For the last few years, Sonos has been a leader in hi-fi wireless audio thanks to popular devices like its Play:3 and Play:5 wireless speakers. Sonos’ proprietary wireless ecosystem allows for an impressive level of control, and an array of cool features that go beyond what you’ll find in your average Bluetooth, Airplay, or Play-Fi device. However, pricing of the Play:3 and Play:5 – $300 and $400 respectively – has kept them at arm’s length for mainstream buyers.
Enter the Sonos Play:1. At $200, the baby of the Sonos family wedges its way into a highly competitive price point, while still serving up the full Sonos wireless experience. We recently went hands on with a pair of Play:1 speakers, putting them through a laundry list of music selections and real-life situations to see how they fared. Read on to see what we uncovered.
DT Video Review
Out of the box
Pulling the Play:1 towers from their black boxes, the first thing we noticed was that the speakers are quite heavy for their size. Removing the white shroud that covered the exterior of each speaker revealed a succinct tube of sound, with a robust silver screen encircling the midsection, and elegant caps of soft white plastic around the top and bottom. Two buttons sit up top: one to adjust volume and one to play and pause. The only disturbance around the silver frame was a pair of ports at the back side, one of which was an Ethernet connection, and the other appeared to be a hole for wall mounting.
Under the biodegradable bottom platform of each box we found a power cable, and a length of Ethernet wire. Also packed in our collection was a Bridge connector pad, a small white platform which previously allowed for each of the speakers to communicate with the system wirelessly through its hardwired connection into a router.
(Note: While the Bridge was necessary at the time of our review, upgrades to the system now allow all of Sonos’ speakers to autonomously connect wirelessly, with no Bridge necessary.)
Features and design
Available with either black or white accents, the Play:1 is an attractive little pod of a speaker that takes up very little real estate, making it an excellent choice for a convenient, low-profile wireless solution. The small cabinet hosts a set of mono drivers, including a 3.5-inch woofer, and a 1-inch tweeter, both powered by class-D amplifiers, and driven through DSP. While Sonos speakers receive music wirelessly, they are still constrained by a power cable.
Apart from the actual design and performance of the speakers, deciding whether the Play:1 is right for you has a lot to do with whether or not you buy into the Sonos flavor of wireless streaming. The system has plenty of attractions, but it also has some idiosyncrasies that set it apart from the common wireless speaker experience.
The Play:1 is an attractive little pod of a speaker that takes up very little real estate.
For those unfamiliar with the Sonos system, let’s first discuss what it can’t do. Sonos speakers don’t play straight from your device’s proprietary music app, which means you can’t use them as an audio source for video, or just set iTunes or Google Play to shuffle. To use the Play:1, you must download the Sonos Controller app and load music into its queue. The system can take advantage of your computer’s full music library, but to do so you’ll need the Sonos app for your PC or Mac, and you can’t access your library without the host computer being active. The ‘hi-fi’ system also doesn’t play any files above 16-bit resolution rate (CD quality), and it doesn’t like WAV files, so you have to transfer larger music files to Apple’s ALAC format, or into FLAC files.
By its very nature, the Sonos system takes a bit of extra work. But putting in the time results in some very cool features that you just can’t find in most wireless systems. As mentioned above, the system can access your entire music library, as well as songs stored on your smartphone or tablet, or files from a Network Attached System (NAS) device. Aside from those local music options, the Sonos app comes loaded with Tune-in Radio, and also works with a legion of other apps, including Rdio, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, Rhapsody, SiriusXM, iHeart Radio, and many more. One notable exclusion to the system is iTunes Radio.
Music can then be controlled from multiple different smartphones, tablets, or computers. Any change made from one device alters the entire system in a seamless transition, making each device, in essence, “Lord of the Sound.” A simple press of the top buttons of each component adds it to the system, with virtually no limit. From there you can name each speaker, or chose the room in which it will be placed from the controller app. The system is setup so that the more Sonos components you have, the cooler the experience gets. Once all components are connected, you can put them into groups, which is where the real fun begins.
Groups allow you to play music in perfect synchronization across the grid. Want to turn music down in the bedroom? Simply tap the volume bar, and get individual volume or mute control. You can also drop a speaker from a group with a simple tap. If you want to group two speakers into a stereo pair, that’s an easy fix from the settings menu, as is quick EQ control, and renaming of each speaker. Want to play a different song, or streaming app on every speaker? No problem, just break up the groups and set it up. And since the speakers don’t use your controller device’s sound system, you can make calls, surf the Web, send emails, etc., all without disturbing the music – a real coup over standard wireless systems.
Other features for playback include the ability to shuffle and crossfade songs, slide a new song into the queue by choosing “Play Now,” or if you don’t want to disturb the current track, “Play Next.” You can also create and save Sonos playlists, though you can’t do it from music stored on the controller device.
The Sonos way
While physical setup of the system couldn’t be simpler, it took a while to get used to the Controller app on our iPhone. There are some clunky design features, such as the need to back out to the main music screen to get to the settings tab. That said, the app was deceivingly simple once we got the hang of things. Almost all graphics on the iPhone app are also icons, allowing quick navigation, and the full-screen app on our Macbook was a welcome addition for making playlists and loading the queue more easily.
By its very nature, the Sonos system takes a bit of extra work.
We loved listening to the Play:1s in a stereo pair, but splitting them into two rooms created a different kind of experience, allowing for seamless music from room to room, or the selection of music in one room, and talk radio in another. We can see owners in large houses getting into the addictive habit of adding more speakers to accommodate.
As for streaming performance, the system was nearly flawless. We had two instances of buffer delay from our MacBook library, but Sonos explicitly states that the host library should be on a hardwired computer, and since ours never was, we considered a few blips a non-issue.
The easy answer to the question of how the Play:1 speakers sound is “pretty damn good.” While the system worked much better for critical listening as a stereo pair, the mono speakers still held up relatively well when separated. Some listeners may crave more bass response, but that’s why there are bigger versions, and the mini towers did an admirable job with the low end for their size, issuing waves of smooth, low-frequency audio, and musical bass lines that held up well into the 80Hz zone. We did wish for a bit more depth in the lower mids, especially on tom rolls, and hip-hop was obviously not their strong point. Still, throughout our testing the speakers provided a smooth, powerful burst of sound that was bigger and more detailed than their pint-sized frame implies.
The Play:1’s upper register was clear and delicate, while the midrange was silky smooth, if not a little cloudy at times. We heard a lack of bite in the attack of snare drums, cymbals, and stringed instruments on select tracks while perusing our catalog. A prime example came when we auditioned Ray Lamontagne’s “Old Before Your Time.” While the vocals were velvety and present, and the acoustic guitar brilliant, the banjo on the right side lost a bit of the clean twang at the string plucks, humming a little softer than expected. A bump in the treble helped to add some kick, but we had to move it back down when 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up,” came up next on shuffle, where the sharper snare in the groove sounded a little thin and bubbly.
The speakers had an affinity for detail and dynamic expression, providing some subtle nuances in vocals and stringed instruments, as well as gorgeous swells in brass, and harmonica. Acoustic music in general sounded excellent throughout most of our testing, with memorable moments from our favorites like John Denver and Nickel Creek. Reverb effects on vocal lines from artists like Muse, and Depeche Mode were well exposed, allowing us to follow the small fluttering lines of tape delay deep into the dissolving background.
Music can then be controlled from multiple different smartphones, tablets, or computers.
While results tended to vary from song to song, the speakers were less effective on their own for heavier rock songs, and music with extremely spread out stereo tracks. A lot of that can be attributed to the mono design, so depending on how you use the Play:1, it may or may not be an issue. But listening critically, widely spread tracks like the Beatles’ “Oh Darling” sounded a little squished, and didn’t provide the instrumental definition we search for, especially in the percussion and piano. Still, we were usually more than satisfied, and had much less issue when we used the tandem team together for true stereo separation.
With versatility, solid performance, clean aesthetic design, and a plethora of available features, the Sonos Play:1 serves up an impressive array of talents. While we’ve heard better options for hi-fidelity in the $400 wireless range, a pair of these speakers comes pretty close. And allowing for the ability to combine like Voltron or spread across the house, and be manipulated from anywhere in multiple ways, the Sonos Play:1 provide a truly unique and immersive wireless experience. If you want a wireless system you can build upon, or just a cool little speaker that packs a punch, we recommend checking out the Sonos Play:1.
- Clean, smooth upper register
- Good detail and dynamic expression
- Packed to the gills in features
- Excellent wireless signal
- Solid bass response for the size
- Mono speaker can lose fidelity
- Midrange a tad cloudy
Updated 9/15/2014: This review has been updated to reflect that Sonos speakers no longer require the separate Bridge adaptor piece to connect wirelessly to your LAN.