Sonos One Wireless Smart Speaker Review Page 3

As anyone who's brought an Echo device into their home will tell you, using Alexa takes some getting used to, and although it's instantly more convenient for launching a music service than reaching for your phone and calling up an app, the specificity of language that's sometimes required leads to frustrating moments. This is not a critique of the One per se, although it was not always clear exactly whether the gaps in conversational intelligence I encountered were associated specifically with the Sonos skill set or the Alexa platform generally.

For example, using the One or my Dot to boot up a music stream in a different Sonos zone required precise instructions about what I wanted done in which zone, and even then, it didn't always work if the command wasn't rendered exactly as Alexa wanted. Here's a recent exchange with the One, which was located in my listening space adjoining my office, where I had a Sonos Play:3. The plan was to instruct the One via voice command to boot up some relaxing music in the office.

"Alexa play Spa Radio from Pandora in the Office." Alexa fetches my Spa Radio station from Pandora and starts playing it in the office. Success!

"Alexa, pause office." Alexa pauses music in the office. So far so good.

"Alexa, play." Alexa, not getting that I was just asking to restart the Pandora music in the office, says (via the One), "Here's a playlist you might like. Classic Rock Dinner Music from Amazon Music." And "A Horse With No Name" starts playing on the One out in the studio. Arrgh!

Okay, I get it — I didn't specify the room. So I set up the same scenario and try "Alexa, play Office." Same result, only this time, it's Dinner Music in the office. Finally, I realized that Alexa was looking for "resume," instead of "play," as well as the specific remote zone where I wanted this done. So, "Alexa, resume Office" brought the Spa channel back to life after a pause command, without requiring me to re-specify what I was listening to and starting a new stream.

I also noticed that controlling Sonos streams via my ancillary Echo Dot had its own odd vagaries. At one point I used the Dot, located in the kitchen, to direct a Sonos music stream to the Playbar soundbar I have in the adjoining den. When it came time to turn off the music, I said "Alexa, turn off the den," to which she responded (via the Dot) "Den doesn't support that." That language worked just fine in similar situations with the One as the interface. So I tried "Alexa, turn off den," this time without the "the." Same result. Finally, I tried "Alexa, off in den." That worked. Lesson? Although any Alexa-enabled device theoretically works to control Sonos, you can't necessarily count on them understanding precisely the same language set. But with time, you'll learn how to execute what you do most frequently without incident.

There's a New App For That
Concurrent with the launch of Sonos One, Sonos rolled out a significant update to its smartphone user interface. Emphasis here on "significant" — this one pretty radically changed how you select content and rooms from previous versions with the introduction of a main navigation bar at the bottom of the main screen. The options include Browse (for selecting music) and Rooms (for directing music to various zones). But there's also a My Sonos button that gives you access to your Sonos Favorites (organized into Songs, Stations, etc.) and a Search button that lets you search your library and all of your registered music services by artist, album, song, playlist, station, genre, or composer.

As a long-time Sonos user I can say there was more of a re-learning curve adjusting to this update than some others in the past. The hardest part was getting used to swiping down on the Now Playing screen whenever I needed to regain access to the main navigation bar to handle a music or room change. But once I got used to it, I appreciated the new organization and the useful consolidated search function.

Separately, in recent months, Sonos has made its speakers accessible through the native apps of various popular music services. If you have Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, or iHeartRadio accounts linked to your Sonos network, you can call up each of those apps on your mobile device as you might while using a pair of headphones, and select your Sonos zones from within the app. The company has announced plans for similar access directly from the Kuke Music and Audible apps for early 2018. Despite what seems to be consumer demand for this feature, accessing Sonos this way is a mixed bag. On one hand, you get to use the most up-to-date app platform being offered by each of these services, and if you often use these outside the home for headphone playback, they'll likely be familiar to you. On the other hand, the native apps from most services do not permit you to initiate multiple streams from the same service to different Sonos rooms simultaneously. So you can't, for example, play Oscar Peterson in the den from Tidal and Barbra Streisand in the kitchen from Tidal at the same time. The Sonos app, on the other hand, does usually permit multiple streams from the same service in different rooms.

The explosive growth of the smart speaker category in the last couple of years has been driven largely by products that weren't, sonically speaking, very high performing. That's quickly changed in recent months with a range of new entries that make the smart speaker attractive to more experienced listeners. Given the popularity of its ecosystem, Sonos was surely a little late getting into the category. But by offering up the Sonos One at the same $200 entry price they've maintained previously for the Play:1, and allowing Alexa voice control to be added to any pre-existing system, they've given hesitant buyers with a critical ear a real incentive to explore this brave new world of home automation. Only time will tell what the impact will be, but I'd bet this little speaker will be big. Really big.

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