IT USED TO BE that all a wireless speaker had to do was pipe out music from a digital library and sound pretty good doing it. But thanks to Amazon then Google and more recently Apple, there’s now an expectation for speakers to listen, answer, and get stuff done.
The Amazon Echo brought smart speakers into the gadget fray with the Alexa virtual assistant, offering decent audio with a focus on the smart capabilities rather than aural pleasure; the Google Home did the same but with the Google Assistant slipping out of its smartphone clothes and into an air freshener-resembling speaker.
It was only with Apple’s HomePod and the Google Home Max, both revealed towards the end of 2017, that sound quality was made front and centre.
But whereas the trio of tech firms compete for headlines, audio tech specialist Sonos has been doing its own take on a smart speaker with the Sonos One, which while it won’t win prizes on creative nomenclature, is certainly worth a closer look.
The compact cylindrical Sonos One is hardly the most strikingly designed smart speaker around. Available in black or light grey, it has a very matter-of-fact utilitarian look that’s nowhere near as eye-catching as Apple’s HomePod or indeed the Google Home Max, which has yet to hit UK shores.
It’s by no means unattractive, it just looks like the kind of device you pop on a shelf then generally forget it’s there.
In terms of controls, the Sonos one is pleasingly spartan. There’s a network pairing button on the back above an ethernet port, for people who love the robust nature of a wired connection to a router. On the top you’ll find four touch-sensitive buttons; one for play and pause, one for turning the speaker’s microphone on and off for privacy purposes, and two more for context-sensitive actions such as changing the volume of a track. Both the mic and play/pause button have LEDs to indicate when the mic and speaker are active, though the latter can be toggled off if one finds it distracting.
Despite its fairly compact form, the Sonos One is weighty which helps give the speaker solid bass tones and a powerful sound.
Speaking of which, the sound quality is the most important part of a £200 smart speaker, and the Sonos One doesn’t disappoint in this department; which is pretty much expected given Sonos’ audio heritage.
Out of the box, the Sonos One has some properly boomy bass and striking treble, which immediately impresses. But the middle tones felt a bit hollowed out when we tested it in our less than massive London flat, as the bass was a tad over dominant, while the treble notes were a little harsh.
You could fiddle with the equaliser in the Sonos app, which acts as the virtual brain of the system, to balance out some of those frequencies. However, it’s with the Trueplay Tuning that things start to really shine. The speaker can tune its audio by emitting a tone that’s picked up by the app on either an iPhone or iPad, then calibrates the audio output to suit the size of the room.
We felt a little bit stupid waving our iPad around as we circumnavigated our lounge, and it’s a bit baffling why there’s no Trueplay Tuning option for the Sonos Android app. Yet when the tuning was complete, we were rewarded with a much more rounded sound.
The bass was corralled and tightened up to become more punchy as opposed to a flabby boom, while the edges of the treble got sanded off. With the high and low-end frequencies in check to suit our room, the middle range had more presence to give rather lovely rich sound.
Any track with a strong bassline sounds energetic; Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole had some real power for example. While treble notes from synth-heavy music such as well, anything from Daft Punk rings nicely, if on the odd occasion still sounding a little spikier than desired.
Pipe any track from an indie band big in the 2000s that makes use of overdriven guitars – were thinking the Black Keys and Kasabian – and you’re rewarded with some petty detailed and fulsome mid-tones.
There’s a ‘Loudness’ mode that at first sounds like it’s a bass boost, but in fact, boosts all the frequencies the speaker spits out to give a more in-depth sound when the volume is low.
It’s only when you crank the volume of the Sonos One to anti-social levels that audio separation becomes a little hazy and you start to realise you’re asking a lot for a compact speaker. If you have a large room that needs filling with fulsome sound then one of Sonos’ larger speakers or a stereo setup of the One is the best bet.
You won’t necessarily hear parts of a song you couldn’t before, in part due to the lack of support for high-definition streaming. And audiophiles with separate amp and speaker setups won’t be left drooling. But the One still provides a rather lovely sonic experience that blows most smart speakers out of the water.
We did find the HomePod offered a slightly superior sound overall, with the audio seemingly more full-bodied and richer. But Apple’s Siri-centric speaker is £350 yet doesn’t offer £150 worth of audio improvement, so really you can’t go wrong with the One.
Setting up the Sonos One is a doddle. Simply plug it in, download the app to your phone, tablet or PC and pair it with the speaker. Once the One is connected to the WiFi and you’ve set up or logged into a Sonos account, you’re good to go.
You can stream any music on your phone to the speaker, but the magic happens when you hook up various music streaming services. Apple Music, Google Music, Spotify, and Amazon Music, and a suite of internet radio services are compatible; there’s no single service only ecosystem here unlike the case with the Apple Music reliant HomePod.
Thanks to the integrations via APIs, it’s easy to search and play a song or album across a range of services but from one place. The simple mostly monochrome user interface of the app makes it pretty slick to use, though there’s not much in the way of visual wizardry and we found that accessing any sound controls beyond volume takes a good few taps and menus to get through.
The app does make it simple to add multiple Sonos One speakers and subwoofers to a network, as well as control speakers on a by the room basis, though we reckon one Sone One is enough to fill a small flat.
The app also allows for smart assistants to be added to the speaker, but while support for Google Assistant is apparently on its way at some point this year, currently the One only plays nice with Amazon’s Alexa.
You’ll need to have the Alexa app on your phone or tablet, but that easily done and added into the Sonos app. From there you can do all the usual Alexa things like asking for the latest headlines or get a rundown on the weather or nearby shops and services.
Alexa on the Sonos One was apparently sketchy when it first launched but we found it to be fairly robust, though Alexa isn’t as sharp at figuring out commands as the Google Assistant.
You can ask Alexa to skip past Spotify songs but it struggles to find custom playlists that the Google Assistant digs up with ease. But in reality, we feel it’s more natural to flick through playlists on the Sonos app than constantly bark song requests at a speaker.
That may change when the Google Assistant arrives, as thanks to Google’s machine learning chops and its data hoovering, its virtual assistant is much smarter than rivals.
And while Alexa may have its limitations, it’s a heck of a lot smarter than Siri, which seems to trip up over all manner of things.
When it comes to the smart part of smart speakers, the Sonos One is not quite the Tomorrow’s World experience you can get with the Amazon Echo or Google Home, but it’s a good gateway drug to smart speakers while also giving some proper audio punch.
Given virtual assistants are still learning and getting better at doing stuff thanks to a growing API ecosystem, smart speakers have a lot more potential to them than first meets the eye or more correctly ear. As such, we reckon there’s more to come from the Sonos One.
If you want a full-fat smart speaker experience and aren’t fussed on audio power, then the Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home gadgets are the devices for you.
If you want the best smart speaker audio around, have a newish iPhone, and are happy being trapped in the Apple Music ecosystem, then the HomePod should tickle your fancy.
But if you want a decent balance, and more, of virtual assistant smarts and sonic prowess, the Sonos One is the one to consider.
Well priced, a rich sound and the promise to get smarter, the Sonos One is our best smart speaker bet and one you won’t regret splurging some cash on. µ
Rich, full and strong sounds, lots of streaming services, compact design.
It won’t suit rooms on the larger size, Alexa isn’t as integrated as we’d like, occasionally fiddly Sonos app.
Pretty much nothing other than the wait for the Google Assistant.
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