Sonos has long been the best wireless audio solution, but recommending its pricey products always ended with a similar caveat: "if you can afford it."
The new Play:1 ($199/AU$299) finally shakes that final reservation, making the Sonos experience available at the lowest price yet. It's a beautiful little bookshelf speaker that feels like it should cost more than it does, with a refined design that looks great anywhere you put it. No major compromises have been made in the name of affordability. You get the full Sonos experience, with rock-solid stability and a long list of supported services, including Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Amazon Cloud Player, and SiriusXM. While its sound quality may not satisfy the pickiest audiophiles, it's awfully good for the size, especially for the secondary listening locations (bedroom, kitchen, office) the Play:1 fits best in.
It all adds up to make the Play:1 our favorite wireless speaker yet, earning it CNET's Editors' Choice Award in the category. If you've been hesitating about making the jump to Sonos, the Play:1 is a great way to start.
Editors' note: Since this review was published, Sonos has updated its software to allow for direct connection to Wi-Fi wireless networks. It has also updated its control app with an updated design and support for universal search.
Design: A lovely compact speaker
The Play:1 is the best-looking Sonos speaker yet. The Play:3 and Play:5 both have a refined look that tends to blend well into your home decor, but can sometimes feel just a touch bland. The Play:1 has the signature Sonos look, but adds just a little bit of stylish sizzle, especially the black model. (It also comes in white.) It looks at home in a kitchen, bedroom or living room, and it's humidity-resistant, so it works as a bathroom speaker, too.
For a $200 product, the Play:1 is exceptionally well-made. You'll notice its heft as soon as you pull it out of the box and although the cabinet is essentially all plastic, it never feels cheap. Even the power cord on the bottom has a nifty design, tucking into the bottom for a seamless design. Despite the weight of the Play:1, note that there's no battery built-in. The Play:1 is designed to be placed in a room and left there.
There's a slight change to the standard Sonos controls on the top. The familiar volume rocker and status light remain the same, but the Mute button has been replaced with Play/Pause. It's a smart change, since it still immediately quiets the speaker, plus you have the option to resume whatever you were listening to with a single touch, even if it's hours later. (Sonos is also releasing a firmware upgrade to change the functionality of the Mute button to Play/Pause on its existing speakers.)
Behind the nonremovable grille, there's a midrange woofer and a tweeter. That makes it Sono's first "mono" speaker, although you were unlikely to hear much true stereo separation on the other models, especially the Play:3. It's also powered speaker, so there's no need for speaker wire or a separate amp, plus you can sync it with a second Play:1 for true stereo pairing.
Setup: As painless as wireless audio gets
If you've already got a Sonos system, adding the Play:1 is as easy as you'd expect: tell the app you want to add a speaker, press the volume-up and Play buttons when prompted, and you're good to go. It's seriously that easy.
If the Play:1 is your first Sonos, you have have two choices: you can plug in an Ethernet cable to the speaker's backside, or you can connect it to your Wi-Fi network. That second option is a new feature as of a September 2014 software update; previously, at least one Sonos component needed a wired connection. Now, if you've got three or fewer Sonos units on your network, you'll probably be fine on Wi-Fi. If not, you can invest in a Sonos Bridge ($50/AU$75) with a wired connection.
While other systems have tried to make a virtue of running on your existing Wi-Fi network, Sonos' mesh network is really a strength. It may seem redundant to have a wireless network dedicated solely to stream music, but you can't argue with its reliability and low latency.
You'll also have to configure the Sonos to find your personal music collection. If it's stored on your PC, it's as easy as pointing it to the right folder, although note that you'll need to leave your computer running to access that music. You can also have Sonos pull music off a network attached storage (NAS) device, although setup is slightly more difficult -- I needed to input the network address of my NAS. It supports a reasonably large assortment of file formats (including FLAC and Apple Lossless), although high-resolution audio isn't supported.
What can you stream?
Sonos has all of its competitors beat when it comes app support. Many major services are supported, including Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Cloud Player, Rdio, SiriusXM, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Rhapsody, MOG, Slacker, and Last.fm, plus plenty of neat niche services such as Wolfgang's Vault, Songza, 7Digital, 8tracks, Murfie, batanga, aupeo!, Dar.FM and Hearts of Space. For comparison, Samsung's Shape M7 supports only Amazon Cloud Player, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and Rhapsody; Bose's SoundTouch only supports Pandora.
But Sonos isn't perfect. There are a few high-profile services it doesn't support, including Google Music All Access, iTunes Radio, iTunes Match, and Xbox Music. The lack of those services highlights the disadvantage of the Sonos' approach compared with simpler wireless audio solutions, like Bluetooth and AirPlay, which can stream from any app that's on your mobile device.
I felt that limitation the most when it came to podcasts. I'm heavy user of the Downcast podcast app for iOS, but with Sonos I couldn't walk into my home, take out my earbuds, and continue listening to a podcast over the Play:1; the same task is easy to do with Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers. (I could switch to Stitcher, which is supported by Sonos, but I prefer the Downcast app and it would take a while to migrate all my settings.)
Along similar lines, although Rdio is supported by Sonos, you have to access it via Sonos' app, which isn't as nice as Rdio's native app. And if you have guests, it's not as easy for them to play music straight from their mobile devices. The bottom line is that as good as Sonos is, you'll still feel some gaps in what you feel like you should be able to do.
The apps: Widely available, but showing their age
The Play:1 is controllable by Sonos' Controller app, which is available on iOS, Android, OS X, and Windows.