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Sonos Play:1 review: Gorgeous Sonos Play:1 hits the sweet spot

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The app offers up a lot of flexibility -- letting you stream different music to different room or sync the same songs everywhere -- but it can take some time to get used to. For example, on the Android app, if a track is currently playing and you'd like to listen to something else, you need to press a tiny nondescript button in the upper left right hand corner, select Music, then you can navigate to the music you'd like -- it's not intuitive at all. The experience is more straightforward on iOS, especially the iPad, with its generous screen space making the multipaned layout feel less cramped.

Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Where the Sonos Controller really feels behind is on the aesthetic side, especially on iOS 7. It's not a bad-looking app, but it feels like a step back when you switch over from the eye candy of Rdio or the default iOS Music app.

Sound quality: A potent small room speaker

If there's one nagging reservation that I and the rest of the CNET crew have always had about Sonos, it's sound quality. No, I'm not talking about its reliance on compressed music sources or the lack of support for high-resolution audio, which I think are often overstated in terms of affecting sound quality. Instead, I'm referring to the quality of the integrated speakers on the Play:3 and Play:5. They're generally good, especially compared with other wireless audio products, but they have a mellow sound that can sometimes be hard to get excited about.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I started listening to the Play:1 in CNET's standard listening room -- a medium-sized space with high ceilings. Cranking the Play:1 all the way up was enough to get reasonably loud, but that's it. That shouldn't be a surprise for a speaker this big, but don't count on filling a large room with just a single Play:1. The nice thing is that even with the volume maxed out, the Play:1 refuses to distort, so you never have to worry about the sound getting harsh.

The Play:1 has a similar sonic signature to Sonos' other speakers. It produces a good amount of bass for its size (which still isn't much) and it's relatively rich-sounding, but at other times there can be a dullness and lack of clarity to the sound. Chris Cohen's "Overgrown" album is a perfect match for the Play:1, with its laid-back sound meshing well with the speaker's strengths. And "Stonecutters" by Flying Lotus sounded particularly big, showing that it can groove even with a bass heavy-track.

But switching to Neil Young's "Alabama" was a little disappointing, sounding unusually muffled and dull. Other tracks occasionally brought out the same quality, but to be fair, every small speaker has troublesome tracks. I ended up adjusting the EQ to raise the treble a bit and that helped bring a little more life to the speaker. The Play:1 is also particularly sensitive to placement; out in the open, it can sound a bit thin, but it fills out nicely in a corner.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Next up, I added a second Play:1 speaker to the mix, syncing them as a left/right stereo pair. This made the system a lot more enjoyable to listen to, bringing out a lot more detail and space in rockers from Queens of the Stone Age's latest, "Like Clockwork," although Neil Young's "Alabama" still sounded subdued. But the true stereo separation makes a huge difference, especially compared with integrated systems like the Play:3 and Play:5; I'd certainly rather pay an extra cash for two Play:1s ($400/AU$600) vs. a single Play:3 ($300/AU$449).

But in a lot of ways, the Play:1 isn't designed for the kind of dedicated listening sessions I started out with. For my next round of tests, I used the Play:1 around my home for casual listening while reading, eating, and writing this review. The Play:1 really came to life in smaller rooms, sounding surprisingly full for a mono speaker. And the ability to quickly pause and resume a Pandora station from a single button made me a lot more likely to toss on some tunes on a whim.

To wrap things up, I auditioned the Play:1 next to my old Squeezebox Radio (discontinued, but reborn at the Logitech UE Boom). Here, the Play:1 really shined, with the Squeezebox Radio sounding particularly thin, especially on cuts from Curtis Mayfield's "Roots." A few times I preferred the brighter sound of the Squeezebox Radio, but the Play:1's fuller and louder sound was the clear winner. Maybe I was expecting too much from the little guy at first.

Ultimately, I think most people will be happy with the Play:1's sound, especially for the size. (For all our reservations about Sonos' sound quality, the vast, vast majority of customers think they sound great.) If you're picky about sound quality, your best bet with Sonos is still to use your own speakers with a Connect or Connect:Amp, but that's an expensive, more complicated option that most buyers won't want to deal with.

What are the alternatives?

These days, the alternative to Sonos isn't so much a competing wireless audio system, but rather increasingly popular Bluetooth speakers. For example, the JBL Charge is just $150, has a built-in 12-hour battery, and can play any music service on your mobile device, using the native interface of your apps.


JBL Charge

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the other hand, the Charge's sound quality isn't in the same ballpark as the Play:1 and Bluetooth audio often suffers from dropouts, especially if you're over 10 feet away from the speaker. And better-sounding Bluetooth speakers, like the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II ($300), surprisingly cost more the Play:1, despite feeling like cheaper products. Still, if you value the portability and are less picky about sound quality and streaming reliability, you may better off with a Bluetooth speaker -- check out our favorite Bluetooth speakers for more options.

Samsung Shape

Samsung Shape M7

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's also been an unexpected revival of interest in the wireless audio category as of late, with Samsung and Bose rolling out new Sonos competitors. We've yet to test the new systems (although we're planning to soon), but neither system seems like a serious challenger at this point. Sonos supports many more services, offers a wide range of hardware, and has a proven track record of supporting its products, which is especially important for wireless audio systems.

Conclusion: You might get hooked on Sonos

When I met with the Sonos team to discuss the Play:1, one of the first things they asked me was whether they'd won me as a customer yet. The answer was no. Despite all the praise CNET has heaped on the Sonos ecosystem, the pricing was always too steep for me, and while I liked the Play:3 and Play:5 speakers, I didn't love them enough to splurge.

With the Play:1, I'm closer than I've ever been before, especially with the current promotion that includes a free Sonos Bridge. And that's exactly what I suspect the Play:1 was designed to do -- create a lot of first-time Sonos buyers.

Executive Editor David Carnoy contributed to this review

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