When Sonos Voice Control announced last month, the company made it abundantly clear that its new voice assistant, free to use on all Sonos smart speakers, is not intended to compete directly with Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant. Sonos doesn’t have the size or resources to build a smart assistant that fits perfectly with the existing Big Tech platforms. Instead, the company bought a voice assistant startup called Snips and stayed laser-focused on what it does best: music. The sole purpose of Sonos Voice Control is to control audio playback through 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 unique focus results in extremely fast performance when playing songs, adjusting volume or grouping rooms. And the voice, based on actor Giancarlo Esposito, sounds pleasant, lifelike and warmer than other voice helpers.
Sonos is also putting an emphasis on privacy with its new voice service. All jobs are processed locally on your device, with no data or transcripts ever sent to the cloud. This is 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 far from Wi-Fi. Here are more details of The deep dive of Sonos on the service:
The speech recognition stack runs directly on Sonos speakers. The user’s voice is processed locally and is never sent to a central cloud server. The machine learning models are trained on scripted audio data and then deployed for inference on the smart speakers. Potential false triggers from the wake word are therefore no longer a privacy issue, as no audio data is sent to the cloud after the wake word is detected.
Setting up Sonos Voice Controls is a simple process where you update your Sonos equipment to the latest software and then choose a default music service for requests. I went with Amazon Music Unlimited. The reason I did is actually the first drawback of Sonos Voice Control: it doesn’t currently support Spotify. If music from Spotify is already playing on your system, you can use basic voice commands (skip songs, volume up, etc.), but you won’t be able to launch Spotify content with the service. Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, Pandora, and Sonos Radio are now the services with Sonos Voice Control integration, so Tidal and YouTube Music are also a no-go.
You activate Sonos Voice Control with a “Hey Sonos” hot phrase, after which you can ask for a particular artist, song, genre, and so on. Where Sonos’ solution really comes into its own is when you want to move music across different rooms. Saying things like “Hey Sonos, group the living room and bedroom” or “Hey Sonos, play everywhere” worked exactly as I expected. (The latter can be useful if you need to switch rooms but want to keep listening to TV audio.)
You don’t have to speak carefully worded sentences to the service: it can handle natural language commands like “Hey Sonos, turn it up” or “Hey Sonos, move the music here” just fine. But there may be hitches or instances where things don’t go as you’d expect. When listening to tunes on my Roam and Play:5, saying “Hey Sonos, play on Ray” resulted in a completely different playlist on the soundbar – assuming it would just tie in with what was already playing elsewhere.
You can also use voice control for Sonos-specific functions, such as turning loudness on or off, which can make speakers sound more powerful 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 case of the HDMI connected Beam and Arc.
Occasionally, Esposito’s voice will sound with a quick “sounds great” or a repeat of your command. But interactions are designed to be short and sweet. More often than not, Sonos Voice Control confirms that it heard your command with a short audio tone before doing what you asked. Crucially, it never does the “parentheses…” you hear so often from Alexa, where the assistant spit out an entire paragraph, telling you about a function or skill that barely relates to your original request. It has become a frequent annoyance when I interact with Amazon’s assistant and it only gets worse. The short interactions and quick responses are my favorite thing about Sonos Voice Control. And the service keeps listening for a few seconds after one command in case others follow (like “Hey Sonos, turn it up. Louder. Skip track”).
But Sonos Voice Control is one step behind its Big Tech rivals in understanding everything you say. There are artists – like songwriter Leona Naess, who just released a new album – who have never really understood the system, no matter how many times I tried, even with different pronunciations. Sonos has tested Voice Control in several high-impact regions and says it will continue to refine and improve performance in every market where the service is available.
Other than that, the numbers coming back from a voice request aren’t always what you expect. “Play Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’” got me to hear a live performance instead of the classic studio track. That 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 specific, but this is another department where Alexa and Google Assistant can be more consistent.
It’s worth emphasizing that you don’t have to choose Sonos voice control instead of from other assistants. You also have the choice to use it and Amazon Alexa at the same time. Multiple assistants working simultaneously — each responding to its own trigger phrase — has long been one of Sonos’ goals, and the company calls this feature concurrency. But it only works with Alexa; Google still doesn’t allow Sonos Voice Control and Assistant to run at the same time. If you’re privacy conscious and wary of Big Tech voice assistants, this may have absolutely no appeal. But calling up Sonos Voice Control for music control and using Alexa for everything else is a nice combination to have.
In these early days I am generally satisfied with Sonos Voice Control. The focused ambition means the service generally does what you ask – and fast. But the fact that Spotify isn’t playing ball (yet) will limit its appeal for the many customers of both companies. Hopefully that will happen sooner or later. Once Spotify is on board, and after the service has expanded a bit in handling artist and song names, Sonos voice control will be something I use on a daily basis. It’s almost there as it is, showing that voice assistants don’t have to do everything under the sun to be hugely useful.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge