Sonos One vs. HomePod: Which should you buy?
Apple’s HomePod at last has a release date — February 9 — after software delays with the smart speaker pushed its reveal back into 2018. But should you buy it? After all, since its release there are a number of other shiny objects waiting in the wings.
Take the Sonos One. The home audio company’s first foray into the smart speaker business is a solid one, offering voice-based Alexa support alongside the existing Sonos app. The speaker also has the benefit of being available right now in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Germany. (You can import the speaker to other countries as well, of course, but certain functions may not work as designed.) In contrast, HomePod will only be available in the U.S., U.K., and Australia when it launches on February 9.
Originally, I thought I’d be okay waiting for the HomePod. After all, I believe in Apple taking its time with new products before release, lest they wind up with irreversible flaws. But after hemming and hawing for most of November 2017, I took the plunge and purchased a Sonos One for my kitchen. And I don’t think I’m going back.
If you too are debating the merits of putting a Sonos One on your wish list over a HomePod, here were my pros and cons.
Alexa, Assistant, or Siri?
Arguably the biggest issue in considering a Sonos One over the HomePod is its assistant integration: The Sonos One ships with Amazon’s Alexa assistant. It’ll support Google Assistant in 2018, and (sort of) Siri that same year.
I say “sort of” because Sonos won’t offer native Siri support; instead, you’ll be able to (at some unspecified time) tell your iPhone or Apple Watch “Hey Siri, play Lorde on the Living Room via AirPlay 2” and the Sonos One should technically recognize that command. (I’m reserving my judgment on this until it actually shows up in iOS, which it’s not scheduled to do until later this year.)
In contrast, HomePod uses Siri — and only Siri. You’ll be able to AirPlay audio from various services, but you can’t access Alexa or Assistant from Apple’s speaker.
If you’re entirely hooked into Siri, this isn’t a problem so much as it is a perk: Programming a speaker to interact well with a single service is a lot simpler than making it interact with multiple services, as Sonos is attempting. (That said, only one of these speakers is shipping right now, so simple may not be the right word.) There’s also the advantage of Apple’s privacy policies in regards to voice-based commands; Amazon and Google both store recorded audio snippets of your commands for a short time that are linked to your account, while Apple anonymizes audio data.
But if you, like me, have a mixed-device household, there’s a definite appeal to having an option for Alexa or Assistant on your smart speaker over Siri. I’ve picked up several Alexa products over the years, and I’ve grown to rely on Amazon’s assistant. It still struggles more over natural language parsing than Siri — asking Alexa “Play this song on all my connected speakers” spit back the response “I couldn’t find a device named ‘all my connected speakers'” — but despite these quirks, the convenience has been worth it.
On the Sonos One, Alexa does struggle more than on a native Amazon speaker. Not all skills are available yet, and the One struggles between being too attentive for its wake word and not attentive enough: While I haven’t had issues calling Alexa, there are a number of support tickets on Sonos’s site complaining that the assistant either isn’t hearing them, or is triggering all the time. Our own Phil Nickinson ran into problems with a lack of attentiveness, failing to trigger the Sonos where his Echo responded with no issue. That said, Sonos does regularly push updates to its speakers, and it’s fairly likely we’ll see improvements to the company’s Alexa implementation as time goes on.
If you already own Sonos products, the integration is tempting
Speaking of convenience: If you’ve already invested in a sound system, it’s a lot harder to be convinced to switch platforms than it is to simply buy the next step in that original platform.
I’ve been a member of the Sonos club since 2014. It started with getting a Playbar for my television (and, at the time, small Boston studio); when I moved, it seemed only right to expand my speaker setup.
But while I happily picked up a few Play:5s for my office, I hesitated on completing my surround-sound setup with aging Play:1s for our open kitchen and living room. Their sound was still great, of course, but after the Play:5 revamp, I was curious to see how Sonos would improve its smallest speaker’s design.
The Sonos One was that answer: The former Play:1 gets fancier touch controls like the Play:5, but it also packs in the full force of Amazon’a Alexa assistant thanks to a new microphone array.
As someone already weighing the purchase of Play:1s, the Sonos One was instantly appealing — but the promise of HomePod held me back from pressing that buy button on day one. I didn’t think I could justify purchasing both smart speakers, and I was genuinely curious to see what Apple was doing in this space.
The HomePod also came with the promise of AirPlay 2 speaker grouping — and existing Sonos devices were getting AirPlay 2 — which meant that I might be able to keep my long-collected Sonos system and use it with Apple’s shiny new speaker.
But when HomePod was delayed, my resolve weakened. I started debating if I even wanted Siri in my kitchen after years of working with Alexa. Of the two, I prefer Siri for overall commands, but I’d also never seen or heard HomePod in the flesh — did I want to spend $349 on a speaker I didn’t really have experience with?
Compounding the problem, my kitchen Echo was displaying increasingly erratic behavior (probably in no way to do with an accidental shower of turkey grease over Thanksgiving weekend). I did have an extra Dot I could have set up in the kitchen, but I listen to a ton of music while cooking — and wasn’t thrilled about the idea of losing out on the source of my baking tunes.
I did consider one other last-ditch option: Sonos’s new skill-based integration with Alexa. The integration is still technically in beta, but it’s now open for all users to experience. Unfortunately, I had a hair-pulling multi-hour experience when I first set it up: I had to try to convince Alexa to find my existing Sonos speakers, then another headache of an evening figuring out the exact way to cue them so that music — and the right music — would play on my living room’s speaker.
It was doable, yes, but a far worse experience than using the built-in Sonos app. And I didn’t want to use an app while cooking: The joy of my Echo in the first place was being able to call out music switches, pauses, news briefs, and timers at will.
With HomePod’s AirPlay 2 multi-room functionality being further delayed, I’m doubly glad I went in for a Sonos One; having a single smart speaker disconnected from my other electronics could prove frustrating.
The Sonos One is in a pretty position where streaming music services are concerned. Through Alexa, it currently supports several services in the U.S., including Amazon’s own Music service, SiriusXM, Pandora, TuneIn, and Spotify, with Audible and iHeart Radio support coming in 2018. You can use Alexa to start playing music from any of these services, as well as control tracks and volume.
But Sonos connects to far, far more services through its companion app, including Apple Music. And while you may not be able to start tracks from those services, you can still control music through the Sonos One.
Sonos’s full list of services, via the app:
- Apple Music
- Amazon Music Unlimited
- Google Play Music
- Classical Archives
- Concert Vault
- FIT Radio
- Hearts of Space
- Hype Machine
- Live Phish
- MLB.com Gameday Audio
- Slacker Radio
- Stingray Music
- Stitcher Radio
- Tribe of Noise
- Your personal music library
Better still, if you queue up an Apple Music playlist in the Sonos app, the Sonos One will perennially remember it unless you switch to a different music service. Say “stop playing” for the night to go to sleep, and you can start the same playlist up again the next morning by saying “play.”
It’s not quite as nice as direct Apple Music control, which the HomePod will offer. That said, HomePod won’t directly play any competing streaming services; you’ll have to use AirPlay 2 (and only when it arrives later this year), and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to use your voice to play, pause, or scrub through those tracks.
Amazon, Google, and Apple all have slightly different home automation approaches. The good news is that most of the home automation technology supports multiple platforms. Philips Hue, for example, hooks in with HomeKit, but also works on Amazon’s platforms via an Alexa skill.
If you do have smart home products that don’t support either Alexa or HomeKit, however, that may well skew your decision-making process where smart speakers are concerned.
I’ve talked at length about my Sonos collection above, so I’ll keep this section brief. Both HomePod and the Sonos One should be able to do multiroom audio, but they do it in different ways.
Sonos creates a multi-room experience over Wi-Fi with other compatible Sonos speakers. You can play the same song on multiple speakers, play different music on different boxes, or even use paired speakers with a Playbar to create a surround sound setup for your TV. But that tight integration comes at an entry cost: You’ll need to either buy multiple Sonos speakers or pick up the $349 Sonos Connect to hook up an external audio system.
Of course, there will be another option in AirPlay 2 — the same option the HomePod will use — but it hasn’t arrived yet. All of the current Sonos lineup will be AirPlay 2 compatible when the system launches later in 2018; theoretically, you’ll be able to add and remove any AirPlay 2-compatible speakers at will from groupings, and even request them via Siri. You’ll also supposedly be able to create surround sound pairings for your Apple TV, though again — this feature isn’t even in beta yet, and may not arrive for months.
