In the market for high-quality wireless speakers that stream music digitally, Sonos has been a gold standard. Its products produce sterling sound, need no wiring or professional installation and are controlled by apps on computers, tablets and smartphones. They can be used alone, or several can be networked together to form a whole-house system.
But Sonos products have been relatively expensive, ranging between $300 and $700 for a single speaker, plus $50 for a “bridge” device that plugs into your home Internet router to make the speakers’ wireless network function. And its speakers have typically been large and heavy.
Now, the Santa Barbara, Calif., company has come out with a lower-priced, smaller model that preserves its quality sound and its modular, wireless connection system. Like its larger siblings, it works with a handsome Sonos app on Macs, PCs, iPhones, iPads and Android phones and tablets to stream music either from those devices, or from the cloud via services like Pandora, Amazon and Spotify.
I’ve been testing the new $199 Sonos Play:1 and I really like it, despite a couple of downsides that Sonos is working on fixing. I found it easy to set up and use. I loved the crisp, rich sound it produced, which easily filled a large room without being at maximum volume. Sonos is even throwing in the bridge device free with the Play:1.
Like older Sonos speakers, the Sonos Play:1 plays music from computers, tablets and phones, but is more portable.
I was able to tuck away a Play:1 almost out of sight and still enjoy great sound in my large family room. I was able to combine two speakers in a single room as a paired stereo set. I was able to set up three of them in my house and either play the same song on all of them, or separate songs and playlists on each. I controlled it from computers, tablets and phones.
While the Play:1 isn’t meant to be a fully portable device and must be plugged into an electrical outlet, it’s small enough to be toted to another room occasionally. It weighs 4 pounds and is about 6 inches tall and under 5 inches wide and deep. It’s the first Sonos speaker with a play/pause button, because it’s small enough that it might be in reach on, say, a desktop or kitchen counter.
What’s the difference between the Sonos wireless speakers and smaller, battery-powered speakers for digital devices that use Bluetooth?
Its app lets you set up multiple units, with each playing different music.
These latter products are best thought of as wirelessly tethered amplifiers for smartphones and tablets. They produce good sound, but won’t work if the digital device to which they are tethered moves out of the short range of Bluetooth.
The Sonos units, such as the new Play:1, don’t rely on the device that runs the Sonos app for their Internet connection. They use their own special network to connect to the Internet. That means if you’re using an Internet source like Pandora, a Sonos speaker can keep on pumping out music long after the phone or tablet or laptop used to start the process has left the room, or the house.
If you are playing music stored on a portable device, Sonos won’t be able to keep playing the music for long after you move the device out of range. However, its range is much greater than that of a Bluetooth device. I was easily able to stream music stored on an iPad to a Sonos on another floor.
Finally, the sound from the Play:1 is much, much richer than anything I’ve heard from a portable Bluetooth speaker. Though it’s likely audiophiles will find it less impressive than the larger Sonos models. I was surprised at the good bass from such a small unit and thought the high notes and vocals were quite crisp. I am no audio expert, but the little Play:1 sounded better and stronger than some much larger speakers I’ve owned.
To set up one or more Play:1 units, you first plug the bridge accessory into your router. The bridge is a small box that emits no sound but merely sets up the Sonos wireless network (which is separate from your regular Wi-Fi network and wholly dedicated to the speakers).
The play/pause button on the Play:1.
Then you download and fire up the free app on the device of your choice — a small tablet is ideal — and briefly hold down two buttons on the top of the speaker. It gets recognized and added to the left side of the app, along with any other Play:1 units or other Sonos speakers you have.
The app lets you choose to Queue up (or immediately play) your personal music from a mobile device; play music stored on a networked computer or hard disk; or music streamed from Web services like Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Amazon and more. You can also stream radio stations and podcasts. You use the app to group and ungroup multiple Play:1 speakers so they play the same or different audio, or to set them up as a stereo pair.
The app lets you set up combined playlists and favorites from multiple sources — say, songs from your PC, plus a Pandora station or a streamed FM station from your hometown. It also sets sleep timers and alarms for the speakers.
I did find some glitches with my Play:1 test units. For one thing, there was a conflict between the Sonos network and the very latest versions of Apple’s wireless routers, which I happen to have recently bought. Sonos helped me resolve this, but be warned if you own these new routers, the conflict may shut down your home Wi-Fi network.
For another, on the iPad, I ran into a bug Sonos plans to fix where its app falsely claims it has lost connection with a speaker and can’t play a track, even though the track keeps on playing just fine.
Overall, Sonos has finally democratized its quality product line with a more affordable, and smaller, but still very good, wireless speaker.
Email Walt at email@example.com.