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What to Think About When You’re Thinking About Buying a Sonos Speaker
Every non-incidental speaker in my apartment is Sonos. I sort of can’t believe it either.
Never heard of Sonos? Let me explain it very briefly: Sonos makes speakers. Each of those speakers are connected to each other and the internet. That means you can control them with your computer or your phone, organize them into groups, or quickly play the same thing on every speaker in your house.
The sound quality of Sonos speakers ranges from “really good” to “excellent,” but never all the way to “the best speaker ever made.” But audio sound quality is highly subjective, and as a person who spent over a decade writing about and reviewing electronics, including audio hardware, I have landed firmly in the “I’d rather be listening to new music than worrying that the music I’m listening to sounds perfect” camp. I just want good enough. Sonos is good enough.
So are you that person? Do you want to have very nice sounding, perfectly synced audio in every room of your house? Do you listen to music mostly on a streaming service, like Apple Music or Spotify or Amazon Music? Do you think that paying about twice as much for a speaker than most other common brands—but about 1/5th the price of high-end audio equipment—makes sense?
And most importantly: Are you ready to lock yourself into a single brand of speakers for, oh, the next decade?
If so, let me tell you what I would suggest doing to get into the world of Sonos.
The Three Main Types of Sonos Speakers
1. The Speakers You Plug Into An Outlet
Sonos has a surprisingly varied product line, although you wouldn’t quite know it at first glance, as they do a good job of focusing on their main category: standalone, self-powered speakers.
That “main” line of Sonos speakers revolves around the Sonos One, a $200 monophonic speaker about the size of an old-school can of coffee. (Monophonic means it mixes both channels of a normal stereo song into a single speaker.)
The Sonos One on its own sounds quite nice. If you add a second one, you can create a "Stereo Pair" in a single room. That sounds even better.
The One is sort of the "Where to start" Sonos speaker. It is unobtrusive in design (white or black). It makes enough volume to fill up almost any room. It's fine being used in a bathroom, even if it isn't water resistant. It's the speaker that, until recently, was the (ahem) one to buy to put in every room of your house.
In our 2-bedroom apartment, we have four Sonos Ones: a stereo pair in my office, two non-stereo paired units on either side of the ~400 sq ft living room/kitchen "great room," and one in a bathroom. (Frankly, we have more than we need, but sometimes I can't resist a deal.)
There is also the Sonos Five. (There used to be another speaker in the middle, the Sonos 3, but it has been discontinued.)
I was gifted a Sonos Five once. It was so loud that I only ever used it at low volume indoors. It sounded fantastic, but I soon sold it to buy two Ones instead. I can only presume that the two Fives in the above picture are facing into a cavernous room fit for dinner parties or for repairing ICBMs, because those could get very, very loud.
The Five is stereo when alone—but stereo coming from one box, so think "separated" but not "surround"—and also able to be one-channel-per-speaker stereo when paired.
The Five is really quite lovely, but very expensive at $500. I would be reticent to recommend anyone dip their toe into Sonos with a Five.
One possible scenario that might justify starting with a Five, though, is that the Five also has a line-in port, so you could use it to output the sound from, say, a record turntable or an existing audio setup to both the Five and any other connected Sonos speakers. Yet if you have any nice audio stuff already, you probably already have opinions on Sonos, good and bad.
The Home Theater Stuff
Sonos also makes sound bars designed to work with your television. There were some older models including the PlayBar and the PlayBase, but both have been discontinued to be replaced by two very nice new units: the Beam and the Arc. (The Arc is pictured above.)
We have a Beam, which sits on a little shelf above the television in our bedroom. (The only TV in our apartment, since we use our living room area as a second office.) While the Beam has the same microphone and capacitive-touch buttons as the other standalone speakers, the obvious difference is that it also has HDMI ports. Of course the equally obvious difference is that it's flat and wide, to better position its speakers in a way to provide simulated surround sound when used without any other speakers—it's a soundbar.
The Arc is effectively the same idea, but has more speakers, including ones that fire upwards to bounce sound off your ceiling—another way to simulate surround sound. I have not used an Arc, but by all reports they sound fantastic.
