Sonos and Alexa, in One device. Thanks to the superior sound quality, it's the best Echo device yet – and with Google Assistant support promised soon, it's the One speaker to rule them all.
Alexa and Sonos have had a troubled relationship. Until the tail end of 2017, they weren’t talking to each other at all. Now they’ve not only buried their differences, but also created a love-child: the Sonos One. It’s a fantastic sounding speaker, as you’d expect from Sonos, with the Alexa voice assistant built in. Not only that, but Sonos has even negotiated an open relationship, and promised the addition of Google Assistant at some point this year.
I don’t think I’m wrong in saying the single biggest use case of an Echo device is to play music, yet the standard Echo hardware is less than stellar when it comes to audio quality. The Sonos One is twice the cost of a standard Echo, but sounds fantastic.
Few Hardware Changes
In terms of size, weight, and audio quality, it’s essentially the same as the Play:1 model, which is still available to purchase for about $50 less. Apart from the microphone array, very little else has changed. The buttons are now capacitive rather than physical, and the main body consists of either fully black or fully white, not white with grey, or black with grey.
Most notably, you still can’t use the One device for external audio sources. If you want to use a line-in, you’ll need to purchase one of the bigger Play:5 speakers, or the overpriced Sonos Connect. Once you do that, the Play:5 or Connect acts as a bridge between your line-in cable and the main Sonos streaming system, so you can stream the external audio across all your Sonos devices.
There’s also an Ethernet port on the Sonos One, should you wish to keep your Wi-Fi uncongested. You won’t see any improvement in audio quality, however.
The main improvements on the One come from the software.
If you’re new to Sonos, you may be unfamiliar with the TruePlay Tuning process. This involves walking around your room while waving your phone around as the Sonos speaker emits some sonar-like pulses. It’s supposed to make your audio sound better, or more accurate, or balance the equalizer properly… but I’m not enough of an audiophile to tell the difference. You’ll need to repeat the process if you move the speaker, since it’s specific to its location within the room.
Alexa and Sonos, Sitting in a Tree…
It’s true that until now, the systems have been quite disparate, but a software update at the beginning of October 2017 added initial support for controlling existing Sonos speakers from your Alexa devices. It’s an arduous process that involves two login authentications for both your Amazon and Sonos account, but after that, Alexa can discover your Sonos speakers as smart home devices.
Though missing at launch, Spotify support was added in December, and Alexa on the Sonos One now offers the full range of standard Echo features and services.
However, they’re still not as tightly integrated as they could be. Alexa can’t access your Sonos favorites or local playlists. She offers direct remote control of queued tracks and volume, but can only access the music streaming services that she already knew. Sonos doesn’t export any of your data to Alexa.
Multiroom Audio is a Mess
Amazon added multiroom audio groups to the standard Echo devices, and Sonos has been a superb multiroom audio system since its inception. However, the two don’t play nice together. Sonos speakers can’t be added to the audio groups built-in Alexa, nor does the default “everywhere” group work with Sonos. You can’t ask it to play to “room 1 AND room 2”, either. If you want to play to a group of Sonos devices, you need to use the Sonos controller app to dynamically create one.
The problem seems to stem from Sonos’ inability to create named groups of speakers, a feature that has been oft requested for at least a few years now, with no solution in sight. Once you’ve created the dynamic group, you can ask Alexa to play to one of those included speakers, and it’ll automatically play to everything in the group.
In short, it’s all rather messy.
But, in reality, I haven’t found it to be much of an issue. If you’re a Sonos user, you’re using the controller app anyway. Voice interfaces aren’t as ubiquitous as we’d like yet, and sometimes it’s just easier to press a button. I keep the Sonos Mac app open while I work, switching my Play:5 speaker between line-in from the computer, to various radio stations.
However, in the interests of keeping multiroom audio as simple as possible, I would recommend sticking with a single system. Either plaster your house in Echos and Dots, or in Sonos One’s. Don’t mix and match.
The standard Echo devices have one trick up their sleeves that Sonos doesn’t: the ability to become a Bluetooth audio player. It may sound odd that such a popular and well developed speaker system as Sonos doesn’t have that sort of basic feature, but it really serves to highlight a key difference in how they both work.
Sonos is designed to scale to multiple devices reliably. It does this by creating its own mesh network, with a central controller device acting as a bridge to your home. The Sonos Net is automatically created once any of your devices are wired directly to your router; though it can still operate on just Wi-Fi. This gives reliable and perfectly synchronized audio, but does restrict where the audio can originate from.
That said, Bluetooth is most commonly used to send audio from a mobile device to the Echo. With Sonos, the controller app can do the same thing, using either your local phone storage as a streaming source, or taking the audio directly from Spotify. So in the end, it really doesn’t matter. In the past, I’ve used the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker output in the kitchen to avoid tinny laptop speakers, but the audio delay was unbearable anyway, with video out of sync.
Should You Buy a Sonos One?
Coming into this review, my question was how much integration would be improved by adding a Sonos One into the mix if you already owned a few Sonos speakers and an Echo – or whether it was literally a case of “it now has Alexa”. It seems it’s the latter, and I’m not sure why I’m disappointed by that, or what exactly I was hoping for.
To be clear, this the best sounding Alexa-enabled device yet! Loud, dynamic, booming sounds – helped by Sonos’ custom TruePlay EQ system. That’s not changed. And now they have Alexa, which is great, so you don’t have to choose between buying an Echo with mediocre speakers or foregoing digital assistant functionality. I just hoped for a little… more? Why put Alexa into a Sonos speaker if she still doesn’t have access to your Sonos playlists?
Not only has Sonos solved some of the disparity between Amazon Echo and high end multi-room speakers, it’s also paved the way to be the one and only speaker system you could possibly need. Sonos has promised that sometime in 2018, the One speakers will be the first to integrate both Alexa and Google Assistant, running side by side – as well as support for Apple AirPlay 2. This won’t be a separate product, just a simple software update. Now, you won’t need to choose: just plaster your home in Sonos One speakers, enjoy fantastic multi–room audio streaming, and choose whichever personal assistant works for you. Siri, Alexa, or Google. It’s a genius move, and could place Sonos front and center in the digital assistant wars.