Although I previously reviewed both the Amazon Echo and the Sonos Play:1 separately, I feel that this is a necessary comparison. The Sonos Play:1 is the entry level offering in the Sonos lineup, which has long reigned as king of the hill in streaming music. The Amazon Echo is the multi-talented up and comer in a class of its own. While each of these are amazing products, they have some overlapping features and a similar price point, leaving many consumers wondering if they should consider one over the other.
Some people like to compare spec sheets, but as an owner of both of these products, I will be comparing actual functionality and real world usage.
- The Echo is a 9.25″ tall, 3.27″ diameter cylinder, weighing in at a mere 1.68 pounds.
To paraphrase Henry Ford, “You can have it in any color, as long as it’s black.”(UPDATE: It now comes in black and white)
- There is a multi function lighted ring around the top. It flashes blue light when Alexa is thinking. It “points” a blue light in the direction it is listening. It lights up in white as a volume indicator as the volume is increased or decreased. When the Echo is idle, the ring is not lit at all.
- The bottom half of the unit has holes all the way around to allow the omni-directional speakers to be heard in all directions
- There are seven tiny holes around the top of the unit which allow the array of microphones to hear in all directions.
- The top has two buttons, a mute button and an action button that changes what it does based on the context of the situation.
- The very top of the Echo is a ring that can be turned in either direction to increase or decrease the volume.
- The power cord exits out the rear of the unit. It is detachable, but the Echo requires constant power.
The Echo is meant to blend into the room in which it lives. Since it is mostly voice operated, most people will find an out of the way place to stash it. You will have to consider the microphones when you place the unit, as hiding it behind something, or in a corner may impact its ability to hear you. The finish is 100% plastic, which may be a turnoff to some people, but it does not feel cheap. Much like the Echo’s voice functionality, the design just makes sense.
- The Play:1 stands 6.4″ tall and is 4.7″ wide and deep. It weighs 4.1 pounds, almost 3x the Echo, presumably from the speaker magnets.
- Comes in black or white, both with gray grills
- The top of the Play:1 has a play/pause/skip button and a volume rocker
- There is a small indicator light at the top of the Play:1. It can be white, green, orange, or flashing variants of those colors. Each will give you an indication as to what your Sonos is currently doing.
- The top and bottom of the Play:1 are matte plastic. The gray metal grill surrounds the unit, with a seam in the back. Although the grill wraps around the entire unit, the speakers are front facing.
- The rear of the Play:1 has an ethernet port and a screw hole for mounting it on stands or wall mounts.
- The power cord exits out the rear of the unit. It is detachable, but the Play:1 requires constant power.
Like the Echo, the Play:1 is meant to disappear into the landscape. Unlike the Echo, you will not have to worry about microphones when placing it. This can be good or bad, depending on how you plan to use your speaker. The finish is sleek and well thought out. These are impressive speakers to have around the house.
- Streaming music from: Prime Music, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Amazon Music, Bluetooth music from phones or tablets
- Alexa voice recognition. Alexa may have been late to the game, but she is a top contender in voice recognition. She can perform searches, check scores and schedules, keep a shopping list, find local businesses, order from Prime, set up a calendar, read the headlines, check traffic, tell you the forecast, do math, look up movie showtimes, execute order sixty-six…
- Expandable functionality through skills library. If you want to order from Domino’s, call for an Uber or ask the bartender how to make a drink, you just have to add the skill through the app.
- Smart home hub. Alexa can control devices from Wemo, Smartthings, Hue, Insteon, Wink, Garagio, Rachio and Ecobee out of the box. You can add even more functionality with IFTTT or github.
- Plays Audio books and Audible. Amazon recently cut Sonos off from Audible, so if you’re into listening to books on there, you may want to keep this in mind.
- Works with Fire TV and Kindle. You can issue commands to connected devices via Fire TV remotes. You can now ask Alexa to read your Kindle book, provided you got it from Amazon.
