For many years, speakers were boring unless you were a hardcore audiophile. They didn’t do anything clever. Sure, there were speakers that sounded better or worse - but to the lay listener, this was simply a question of price: The more money you spent, the better the sound.
Mercifully then, in 2002, a company arrived that made speakers a more interesting product category. It was no longer just about sound quality, but about features too. Enter: Sonos.
Sonos quickly became a big player in audio. Yes, their speakers sounded great - and were priced to match that. But they also added a crucial new feature: Multiroom audio. By using mesh networking, it would turn every speaker in your house into a node on a network - so you can have music follow you into every room. The rise of cloud audio services like Spotify made this even easier. All you’d have to do was link, say, your Spotify account to Sonos and you could play music with ease: No need to connect up a phone or audio device to play music from, and no need to setup network storage with a bunch of MP3s. Spotify made Sonos speakers just work. For high end-consumers, it must have felt like Sonos was unbeatable.
But then Alexa happened.
Amazon’s Alexa, along with voice assistants from Google, Apple and Microsoft have changed our expectations for what speakers should be able to do. No longer is it simply about playing us our tunes - but we want our speakers to be smart. We want to talk to them, we want them to answer questions, set timers, check the weather, and cue up some tracks on an utterance.
Arguably, the rise of voice assistants are an existential threat to the likes of Sonos: Now the tech industry’s biggest players were suddenly training their sights on audio. Amazon, Google and Apple are now working on high quality speakers of their own, challenging Sonos on its home turf of audio quality, and also in terms of features. Like Sonos, Google Home and now Amazon’s Echo speakers are both capable of multiroom. The expectation is that Apple’s HomePod, when it is released, will do the same. Which raises the question: In a world of smart speakers, what is Sonos for?
Meet Sonos One. The company has rebooted its Sonos Play 1 speaker in a new attempt to keep up with its new rivals. Looking almost identical to its predecessor, the speaker certainly sounds just as excellent as before - but it also has a microphone on top - and some extra intelligence built in.
The Sonos One (left) next to the older Sonos Play 1. We're guessing they copy and pasted the blueprints.
Rather than attempt to build its own voice assistant - something which would require AI skills and datasets to match those of Google and Amazon, Sonos has instead done a deal with the devil; the new device supports Amazon’s Alexa.
It’s a smart move: Sonos has said previously that the intention is to eventually add the other voice assistants like Google too. The bet is simple: Consumers will prefer to own a speaker through which they can talk to everything, rather than need to own separate devices.
So how does it perform? Setting it up on my existing Sonos system was as easy as connecting a Sonos always is. I selected “add a device” in the app, tapped a button on the device, and it connected and was working as a speaker within seconds.
Getting Alexa setup was an extra step - but was similarly straightforward. Here I had to link my Sonos account with my Amazon account, and then let the Alexa app discover my devices. Again, within seconds it had found my Sonos devices, and was up and running.
For the most part, it works pretty well: You can order Alexa to play tracks just as you would with an Echo, and pleasingly, if you say the trigger word (“Alexa!”), it will lower the volume of all of your Sonos speakers, so it can hear you clearly.
The top of the Sonos One has some new buttons. The layer of dust is the photographer's own, and doesn't come in the box.
But it is also clear that it is still early days for the Sonos One - and based on my experience so far, there are a few issues that still need working out.
Many of the functions that are now available on Echo don’t work on Sonos. For example, the recently launched “drop in” feature, which essentially turns Echo speakers into an intercom for speaking to different rooms in your house, or to friends and family elsewhere. If you try to use it, the speaker instead suggests using the Alexa app on your phone - which sort of defeats the point. Similarly, unlike Echo it can’t connect to bluetooth devices and and act as a bluetooth speaker. At least, it can’t “yet” according to the voice response.
And though Alexa can answer factual queries (“What is the capital of Turkey?”, “How old is Harrison Ford?”, etc), it appears to struggle with other seemingly basic functionality. I tried to set a timer, only to have Alexa first confirm that a timer had been set - and then a second later say that there had been an error and it hadn’t been set. This has happened repeatedly since I set it up.
I also tried listening to the radio via TuneIn. “Listen to Radio 4”, I said, because sometimes I like to wake up angry by listening to the Today programme. Though Alexa successfully played Radio 4 through the Sonos One, when it came to stopping it was a different story. “Alexa, stop!” I said. It didn’t work. “Alexa, pause!”. No joy. I can’t remember how I stopped it after this, but I think it was by bombarding it with more commands.
So clearly the marriage of Sonos’s platform with Amazon’s hasn’t been quite as flawless as they may have hoped. What isn’t clear to me as a user is which side is to blame. But the potential is definitely there, and as you would expect, there is little to fault about the actual hardware: The speaker still sounds incredible, and packs much more oomph than you would expect such a diminutive device to have. If you’re an audiophile, it could conceivably justify the £199 price tag on the strength of that alone.
The good news for the rest of us, then, is that the software issues described above can be patched remotely, with software updates. If you already have a Sonos system and want to add some Alexa intelligence to your lifestyle, then a Sonos One could be a good option once the bugs have been ironed out.
If you don’t own a Sonos but want some high quality multiroom audio in your life, the the Sonos One could also be a good option: It is currently the same price as the older, dumber Sonos Play 1 speaker (which used a numeral rather than the word “one”), so really all of the Alexa gubbins is “free”, when viewed from this perspective.
So will its bet pay off? Will customers go for a third party company that supports multiple voice assistants, over devices that are monogamous with just one? With the Sonos One, Sonos is starting to lay its cards on the table.