Both soundbars are common entry points into the Sonos system. As standalone soundbars go, they're more expensive than many brands. (Vizio, in particular, makes several excellent packages that often include physical surround speakers and a subwoofer for prices similar to the Sonos Arc alone.) But they also have all the voice control and streaming features that most other soundbars lack, and have the full Apple AirPlay 2, Google, and Alexa support of any other Sonos speaker. I think many people end up with a Beam or an Arc as their first Sonos speaker because they've already decided they're ready to spend a few hundred bucks on a television sound system of some sort, and getting a Sonos is then just a couple hundred more.
Funnily enough, buying just a soundbar as your first Sonos speaker doesn't let you experience the one thing that was the whole point Sonos was invented in the first place: easy, multi-room audio.
What you do get, should you like your new Beam or Arc, is an example of how the Sonos speaker systems get steadily better as you keep adding new speakers. Pair a couple of rear surround sound speakers like the Ones with a soundbar, run Trueplay tuning, and you're done. Because it's all designed to work together, your soundbar now doesn't have to try to use all its speakers to simulate surround sound, so it can use those to increase the volume and fidelity of the front channels.
The same thing happens if you add in a Sonos Sub. (A painful $600, and rarely on sale.) Group it with the soundbar and surrounds in the app, run Trueplay, and now all of your other home theater speakers stop trying to play deep bass noise and instead and can use their drivers to focus more on mids and highs.
That's a huge part of the whole Sonos experience. Once you've invested into the system, every new speaker you add just makes things a little bit better, more or less automatically.
Plus, because the speakers are connected to the internet and can get new firmware, Sonos even adds or tweaks features occasionally. The Arc just got a tweak to its Dolby Atmos capability a couple of weeks ago that lets users manually tweak some of its surround settings. Not a huge thing, but cool. And not something most other speaker sets are going to get, as software is rarely most speaker companies' biggest strength.
If you decide that you want to test the Sonos lifestyle with a home theater package, I wouldn't discourage you from doing it. Sonos even gives you a slight discount when you buy a bundle, like this Arc package that includes two Ones as surround and a Sub for $1850. That's a lot of money for a "cheap" surround system but a fraction of the cost of high-end home theater hardware. And that setup will sound incredible in almost any room and have enough volume to give you a true "just like it sounds at the movies" experience.
Not sure if you should get a Beam for $400 or an Arc for $800? I know it's 2x the price, but if I were buying now I'd probably just get an Arc, even though it's physically wider than my television and we live in a tiny apartment. It supports a few more modern home theater audio features like the aforementioned Dolby Atmos surround sound format, has a physically wider array of speakers, and will just generally be better than the Beam forever. That said, I'm in no rush to upgrade my Beam, which already makes more sound than we feel comfortable using in an apartment building.
If you do start your Sonos experiment with a home theater speaker—and you're not already wincing at dropping a bunch of cash—I'd throw one more of the standalone speakers into the mix for another room. (Probably a One or an Ikea Symfonisk.) Or if you bought a bundle that includes some surround speakers, unpair them from the home theater group and put them in another room or two for a while. Get a feel for multi-room audio. That's a defining quality of Sonos, and if it just doesn't get you that excited, then great! You can safely look at cheaper, great sounding, slightly less "smart" alternatives for future speaker purchases.
2. The Built-Ins
If you're just getting into Sonos, this is not the place to start. Sonos licenses their smart speaker tech to an architectural audio company called Sonance, who makes some Sonos speakers that can be permanently installed into homes. I'm sure they're nice, but for our life—which has yet so far not led to us buying a house, let alone picking a city in which to permanently live—they're not even on my radar.
Although not technically a built-in speaker, Sonos also makes the Amp, which lets you connect most any regular speaker to a Sonos network. It's $650. I think that's too expensive. (Especially now that there are much cheaper DIY options.) But if you're a person who already has a bunch of really nice hi-fi equipment and simply want to bring it into the streaming age, the Amp or the $450 Port are your simplest options.
One thing that might make you consider the Sonance product line: just every so often I see these for sale used at pretty reasonable prices, surely the result of a house tear-down or remodel. (Used architectural speakers often don't carry much resale value, even Sonos-compatible ones.) Not a place to start, but maybe worth keeping a Craigslist alert or similar on file just in case.
3. The Weird, Fun Stuff
For years, Sonos kind of refused to expand beyond their core mission of home audio, either because they didn't see a market there or because they just didn't have the resources. That changed in late 2019 when they introduced the Sonos Move, a $400 semi-portable speaker that had a built-in battery. Sonically, the Move is something like a Sonos One, but can be carried out to the yard for a BBQ or lounging. (It also works perfectly fine inside on its charger.)
The Move is...fine? It sounds fantastic and makes more than enough volume for most sub-rager outdoor situations. But it's not waterproof and not very portable—certainly not something you'd throw into a backpack. It does have Bluetooth support—a first for Sonos—so it can be used away from your home Wi-Fi network. (At a campground, say, at least for 11 hours or so until the battery runs out.)
But the best thing about the Move is that it showed that Sonos was finally going to start experimenting with speakers that could be used outside of the home. And this year, they've launched their first truly portable speaker, the Roam.
We actually just got a Roam for our house, and while the "new toy energy" is still emanating, I'm a little hesitant to recommend it without a few caveats.
First of all, battery life is pretty bad. If you leave the microphone on to use voice assistants, some folks are reporting battery life as low as 4 or 5 hours. (According to Sonos, the Roam should get "up to 10 hours of continuous playback.") As I'll get into in a minute, we don't use voice assistants besides Siri, but one of the nice features of the Roam—automatically adjusting Trueplay audio tuning—requires the microphone to be on at all times.
I was on a trip for the last week, so missed the birth of our beautiful baby speaker. But my wife has been using the Roam since it arrived a couple of weeks ago and has reported that it's died on her a few times unexpectedly. This is far from any sort of proper test, mind you, but for a $180 portable speaker, it's something I'm preemptively anxious about. We'll see.
Yet the Roam is also a perfect example of what the investment into Sonos can bring.
Krystal texted me a few days after the Roam arrived with a picture of it perched on the little folding camp table we set up for her to be able to work on the balcony during the summer. The picture was captioned "My little buddy." She's not gear-averse, but I can count on one hand the number of times she's gotten excited about some new smarthome gadget I've foisted into our life.
She's been carrying the Roam around the apartment into the bathroom to listen to music in the shower, throwing it in a fanny pack for walks down to the river, and even made it a little charging nook to make sure it was always plugged into its USB-C charger so it was fresh in the morning. We haven't even used it for the main reason we bought it—listening to music when we kayak the nearby Hudson River and eat lunch under our favorite willow tree and pick cigarette butts out of the sandbar—and we're already joking about getting another so we have his-and-hers.
There's something very stupid about this!
The basic functionality—just being a Bluetooth speaker—could be ably addressed by something that cost half the price and probably would have twice the battery life. But because we're already into the Sonos ecosystem, we've bought something that performs its core job (making noise for as long as possible) only so-so because it also can do a bunch of other stuff. Stuff like serving as another permanent speaker in our home or transferring the same song playing on it to another speaker with a single button.
That's the magic of "It just works" stuff like Sonos or Apple devices: after a certain point you'll pay more to have something that works together with all your other expensive stuff because, well, it's just easier. And Sonos has finally started to explore—or exploit, depending on how you value interoperability or just price—this quality by expanding beyond the home speaker. Headphones are almost certainly coming soon, as is car audio.
Strangely, the Roam is actually a pretty decent place to dip your toe into Sonos, despite the price premium. It costs about the same as a One, but it's portable. You could even make an argument that buying two Roams for stereo pairing in a single room would be a decent way to get the full range of the modern Sonos experience—indoors and outdoors—before committing to the better-sounding plug-in speakers.
But there's an even better option to see if Sonos is for you, in my opinion, thanks to a collaboration with a certain Swedish wood pulp relocator.
Ikea + Sonos
In 2019, Sonos announced a partnership with Ikea, the home goods giant. Instead of just selling existing Sonos speakers at Ikea, they instead collaborated on two new speakers under the "Symfonisk" brand: a relatively normal bookshelf speaker (pictured above) and a lamp. (A lamp!)
