s properly integrated, so that when you start speaking to Alexa, your Sonos speakers will dip their sound a little so that you can be heard. This is entirely free, barring the expense of those products,

(The Sonos One is £199 on Amazon, whose own Echo Plus sells for £139.99. If you can afford the extra expense, then it would be a very silly decision indeed not to pay for the Sonos One. But I would certainly forgive you for buying the £49.99 Echo Dot, which can be placed on top of your existing Sonos speaker and now give it all the same functionality, with the exception of having to tell Alexa that you want music to play in the living room, for instance. You’ll also miss out on the strange feeling of hearing Alexa’s robot voice come through a high quality speaker.)

Given the amount of engineering, agreements and alterations that went into building this speaker, it really boils down to something rather simple. Sonos, which already makes the best home sound system speakers you can buy, is now giving you an extra way of playing music. It’s not asking for any more money for doing so, and is making it easy to add that functionality even if you’re not going to be buying the One.

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(Sonos)

There are few situations the One won’t fit into. The sound is powerful – and if it’s not powerful enough, you can buy two and have them work as a stereo pair. (Bizarrely, a One won’t work in that way with a Play:1, despite the fact they sound the same.) And it’s packed into a beautiful, small box, of the kind that you won’t be ashamed to display on your bookshelf or kitchen counter, but which is little enough to be hidden away without anyone noticing it. That size comes with compromises of course – it doesn’t sound especially bassy, and won’t go incredible loud – but it’s good as you’d expect from something the size of a small bird.

The question of whether to buy it is just as simple, too, and it mostly boils down to: yes, you should. If you want to listen to music in your house, and don’t want to go to the expense and bother of buying a Hi-Fi, then Sonos was always the obvious choice. The One just also answers a few more questions: if you were thinking of buying an Echo, and can afford it, then get this instead.

Sonos already made the best sounding and looking speakers, and at a reasonable if not cheap price. And now, as well as listening, you can start talking too.


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