I’ve had the opportunity to play with many Sonos products over the years and have watched with interest as the company has expanded from a specialized player found mostly in independent, audiophile stereo stores to a nationally recognized brand with a growing product line. And while it still continues to offer premium equipment, Sonos has also branched out into less expensive gear. Up until a month ago, the price of entry to the Sonos streaming music ecosystem was $329 for a Play:3 speaker plus $59 for a Bridge (needed to connect the wireless speaker to your Wi-Fi network). The latest addition to the Sonos line-up makes the high quality wireless audio even more affordable. The Play:1 which hit shelves in October, goes for $199 but still offers high quality sound and the ability to be integrated (now or later) as part of a larger Sonos music network.
I’m not going to go through the whole Sonos networking and setup spiel here — you can read about it on the Sonos website. The basic concept is that a bridge is used to connect to your Wi-Fi, the Sonos components all connect to the bridge, and you control them with an app on your mobile device or software on your computer. You can stream music from a library or directly from a Wi-Fi connected iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or Android device running the Sonos app — a huge range of formats is supported including the usual suspects like MP3, AAC and WMA. The company also supports most popular streaming Internet radio services. Once your Sonos network is set up, you can continue adding speakers through the house and control them all.
Now that you know the basics, how does the Play:1 sound?
Pretty darn good for something this size. Although quite compact, this is a solid unit (just over 4 lbs) and quite attractive — you’re not going to mistake it for a typical portable speaker. Inside are a pair of Class-D digital amplifiers, a tweeter and a 3.5-inch ‘mid-woofer.’ The Play:1 can go loud without distortion or buzzing, and the sound is impressive for such a small package. It will be enough to fill a mid-sized room with quality music. A few things to note, though. While the bass is pretty solid, it’s not booming — so if you want the room to shake, you’ll want something with more oomph! in the bottom end. I also found the treble a little subdued (although you can tweak this with the EQ).
Most importantly, this is a mono speaker. The sound is flat compared to a stereo speaker system. However, Sonos has an answer. Buy a second Play:1 and the two can be configured as a stereo pair. They’re even better than an all-in-one stereo system because you can position the speakers anywhere for real stereo separation. I’ve done this with previous Sonos speakers and the difference is instantly notable. That would be my preferred setup, but of course that doubles your price of entry.
Should you choose the Play:1 over a similarly priced Bluetooth speaker? That depends on your needs and future plans.
If you already have a Sonos network or plan to start one in the future, it’s a no-brainer–go with the Play 1. Buy a Sonos Playbar for your home theater system and a pair of Play:1s can also become the rear speakers for 5.1 setup.
If sound quality is a key requirement, I tend to avoid Bluetooth. It may not be noticeable in most speakers at this price point, but I find that compression means Bluetooth doesn’t always sound as good. That being said, Bluetooth speakers are much easier to manage if you have a wide range of devices that will be streaming and smartphone-equipped friends popping by who want to play DJ (casual Bluetooth pairing is easier than requiring an app be installed).
If portability is your thing, the Sonos Play:1 can be unplugged and moved from room to room (even out on the deck if your Wi-Fi network extends that far), but it’s not like a candy bar style portable Bluetooth speaker you can grab and plunk anywhere without thinking. It also requires power — no battery option.
I’ve been building up a collection of portable speaker docks and wireless speakers over the years and switched to a sound bar over the full home theater kit when we had kids (a lot less speaker to pull over and no wires to be yanked out). But over the past few years I’ve seen Apple switch up its dock connector and wireless streaming grow in popularity, making older docks less useful and sometimes obsolete. If I had a do-over, I’d probably start with a Sonos Playbar for the rec room and a pair of Play:1 speakers for the living room and start building from there, knowing that as my needs expand there’s always another component I can add.
The Sonos Play:1 retails for $199 and Sonos has been including a free Bridge as a package.