The Sonos Play:1 is the new baby brother in Sonos's line-up of wireless speakers. It's the cheapest Sonos speaker ever, selling for £169 - with a free Sonos Bridge if you're quick enough (one comes bundled until the end of 2013).
There are some unavoidable sonic compromises in a small speaker like this, but Sonos has shown rivals how it should be done with the Play:1. This is probably Sonos's most impressive product to date.
The Sonos Play:1 is designed to be the perfect gateway drug to the Sonos universe of wireless multi-room audio. It's small, it's cute in a stylish manner and at £170 it's not terrifyingly expensive.
Speakers like the Sonos Play:1 belong to a similar lifestyle-obsessed audio revolution as those products, but this one is not portable. Although small, the Sonos Play:1 is designed to more-or-less stay put in your house. It doesn't have a battery or a carry handle and it needs to stay within range of your Wi-Fi network to operate. As with most Sonos kit, there are no wired inputs to let you plug in other sources here.
If you're not familiar with the Sonos system, here's how it works - any music sent to the Sonos Play:1 is not streamed using AirPlay or Bluetooth, but Sonos's own software system. You access this through an iOS/Android app, with your computer or the dedicated Sonos remote control (which is pretty redundant in these smartphone-obsessed days).
The Sonos system incorporates loads of streaming services including Spotify, Deezer, Amazon Cloud Player. You don't need any separate apps, just Sonos's one.
Given how in-sync with the current growth of music streaming services Sonos is, it's quite odd to think how long the Sonos system has been around - the best part of a decade.
The Sonos Play:1 is easily the most accessible speaker Sonos has made, though. It's the prettiest, the smallest and the cheapest.
However, it's no less well-made than its bigger brothers. The sides of the Play:1 are covered by a single-piece grille that curves smoothly around its edges. The top and bottom are plastic, in part to give the Wi-Fi antennas somewhere to live (they can't sit behind an aluminium speaker grille without suffering from signal issues).
This is an almost alarmingly simple speaker, hardware-wise. It has a volume rocker and play/pause button on its top, and an Ethernet socket on its back. That's it, aside from the power jack and wall-mounting socket.
Without the disarming presence of a 3.5mm jack or iPod dock, starting up with a Sonos speaker can seem imposing.
There is a setup procedure to go through. To start, you need a Sonos Bridge. This plugs into your router, acting as the access point for your Sonos system, whether you have one speaker or 12 of the things.
Once that's connected, you just need to plug the Play:1 into the Bridge using an Ethernet cable. This 'pairs' the Play:1 and the Bridge. Download the app and then you’re through the worst of it.
Setting up a Sonos Play:1 does take a little while, especially if your router isn’t near where the speaker will live. But you only have to do it once.
Once you’re setup, the Sonos system is mostly a joy to use. Picking between rooms to operate is a doodle, the speakers are very responsive to commands and Sonos has produced versions of its app to make the best use of tablet and phone screens alike.
However, Sonos does take away much of the music discovery features of the streaming services it incorporates. In Spotify, for example, you can see new additions to the service, but there are none of the kinds of suggestions you get from Spotify elsewhere.
On a side note, the Play:1 can also be used as a satellite speaker within a surround sound system using the Sonos Playbar, and two of the things can be made into a stereo pair.
The Sonos Play:1 is an excellent small speaker, offering pretty much class-leading sound quality for a wireless speaker of this price and size. It does so without using measures generally employed by the competition.
Each Sonos Play:1 features two drivers, a mid-range/bass driver and a smaller tweeter – the same arrangement-up adopted by traditional bookshelf speakers. Of course, the Play:1 is quite different from a standard bookshelf hi-fi speaker. It has a smaller enclosure - not least because it has to fit in its own amplifier too - it has to be able to produce enough sound on its own, rather than as a pair.
All of these are issues Sonos has had to address. It does so by using much stronger-than-average magnets to allow the speaker cones to move back and forward much further than they would normally – 7mm back and 7mm forward according to Sonos. All manner of different strategies were tested during the two-plus years the Play:1 has been in development, including the passive radiators used by many small speakers, but this was found to be the best – so we were told anyway.
Either way, the Sonos Play:1 produces excellent, rich and meaty sound for its size. It has pretty neutral voicing, but the depth and scale of the bass the speaker is able to produce is very impressive.
Across the board, the Play:1 is higher-fidelity than we expected it to be, able to produce entry-level hi-fi-grade sound to fill small and medium-size rooms. ‘Entry-level hi-fi’ may sound like an insult, but it’s actually a serious compliment. This is a very small speaker, and one that doesn’t cost all that much given its high-grade construction and inclusion of Wi-Fi.
It’s a pleasant listen, with enough finesse, a rich enough tone and more than enough punch to make you forget the size of the speaker you’re listening to.
Naturally, with a speaker this size, there are going to be a few compromises. Bass depth is a little limited, as is treble extension. The Play:1 doesn’t give up on trying to reproduce sub-bass like many small speakers, but the volume of low bass it can create is limited.
Treble isn’t limited in such as conspicuous a way, but Sonos seems to have curtailed the top-end to avoid potential harshness when the speaker is pushed – that’s our guess anyway.
However, these are the impressions of someone who spends too listening to, and thinking about, speakers. Most people will simply be impressed by the scale, sheer volume and quality of sound that the Play:1 can crank out. This is undoubtedly one of the most impressive new audio products of the year.
The Sonos Play:1 is a great little speaker, and if you were tempted by the Sonos Play:3 but found it a bit too pricey, we have no hesitation in recommending the Play:1. It works just like any other Sonos Play-series speaker, and offers excellent sound for both the size and price.
Those who say Sonos is just for the rich can stop now.
However, we still think that for real audio quality obsessives, a Sonos system probably isn’t the right choice. The convenience of the Sonos speakers’ size and streaming software is something you pay for, so if you want absolutely the best sound for your buck, look for a ‘dumb’, less pretty speaker.
The Sonos Play:1 is probably the most impressive speaker we’ve seen from Sonos. It offers all the convenience of its streaming brothers in a smaller, cheaper form. Don’t expect it to power a party single-handed, but this speaker is simply brilliant.
If you're looking for something more portable read Best Portable Speakers