Is Sonos any good?
It’s a common question. The answer is yes, Sonos is good. The software works well and the speakers and electronics look good and generally sound good. The whole ecosystem isn’t perfect (as we’ll see) but Sonos has spent 16 years honing its proposition and it shows. In what it sells and in the market leading position it’s built. And now you can get Sonos Symfonisk speakers from IKEA that deliver the full experience whilst lowering the entry cost.
You may be able to get better sound quality, although I challenge anyone to build a ‘proper’ system for £200 (two small Symfonisks in stereo). Move up to 2 x Sonos Five speakers plus a Sub and you’re looking at close to £2,000 though; plenty for nice separates. I haven’t heard the latter combination so don’t know how it would compare. I suspect I’d find lots to like about it. I also suspect good separates would sound better.
On top of sound quality there’s also the question of how we listen. Over 50% of my listening is not in the optimum position. Not sitting down equidistant from each speaker, not with my head in the system’s sweet spot. And yes, shock horror, I sometimes do other things whilst listening (be gone damned phone!) For those times I don’t really need the big rig. Am I the only one?
So there is a role for wireless speakers, the question is how good specific devices are, and whether their software is up to snuff. A poor user experience quickly nixes the best-sounding device. It’s an area Sonos focuses on. Let’s run briefly through the capabilities before looking at two of the full-monty-Sonos IKEA Symfonisk speakers.
The Sonos system
Most people will run Sonos systems over WiFi, an option developed after the original SonosNet approach proved too inflexible for users (it was a dedicated network that needed one of your devices wired directly to the router).
The free iOS / Android Sonos app guides you through network setup. You then add in your streaming services, choosing from the 80 (yes 80) available to you. Local music can be played from a computer, NAS (network attached storage), phone or tablet (you can build mixed playlists from different sources). And live radio & podcasts are available. Finally three Sonos devices – the Port (£400), Amp (£600), and Five speaker (£400) – have an analogue input. Connect a record player or similar and stream it around the house.
Some Sonos models support voice recognition; Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa are all available. And if you’re using an iPhone for control then True Voice, part of the Sonos app, tailors the sound to where you’re using the speaker. It uses the microphone in the iPhone to run sweeps, analyse the sound and adjust accordingly. A shame the feature isn’t available on Android yet. Once set up, navigating the Sonos app quickly becomes second nature – from one device you can control essentially everything.
All of which gives you a feel for the Sonos experience. Nothing beats experiencing it yourself though – try to have a play to see just how easy it is to use.
Onto hardware. Until recently if you wanted a Sonos speaker you bought it from Sonos. The company then introduced ‘Works with Sonos’, a certification programme allowing (mainly) home automation partners to incorporate the Sonos system into their products.
And then Sonos and IKEA surprised everyone by collaborating – say hello to IKEA’s Symfonisk speakers. The first was a small ‘traditional’ wireless speaker for bedside use or similar. The second was slightly wackier – a speaker built into a lamp. A large flat wall-mounted picture speaker followed, making it three. Both the bedside unit and the lamp have now been updated to MkII status.
The new bedside speaker is more of a nip and tuck than a new model. It looks the same, has the same capabilities and (apparently) sounds very similar. The differences come down to a more powerful processor and lower power consumption. The original bedside speaker cost £89 and is the one tested here. The new one costs £99.
Available in black or white, it’s made out of smart plastic with a cloth grill. Physical connections are limited to power and Ethernet. It runs wirelessly too, including Airplay (but not Bluetooth). The speaker supports Sonos’ True Play but has no voice recognition. Spotify Connect – in which the speaker itself runs Spotify, your phone acting just a remote control – is part of the package
Two small drivers and a port sit behind the bedside speaker’s grill cloth. Three buttons on the front handle volume up and down and play/pause. You can use the speaker vertically or horizontally.
A cheap wall bracket gets it up out of the way, an even cheaper shelf bracket turns it into a bedside shelf (literally – typical IKEA ingenuity). Typical IKEA style too, the speaker looks simple but modern. Buy one as a wireless speaker or two for stereo. It’s a shame I couldn’t try stereo, it invariably trumps mono.
Yes but what does it sound like you ask? Well actually pretty good for the money. You’ll want to play with the EQ controls, partly because Loudness is engaged by default. I left it on, indeed I boosted the bass and treble further. I also put the speaker close to a rear wall for further reinforcement. All of which added body to the sound; without it things are a bit thin. The resultant sound was far from neutral but enjoyable for the price.
Basically it’s fun, particularly with the volume hiked up; the bedside speaker likes being pushed. It’s dynamic too, Gerald Albright’s ‘Sooki Sooki’ bursting from the speaker and grabbing my attention. A trick repeated on Derrick Hodge’s ‘The Cost’ that starts slowly but builds quickly to a crescendo. The bedside speaker tracks the complex mix surprisingly well.
Overall a slightly richer midrange would help. Remember we’re talking about a sub-£100 speaker here though, reign in those judgements a bit. To have full Sonos smarts in such an inexpensive speaker is quite an accomplishment.
The £220 Picture speaker measures 40x57cm and hangs on your wall in either portrait or landscape mode. As standard it has a geometric-pattern cover, alternatives cost around £30. The white version of the speaker blends in to most decors, the black one stands out more. Both look good.
Speaker depth is 6cm. As with the bedside speaker it’s made from a smart plastic, with connections limited to power and Ethernet. A bracket is supplied for wall mounting, there are also feet for on-floor use. Several slots in the frame facilitate cable dressing. Three buttons for volume and play/pause sit behind the frame near a corner (so discrete I never used them). A small LED is embedded into the cover to show whether it’s switched on or not.
The Picture’s capabilities are the same as the bedside speaker. So Sonos and Airplay 2 compatible, but no Bluetooth. There is however Spotify Connect. And you get the same EQ controls within the Sonos app. Again you’ll probably use them.
Unlike the bedside speaker, the Picture needs its bass taming. I turned Loudness off, then reduced bass further via EQ. Even then the rich low-end dominated on music such as Albright’s ‘Sooki Sooki’ or Hodge’s ‘The Cost’. Michael McDonald’s ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ was a positive thud-fest. I tried reducing bass further but the overall balance became a little emaciated.
Treble performance is better, allowing plenty of detail though. The recording acoustic is also portrayed quite well. As with the bedside speaker a richer midrange would make the Picture an easier, more engaging listen.
Overall the sound quality is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s over enthusiastic on big-boned music, as if the speaker is trying to impress with its bass. On simpler music the Picture works well though. As a background speaker – how it will be used much of the time – it’s fine. Beyond that it struggles.
Again, context is important. Elsewhere, £220 buys you a small Bluetooth speaker (say a Bose Revolve II) that might be good as a desktop device but won’t sound anywhere near as big as the Picture. So do have a listen to it; we all have different preferences and you might find the Picture’s sonic balance appealing.
So, we’ve had a quick tour of the Sonos ecosystem followed by an introduction to two speakers from its partner IKEA. One of which sounds pretty good, the other average, but both represent good value. They also worked reliably, as they were designed to. Not always the case with other multi-room systems (in my experience).
For many people a Sonos system will meet their needs, leaving nothing to be desired. For others Sonos is perfectly fine for casual listening. Indeed some of Sonos’ own speakers can sound pretty darned good when used as a stereo pair. Overall its no suprise that the combination of ease of use, looks and sound quality has enabled Sonos to build such a market-leading position.
Is Sonos any good? Yes it is!