Sonos has long been the best wireless audio solution, but recommending its pricey products always ended with a similar caveat: "if you can afford it."
The new Play:1 (AU$299) finally shakes that final reservation, making the Sonos experience available at the lowest price yet. It's a beautiful little bookshelf speaker that feels like it should cost more than it does, with a refined design that looks great anywhere you put it. No major compromises have been made in the name of affordability. You get the full Sonos experience, with rock-solid stability and a long list of supported services, including Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, MOG, Songl, JB Hi-Fi Now and many more. While its sound quality may not satisfy the pickiest audiophiles, it's awfully good for the size, especially for the secondary listening locations (bedroom, kitchen, office) the Play:1 fits best in.
It all adds up to make the Play:1 our favourite wireless speaker yet, earning it a CNET's Editors' Choice Award. And the latest promotion makes it easier than ever to buy in to the Sonos ecosystem, offering a free Sonos Bridge (AU$75) to new customers. The Bridge gives you a lot more freedom in the placement of your first Sonos speaker, as it acts as the one wired connection needed to bring the system to life.
If you've been hesitating about making the jump to Sonos, the Play:1 is a great way to start.
Design: a lovely compact speaker
The Play:1 is the best-looking Sonos speaker yet. The Play:3 and Play:5 both have a refined look that tends to blend well into your home decor, but can sometimes feel just a touch bland. The Play:1 has the signature Sonos look, but adds just a little bit of stylish sizzle, especially the black model. (It also comes in white.) It looks at home in a kitchen, bedroom or living room, and it's humidity-resistant, so it works as a bathroom speaker, too.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
For a AU$299 product, the Play:1 is exceptionally well-made. You'll notice its heft as soon as you pull it out of the box and although the cabinet is essentially all plastic, it never feels cheap. Even the power cord on the bottom tucks into the bottom for a seamless design. Despite the weight of the Play:1, note that there's no battery built-in. The Play:1 is designed to be placed in a room and left there.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
There's a slight change to the standard Sonos controls on the top. The familiar volume rocker and status light remain the same, but the Mute button has been replaced with Play/Pause. It's a smart change, since it still immediately quiets the speaker, plus you have the option to resume whatever you were listening to with a single touch, even if it's hours later. (Sonos is also releasing a firmware upgrade to change the functionality of the Mute button to Play/Pause on its existing speakers.)
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Behind the non-removable grille, there's a mid-range woofer and a tweeter. That makes it Sonos's first "mono" speaker, although you were unlikely to hear much true stereo separation on the other models, especially the Play:3. It's also a powered speaker, so there's no need for speaker wire or a separate amp.
One of the great Sonos features is stereo pairing, which lets you sync any two Sonos speakers together to get true stereo sound. Grabbing a second Play:1 makes for a powerful music experience at a great price.
Setup: as painless as wireless audio gets
If you've already got a Sonos system, adding the Play:1 is as easy as you'd expect: tell the app you want to add a speaker, press the volume-up and Play buttons when prompted, and you're good to go. It's seriously that easy.
For those who are new to Sonos, you'll need to get acquainted with how the system works. While the Play:1 is a wireless speaker, it doesn't run on your existing Wi-Fi network. Instead Sonos creates its own proprietary wireless network, which means you'll need at least one Sonos component wired via Ethernet. You can connect the Play:1 directly with a wired connection, but if that's inconvenient (which it probably is), you'll need to connect the Sonos Bridge (AU$75) with a wired connection. As mentioned earlier, Sonos is offering a free Bridge to all buyers until the end of 2013.
You can connect via Ethernet directly, but you'll probably want to go wireless.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
While other systems have tried to make a virtue of running on your existing Wi-Fi network, Sonos' mesh network is really a strength. It may seem redundant to have a wireless network dedicated solely to stream music, but you can't argue with its reliability and low latency. You'll also get a much more reliable audio streaming experience while your home wireless network is also being used by other tablets and laptops compared to wireless audio on speakers that share the same network.
You'll also have to configure the Sonos to find your personal music collection. If it's stored on your PC, it's as easy as pointing it to the right folder, although note that you'll need to leave your computer running to access that music. You can also have Sonos pull music off a network attached storage (NAS) device, although setup is slightly more difficult, since I needed to input the network address of my NAS. It supports a reasonably large assortment of file formats (including FLAC and Apple Lossless), although high-resolution audio isn't supported.
For those who already own or have been considering a Sonos Playbar, the Play:1 also becomes a well priced wireless rear channel option. When your only option was to invest in additional Play:3 speakers you were closing in on an extra grand to get a surround sound experience. With the Play:1 entering the scene you can be running great home theatre audio wirelessly for a price comparable to any other dedicated home theatre system but with serious added music versatility when the TV is turned off.
What can you stream?
Sonos has all of its competitors beat when it comes app support. Many major services are supported, including Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Cloud Player, Rdio, Deezer, MOG, Songl, and JB Hi-Fi NOW, plus plenty of neat niche services such as Wolfgang's Vault, Songza, 7Digital, 8tracks, Murfie, batanga, aupeo!, Dar.FM and Hearts of Space.
