Wherever I Roam; Reviewing Sonos’ New Speaker
When Sonos tipped off a new product intro last month, I was sure it was going to be a hi-res speaker. The company had just announced that premium music service Qobuz was available at 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution on Sonos speakers, and Spotify said around the same time it’s going to add hi-res streaming later this year, too. Even more hi-res music is streaming from Amazon Music HD, Tidal and Deezer.
When Sonos’ big news turned out to be a tiny, portable speaker, you could’ve knocked me over with a silk dome tweeter. It’s not that I haven’t wanted something like the Sonos Roam, a battery-powered waterproof, Bluetooth speaker light enough to carry in a backpack. I’ve been suggesting such a speaker to Sonos at every product launch I’ve attended for the past 10 years. I’ve wanted a speaker to put in the bathroom so I could listen to NPR during my morning showers and not worry about parts rusting. And it had to be portable, too, so it wouldn’t have to live in the bathroom.
So thanks, Sonos — better late than never. Having waited several years past the portable Bluetooth speaker craze (Logitech, for one, has left the market), Sonos was able to pack in some cool features that make the Roam stand out. It has Wi-Fi in addition to Bluetooth, and it has voice control (either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant) so it doubles as a smart speaker.
The $169 Roam is the least expensive speaker Sonos has launched, coming in at $10 under the One SL, which has a fuller sound but no voice control, and $30 under the One, with fuller sound and voice control. The $399 Move speaker, its other Bluetooth speaker, is more of a “luggable” at 6.6 pounds versus Roam’s 0.95 pound.
The triangular, handheld speaker is built for toughness against drops and dust, and it has an IP67 rating making it waterproof, submerged up to three feet, for 30 minutes. That works with my shower regimen that’s about 10 minutes long — sprayed, not submerged.
I wondered, though, after I left the shower with a dripping wet speaker, when I would be comfortable plugging it in again for a recharge. No time soon, that’s for sure. A spokesperson told me drying time “will vary based on the environment it’s in, but as general guidance it’s best to wait until there are no water droplets visible in the USB port before plugging in.” That’s good advice. Lucky thing it can also be charged wirelessly by a Qi charger.
One of Roam’s catchy features allows you to “throw” the music from it to another speaker on the Sonos wireless music network — like casting Blacklist from a phone to a TV but with music instead. So you come in the house with the Roam playing (who does that?), place it near another Sonos speaker, then press and hold the play button to have the music jump to the other speaker. Cool parlor trick, but not very practical, I found.
When I tried it, I brought the speaker down from the roof deck, playing Katy Perry’s Never Really Over from my phone, and pressed play, but the music didn’t jump. Presumably that was because I was still in Bluetooth mode. I turned off Bluetooth, and the jump worked with my Sonos One over Wi-Fi. But that was after too many button presses — the moment had passed.
Another feature that sets Roam apart is Automatic Trueplay, which uses “spatial awareness” to adjust the sound for the speaker’s orientation, location, and content. Sonos first bowed the feature in the Move last year but in Wi-fi only; Roam does it in both modes.
I enabled Trueplay during set up and trust that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, but since it’s automatic — and only “periodically adjusts the sound” when the mic is on — you can’t really do an A-B test to compare the sound on and off. The speaker sounds good and packs a punch for its size, but it didn’t sound the same in a New Jersey backyard on Easter as it does in my 15 x 12-foot bedroom. I wouldn’t have expected it to.
Having the mic on for sound tuning is one of the features, like using Google Assistant, that shortens the battery life, rated for 10 hours max. Sonos recommends turning off the mic, and the speaker, when it’s not being used to save juice.
That’s OK. I found Google Assistant to be useless when trying to spin a Spotify playlist, a problem I have on my Google Home speaker, too. I asked Roam to play my Roadtrip playlist from Spotify, and it launched into a jaunty Irish jig by Rebecca Frezza on an album called Road Trip. I renamed my Roadtrip playlist with my initials at the beginning and tried again. It was no use, Google has a mind of its own and played something called Chitarra Romana from another album called Road Trip, which just underscored the artificial in artificial intelligence. Voice control was useful, though, for lowering the volume and pausing the music.
The Roam is a competitive effort from Sonos and its first speaker designed for use outside the home. The company also has its eyes on the car, says CEO Patrick Spence. Meanwhile, I’m still curious about a hi-res model for inside the home. I don’t know if I’ll spring for the additional monthly fee for hi-res Spotify, whenever that hits the market, but I sure won’t do it without a speaker that’s up to the task.