The bookshelf speakers forgo the microphones, laser-perforated metal grilles and slick touch buttons of regular Sonos speakers and instead have a plastic chassis, a cloth mesh cover, and regular ol' clicky buttons.
I freaking love the Symfonisks.
First of all, they're relatively inexpensive: $100 for just the speaker (available in white and black, with colorful, replaceable covers for $8 and wall-mount brackets for $20); $200 for the lamp. But they sound great. Not as good as a One, maybe, but more than good enough for normal people.
Plus they're real Sonos speakers, capable of being Trueplay'd (using an iPhone and running the Trueplay Tuning feature in the Sonos app). They can be used as surround sound speakers when paired to a Sonos soundbar connected to your television. (That's how we use the two we have, mounted as little shelves on either side of our bed.) And again, they're $100—half the price of a Sonos One.
Now price is all relative. And Sonos is undoubtedly in the "attainable luxury" category (read: cheaper than the high-end but more expensive than "regular" stuff). But with the introduction of the Symfonisk partnership there's a path into multi-room Sonos audio for most homes at well under $1,000. (And that's presuming you have a house with lots of rooms.)
If you want to see if you'd use Sonos, there's no better entry point than Symfonisk in my opinion. Order a couple from Ikea, put one in one room and one in another and see if you like the whole idea. If you don't, they're easily sold for most of what you paid. And if you do like Sonos' "whole thing," you can use your Symfonisks with a new Sonos sound bar or demote them to less commonly used spaces when you upgrade your main rooms to Ones or some nicer-sounding speaker, etc.
And I haven't even gotten into the world of "Symonfisk Hacks." The details are beyond what I want to get into here, but the gist is this: while Sonos sells modules without built-in speakers that let you connect your non-smart speakers to your Sonos network, they're way overpriced. ($600 or so.) I'm sure that's part of their business case—nobody would buy their speakers if they could just reuse what they already have, I presume is their reasoning—but that kind of sucks when it comes to getting people who have already invested a lot into speakers to try out the wonders of Sonos.
Fortunately, tinkerers have figured out that wiring in some speaker connectors to a Symfonisk is pretty simple, which means you can use a Symfonisk (with or without its built-in speakers) as a cheap connector to get your old speakers or subwoofer connected to Sonos, including using Trueplay tuning on your old hardware. Pretty slick.
As for the lamp, well... $200 has thus far been too expensive for me to take the plunge. But I want one real bad. It's a lamp! That has a speaker! It's probably not a great lamp or a great speaker! I don't care! I've been looking for a used one for a while, but it seems like they haven't sold many in the first place, as used ones rarely come up for sale.
I worried that (presumably) poor sales for the weird lamp might signal the end of "weird Sonos + Ikea" experiments, but if the rumors are true, there's even more weird stuff ahead, including a picture frame with a built-in speaker. I don't need a picture frame with a built-in speaker. I will be buying it immediately when it comes out.
The Older Models
Last year, Sonos deprecated some old speakers that had hardware that was too old to perform all the new tricks their current line-up could do. (Remember, Sonos launched its first product in 2005.) That split their product line into two eras: S1 and S2. Everything from, oh, the last five years or so works fine on S2. Everything else stays on a separate network with less features on S1. If you keep all your old Sonos hardware but also have some new hardware, you basically have two separate Sonos systems.
Worse, when Sonos started deprecating some of those speakers they "bricked" them if the owners wanted to get a discount code to upgrade. That means they sent a signal to the speaker to not work every again, even for a new owner. I get what they were thinking. "If we're going to give you a 30%+ discount on a new speaker, we want to make sure you're not lying to us about upgrading and are just going to sell your old speaker to someone else."
But this thinking really sucked.
It's one thing for an electronics company to say "We're no longer going to support your old purchase." It's another thing to make a customer turn a still-working piece of hardware, which took labor and materials and resources to create, into junk just so they can give a company even more money to stay inside the ecosystem. It's hilariously worse to call this program "Recycle Mode," which if you recall from grade school, is the last step of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" workflow. Fortunately, Sonos customers threw a justified fit and Sonos now gives you the option to resell or send back your old hardware. (This also meant that the 30% trade-in discounts are basically gone, although you can still find people selling 15% discounts online for a nominal cost if you look around.)