The Echo is more than just a speaker for music streaming. Even if you don’t have or plan to have any connected devices in your home, Alexa brings a lot to the table. The ability to control your music with your voice is something you wont get with another piece of hardware. Having both the Play:1 and Echo in my great room, I often find myself yelling “Alexa, skip!” over and over before realizing I’m using the Sonos for playback.
- Streaming music from: Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn, SiriusXM, Google Play Music, SoundCloud, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Rhapsody, Rdio, Qobuz, Tidal, Wifi streaming of music from up to 16 PC’s, Macs or NAS devices, as well as wifi streaming from cell phones and tablets.
- Humidity resistant. This is mainly targeted at bathrooms or indoor pools, I wouldn’t leave one outside unless it was in an enclosed space.
- The ethernet port functions as a wifi adapter for other devices like a PC, laptop, game console or NAS.
- Wireless pairing with other Sonos devices for stereo, 5.1 or whole house integration. You can build an (expensive as hell!) entertainment center out of these, set two Play:1’s to play in stereo, play the same music throughout your whole house, or play different music in different rooms.
While the Echo is a multi-purpose device, the Play:1 is single minded. It plays high quality audio, and it does it damn well. I had originally purchased this for a 10×12 bathroom, but when I heard how powerful and rich the sound was I moved it to my great room, which is 35×14. This one little speaker can fill my entire 2600 sq ft house with music that is crystal clear even at the top of its volume.
- The Alexa app is available for Apple and Android phones and tablets.
- The app home screen shows a feed of the interactions you have had with Alexa and lets you tell Amazon if she was helpful or not.
- This is the only place you can access your to-do list, your shopping list is available in the app and at amazon.com.
- You can track any timers and alarms you set with either your Echo or Fire TV.
- You will have to set up your login for any streaming stations through the app.
- The app will show you which of your Kindle books Alexa can read.
- In the settings, you can see all Alexa devices, set up your sports and flash briefings, define locations for traffic updates (such as your office), connect your external calendars, add household members Amazon accounts, configure voice purchasing and set up all of your connected devices.
- You can add functionality to your Echo with the Skills library.
Currently, the skills library sucks. While there is a search feature, unless you’re looking for Domino’s, Ecobee, Uber or Rachio, you won’t know what to search for. There are no categories and you will likely find yourself scrolling through (currently) 25+ pages of crap. Anyone can develop and submit a skill, and it shows. This really needs to be redesigned into a full app store with a much more robust interface.UPDATE: Long after this was posted Amazon finally created a much more usable skills interface with categories.
- There are also sections for help, things to try, and voice training in case Alexa has a hard time understanding you.
- When playing music, you can play/pause or skip, in case you are out of voice range.
The Alexa app has a lot going on. Two big disappointments are the
Skills section and the lack of voice control using the app, although the latter is rumored to be in the works. As I mentioned above, the Skills section is a little half assed and very hard to search. Now that major companies have picked up on what Echo can do, I’m hoping Amazon puts a little more effort into it. Otherwise, this is a very feature rich app considering it is not the main way to interact with the Echo.
- The Sonos app is available for Apple and Android phones and tablets, as well as Macs and PC’s.
- The Sonos Mac/PC application Is divided into three columns with player controls on top and function buttons on the bottom. It shows all of your devices, what is currently playing, your queued songs and your available services. It also allows you to set alarms and sleep timers, add more Sonos devices, add services or music libraries, update device firmware and set the equalizer on a per device level.
- The phone and tablet app has all of the same functionality and adds the ability to use Trueplay Tuning to fine tune the sound of each device in your house.
- No matter which streaming service you are using, you will control them all through the Sonos app. This may mean a loss of certain functionality specific to that service, but most of the main services seem to have all of their major features available. UPDATE: You can now control Sonos devices through the Spotify app if you pay for Spotify Premium.
- All of the Sonos apps will let you easily control your speakers individually, or quickly combine them into groups to play the same source at the same time through multiple speakers.