Between the two options, Sonos has the stronger case for multiroom audio, based solely on its existing history. AirPlay is a largely solid technology, but multi-speaker work hasn’t been attempted outside of third-party options like Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil. It also helps that any Sonos speaker will be able to take advantage of AirPlay 2 when it finally ships.
Look, sound, and feel
Of the two smart speakers, the Sonos One is the smaller (and sonically weaker) model. Apple’s HomePod is punching closer in the weight class of a Sonos Play:3 than the One, in a more cylindrical package.
The Sonos measures 6.36″ high by 4.69″ wide, weighing 4.08 pounds; in contrast, the HomePod measures 6.8″ high by 5.6″ wide, weighing 5.5 pounds. (It’s taller and a little skinnier than the Play:3’s 5.2″ by 5.7″ footprint, but the HomePod still comes out as the bigger model.)
Both speakers offer sleek touch controls and models in black and white, though the HomePod favors a rounder approach than the Sonos One’s rectangular form.
Sonically, the HomePod comes out on top — on paper, anyway. It sports a 7 beam-forming tweeter array, 4-inch Apple-designed woofer, and 6-microphone array. In contrast, the Sonos 1 has two class-D digital amplifiers and one tweeter, along with a mid-woofer and an adjustable bass and treble slider, controlled via Sonos’s TruePlay technology.
In person, the Sonos One can be LOUD — but it doesn’t have the clarity or bass control of its bigger Play:3 sibling. As a kitchen speaker and occasional TV surround sound participant, it’s fantastic. As your apartment’s sole speaker, it’s still pretty competent, but I doubt it will outshine the HomePod.
Again, it comes down to what you need from your smart speaker. Will it be your sole music playing experience, or is it hooked up to an existing system?
Security and privacy
When you’re considering buying a product that’s constantly listening for its name, you need to consider security and privacy. We recommend very few non-HomeKit home automation products on iMore for that very reason: It’s not worth the momentary convenience if you don’t know what you’re giving away.
Both of these speakers listen locally: Until they hear their respective wake word (Alexa or Siri), no information is stored, transmitted, or otherwise creeped on.
Once you speak that wake word, your speaker will react. The Sonos One dims any playing audio and makes a low-pitched chime; it’s unclear what HomePod will do sonically, though there’s likely some animation involved with its top display.
After you speak a wake word, the 5-10 seconds after are recorded, anonymized, and processed online by a big, smart server farm. Amazon’s Alexa app actually lets you see (and play) these recordings for transparency; while it’s a nice idea, it also reveals how frequently wake words can be misinterpreted:
— Jeff Broderick (@brdrck) November 6, 2017
Until smart speakers get powerful enough to process your data entirely on-device (a la Face ID), this is the tradeoff we make for intelligent assistants. And it’s worth noting that both the HomePod and Sonos One have easily-accessible hardware mute buttons, which disable the microphones until you press the button again. It’s not a perfect solution, but again — it’s a tradeoff.
If you’re interested, here are Apple, Sonos, and Amazon’s privacy policies:
As with build, the HomePod has a significant weight here that the Sonos One does not, in large part because it’s trying to be a superior speaker.
At $349, the HomePod is aiming to hit the mid-range smart speaker market, alongside the $399 Google Home Max (which is also currently shipping, though new orders are currently through a waitlist).
In contrast, the Sonos One lives in the space of its Play:1 predecessor, offering one of the best small speakers on the market. It won’t compete with the $129 Google Home or $99 Echo on price alone, but its sound outstrips both of those handily.
In some ways, it feels unfair to compare the two speakers — smarts aside, they’re really two different products. But because there are so few great-sounding smart speakers currently on the market, these two will inherently get lumped together until Apple creates a smaller speaker or Sonos adds voice assistant functionality to the Play:3.
“Available now” is a dangerous phrase
After all my deliberations, I decided that if I wanted to actually own a new kitchen speaker before my old one shorted out, I had but a few credible options.
