Sonos just launched its new smart speaker, the Sonos One. The device has Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant built-in, marking the first time a Sonos speaker has voice control.
I had a chance to hear a little of what the Sonos One is capable of at its grand unveiling in New York City. I listened to some tunes, then saw how it takes advantage of the new Alexa integration to act as a smart hub to connect with other Sonos speakers in a closed-off demo room.
The Sonos One works just fine as a smart hub, from what I saw and heard — you use it just like Amazon’s Echo line — but it really stands out with rich audio quality and the ability to connect with and control other Sonos speakers all around their house to create a premium smart audio platform.
The Sonos One has a simple command interface on top, which lights up when operated by touch or voice command. It’s not as bright as the display lights on Amazon’s Echo devices, but there’s still a clear visual cue the speaker is receiving commands.
You can control the Sonos One via three separate input methods. Voice commands, the Sonos app, and physical controls are all integrated for an experience the company is calling “Continuity Control.” You can use queue up a playlist by talking to Alexa, pull out your phone a bit later and use the Sonos app to turn down the volume, and when it comes time to stop, just press the button on top of the speaker.
The Sonos team packed an impressive amount of tech into a speaker about the same size of Amazon’s newly redesigned Echo; the speaker boasts two digital amplifiers, one tweeter, and one midrange driver/woofer in a compact package. Company reps say that the One’s acoustic output sounds about the same as its earlier Play 1 speaker.
The Sonos One’s audio is great on its own — certainly better than Amazon’s first generation of Echo speakers and the Google Home — but music junkies will really want to use the One as a hub to control other Sonos speakers throughout their homes. Users can swap between these different configurations easily by naming them; commands like, “Play Foo Fighters in the living room” are all you need. If the user doesn’t identify a particular setup with a voice command, Sonos reps told me that the nearest Sonos One device will handle the playback.
There are six microphones beneath the top control panel, which are used with an adaptive noise suppression algorithm and “echo cancellation” to recognize when the user is giving Alexa commands even when music is pumping out of the speaker.
How those mics handled difficult situations was the most impressive thing I saw from the Sonos One. A Sonos rep spoke calmly to the speaker during a loud song, and the volume immediately dropped so he could be heard, then cranked it again after carrying out his command. I’ve struggled to make myself heard over music using Echo devices hooked up to bigger speakers before, which is an annoying compromise to make for better sound.
Pairing two Sonos Ones together creates stereo or multichannel sound, which I experienced when they played a complex track, “Best to You” by Blood Orange. The multiple parts of the song were noticeably portioned between the two speakers, like you’d expect in a traditional dual-speaker stereo setup. The bass and percussion sections popped once they kicked in, while the dueling female and male vocals of the chorus played back and forth between the speakers.
Adding other speakers improved the richness and volume of the music. The demo team roped in a Sonos TV sound bar that was positioned between the two One devices with a voice command. The third speaker brought a new balance to the audio, filling up the demo room with a well-proportioned wall of sound as all three speakers blared Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy.”
Alexa and Google Assistant are essential additions to the Sonos line, but the smart assistants will probably be used best for simple tasks like checking the weather and controlling tunes. Sonos reps said Alexa’s voice-calling functionality won’t be available at launch, and couldn’t specify if or when it might come to the speaker. They couldn’t comment about calling on the upcoming Google Assistant integration, either.
The Sonos One isn’t for making phone calls, though — it’s for music. The speaker’s mid-tier price and open platform make it an attractive option for those who haven’t been able to choose between Alexa and Google Assistant, while its focus on sound and compatibility with the wider Sonos line could also pull in audiophiles who have refused to dabble in smart speakers because of their relatively poor audio. As for those who want to blast music all over their house, Sonos already has that group pretty much on lock.