Controlling Sonos with Alexa

Though you may have missed it given it clashed with Google's announcements, Sonos also had some news to share last week. You can now control your Sonos wireless speakers using Amazon Alexa.  It's still in Beta, but I've been trying it out.

Last week (Wednesday 4th October), was largely Google's day. They held their big event launching new phones, and a variety of other devices.  However, Google weren't the only ones with something to say that day. Sonos also had an event of their own, and made some long-anticipated announcements.

First, they're opening up.  Sonos have some great smart entertainment technology, but a long-standing accusation is that it hasn't played well with other smart home kit.  Well, that's changing.  Sonos plan to allow integration with other smart home technology, and are launching their own 'Works with Sonos' certification program, and have already announced some partners.

Second, they launched their first smart voice-assistant speaker.  Dubbed the Sonos One, the device is almost identical to the Play:1 in visual appearance, save for a redesigned 'top' to integrate some touch controls.  Under the hood the device packs in the necessary technology for voice control, including microphone arrays to hear you from across the room.

The new Sonos Voice Assistant speaker, named simple the 'Sonos One'

At launch, the Sonos One will support Amazon Alexa. Later, through updates, the speaker will also support Google Assistant.  This is pretty huge, as it means customers now have access to a speaker where they can choose - and change- which voice assistant they want to use.  It removes some of the lock-in of voice assistant speakers, and provides greater consumer choice.

Finally, Sonos announced Alexa control for customers who already have Sonos kit in their homes, and Amazons 'Echo' devices.  So, great news for those who have already invested.  It's in Beta, for now, and means there are some limitations to what you can do.  Perhaps one of the biggest is that you can't yet voice control Spotify on your Sonos system.  Given the popularity of Spotify, that's going to make it a non-starter for many.  However, an update will enable Spotify control sometime in the future, Sonos say.  So, patience for now, it's coming.

Enabling Sonos control was fairly straightforward.  Inside the Alexa app, simply search the Skills 'store' for Sonos. Tap to enable the skill, and sign in to your Sonos account to link it to Alexa.  Once done, it's time to run a discovery in your home for the Sonos speakers and rooms you have.  This process is fast, and seems reliable.

You also have to make sure that any music services you plan to use are setup in the Alexa app too.  This is also a little limiting, as the number of music services Alexa supports is much smaller than those supported by Sonos.  However, as you'll see below, there are some exceptions to this limitation.

After discovery, you can now issue commands. These can be as simple as 'Alexa, Play music in the living room'. And Sonos starts playing .... something, from your library.  If you want to get more specific, you can make requests by genre such as 'Alexa, Play jazz in the living room', or even request a specific song.  You can also ask for radio stations by saying things like 'Alexa, Play BBC Radio 4 in the Kitchen'.

During any interaction with Alexa using commands for Sonos (or indeed anything else), the volume of your sound is temporarily dipped to allow cleaner Alexa interaction.  This is a nice touch. Sound returns to the original volume once the Alexa interaction is complete.

Given the 'Beta' nature of this, there are some odd behaviours that crop up.  We've got Spotify, and a bunch of our own music stored up in Groove music via OneDrive.  When asking for a specific song though, we instead found that it began playing from Amazon Music, and as we don't have a subscription for this, all we got was -of course- a 30 second sample.  So, some things clearly need to develop. I'll say again, it's a Beta, so it's not fully done yet.

Other times we'd ask for music to start playing, and we'd get a track from Groove & OneDrive, even though that isn't officially supported in Alexa!  A few quirks to be ironed out.

Other stuff works well though, you can ask to skip a track, stop, pause, change volume up and down etc.  This is all good stuff, and reduces the need to reach for your smart phone to control your music.

I'm looking forward to seeing this develop over time and the service evolve to include Spotify control, as well as control over other music services.

Many have been asking lately whether Sonos is relevant any more. Amazon, Google and Apple are all launching or have launched voice assistant smart speakers with capabilities that increasingly rival that of Sonos.  With a seemingly less open approach, Sonos was indeed looking to be on rather shaky ground.  With these new announcements though, I think they've put themselves back into contention nicely.

It's becoming clear that even though Sonos may have it's own proprietary aspects, it may end up more open than the competition. Whilst the dust may be yet to settle, I think it's far to premature to count Sonos out.  As a consumer, why buy a smart speaker that locks you in to one assistant and one ecosystem, when you can buy something that gives you more choice and flexibility?