The first option — a discounted Play:1 paired with an Echo Dot — I tossed out immediately owing to the already-harrowing experience I had with the intermediary Alexa Sonos skill.
I also considered going with Amazon’s new second-generation Echo, which has a slightly-improved speaker upon the original and more reasonable price point ($99) than my other options.
But the Sonos One has a lot more than the stock Echo going for it, as I highlighted above. It can hook into an existing Sonos system — and with it, the dozens of existing services Sonos supports. It’s also a much better speaker than the stock Echo, while maintaining a similar footprint.
The last option — not getting a speaker and just waiting for the HomePod — was doable, but it would have meant going through the entirety of the holiday cooking season dealing with either no music or a subpar integration. (And knowing me, I’m guessing my laziness would have ensured the first option.)
At this point, I have to stop and acknowledge that yes, I know. This is a first world problem to top all first world problems. Ultimately, it wasn’t going to wreck my life if I didn’t have music (or — worst case — played it via my iPhone’s speaker or a set of headphones) while making pasta.
But for me, it was enough to make a Sonos One purchase. And in the months since, I haven’t regretted it. When the HomePod’s pre-order date was announced, I felt even more confident in my purchase — with no AirPlay 2 at launch, the HomePod is essentially a very sonically-pleasing solo smart speaker. A nice piece for those who don’t have existing multiroom setups, but a bad option for those looking to augment existing setups or create new multiroom setups just with HomePods.
One quick note on availability: The Sonos One is available worldwide, but Alexa functionality only works with Amazon accounts registered in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Germany — though I’d expect more countries to be added in the weeks and months to come. This has to do with language as much as anything else; Alexa’s language expansion has been very slow in comparison with Apple’s Siri assistant. If you speak English, you can get away with registering an account in a supported country, but if you’re in a non-English country, you’re out of luck. (You can still use the Sonos app to interact with your speaker in many countries, but it’s not quite the same.)
In fairness, this will be the same with HomePod when it does launch: Apple will start selling the HomePod in the U.S., U.K., and Australia before expanding to other countries (the first two being France and Germany). The difference is in how quickly that expansion happens. Siri theoretically has the framework to allow Apple to sell HomePod in hundreds of countries within a few months, but that rollout will depend on a number of factors.
HomePod will also likely be more restrictive in where it’s sold than the Sonos One: Apple tends not to sell its products where people can’t use them, as we’ve seen with the Series 3 LTE Apple Watch. As someone who primarily lives in the United States with occasional Canadian jaunts, this isn’t a huge issue for me either way. But it might be a bigger deal for non-U.S. buyers.
Who should get a Sonos One?
As I’ve discovered over the past few months: Me! I already have a number of Sonos products that I love, and when it came down to it, I needed a new reliable smart kitchen speaker far more than I wanted Apple’s first-generation product (cool as it looks). Sonos has the brand cachet and reliability; while its Alexa integrations aren’t great yet, the company is also famous for constantly iterating and pushing software updates to make its speakers better.
Sonos also has fantastic multi-room audio, built on a long-reliable platform; I can even use my new Sonos One as surround for my TV if I so choose. And when AirPlay 2 ships, I should be able to use my Sonos speakers with my iPhone, Siri, and Apple Music that way.
Finally, I realized that I’d rather pay $399 to pair two Sonos Ones for my TV than pay the same for a single HomePod. The Sonos One fits nicely into my kitchen without taking up too much room, while its sibling can happily live across the room by the couch; the two combined with my existing Playbar will likely be a nicer experience than a single HomePod speaker.
If you’re hooked into Sonos or Amazon’s Alexa platform, want great multi-room audio, don’t need (or have space for) a larger speaker like the HomePod, and don’t mind using a different music service and assistant, the Sonos One is a great speaker. It has some major assistant quirks right now — quirks I’m hopeful will improve with time — but the music experience is solid. And, most importantly: It’s available now.
Who should wait for a HomePod?
If you only subscribe to Apple Music (and aren’t interested in anything else), don’t have an existing speaker system or smart assistant, want a larger and great-sounding speaker, and live your life in the Apple ecosystem, it’s worth pre-ordering the HomePod on January 26th. It didn’t make sense for me, but it may well for you.
Sonos One vs. HomePod: Which should you buy?