This isn't a big factor if you're just getting into Sonos now, of course, but worth keeping in mind before you dip into your kids' TikTok Influencer Academy fund; eventually a "smart speaker" is going to become a "barely competent speaker" thanks to the march of technology.
A final tip for scroungers like me: Even though it looks like all the older hardware, the now-discontinued Sonos 3 actually works with S2 devices and can occasionally be found used.
An Aside About Voice Control
Most Sonos speakers now support voice control, which isn't a separate system from Sonos, but instead integration with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. That means the Sonos One's built-in microphone is always listening to you, just like an Amazon-branded Alexa device would do.
Bluntly, I hate voice control in general, but especially voice control that is happening "in the cloud." I just don't want a bunch of microphones connected to the internet constantly sending my conversation up to a server somewhere, figuring out if I said a trigger word or not. Fortunately, Sonos has a button that allows you to turn the microphone off, as well as settings in its app that let you deactivate the voice control entirely.
I did play around with Alexa integration for a while. It works, but doesn't always have the same features that an Amazon-made Alexa device has. (My fiddling around was a couple of years back, so perhaps it has improved somewhat.) No matter how well it works, I don't want always-on microphones in my house, so have turned this off completely.
We do use Siri on our Apple devices—which may also be dumb, but at least Siri processes your voice only on your local device, not up in the cloud—and while Sonos and Siri integration is fine, it's relatively basic. (Although it has improved a bit recently.)
My point is this: even though a huge selling point of buying Sonos speakers is that they integrate into voice control services of your choice, I don't use any of that, and I still think Sonos speakers are worth the price premium.
And One More Aside About Trueplay
To me, no other single feature defines the current benefit of Sonos than Trueplay. Trueplay is a feature on the Sonos iOS app. (Yup, only iOS and not Android.)
Trueplay uses your phone or tablet's microphone to map the sound of your Sonos speakers in your specific room. Then it automatically adjusts your speakers levels to account for things variations like the shape and surface material of your walls, placement and balance between other speakers, etc. Essentially, it's just listening to a test sound pulse being played through your speakers and matching it to what it knows that original test sound pulse should sound like.
It works. And it works immediately. If you don't notice a difference between how an fresh-out-of-the-box Sonos speaker sounds and how the same speaker sounds after Trueplay, you've either sitting in a room that was already acoustically well-matched to your Sonos speaker or you just aren't the kind of person who can tell much of a difference in audio quality.
If the latter sounds like the kind of sneering thing an audio snob would say, I don't mean it that way. I think there are plenty of things to worry about in life than maximizing your home music audio fidelity. Which is why I like Sonos and why I like Trueplay: I know it's going to sound better than most speakers; I know I don't have to do much work to make sure I'm getting the most out of it, because Trueplay handles it.
A Big Factor I Completely Glossed Over: Your Wi-Fi Network
Sonos are Wi-Fi connected smart speakers. If your home network is spotty—you occasionally drop connections, perhaps you live in a crowded area with clashing Wi-Fi networks—then your Sonos will be spotty. With a solid, dependable home Wi-Fi network (including your internet connection if you are streaming music from a cloud service) setting up and using a Sonos system is dead simple. But it's not unheard of for people to have problems getting a Sonos to be reliable straight out of the box. (They do have some more products they'll sell you that can improve just the Sonos wireless, but let's just hope that you won't ever need those.)
My personal experience has been that my Sonos works more-or-less flawless for years, but only after I did some research to track down a couple of weird issues that I ran into at first that required me to reset some speakers back to factory defaults and reconnect them. That's something I was not only capable of doing, but perversely enjoy. And I'm not using a nice router, just the one that came bundled with my internet connection.
All the more reason to start simple, in my opinion, with one or two speakers. And except in larger homes that already need multiple access points to distribute Wi-Fi, in general once your have your Sonos working reliably it's safe to presume that any additional speakers will be equally easy to set up and use.