I like my Echo. In my house, we use it to play radio stations, to get the weather, and to answer questions like “When was the Edo period?” One thing I don’t often use the Echo for is music. That’s because it sounds terrible. As good as Amazon’s Alexa voice service is, the Echo’s black tin can croaks out audio just a notch better than the 20-year-old Coby FM radio I keep in the garage. Amazon has taken steps to improve the Echo’s sound quality with a reboot last month, and companies like Lenovo have coaxed Alexa into nicer-sounding enclosures. But those speakers are still boring.
What I really want—what every audiophile I know wants—is an Alexa speaker that sounds as good as the best speakers in the house. In my house, those speakers are Sonos speakers. So join me while I raise a glass to the Sonos One, the company’s first music player with Alexa built natively into the corpus. This isn’t Alexa’s first sip of Sonos. Echo devices recently gained the ability to control Sonos hardware, but that requires adding an Alexa skill, which of course means there’s some loopy syntax you have to struggle with when all you really want to do is play some Chet Baker. Also, I know a few friends with an Echo Dot plugged into their Sonos Play:5, and while that gets things moving, it’s inelegant and you’re still using two devices.
This new $ 199 speaker takes the current Alexa-Sonos relationship and removes the complexity. You could think of it as an Echo with much improved sound. It does all of the Alexa things, but it’s foremost a Sonos speaker, so it does all the Sonos things too—it works as part of a multi-room system, it streams from scores of services, and it obeys the company’s controller apps. The One has some faults. Amazon world and Sonos world are two nuanced and complex domains, and any device that attempts to bridge the two is sure to stumble occasionally. But the key point remains: The One is a great-sounding Sonos speaker, and that’s reason enough to consider one. It also so happens that you can command it with your voice.
If you’re already hip to the Sonos product line, you’ll notice the One looks almost exactly like a Play:1—on purpose, of course. But in order to incorporate voice services and the requisite six-microphone array, Sonos had to completely redesign the inside of the box. The resulting Sonos One, sonically, is perceptually the same as the Play:1. If you like the dynamics, volume, and clarity of the bookshelf-ready Play:1, this new Alexa-endowed version will please you as well. Speak as you would to your Echo (“Alexa, play KCRW.”) and that familiar robotic voice speaks back from within a Sonos shell.
By talking to the speaker, you can play or pause music, skip tracks, change the volume, or ask what’s playing. If you have multiple Sonos speakers, you can use Alexa to launch music in other rooms. “Alexa, play Chuck Berry in the bedroom.” I also succeeded in getting Alexa to group the One with another Sonos speaker that was already playing music by saying, “Play what’s playing in the kitchen.” That feature is undocumented, so I got a little jolt of surprise when it actually worked. Sonos told me later it’s an easter egg in the beta app I was using, but it’s nice to know more features are still in development. The One can do all the fun Alexa stuff too, of course. It can dim the lights or turn on your Dyson fan. You can ask it to start a dance party, play reggae, or play ’80s hits just like you can do with an Echo—except when you request it on the One, the music that comes out sounds much, much better.
The setup process, which involves not only adding a new speaker to your Sonos network, but also adding Amazon Voice Service to your speaker, needs ironing out. There’s too much time spent switching between the Sonos app and the Alexa app during setup, and if you lose the thread, you have to start all over.
Once you get things humming, the limitations of the voice controls become clear pretty quickly. The Sonos One can do most everything Alexa can do, but it can’t do everything Sonos can do. So, when you ask it to play music, the Alexa living inside the One can only summon streams from the services Alexa supports. If you want to play something from your local MP3 library or one of the 80-odd services supported by Sonos (Apple Music, Google Play Music, Mixcloud, MLB.com), you have to pull out your phone and tap. Once the audio is playing, you can ask Alexa to pause it or turn it up. But unless it’s Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Sirius, or TuneIn, your phone is still required to get it playing in the first place. (Spotify is coming soon after launch, Sonos says.)
These shortcomings are things Sonos is racing to improve, of course. The bright and shiny end goal here is an easily installed speaker you can, if you want, control only by talking. But the One isn’t there yet. Each streaming service connected to your Sonos has to be understood and learned by Alexa in order for the voice assistant to be able to navigate it. That’s going to take time.
Again, this speaker sits squarely on a number of borders, and data and effort will get lost in the crossing as long as the various sides fail to understand each other perfectly. But until that work is done—by Amazon and by Sonos—you’ll need to assume an early-adopter mentality with regards to the One. You can take solace in knowing that bigger things are coming via software updates (like AirPlay support and Google Assistant, both coming in 2018). For now, however, you’ll just have to be satisfied with the simpler things.
8/10 – An excellent-sounding Alexa speaker that’s worth the $ 200, even if it has some growing up to do.