I had, up until today, resisted the urge to spend any money on a “smart speaker” device. The tech is interesting, of course. Ever since ST:TNG, all good nerds have wanted to be able to just yell “tea, Earl Grey, hot” and have a piping hot mug of tea materialize in front of them. So Amazon Echo and other smart speakers are kind of cool. But, in practice, there’s really not that much you can do with them. You can yell “play AC/DC” and, on a good day, “Back in Black” will start playing from the speaker. If you have some home automation stuff set up, you can yell at it to turn your lights on and off, but that never really seemed too compelling to me. I can just as easily flip a light switch.
And, on the speaker side of things, I don’t think an Echo would compete that well with my big old-fashioned speakers, connected to my old-fashioned tuner. I still have my Raspberry Pi Volumio box hooked up to my tuner, and it works reasonably well, for most stuff. There are a few issues though. When I use it as an AirPlay receiver, it stutters occasionally. (I’m not sure if that’s Volumio’s fault or network problems.) And, for some MP3 files, the sound quality is a little off. Also, while it can play streaming radio, it only supports a limited set of stations. (You need to find a specific kind of streaming URL to use, and not all stations support it.)
So when I think about my current setup, there are definitely limitations. I like listening to old-fashioned FM radio, but the particular area I live in is a bit too far from both New York and Philly to pick up stations from either area reliably. I used to be able to pick up WXPN (Philly) and WNYC (New York) reasonably well, but reception has actually gotten worse over the last few years for some reason, so now I can’t pick up much of anything anymore, except for a few local stations. And I have a good CD collection, but no longer have a working CD player. Volumio was supposed to solve that problem, but I’m not entirely satisfied with it.
Anyway, this all leads me into looking into smart speakers. Apple’s HomePod is interesting. All the reviews I’ve seen indicate that it has great sound quality. But it’s $350 for a single speaker, and it doesn’t work with much other than Apple Music. It’s supposed to support AirPlay 2 at some point, and apparently supports the current version of AirPlay now, so I could always stream to it from my iPhone. But I can already do that with Volumio. It might sound better than Volumio, but it’s still $350.
The Amazon Echo is only $100, and the speaker is probably reasonably good, but most reviews I’ve read would lead me to believe that it’s probably not better than my current speakers. It does support a variety of music services and streaming radio stations, but of course it’s likely happiest with Amazon Music.
The Sonos One seems to fit well into a niche that’s somewhere in between the Echo and the HomePod. It’s $200 for one (or $350 for two, right now). The sound quality should be better than the Echo, but not as good as HomePod. (I haven’t actually heard one yet, but it’s possible that it could actually be better than my current setup, though I’m not convinced about that.) And it supports a wide range of sources, so I should be able to listen to WXPN, WNYC, NTS, and a bunch of other radio stations, if I want to. And it supports playing MP3s from a file share, so I should be able to access all of the MP3s that I already have on my Volumio box. It also has Alexa support, so if I want to yell at it, I can, but I don’t have to. (It’s also got an app I can use instead.)
There are some vexing limitations to the Sonos One though. It’s got no analog input, so I can’t pipe my TV sound output through it. And it doesn’t work as a Bluetooth receiver or (current) AirPlay receiver, so I don’t think I can pipe anything through it that isn’t explicitly supported by Sonos. (That’ll change when they add AirPlay 2 support, assuming they actually do that.)
So, anyway, I ordered one this morning. Sigh. I based my decision in part on this comparison at iMore, which definitely favors the HomePod, in terms of sound quality, but which points out some of its limitations. And on this article at recode, which talks about how Sonos intends to compete against the HomePod. I like Sonos’ approach of trying to support as many services as they can. And I read this review of Sonos One from Sound and Vision, which was very positive about the sound quality of the Sonos One. So I’m getting one, and we’ll see how it works. If it’s no good, I guess I can return it. But I’m hoping I’ll like it.