No, really. Sonos has spent the past 17 years eschewing Bluetooth audio; dismissing it, in many ways. Last year the company’s chief executive called products like Amazon’s line of Bluetooth Echo speakers mere “stepping stones” to higher-quality, Wi-Fi-connected speakers like Sonos.
The new Sonos Move is the company’s $399 response to Sonosphiles who have begged for years for some kind of portable speaker. Earlier this year the Santa Barbara, California, company partnered with the brand Sonance to launch a pair of outdoor speakers, so the new Sonos Move is technically not the first Sonos speaker for the outdoors. It is still, however, the very first Sonos product with Bluetooth capability.
“This is a big step for us,” says Sonos CEO Patrick Spence. “Putting Bluetooth in a speaker used to be sacrilege. Now we’re breaking through some of the orthodoxy of the past that held us back from truly being what we can be in the long run.”
This means it’s also the first Sonos speaker with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery—one that the company will offer modular replacements for—and the first Sonos speaker with a handle built into the back so you can carry the thing around like a sonorific six-pack. Which seems like the perfect opportunity to say: Welcome to the party, Sonos.
The Sonos Move may break new ground, but it still does the things you’d expect from a Sonos product. When you’re not using it at your backyard barbecue or at the beach, you can dock it in an unobtrusive charging loop in your house. There, it will stream music over Wi-Fi, linking with the rest of your Sonos system. (Assuming you have other Sonos speakers; a good portion of the company’s customers are repeat buyers.)
This is not the first time in its 17-year history that Sonos has considered releasing a portable speaker. (Product lead Nick Millington even hinted at a upcoming portable speaker in an interview with WIRED last year.) In order to arrive at the Move, the company went through a series of design prototypes—some larger, some smaller, some that looked just like a Sonos One with a battery pack stuck to the bottom. What the designers landed on was a 6.6-pound, nearly 10-inch-tall speaker with a “shadow black” shell and a cavity in the back where your fingers slot in.
The design of the Move includes a recessed area in the back that forms a natural handle, making it easy to carry.
The Move is mostly made of plastic, although its front grille is metal. Most of the other Sonos models have plastic grilles; because metal can interfere with antenna signals, the plastic construction keeps wireless performance stable. The Move’s four antennae are located near the plastic bottom of the speaker, so having a metal front grille wasn’t as big of a concern.
Even with all that plastic, the Move is still hefty. Sonos was trying to design something physically large enough to offer full sound but not overwhelmingly huge. What it landed on isn’t exactly a throw-it-in-your-tote-and-go gadget. But it’s also more sophisticated-looking than a lot of other Bluetooth speakers. There are no bulging buttons, no bucket handles or loops. Even its dark gray paint job was considered: It’s not deep black because that would make it hot to the touch if left out in the sun for a while. Which is what you’re supposed to do with it.
Durability is a concern with any portable speaker. Sonos says the Move has an IP56 rating—waterproof enough to protect against rain and snow and mustard (Spence actually included mustard in the list he rattled off), though you won’t want to take it into the swimming pool with you, since it can’t survive a full dunking. The bottom portion of the speaker, which is coated in rubbery silicone, houses a 10-hour lithium-ion battery. The lifespan of this battery is estimated to be about three years. After that, Sonos will sell you a replacement battery module, so you can keep on using the same speaker.
“We’re trying to be as smart and sustainable as possible,” Spence says. “This is not a smartphone you’re going to replace every two years. This is a five- to 10-year proposition.”
The Sonos Move’s midrange driver is the same one that can be found in Sonos’ biggest speaker, the Play:5, and the basket that holds the driver is built directly into the casing of the speaker. These design decisions were twofold: The company wanted to ensure the speaker could handle big low-end sounds and not lose clarity in the outdoors, and building the driver directly into the casing is supposed to make it more durable. If you drop that sonorific six-pack on your way to the party, hopefully it won’t break.
The two speakers that the Move most closely resembles, the Sonos One and Play:1, both have two forward-firing drivers. While the Sonos Move’s midrange driver faces forward, the tweeter faces downward into a custom-molded plastic waveguide that sends sound waves out of the speaker body in multiple directions. This design is meant to give the speaker a wide, even soundstage regardless of where it’s placed, since the Move is designed, well, to be moved.
In the first sound demo I heard, Sonos director of product marketing Ryan Richards played the Tame Impala song “Borderline” through the Move. At medium volume, it sounded great, with clean highs, clear vocals, and a healthy amount of bass. When I asked Richards to crank it up, some distortion crept in. But I was mostly struck by how loud the thing gets. Richards said the company learned from its early user testing that people wanted the ability to crank it loud in outdoor spaces, so Sonos had to do some software customization work at the louder end to make it sound decent.
