Sonos Voice Control review: A fast, private, and music-focused assistant

Sonos Voice Control review: A fast, private, and music-focused assistant
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When Sonos voice control was announced last month, the company has made it clear that its new voice assistant, which can be used for free on all Sonos smart speakers, is not intended to directly compete with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. Sonos lacks the scale and resources to create an intelligent assistant that could match the reach of these existing Big Tech platforms. Instead, the company went and bought a voice assistant startup called Snips and remained focused on what he is good at: music. The sole purpose of Sonos Voice Control is to control audio playback on the various Sonos speakers in your home.

It can’t tell you the weather or set a timer — the “smartest” thing Sonos Voice Control can do is tell you the time — but its singular focus results in blazingly fast performance when playing music. songs, volume adjustment or room grouping. And the voice, based on actor Giancarlo Esposito, sounds nice, realistic and warmer than other voice assistants.

Sonos is also emphasizing privacy with its new voice service. All orders are processed locally on your device, with no data or transcriptions sent to the cloud. That’s part of what makes the system so fast, and it also means you can control the Sonos Move or Roam when those speakers are in Bluetooth mode and away from Wi-Fi. Here are more details from Sonos Deep Dive on the service:

The voice recognition stack runs directly on Sonos speakers. The user’s voice is processed locally and is never sent to a centralized cloud server. Machine learning models are trained on scripted audio data and then deployed for inference on smart speakers. Potential false wake word triggers are therefore no longer a privacy concern, as no audio data is sent to the cloud after the wake word is detected.

Setting up Sonos Voice Control is a simple process that involves updating your Sonos gear with the latest software, then choosing a default music service for requests. I went with Amazon Music Unlimited. The reason I did this is actually the first downside of Sonos Voice Control: it currently doesn’t support Spotify. If Spotify music is already playing on your system, you can use basic voice commands (skip tracks, volume up, etc.), but you cannot start Spotify content with the service. Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora and Sonos Radio are the services with Sonos Voice Control integration from now on, so Tidal and YouTube Music are also banned.

You activate Sonos Voice Control with a warm “Hey Sonos” phrase, after which you can ask for a particular artist, song, genre, etc. Where Sonos’ solution comes into its own is when you want to move music around in different rooms. Saying things like “Hey Sonos, combine living room and bedroom” or “Hey Sonos, play everywhere” worked exactly as I expected. (The latter can be useful if you need to change rooms but want to continue listening to TV sound.)

The front LED lights up a bit more when Sonos Voice Control is listening.

You don’t need to say carefully worded sentences to the service: it can handle natural language commands like “Hey Sonos, turn up the volume” or “Hey Sonos, move the music here” just fine. But there can be hiccups or instances where things don’t go as planned. When I was listening to tracks on my Roam and Play:5, saying “Hey Sonos, play on Ray” resulted in a completely different playlist starting on the soundbar – when I assumed it would just join what was already playing elsewhere.

You can also use voice commands for Sonos-specific features, such as volume up or down, which can make the speakers sound more punchy and full. If you have a Sonos soundbar, Voice Control can enable night mode or speech enhancement options. And it can also turn your TV on or off in the case of HDMI connected Beam and Arc.

Spotify is not yet supported by Sonos Music Assistant.
Screenshots by Chris Welch / The Verge

Occasionally, Esposito’s voice may ring out with a quick “sounds good” or a repeat of your command. But the interactions are designed to be short and sweet. Most often, Sonos Voice Control confirms that it heard your command with a brief audio tone before doing what you asked. Crucially, it never does the “by the way…” you so often hear from Alexa, where the assistant keeps spouting out an entire paragraph telling you about a feature or skill that’s barely related to your original request. It’s become a frequent annoyance when interacting with Amazon’s assistant and it only gets more squeaky. Short interactions and quick responses are my favorite thing about Sonos Voice Control. And the service will continue to listen for a few seconds after a command in case there are more to follow (like “Hey Sonos, turn up the volume. Louder. Skip the track.”).

But Sonos Voice Control is a step behind its Big Tech rivals in understanding everything you say. There are artists – like songwriter Leona Naess, who just released a new album – that the system never correctly understood, no matter how many times I tried, even with different pronunciations. Sonos has tested Voice Control in different regions with many accents and says it will continue to refine and improve performance in all markets where the service is available.

Sonos Voice Control also works when Roam and Move are in Bluetooth mode.

Regardless of this problem, the songs that come back from a voice request are not always what you expect. “Play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin'” had me hearing a live rendition instead of the classic studio track. This happened more than once with different artists. It’s not the end of the world, and you can usually get what you want by being more precise, but it’s another department where Alexa and Google Assistant can be more consistent.

It’s worth pointing out that you don’t have to choose Sonos Voice Control In place other helpers. You also have the choice of using it and Amazon Alexa simultaneously. Multiple assistants running at the same time – each responding to its own trigger phrase – has long been a focus of Sonos, and the company calls this feature concurrency. But it only works with Alexa; Google still doesn’t allow Sonos Voice Control and Assistant to be active at the same time. If you’re privacy-conscious and wary of Big Tech voice assistants, this might have absolutely no appeal. But invoking Sonos Voice Control for music controls and using Alexa for everything else is a nice combination to have.

In those early days, I’m generally happy with Sonos Voice Control. Its focused ambition means the service generally does what you ask – and quickly. But the fact that Spotify isn’t playing ball (yet) will limit appeal to the many customers of both companies. Hopefully that will happen sooner or later. Once Spotify is on board, and once the service is a bit more comprehensive in entering artist and song names, Sonos Voice Control will be something I use daily. It’s almost there as is, and it goes to show that voice assistants don’t need to do everything under the sun to be hugely beneficial.

Photograph by Chris Welch/The Verge

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