Sonos Play:1 review

Sonos, the wireless digital audio solution, offers great audio solutions for the home - but it's also been a bit of a rich man's game. Or it has been until now, as the Sonos Play:1 is a step towards changing that.

A typical Sonos system starts at over £250 and climbs rapidly upwards depending on what device, or devices, you go for. It can stack up even higher if you take advantage of the multi-room feature - a key component of the Sonos offering - where you can place different and multiple devices in separate rooms around the house.

The Play:1, on the other hand, is ready to go straight out of the box and priced at a more affordable £169. But has the company cut too many corners in delivering something much cheaper than it has done before?

Design

The Sonos Play:1 is a dinky bookshelf speaker designed to sit on a shelf or kitchen counter out of the way. It's also surprisingly heavy. Unlike the Play:3 and Play:5 that have a  flatter wider design and larger footprint, the Play:1 takes a more rounded approach in its design with an external mesh pattern that wraps almost all the way around. It comes in a black or white finish, there are no snazzy fashion-conscious colours on offer.

READ: Sonos Play:3 review

At about the size of a large Kilner jar, approximately 16cm high, you'll have no trouble fitting the Play:1 speaker in any room, in any situation, but you will need there to be a power socket nearby as it's not battery powered.

You'll want to own a Sonos Bridge device too - which comes bundled in for free with the Play:1 from release now until Christmas 2013 - that is used to set up SonosNet, a secure wireless mesh network whereby your various speakers can "talk" to one another and be controlled by you. 

As is standard with the Sonos, the Play:1 keeps button options to a minimum. On the top you'll find volume up and down and, new to Sonos, a play/pause button.

For those who already own a Sonos device, this play/pause button can be found in place of the mute button. It pauses your streaming music rather than just making it go silent but still using bandwidth and playing. A double tap of the button skips to the next track in the queue. Handy.

Around the back you'll find a screw hole for mounting the Play:1 on a wall, and an Ethernet socket if you want to hard-wire it into your network rather than connect it wirelessly. A tidy power socket - yeah we never thought we would fine ourselves saying that either - plugs in underneath.

Recap: From amps to wireless

Sonos has been around for over 10 years and has changed a fair bit during that time. It's evolved from amp-based units where you bought your own speakers to a more complete package of standalone speakers that connect wirelessly to a home network are easier to manage via a computer or smart device such as a phone or tablet.

The current range, which now mainly consists of the Play:5, Play:3, Playbar, Sub, and now Play:1, can be connected up in zones or up to 32 speakers in one huge system. And as it's all controlled remotely you can easily sound design your own home room by room. All you need is the Sonos Bridge that, as we say, is free with the Play:1 until Christmas 2013, will most likely already be owned by existing Sonos customers or, if not, retails for £39 should you need to pay out for one.

Streaming services

When it comes to music, Sonos can play nice with numerous streaming music services around the world including Spotify, Napster, Amazon Cloud Player, Pandora, Deezer and a whole stack you've never heard of too. It also comes with its own software if you're not into any of those.

Rather than having to dock your phone or connect it via Bluetooth, your Android or iOS phone or tablet - no other support at the time of writing - acts as the controller, grouping zones, queuing up tracks, changing volume, and leaving you in charge of controlling all the noise.

The interface is incredibly easy to use, and if you are a Spotify Premium customer it means you've got access to millions of tracks in as many rooms as you have speakers. And, obviously, no adverts.

Where the system really brings the good stuff compared to a standalone Bluetooth speaker is that you can quickly and easily add more and more speakers to your system as your needs or budget grows. You can then opt to have different music playing in different rooms or have every room playing the same music. We've had the kids listening to Bieber while we listen to Brahms with a spot of whiskey.

The Play:1 is really a mass market play by Sonos to reach a wider audience. Combined with the right streaming service we can see being a huge hit. We've been using the device in conjunction with other Sonos kit we also have around the hosue with Spotify, Amazon's Cloud Player, and TuneIn radio. It's worth bearing in mind that this set up adds a yearly cost of £142 to our music listening, about the same cost as an album a month. But it allows access to your old physical collection once you've digitised it, as well as access to all the latest tracks too.

Other music services available in the UK include - deep breath please - 7 digital, 8tracks, Aupeo!, DAR.fm Record Radio, Deezer, Hearts of Space, Last.fm, Napster, Rdio, Slacker, StitcherSmartRadio, and Wolfgang's Vault. That huge choice means you should have a music service that suits your needs.

Performance

Letting you stream the latest Justin Timberlake single is one thing, but it sounding good is a whole other thing. By that we mean the streaming quality, not the track itself. That's our Beiber legal disclaimer right there.

There is a noticeable difference in the capability of the Play:1 compared to the next speaker in the Sonos line up, the Play:3, but then at almost £100 cheaper we expected that. And the Play:1 still sounds great,

The Sonos Play:1's performance will vary depending on what room you put it in but for most UK homes, i.e. small rooms, it will be more than ample to fill the room with sound. Although we found it worked better at louder levels - a trait we've found with all the Play speakers in our experience.

Bass levels are rich and the speaker copes well with trebles too. We tried a number of bands and artists with the speaker including the movie-bass-laden Inception soundtrack, through to the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and all the latest chart releases. 

If the sound feels a little off then you do have some control over the equaliser settings including treble and bass as well as loudness, but it's fairly basic. Not that you should need to worry about changing the settings, Sonos claims, as the Play:1 is very much a straight out of the box experience. It lives up to it too.

Two is better than one

Like the other Sonos Play speakers you can pair two Sonos Play:1 speakers together to create a stereo pair. There is no technical bother to doing this - it's just a case of going into the app and pressing the button.

READ: Sonos Playbar, the ultimate home cinema setup?

Likewise you can also use the Play:1 as a more affordable and more accommodating rear satellite speaker pair for a Playbar / Sub home cinema setup. It's a lot more effective than having two Play:3 instead and is very good in practice. When we reviewed the Play:3 in this setup we felt they were overkill for their £520 outlay. Two Play:1 speakers it is still £338, though, so the full system is still undeniably expensive - but then it does sound good. 

Is there a catch?

There's always a catch isn't there? Although it's hard to find major deal-breakers with the Sonos.

For our personal experience we think Sonos is best when matched up with a streaming music service - and that adds cost. At the cheap end that means using TuneIn radio or getting an Amazon's Cloud Player account that comes with free storage for 250 songs. At the top end it means a £9.99 a month subscription from Napster or Spotify.

You could instead run your own music from a NAS (network attached storage) drive on your network instead - it's up to you. Or do both and plug into endless supplies of your own music and future music.

You'll also need to have a smartphone or tablet to control it by to get the most out of the system. Sonos makes a controller device, but you might as well buy a cheaper - and more versatile - tablet and download the app to use the system that way. You can also simply use your computer to control - but that's a bit of a faff if you are on the sofa and you want to change a track.

Lastly you'll also need power per speaker. It would have been nice to have a battery option for maximum portability around the home, but then most rooms do have power sockets.

Verdict

When we reviewed the Sonos Play:3 in July 2011 we said that it sounded great, was easy to setup, and will happily sit in you kitchen or on your bedside table replacing that digital radio that doesn't do anything apart from play what's being broadcast now. Our only real complaint at the time was that we thought it would sell better at £199 instead of £259. Two years on and we now get to see why the Play:3 wasn't £199.

The Play:1 is a great little speaker than has so much potential beyond the speaker itself that we can't recommend it enough as a starting place to embrace the Sonos system. It doesn't sound as good as the Play:3 but then this is a different proposition. This is about getting the most out of your digital streaming music service without spending a fortune in doing so. 

We can also see how this will catapult Sonos into the main stream once and for all. Buy someone one of these for Christmas and they'll be going back in the new year to set up another one in another room. Expect music in your house to multiply very quickly and for good reason: the Sonos Play:1 is great.



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