But Sonos isn't perfect. There are a few high-profile services it doesn't support, including Google Music All Access, iTunes Radio, iTunes Match, and Xbox Music. The lack of those services highlights the disadvantage of the Sonos' approach compared with simpler wireless audio solutions, like Bluetooth and AirPlay, which can stream from any app that's on your mobile device.
I felt that limitation the most when it came to podcasts. I'm heavy user of the Downcast podcast app for iOS, but with Sonos I couldn't walk into my home, take out my earbuds, and continue listening to a podcast over the Play:1; the same task is easy to do with Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers. (I could switch to Stitcher, which is supported by Sonos, but I prefer the Downcast app and it would take a while to migrate all my settings.)
Along similar lines, although Rdio is supported by Sonos, you have to access it via Sonos' app, which isn't as nice as Rdio's native app. And if you have guests, it's not as easy for them to play music straight from their mobile devices. The bottom line is that as good as Sonos is, you'll still feel some gaps in what you feel like you want to be able to do.
The apps: widely available, but showing their age
The Play:1 is controllable by Sonos' Controller app, which is available on iOS, Android, OS X, and Windows.
(Credit: Matthew Moskovciak/CNET)
The app offers up a lot of flexibility, letting you stream different music to different room or sync the same songs everywhere, but it can take some time to get used to. For example, on the Android app, if a track is currently playing and you'd like to listen to something else, you need to press a tiny nondescript button in the upper left right hand corner, select Music, then you can navigate to the music you'd like; it's not very intuitive at all. The experience is more straightforward on iOS, especially the iPad, with its generous screen space making the multi-paned layout feel less cramped.
Where the Sonos Controller really feels behind is on the aesthetic side, especially on iOS 7. It's not a bad-looking app, but it feels like a step back when you switch over from the eye candy of Rdio or the default iOS Music app.
Sound quality: a potent small room speaker
I started listening to the Play:1 in CNET's standard listening room, a medium-sized space with high ceilings. Cranking the Play:1 all the way up was enough to get reasonably loud, but that's it. That shouldn't be a surprise for a speaker this big, but don't count on filling a large room with just a single Play:1. The nice thing is that even with the volume maxed out, the Play:1 refuses to distort, so you never have to worry about the sound getting harsh.
When I added a second Play:1 speaker to the mix, syncing them as a left/right stereo pair, it made the system a lot more enjoyable to listen to, bringing out a lot more detail and space in rockers from Queens of the Stone Age's latest, "Like Clockwork," although Neil Young's "Alabama" sounded subdued. But the true stereo separation makes a huge difference, especially compared with integrated systems like the Play:3 and Play:5; I'd certainly rather pay an extra $150 for two Play:1s (AU$598) vs. a single Play:3 (AU$449).
But in a lot of ways, the Play:1 isn't designed for the kind of dedicated listening sessions I started out with. When I used the Play:1 around my home for casual listening while reading, eating, and writing this review. The Play:1 really came to life in smaller rooms, sounding surprisingly full for a mono speaker. And the ability to quickly pause and resume a Pandora station from a single button made me a lot more likely to toss on some tunes on a whim.
To wrap things up, I auditioned the Play:1 next to my old Squeezebox Radio (discontinued, but reborn at the Logitech UE Boom). Here, the Play:1 really shined, with the Squeezebox Radio sounding particularly thin, especially on cuts from Curtis Mayfield's "Roots." A few times I preferred the brighter sound of the Squeezebox Radio, but the Play:1's fuller and louder sound was the clear winner. Maybe I was expecting too much from the little guy at first.
Ultimately, I think most people will be very happy with the Play:1's sound, especially for the size. If you're particularly picky about sound quality, your best bet with Sonos is still to use your own speakers with a Connect or Connect:Amp, but that's an expensive, more complicated option that most buyers won't want to deal with.
What are the alternatives?
These days, the alternative to Sonos isn't so much a competing wireless audio system, but rather increasingly popular Bluetooth speakers. For example, the JBL Charge is AU$199.95, has a built-in 12-hour battery, and can play any music service on your mobile device, using the native interface of your apps.
On the other hand, the Charge's sound quality isn't in the same ballpark as the Play:1 and Bluetooth audio often suffers from dropouts, especially if you're over 10 feet away from the speaker. And better-sounding Bluetooth speakers, like the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II (AU$399.95), surprisingly cost more the Play:1, despite feeling like cheaper products. Still, if you value the portability and are less picky about sound quality and streaming reliability, you may be better off with a Bluetooth speaker.
There's also been an unexpected revival of interest in the wireless audio category of late, with Samsung and Bose rolling out new Sonos competitors. We've yet to test the new systems (although we're planning to soon), but neither system seems like a serious challenger at this point. Sonos supports many more services, offers a wide range of hardware, and has a proven track record of supporting its products, which is especially important for wireless audio systems.
Conclusion: you might get hooked on Sonos
When I met with the Sonos team to discuss the Play:1, one of the first things they asked me was whether they'd won me as a customer yet. The answer was no. Despite all the praise CNET has heaped on the Sonos ecosystem, the pricing was always too steep for me, and while I liked the Play:3 and Play:5 speakers, I didn't love them enough to splurge.
With the Play:1, I'm closer than I've ever been before, especially with the current promotion that includes a free Sonos Bridge. And that's exactly what I suspect the Play:1 was designed to do, create a lot of first-time Sonos buyers.