Sonos Just Released the Best Voice-Activated Speaker Ever Made (Sorry, Amazon and Google)
Buy one. It’s amazing.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
For anyone who follows this column, you know I'm a bit of a music nut. Put me in a room with a nice set of speakers and a few Radiohead songs and I'm happy. When a speaker crossed my desk recently that lets me sit on the couch and listen to music all day without lifting a finger, and sounds so amazing that it made me want to listen to Frightened Rabbits yet again for the umpteenth time, it made me realize that this is the perfect product for me.
Honestly, testing gadgets is not always fun. It seems like a dream job, but when a speaker sounds like mushed soup fed through a pillow, it's not that enjoyable.
The Sonos One isn't like that. It livens up a room in a way that makes you smile and do a happy dance (if you're into that sort of thing). While the speaker itself is roughly the same as previous Sonos models, it's the new addition of having Amazon Alexa (and a powerful microphone that can hear you from across the room) that makes it spectacular. I went on a bit of a testing frenzy, in fact. I played the new albums by Beck and Bully, fired up classic Neil Young albums, tried a punk rock band called Iceage, fed the speaker a bunch of songs by the band How to Dress Well, and basically rocked out all day.
With apologies to my editors on that. Note: I'll get back to work tomorrow.
Take the brilliant song called What's Up by How to Dress Well. The bass is sublime at first. The break comes mid-song when the synth starts--if you don't start tapping along, you don't have a pulse. In a living room, the speaker filled up every crevice. You can hear the tap-tap of a snare, the slushing sound of a drum, the whirring accents in the upper registry. You have a break. It's uplifting and soul edifying in a way only a song like that can muster.
How about Iceage? This is the ultimate test for any small speaker (it's about the size of your hand). On the song Ecstasy, other speakers like the Google Home, Amazon Echo, and the recent Harman Kardon Invoke turn to mush, quivering like they have been zapped with a Taser. It's no contest, but for some reason, the Sonos One takes it all in stride. I also played a few songs by the goth artist Chelsea Wolfe and you can hear the haunting echoes of the netherworld as you tap away on a Chromebook at your desk.
Bully--a band that makes music that is also a total punk rock meltdown--sounded pristine. You hear the droning guitars, with the lead singer's voice punctuating through the din. She does her own background vocals, and they link together perfectly in unison.
In some ways, this is a blistering return to form for Sonos, a company that started out a little punk rock as well--challenging major plays like Bose and Sony, building their brand, then falling behind a little. The Sonos whole-house system is a good match for Alexa, because you can ask the bot to play music in any room. I never had any trouble directing the speaker to play just about any album. My biggest issue was signing up for Amazon Music Unlimited to stream albums (it was a little glitchy and confusing).
I like the little perks. When Alexa announces a band, the bot starts playing the song as she finishes speaking. In the web app at Amazon.com, you can see your recently played albums. The Alexa app lets you queue up music as well on the iPhone 8 Plus, which to my ears sounds better than any smartphone (and better than some low-end Bluetooth speakers). You can swipe on the top of the speaker to skip a song. It's not all about Alexa, either. You can stream from an iPhone or Spotify. It's flexible about your music.
What else is there to know? Not much.
The speaker costs $199. It supports Pandora Radio and a bunch of other streaming services. You can ask about the weather and the stock market. Alexa can read books and tell jokes. (Sadly, only Cortana can sing you a song.) Huge amplifiers and a custom drivers pump out the music in a full array of superior acoustics. You can link two of the speakers together for stereo sound. It's amazing. You should buy one.