Sonos’ Most Affordable Wireless Speaker is The Play: 1

The Sonos Play:1 is a device I’d never buy with my own money, yet I’m happy that I received one as a gift. Last January, I attended a press event at Bob and Ron’s World Wide Stereo in Ardmore, PA. The main event was lunch with renowned home-theater designer Keith Yates, and Sonos was a sponsor. On the way out, everyone who attended got a swag bag that included a Sonos Play: 1 speaker, which is how I ended up with one.

Now that I’ve had the Play:1 for a few months, I’m still struggling to figure out what to do with it. The Play:1 is a mighty fine bit of audio engineering; it looks and sounds good considering its size, wireless functionality, and price. Its resemblance to Apple-designed products is uncanny, in terms of both appearance and operation. The speaker’s wrap-around, perforated, brushed-aluminum grill is especially attractive and Apple-like, but as I discovered, it is distressingly easy to dent the aluminum. As a consequence, you have to handle the Play:1 with care to avoid cosmetic damage. Aside from that, the Play:1 feels very solid and well-made.

Intuitive software-based setup is a Sonos hallmark. Adding the Play:1 to my network using the Sonos app on my Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 Android tablet only took a couple of minutes. Once the link was established, browsing for music and playing it back was a piece of cake, thanks to the system’s easy-to-use software, which is available for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android. The only surprise was when I went into the EQ setting and found that “loudness” was turned on by default. It only takes a second to turn loudness off, and the improvement in sound quality was noticeable.

Speaking of sound quality, I won’t get too far into the nitty-gritty, because the Play:1 doesn’t warrant the sort of scrutiny that a high-quality speaker demands. It sounds good enough, and it gets loud enough to do the job it needs to do. When I was testing the Sonos 5.1 system, I did take a minute to combine a pair of Play:1s with the Sonos Sub, and it did make for a fairly decent-sounding system—that happened to cost over $1000 for 2.1 channels. With Sonos, you pay for the wireless capability and ease of use; unfortunately, you don’t get true hi-fi sound quality as part of the package—it’s good sound, just not profound. The sound signature of the Play: 1 is dry and punchy, and I will give it credit for handling many genres without distorting when playing loud, but it does sound a bit compressed when pushed.

While I am not part of the demographic that buys Sonos gear—my stereo is large, full of wires, and industrial-looking—I can understand the wireless system’s appeal. My priority is always sound quality, and I chose stereo components that offer higher performance than anything Sonos sells, yet my current speakers cost the same per unit as the Play:1. When it comes to Sonos, I appreciate the system’s merits just as much as I recognize its limitations. For example, the Play:1 makes a very effective surround speaker when combined with a Sonos Playbar and SUB to make a 5.1 system, which I discuss in this review. Sonos’ smallest speaker is also a great choice for a multi-room wireless-audio installation, given its size and sound quality. In fact, multi-room audio is the precise application that best takes advantage of the features that set Sonos apart from its wireless competition: reliability. I live in a three-story Philly rowhouse where I’ve tested the Play:1 in every corner of every floor—the wireless connection is always rock solid.

 

The Play:1 and the Behringer B215XL shown in this picture cost the same: $200

Unfortunately, wireless connection is the only way you can get music to the Play: 1; in fact, my number one gripe with Sonos’ smallest speaker is the lack of connectivity options. A simple analog input or Bluetooth connection would’ve made it far more appealing as a standalone speaker. As it stands, I cannot take the Play: 1 with me—let’s say to a hotel room—and use it to play music from my phone. It simply doesn’t work that way! Even an ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection would be acceptable, but as it stands, there is no way to connect a phone to a Play:1 without tapping into an existing network through a router or tethering a Sonos component to a computer. Hopefully, a forthcoming system update from Sonos will make it possible to establish an ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection between a phone or tablet and a Sonos component. If that happens, and it works, I will add half a star to my rating.

 

The Play:1 features an Ethernet port, but no Bluetooth or analog connectivity

Ultimately, how you use the Play:1 has a major impact on whether you get your money’s worth. The cost of entry for a two-channel system is at least $400. At that price point, it’s disappointing that the Play:1 cannot directly link to a tablet or phone; hopefully, the Sonos update will remedy that issue. When used as part of an integrated whole-house system, or as a part of a 5.1 surround system, the Play:1 makes a lot of sense. On its own, Sonos’ least expensive speaker doesn’t offer enough in terms of connectivity to make it worth the price, despite its respectable performance—at least not yet.