Whether you are using the Mac/PC app or the app on your phone or tablet, it will seem familiar. Sonos paid a lot of attention to detail and made the app look and feel like the leading music apps. The app is the main way you will interact with Sonos, and it is fast, simple and intuitive. Everything is where you would expect it to be and does what you would expect it to do. Unlike the Echo, you will not find any deep menus or lists of features to add. Anyone on the same network as your speakers can install the app and control them. This is great at parties…kind of.
The Echo is great for casual listening. Positioned in the middle of my first floor, at medium volumes it will fill the floor with music. The sound it produces is mostly mid’s and high’s with some bass. That’s not to say that it is tinny by any means. The Echo produces better sound than many standalone Bluetooth speakers, but it will not replace your stereo any time soon.
There is currently no way to have multiple Echo’s or multiple Alexa capable devices playback the same source at the same time, so there is currently no stereo or multi-room support.
The Play:1 produces serious sound. I was completely blown away by its depth and clarity the first time I used it. While a single Play:1 is great for casual listening, two Play:1’s linked in stereo mode could easily replace your stereo. With the exception of Bose, who is still playing catch-up, you will not find a better sounding standalone streaming speaker on the market today.
While you won’t be able to convince multiple Echo’s to work together playing music, playing with others is where the Echo really shines. As mentioned above, Alexa can control devices from Wemo, Smartthings, Hue, Insteon, Wink, Garagio, Rachio and Ecobee, and more, out of the box. I was able to go from unboxing my Echo to issuing voice commands to my Wemo and Insteon devices in about ten minutes. The setup for supported devices is just that simple.
Echo still doesn’t support a lot of major devices, such as Nest, but Amazon seems determined to make the Echo your go to hub and I wouldn’t be surprised to see those integrations coming up soon (UPDATE: Nest compatibility was added in mid 2016). If you are feeling impatient, there are plenty of git’s and IFTTT recipes to add functionality that isn’t currently supported by the Echo.
If relentless stereo expansion is your goal, look no further than Sonos. The Play:1 is just their entry point, and if you have the coin, its big brothers will blow you away. The Sonos Play:1 works with the Play:3, Play:5, Sub, Playbar and Connect. You can pair two Play:1’s in stereo, create a 5.1 setup with any combination of Sonos speakers and a sub, or couple it with any number of Sonos speakers to play the same source in multiple rooms.
Sonos recently added Insteon integration, allowing it to be added to Insteon Scenes. This allows you to pick preset songs or stations to automatically play when a scene is triggered.
I know what you’re thinking, Echo works with Insteon, Sonos works with Insteon, I can control Sonos with Alexa! Nope. This was the first thing I tried, and although Alexa can see a Sonos paired to an Insteon hub, she cannot control it.
The Echo and Play:1 do both stream music, but that’s basically where the similarities end. If you are an audiophile or only plan to play music, and you want to have room for expansion in the future, the Play:1 is for you. It produces enough perfectly clear sound on its own to fill most homes with music, and its small size makes it easy to move anywhere you would like, provided there is power available. It is an impressive offering on its own, but it’s even more impressive that the Play:1 is just the entry level Sonos product.
If you happen to be more of a casual listener, or you’re worried that your neighbors will be banging on the walls, the Echo is for you. The added smart home and personal assistant features put the Echo in a class of its own. The hands free interaction with Alexa feels totally natural, like you’re talking to someone else in the room…someone with absolutely no memory or capacity for cognitive thought. Alexa is constantly being updated to incorporate new technologies, and I have previously said that the Echo is the most important device in home automation today.
I purposely didn’t score a winner or loser when comparing these two devices, because they are different enough that they could, and currently should, coexist in your smart home. The Sonos outshines the Echo on sound quality, but the Echo has infinitely more functionality than the Sonos. Depending on your situation, you may want one over the other, but you definitely can’t go wrong owning both.
Final Update: To further muddy the waters, Sonos and Amazon announced a partnership earlier this year and we expect Alexa to be able to control Sonos speakers in early 2017. As I speculate in this article, this could be the beginning of synched audio across multiple Echo/Sonos devices.