The Sonos Play range have long been at the elite end of music streaming systems, requiring kit costing hundreds of pounds to get the most out of what it can do. With the Play 1, Sonos are attempting to create an entry level device that can still hold it’s own when compared to the likes of the beefier Play 5. Does succeed? Is it worth sinking £169 on a single speaker? Read on for our review.
How Sonos Works
It’s hard to review the Play 1 without understand what it is trying to do. In short, it’s a wifi speaker that will stream audio from the internet and your local music collection. Combine this with other Sonos speakers and you can stream to any room in the house, all controlled with an app on your computer or smartphone.
Cleverly, Sonos system works by plugging a bridge into your router, and then all of the speakers connecting to that via a mesh network – meaning that the connections get better and stronger the more devices you add. The down side is that this means to make the Play 1 work you’ll also need a Sonos Bridge, adding another £39 to the cost, but the up side is that until the new year, Sonos are chucking a Bridge in for free with every purchase of a Play 1.
The Play 1 itself is pretty nifty. Despite being positioned as an “entry level” device, it certainly looks pretty classy. The main body is metal (compared to plastic on the earlier Play 5), so it feels expensive. Other than a couple of buttons on top though, there’s not much to it – all of the magic happens on the inside.
Sound-wise it’s pretty excellent for the price. Crank the volume up nice and loud and the bass doesn’t sound at all weedy (you’ll never want to listen to anything out of tinny laptop speakers ever again), and in my completely unscientific test, the quality of the audio held up when moving around the room (there was not noticeable sweet-spot – things like lyrics were audible throughout). This said – I’m happy to caveat my opinion on the sound quality on the basis that I like punk, which uses three chords and shouts – so if you’re more into your Stravinsky than your Strummer, your mileage may vary.
Connecting to your Sonos bridge is nice and easy too – simply choose to add a device in the software, hit the two buttons on top simultaneously and within seconds it’ll have connected to the system.
The one new feature that the Play 1 introduces to the Sonos range is the “Mute” button, which is found on older devices has been replaced with a “Play/Pause” button – the subtle difference is that it means you can pick-up listening wherever you left off, and crucially, it allows you to get home, walk into your house and tap the top of your Play 1 and start music playing immediately – rather than going through the app. Cleverly though – this functionality won’t be exclusive to the Play 1, as it’s being added to the older kit through software updates.
How the Play 1 interacts with the rest of the Sonos system is the interesting bit. After all – connections are what makes things interesting. If you’ve used a Sonos before this will all be familiar to you – they haven’t broke what already works so well.
Setting up the software is easy. On the desktop app (I tested on the Mac OS version), it’ll walk you through adding devices (and installing any software updates), and then you’ll be presented with a familiar media player. You can add your music folders on your computer as media sources, which the software will then read all of your music from, and here you can also select to tune into internet radio (powered by TuneIn) or add other services – such as Spotify.
Mercifully, given the wide range of media options you can also add different sources as a “Sonos Favourite” giving access to your favourite radio stations, albums and Spotify playlists in less clicks.
Once you have your media setup, it’s simply a case of selecting a speaker, or a group of speakers and hitting play. It may be a simple pleasure – but in the course of testing the Play 1, I’ve discovered there’s a simple pleasure in being able to listen to some ska and skank from the living room into the kitchen, uninterrupted.
What’s cool is that you can group speakers – so simultaneously have some black metal playing in the living room and kitchen, whilst having Coldplay boring everyone in the bedroom. You can also pair speakers in the same room, creating left and right channels – and apparently if you’re affluent enough to buy all of the Sonos kit (say, for you yacht), then you can use the Play 1 in conjunction with a Sonos Playbar on your telly, to create a Dolby 5.1 surround sound system where you can also pump the sound output around your house.
My favourite thing about the way Sonos works is that you don’t have to leave any specific device on. If you’re listening to a stream (such as Spotify or the radio), it’s all controlled through the Sonos devices, so you can shut down your computer – it takes the stream directly rather than ‘via’ your computer.
Delightfully, there’s also a sleep timer and alarm clock functionality. This meant I was able to go to sleep last night listening to the gentle strumming of Billy Bragg’s latest album (faded out nicely rather than stopped dead after 30 minutes), and wake up this morning to the Today Programme on Radio 4 (because why wake up happy when you can wake up angry?).
The Sonos is really great – but it’s also really expensive. Unsurprisingly if you pay Ferrari prices, you’ll tend to get a Ferrari – and it’s the same here. Whilst I’m not entirely convinced £169 is “entry level”, it doesn’t stop me from recommending the Sonos Play 1 to anyone looking for an easy and functional music streaming solution.
There are a few things missing that I’d hope/expect to have on such a premium device. It’d be nice if, like with the Apple competitor Airplay, there were some way to take all of the audio from my computer and output it to the Play 1. It seems mad that I’ve got these really nice speakers, yet if I want to watch a YouTube video or edit my podcast, then I have to do it with my laptop’s crappy speakers.
Similarly – whilst there are huge advantages of running all of the plug-in services, like Spotify, from inside the Sonos app, it does make functionality slightly more limited. I’ve no doubt Sonos will keep pace with new features and the like eventually, but it’d be great if they could hurry up and add Spotify Radio functionality – in which you can select an artist, and it will cycle through similar artists.
It’d also be great if the Sonos software supported podcasts and the BBC iPlayer, for catch-up radio.
What should be clear though is that these quibbles are very minor indeed. And if the only criticisms I have are this small – then Sonos are definitely doing something very, very right.
The Sonos Play ecosystem is a hugely impressive one – and the Play 1 in particular is a well built, easy to use device. Whilst as I say, I’m sceptical of the “entry level” tag, if you can afford it then the Play 1 is is a great device to start your Sonos system off, and could change the way you consume audio in your home.
It’ll be available from the 29th October for £169.
By James O'Malley | October 14th, 2013