In another part of the demo, Richards showed off a new automated process for Trueplay, the system Sonos uses to get a speaker sounding its best no matter where you plunk it. Normally, when you buy a new Sonos, the app walks you through the process of calibrating it during the setup. After you’ve positioned the speaker, the app asks you to wave your smartphone around over your head like a goofball for 45 seconds while the speaker and the phone “scan” the room and study how the sound waves behave in the space. The speaker’s audio is then automatically tuned by the app.
Now, as long as the Sonos Move is connected over Wi-Fi, it will do this calibration routine all by itself in around 30 seconds. And the Move doesn’t just calibrate itself during setup. The speaker will continue to adjust its audio on the fly, at all times, as you move it around.
To demo this, Richards queued up Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and put the Sonos Move in the corner of the room to intentionally make the sound muddier. Then, we waited half a minute. Sure enough, the murky bass line and garbled lyrics gave way to noticeably clearer sound, as though Eilish herself had just emerged from underwater.
This auto-calibration, which in practice works much like the similar feature on Apple’s HomePod, is made possible by the four far-field microphones on the Move. Those mics of course also allow you to shout at Alexa or the Google Assistant to get your music going, ask for more information about the track, or skip to the next song. But the voice assistants can be summoned only when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, not over Bluetooth. If you’re streaming music over Bluetooth, you’ll have to talk to the phone if you want to use the voice assistants.
The Sonos Move will cost $399 and starts shipping on September 24. In the Sonos world, this backyard speaker is going to cost you as much as the fancy soundbar that sits beneath your anorexic flatscreen TV. That makes it remarkably more expensive than some of its portable Bluetooth competitors, but Sonos would probably say those speakers are not comparable to this Wi-Fi-capable streamer.
Fortunately, Sonos hasn’t forgotten about more price-sensitive customers—a good move considering that the $200 Sonos One, which was released in 2017 and supports voice control, became the company’s biggest seller. So now Sonos is revealing the new, $179 Sonos One SL, a version of the One that looks exactly like its sibling but will not have far-field microphones.
The Sonos One SL is a version of the popular Sonos One, but without the microphones or the voice assistants. It's also cheaper: $179.
That means no Amazon Alexa and no Google Assistant on the Sonos One SL. The speaker does, however, stream music wirelessly over Apple’s AirPlay 2. The reason for the One SL, according to Spence? Some customers still aren’t comfortable with microphones in their speakers, and there are even some cases where additional mics are unnecessary. The Play:1 speaker, first launched in 2013, is being phased out, though it will still be supported for a while.
There’s also an updated version of the Sonos Connect, the company’s multiport audio receiver that lets you connect your existing wired stereo system to Sonos’ wireless ecosystem. This new version has been renamed the Sonos Port and has an updated digital-to-analog converter and a 12-volt trigger, a kind of power output that can automatically turn on a stereo component when the Sonos app asks for it. It also supports AirPlay 2. The Sonos Port will cost $399 when it ships on September 12, $50 more than the Sonos Connect it’s replacing.
Since the company’s inception, Sonos has pitched itself as an easy, high-fidelity alternative to the kludgy media streamers and expensive wired sound systems of the early 2000s. It has taken aim at luxury audio companies like Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen, and played in the same space as Bose, which is often perceived to be high-end.
Starting around 2014, with the introduction of voice-controlled speakers like Amazon’s hard-to-count-them-all Echos, Google’s Home products, and Apple’s HomePod, Sonos found itself in a new league: trying to compete with mostly sub-$200 speakers that were controlled by “friendly” virtual assistants. Sonos was slow to react to the success of these products, though, and worked in earnest on a new strategy: We’ll play nice with all of the virtual assistants, went the thinking.
The result is that today you can choose to activate either Alexa or Google Assistant on a Sonos speaker with microphones, but not both at the same time; or you can stream music over AirPlay 2, which offers limited Siri control. It’s possible that, at the end of the day, having all of these Big Tech services baked into one speaker won’t even matter, provided Sonos can continue to lure people into its products in new ways.
Which is where the Bluetooth speaker comes in. The strategic goal of the product is to literally extend Sonos beyond the walls of your house, so that the next time you’re asked to bring a Bluetooth speaker to a party, or to your friend’s vacation cottage, you could bring a Sonos speaker without having to plug the thing in and get it set up on Wi-Fi. That means Sonos is now competing with companies like Logitech’s Ultimate Ears, JBL, Bose, and, again, Amazon.
By way of explaining the high price, Spence says the company looks at “the entire category, both the sound profile and the durability of other speakers, and we land on what we think makes sense.” He notes that the Sonos Move is priced between the $499 Play:5 and the $199 Sonos One.
In other words, Sonos isn’t betting that the average consumer looking for a cheap Bluetooth speaker will splurge on this one. Instead, it’s betting that the people who already know the Sonos lineup will go nuts for this portable one. Even if it is pricey.
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