Scheduling a product event on the very same day as Google might not have been the wisest move on the part of Sonos, as yesterday’s brand new Sonos One speaker quickly took a backseat to Pixel gadgets. But the device still marks a big moment for Sonos. After more than a year of talking about the importance and convenience of voice control, the company finally delivered a new product based around it — even if from the outside it looks (and sounds) identical to the Play:1. For the nitpicky among us, the Sonos One does have one minor aesthetic improvement over that model; the black version is all black, whereas the Play:1 had a gray speaker grille.
But inside, Sonos has added six far-field microphones that allow you to use Amazon’s Alexa and eventually Google Assistant. There will be some unfortunate limitations out of the box at least for a few weeks. You can’t start playing music with Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal using voice. (Spotify is likely to resolve that quickly, but the others might just not happen.) I don’t personally view that as a deal breaker, as you can still play music from any and all of those services with the Sonos app. And once music is on, basic voice commands like pause, skip track, and volume should work fine.
Sonos built that microphone setup with privacy in mind, hardwiring the mics to an LED at the top of the speaker that illuminates when an assistant is actively listening to you. There’s also a mute button if you want to disable Alexa altogether for a period of time. Thankfully these controls have been integrated seamlessly with the usual Sonos interface for controlling the music. The One has the same touch-sensitive buttons as the Play:5 and Playbase. At least for now, it seems Sonos has integrated voice without any tradeoffs versus the Play:1. Sonos realized that more and more people are playing music with an Echo or Google Home not because they sound great, but because doing so is so simple. So Sonos created the obvious first product to fend them off.
But one of my main questions now is how the Sonos One will compare to the new lineup of smart speakers that are now starting to put a bigger emphasis on sound quality. The new Echo has improved audio over its predecessor and costs half as much as the Sonos One. Google has a $400 speaker coming in December, and Apple insists that its HomePod will surpass the competition when it ships that same month.
Thankfully Sonos finds itself in a bit of a sweet spot at $200, slotting in well beneath its newfound hi-fi rivals and representing a nice upgrade over the Echo, depending on how that ultimately performs. The company also enjoys a reputation and brand recognition in this category. Selling a $200 speaker isn’t terribly difficult for Sonos. Apple and Google have more to prove on that front.
Sonos didn’t refresh its entire lineup of speakers to outfit everything with microphones yesterday. And that’s probably for the best. All you really need is a single Sonos One to speak out song requests and have them play around the house to other speakers. But more importantly, it sounds like Sonos is still trying to figure out how all of this should fundamentally work — especially once Google Assistant is added to the picture in 2018. When I asked software VP Antoine Leblond how two assistants will coexist on the same device, I figured it might be a situation where you choose one when setting up the speaker. He said that’s a possibility, but Sonos might also just listen for the respective hotwords for each. That sounds like a recipe for confusion, but we’ll see.
I’ll be spending more time with the Sonos One soon and am looking forward to testing how well Sonos’ voice strategy comes together. I still wish the company had released a plug-in mic accessory for existing hardware. But if that’s what you’re after, at least there’s now a public beta for controlling your other Sonos gear with an Echo. Just remember you’ll have to refrain from asking Alexa for anything from Spotify for a few weeks. Next year, when Google Assistant and Apple’s AirPlay 2 join Alexa on the Sonos One, should get far more interesting.