By John Patrick Pullen
October 19, 2017

The Amazon Echo smart speaker might have been the big story of the last holiday shopping season, but technology companies are betting there’s room on your bookshelf, countertop, or nightstand for another. That’s why the Apple HomePod is due out later this year, Google is updating Google Home, and Amazon is readying a whole ecosystem of Amazon Echo products. Thinking there’s room for a well-connected outsider to also get a toe-hold in the market, Sonos recently announced its Amazon Alexa-enabled Sonos One speaker, and it sounds great. If only that were the whole story—unfortunately, smart speakers are a bit more complicated than that.

Approximately the same size and packing the same sonorous audio quality as the Sonos Play 1 bookshelf speaker (which is roughly the dimensions of a coffee can), the $199 Sonos One is clearly aimed at out-classing Amazon’s muffled, tinny-sounding, first generation Echo speaker. And through the Sonos app, the speaker can connect with more than 80 streaming services, including everything from Apple Music to Spotify and SiriusXM.

But through its integrated microphone, the speaker is also compatible with the Amazon Alexa voice assistant, giving users full access to the thousands of skills that burgeoning platform has developed over the past few years. Well, almost full access. There are some things that Amazon Echoes can do that the Sonos One can’t, though the company is working to narrow the gap.

For instance, you can use the Sonos One to ask Alexa to tell you a joke, turn off your lights, and order a pizza, just fine. But when I asked it to tell me the news—something my Echo does with ease—the Sonos speaker acknowledged my request, queued up the reports, and then seemingly lost its voice. Apparently the Flash Briefing feature is something Sonos can’t do.

Perhaps the most frustrating current shortcoming is that you can’t yet use Sonos’ version of Alexa to play music from Spotify, though you can currently do that with an Echo. At the moment, vocally requested tunes play from Amazon Music on the Sonos One, though Sonos says Alexa voice control will be coming for Spotify “after launch.” [Update: Sonos has since added the ability to play Spotify tracks via voice command. It can also make Spotify the Sonos One’s default music service using Alexa.]

The promise of Spotify is characteristic of the promise of the Sonos One overall. For example, the company also says that Google’s voice platform, Google Assistant, will make its way to the speaker in 2018. Imagine that: A speaker with both Alexa and Google Assistant, helping you to sort through both your shopping and your Gmail. It seems too good to be true… is it? Maybe, but Sonos has a track record for playing nicely with others.

For instance, the Sonos App is practically a “Who’s Who” of streaming services, connecting the company’s speakers with everything from audiobooks, to podcasts, to live Phish concerts, to MLB radio broadcasts, all in one place. And if that’s not impressive enough, there’s this: Sonos was even able to convince Apple, the notoriously closed-off company, to let its speakers stream songs from Apple Music.

If that were all there was to Sonos One, it would be a success. But there is the matter of initial setup and the Alexa shortcomings you hit on a daily basis, which makes the One a little more tedious than it should be. A great thing about the Amazon Echo is that it takes less than five minutes to get up, running, and listening to all sorts of things. But because Sonos has to handshake with Amazon’s services, it’s not quite that simple to set up a Sonos One.

For instance, I set up my Sonos One in my office, and then immediately changed my mind, and decided to put it in the living room. Because Sonos is a third-party product, you have to choose from pre-selected room names in the setup, and for whatever reason my Sonos connected to Alexa’s services, but it wouldn’t play any audio from it. I called Sonos’ troubleshooting line, which directed me to basically start over with its installation. It wasn’t a big deal or an alarming problem, but it’s something I have never experienced with an Amazon-made device.

There are other small annoyances that make the Sonos feel like it is lacking. For example, you cannot change the “wake word” from Alexa to Echo (or Amazon, or Computer, if that’s your thing), which is a restriction Amazon imposes on all third-party Alexa devices (and an option I usually use). Also, the Sonos has reminded me how much I like the blue LED halo on the top of Echo speakers, because it visually tells me that the speaker has heard my voice. Instead, Sonos has opted for a small LED that you can only see if the One’s top is visible—a spartan and bad design choice, in this user’s opinion.

But there’s no debating the Sonos speaker’s sound, and that makes up for all these little faults and shortcomings. Deep, rich, warm, and textured, the Sonos One’s audio is everything you’d hope for in a speaker, smart or otherwise. Pairing it with other (even older) Sonos speakers can fill your home with great sounding music without having to crank up the volume. The company also offers a tuning system that calibrates its speakers to the rooms in which they’re placed—and that makes an incredible difference, once it’s set up. Basically, listening to music on the Sonos One makes you realize how much of a song you’re missing by using an Echo (at least the original model).

Alas, with price points dancing circles around the One’s $199 cost, Amazon’s lineup is likely to get the lion’s share of shoppers again this holiday. And that’s a shame, because music fans and audiophiles who overlook the Sonos One speaker are missing out on a joy for the ear. The question is, how will Amazon’s newest competitors, the $99 Echo, or the $149 Echo Plus compare with the high bar Sonos has set? Will the $299 Apple HomePod sound $100 better? And what about the Google Home Max? Time—and holiday wishlists—will tell.

Nov. 22: This story has been updated from its original to note that Sonos has since added the ability to play Spotify tracks via voice command. Spotify can now also be the Sonos One’s default music service using Alexa.

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