With the recent launch of Sonos One, an Amazon Alexa-enabled smart speaker, the company that built its reputation as one of the preeminent multi-room home audio providers took a definitive step to add long-awaited voice-activation services to its system. But almost lost among the Sonos One announcement was the fact that current owners of Sonos speakers and amplifiers do not need to buy a Sonos One in order to control their favorite music services with Alexa natural language voice commands: A free Sonos software upgrade adds Alexa skills to any existing Sonos speaker product—as long as there is at least one product from the expansive Amazon Echo line in the home.
That’s obviously great news for homeowners who have invested in the Sonos system over the years. We have long been advocates and daily users of the system, but not having voice activation capability had left the system looking long in the tooth. But this latest software upgrade restores Sonos as a highly appealing multi-room audio system and adds to the allure of having access to a broad array of streaming services, including full voice support for Amazon Music, Audible, iHeart Radio, Pandora, SiriusXM, Spotify, and TuneIn.
Be aware, however, there is not yet full voice support for most of the 80-plus services available through the Sonos app. In the case of Apple Music, Alexa can’t yet be used to instruct Sonos to play specific music selections, though once Apple Music is started through the Sonos app, Alexa can be used to skip or replay songs, pause the music, adjust the volume, and more. The list of supported services will certainly grow over time, but be sure to check to see if your desired streaming channels are supported to avoid disappointments. For the services that do have voice control capabilities, one has to be sure the desired service is set up in both the Sonos app as well as the Alexa app for things to work.
As expected, playing music over Sonos with Alexa can be accomplished with quite simple or more complex commands. For example, in our lab installation, the command “Alexa, play Maroon 5 in the Loft” will shuffle songs from Amazon Music by the group Maroon 5 on the Sonos speaker named Loft. The more complex command—“Alexa, play Smooth Jazz Radio from Pandora in the Great Room”—will play the Pandora station named Smooth Jazz on the Sonos speaker named Great Room.
Furthermore, Sonos plans to add Google Assistant voice activation to the Sonos One speaker in 2018, presumably as a software-only update. And they also announced plans to add Apple Airplay 2 support to the entire Sonos system in 2018, which will enable playing streaming audio or any other sounds from Apple iOS mobile devices over Sonos speakers. Apple Siri voice commands from iOS devices will also be able to control music delivered through Sonos.
For newcomers to the Sonos system, the $199 Sonos One presents a legitimate point of entry to multi-room audio, and its compact tabletop form factor, cost, and audio fidelity are the same as that of the existing Sonos:Play 1 speaker. So, by making a single speaker purchase here, homeowners without existing Amazon Echo speakers get both high-quality audio delivery as well as full access to the expansive Amazon Alexa voice services in a single device. That’s an appealing proposition, and will typically deliver higher audio quality than any of the existing speakers in the Amazon Echo line. Of course, installing a Sonos One does not preclude adding Echo speakers as desired, though Sonos speakers cannot be grouped with Amazon speakers for audio playback.
In much the same as an Echo, a light on top of the Sonos One speaker comes to life as voice commands are issued, powered by an array of 6 multi-directional microphones. Once Alexa services are enabled on the home network, we were delighted to see that the volume automatically lowers on all Sonos speakers—not just the new Sonos One—the instant the “Alexa” command is uttered. This feature obviates the need to shout when issuing commands, a behavior we have come to enjoy on native Amazon Echo devices.
Also a part of the Sonos upgrade is an all-new app, though we find the user interface to be more complicated and convoluted compared the minimalistic simplicity of the older apps. For example, the Sonos Favorites feature has been replaced by a My Sonos tab that generally requires more taps to get to the desired audio service. So much for progress.
The new Alexa capabilities on Sonos are currently available only in the US, UK, and Germany. Consumers in other regions can buy the Sonos One today and use it through the Sonos app, while voice services will be provisioned at a later date.
Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.