After months of promises and a missed deadline, we finally had a chance to see (well, hear) how Google Assistant will work on Sonos speakers. In a luxe suite in Las Vegas, Sonos and Google ran us through the features (and limitations) of saying “Hey Google” to a Sonos Beam and Sonos One.
The early version we saw is in a very limited beta (on the order of a “few thousand” people), and it had a few bugs. Those will surely get worked out in the beta, and if you’re here to find out when the beta will end and Sonos will finally ship Google on its speakers, they’re not willing to commit to a date.
Still, it works. You can do all of the typical Google stuff: ask questions, set reminders, trigger video playback on a Chromecast, those sorts of things. You can also ask to play music without having to specify a room; Assistant knows it’s on a Sonos speaker. If you have a Sonos Beam, you can even use it for basic TV controls, just like you can with Alexa.
However, it doesn’t work quite as seamlessly as I would have hoped for. It’s all part of Sonos’ philosophy of “continuity of control,” meaning you can basically use whatever method you want to control the Sonos: the app, an assistant on the device, or an assistant anywhere else in the house. But once you really start getting into the details of which device can do what and which service talks to what, it can get really complicated really quickly.
None of these gotchas are really Sonos or Google’s fault — some of these same gotchas exist with Alexa on Sonos, too — but they point to just how easy it is to paint yourself into a weird usability corner when you start mixing and matching services.
In that spirit, here’s the main limitation you should be aware of: you’re not going to be able to have both Google and Alexa active and listening on a single speaker. You can set one Sonos speaker to Google and another to Alexa, but you can’t have both assistants active on one speaker at the same time.
We pressed both Google and Sonos a lot on whether that limitation was technical or philosophical, and the answers were a little squishy. As it has before, Google brought up user experience a lot. There’s some merit to that. Say an alarm goes off on the speaker. You might not know whether it was Alexa or Google that set it off, and you’d be stuck guessing which one to ask to stop while it beeps.
Here’s another limitation: you can only ask to start music from streaming services that Google Assistant supports natively. The list includes seven or so services, which, thankfully, includes Spotify but won’t include Apple Music. However, you can use Google to do basic transport controls and even identify songs on other services, even if you start the music from AirPlay or something. This is the same limitation as Alexa on Sonos, but it means that Apple Music users will have to wait until Google and Apple reach some kind of deal.
One bright spot about how all of this works is that there are two sides to this integration. There’s the “works on Sonos” side, which lets you bark your commands directly at the Sonos Speaker. There is also the “works with Sonos” side, which lets Sonos speakers serve as music endpoints that can be controlled by other Google speakers. In other words, if you have a Google Home and an older Sonos speaker (or a Sonos speaker set to Alexa), you can use your Google Home to start music on the Sonos.
If that sounds a little complicated in the details, it’s because it is. And figuring out all of the nitty-gritty details is one of the reasons why Sonos and Google haven’t shipped this functionality yet. Another example of something to be worked out: room definitions. Google has its own system for categorizing what stuff is in what room, and so does Sonos. Figuring out a way to reconcile those two systems (to say nothing of Alexa and Apple’s own room classifications) is going to be an industry-wide job.
The technical details of Sonos’ Google Assistant integration are endlessly fascinating if you’re a certain kind of nerdy, and they go some way toward explaining why the release has been so delayed. Here’s one example: Sonos speakers work with Google Assistant, but they don’t work with Google Cast, Google’s own multiroom streaming system. Cast is the system that Google best understands and knows how to work with. But for whatever reason, the two companies decided to teach Google how to talk to Sonos’ platform instead of vice versa.
Another interesting technical detail: Sonos’ microphones do beamforming completely differently than Google’s usual two-mic array, and so the two companies had to work to figure out how to get Sonos’ audio data to Google in a way that worked well for both companies.
Back out of the weeds a bit, and you can see that it’s coming and that it works. And for the most common use cases — like asking for music, setting timers, or directing your Chromecast to start playing Netflix — it worked pretty well in our demo. There were the usual CES “blame it on the Wi-Fi, maybe” bugs and hiccups, but that’s to be expected.
Sonos says that it is going to pay close attention to feedback from the beta, and that will determine when it will ship. But, again, there’s no date to report. Sonos has been burned before, after all. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.