This year’s best Christmas present was an Amazon Echo. It is absolutely brilliant. Radio, music streaming, jokes, games, recipes, weather, sport updates – we’ve only been scratching the surface of what this unit can do.
It took only a few minutes for Alexa, the name of the tiny lady inside the echo, to get the hang of the voices it hears. A few years ago I tried to get to grips with Dragon as a voice activated interface with computers. I spent ages speaking Dragon’s training words so the poor thing could get the hang of my nasal tones only to find it seldom did what I wanted.
Then there’s Siri. I bought the iPhone 5S thinking Siri would help me in ways the Dragon couldn’t manage. Despite my best intentions the only thing Siri seems to be able to do is set a timer. If I were Apple when I opened the Echo and found it worked I’d get the Siri team into a room and beat them to a pulp. But I digress.
Every so often people ask me about Sonos and I’ve been happy to say I think its a marvellous product range, from the small Play 1 through the Play 5 and the TV sound bars, all good. No, great. The controlling software, running on a desktop or your Apple / Android mobile phone or iPad, is great. I’ve listened to Sonos speakers in installers dedicated listening rooms (great) and in clients homes, hard surfaced kitchens, living rooms and even in a hallway and they always perform well. Of course the main Sonos selling point (over other speaker systems and devices connected to iTunes) has been the ability to use Sonos units to play different tracks in each room of your house. Mozart for Mum and Dad in the lounge, whoever for kids in their rooms. It’s been a solution that’s answered the questions our clients have asked about home audio.
But how does Sonos stack up against the Amazon Echo and the lovely Alexa?
As am Amazon Prime member I can access streaming music from their digital library. If you have access to other services, for example Spotify, you can pretty easily link Echo. Music sounds good, in my opinion the Echo is as good as a single Sonos Play 1. What about the bigger Sonos units? The Echo isn’t a match for them. If the Echo is playing against the Play 1 it’s a draw or a narrow victory to Amazon. Above that the Sonos lineup wins easily.
What if you don’t have all your music taste catered for by Spotify or Amazon Prime Music? The Echo is also a bluetooth speaker. If you pair the Echo with your mobile device (iPhone, Android etc) you can find music on that and play it through the Echo.
Multi room audio? This has been the Sonos major selling point. Maybe no longer … if you have multiple Play 1s plus people with an array of phones and tablets you can achieve the same thing using bluetooth. This way each person can gain access to the family iTunes shared library and pump their favourite tracks into the speaker across the room. Of course this can be supplemented by the substantial database the streaming services offer. On this one a draw again, perhaps Sonos on a penalty shoot-out.
“Alexa play Bob Dylan”. “Alexa play Mozart”. I’ve played around with all sorts of options and they’re impressive. As an interface, in my opinion, voice beats scrolling around a screen however well Sonos have implemented their system. “Alexa BBC radio 4”. OK, I could go on, in this area it’s a clear win for Amazon.
Then there are all the other services you can access from Alexa. Weather, news, all just by asking. These functions take Alexa a long way ahead of Sonos and into a different league. Echo isn’t just a capable music player it does much more, and all at your command. Sonos may offer music at your finger tips but sorry, Alexa will have got there first. Alexa is brilliantly fast. When you think of what its doing, and its going off to Amazon’s computers to do it, I can’t understand just how it does it so quickly.
Sonos have to accept these other functions put the Echo into a class above their music speakers. At least the Play 1s.
Can Echo actually kill Sonos?
Well when it comes to entry-level boxes I’d think twice about putting Sonos ahead of Amazon. Sound just as good, better functionality the Echo is a winner. Where people have huge in-home digital music libraries and take great sound seriously enough to have invested in Play 5s at present Sonos is untouchable. If I were Amazon I’d be majoring on facilitating multiple Echos to link to deliver better true stereo sounds. I’d also look at a spoken command set that would interface with a local NAS drive, or the cloud music storage open to Prime users. When you think of the difficulty Amazon must have overcome already just to get Alexa to tall you a joke, these doesn’t seem insurmountable obstacles. Then I’d retreat to my corner office, draw down the blinds, move closer to my glowing black cone and whisper “Alexa, kill Sonos”.
PS: Mini Alexa bite Sonos’s ankle
Following the unqualified success of the Amazon Echo (full size) our bedside alarm / radio took offence and stopped working. Sometimes the alarm worked, usually the radio worked, seldom alarm and radio in combination. Plus it was a huge box lurking next to my side of the bed reminding me of the need TO GET UP NOW.
I didn’t need much encouragement and thought I’d give the small version of Alexa a try. My reservation was the quality of the sound you’d get out of it. Thanks to Prime the Echo Dot arrived next day, which is now a week ago. No need to have worried about sound quality, it is brilliant (for such a tiny unit). Almost as good as our older radio but certainly fine to listen to even when wading through The Archers omnibus.
Voice command is as good as our first full size Echo, sadly I do still have to say “Alexa, set alarm for 6:30 am” but she faithfully wakes us each morning. You have a wide choice of alarm tones, selected from your phone app. The only downside is there isn’t, at least as far as I’m aware at the moment, a way to set Alexa to wake you and fire up the radio at the same time. On the plus side you just ask for the station or music you want rather than have to remember which preset button was set to the station you’d like.
As far as I can see the whole Amazon voice activated range is getting better. Sorry Sonos, if I were you I’d be afraid, very afraid.
Alexa Nibbles Sonos – UPDATE – Oct 17
Sonos have bowed to the inevitable and you can now buy an Alexa enabled Sonos 1. They’re describing it as the smart speaker for music lovers. Good luck with that. I don’t think Sonos had a choice. When you look at how poor the voice assistant is on the iPhone Amazon clearly is the only game in town. At the same time Amazon have launched new Echo devices, making the Alexa powered Sonos significantly more expensive than the “old” Echo tube. The same price buys you a new Echo capable of playing music and acting as a home hub for smart devices.
You pay your money, you make your choice.