If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Sonos must be feeling pretty flattered right about now. Either that or pretty pissed off. Ever since Denon decided to throw its hat into the wireless audio ring, it has been ripping pages from Sonos’s playbook with the kind of unapologetic swagger you’d expect from Donald Trump. Its first HEOS product line up included the HEOS 3, HEOS 5, and HEOS 7, which not only mirrored Sonos’s strategy of offering different sizes of speaker for different applications, it blatantly matched Sonos’s naming convention of using the number of speaker drivers to identify the products (Play:3, Play:5).
Sonos responded to this flattery with a lawsuit (which Denon then tried to quash) but just like Trump, Denon doubled down rather than back down. Its HEOS product line has ballooned over the last 24 months and now includes four stand-alone speakers, a soundbar/subwoofer combo, two wireless receivers (one that’s amplified and one that isn’t), a wireless range extender, and a rack-mountable four-zone amplifier and audio distribution unit. Two months ago, the company revamped almost every product to include Bluetooth and hi-res audio support under a designation it calls HS2 (look for this to know you’re buying the latest version).
During the same period, Sonos has taken a much more conservative approach to growth — possibly due to Denon’s competitive pressure — introducing only one new product (a refreshed Play:5 speaker) and one new feature: The very clever Trueplay system which tweaks EQ settings using your smartphone’s mic.
So does this mean that Sonos has ceded its pole position to Denon? No, not yet. But the race has gotten a lot closer.
It’s a whole new low
First, let’s take a look at the entry-level speaker line-up. When Denon entered the space, its HEOS 3 was the least expensive model and the only one that could be configured as a stereo pair. It was tempting to compare it to the Sonos Play:1, but neither the price point nor the tech specs were a match — the HEOS 3 was in fact a mirror of the Play:3. Now, there’s a HEOS 1, which is a suitable match for the Play:1 with a similar driver configuration and an identical price point ($199). Just like its stablemates, the HEOS 1 severely outclasses the Play:1 when it comes to features. With ethernet, USB, and 3.5mm line-in ports on the back, the HEOS 1 is much more than a wireless speaker. But what really sets it apart from the Play:1 is its built-in Bluetooth receiver and optional $99 Go Pack rechargeable battery, a combination which makes the HEOS 1 a portable, self-contained music solution, no Wi-Fi needed. It might just be the most versatile speaker on the planet. The only baffling design feature is the configuration of the top-mounted volume and mute buttons. Though they share the same placement as the Play:1, the volume-up button faces toward you and the volume-down faces away — creating a bit of cognitive dissonance versus the Play:1’s more intuitive arrangement.
But it really doesn’t matter how many features a speaker packs if it can’t deliver great sound. And while the HEOS 1 sounds decent enough for a pint-sized speaker, it never lets you forget that it’s a pint-sized speaker. The Play:1, on the other hand, sounds far better than its size suggests, emitting a well balanced mix of clear highs and deep (if not quite thumping) lows. The difference between the HEOS 1 and Play:1 is apparent even at low volume levels and with bass/treble sliders set to the midway point, but crank these adjustments to their limits and the contrast becomes stark. Starting a track playing on the HEOS 1 and then switching to the Play:1 is like going from 2D to 3D – there’s just way more depth.
My guess is that sonic performance was the price Denon had to pay to make the HEOS 1 battery-powered as an option. Whether that’s an acceptable trade-off is ultimately up to the listener, but it’s worth noting that there is already an amazing array of portable, battery-powered Bluetooth speakers if that’s what you want.