Sonos has launched its own voice assistant, known as Sonos Voice Control, and you can activate it on any Sonos voice voice product in the house. It’s not the first time Sonos users have been able to send voice commands to their speakers - Alexa has been available since 2017, when Sonos launched its first true smart speaker, the Sonos One.
But Sonos Voice Control is a beast different from Alexa and Google Assistant. Is it better, worse, or just an alternative to Amazon and Google AI? Here’s how to use it.
Adding Sonos Voice Control
Setting up Sonos Voice Control on your compatible Sonos speakers is easy - just as you’d expect from a company that has put simplicity at the heart of its nearly two decades of experience.
Open the Sonos app, sign in settings > Services and voice menu and tap Add a Voice Assistant. From there, the app guides you through a very quick and painless process of selecting the voice assistant you want (in this case, Sonos Voice Control) and the speakers you want to add it to. (If you don’t see the option to add Sonos Voice Control, make sure you don’t have an active ad blocker.)
Sonos could not have made a better choice for its voice assistant.
Interestingly, if you previously had Google Assistant on the speaker you now want to work with on Sonos Voice Control, the app will warn you that the two AI can’t run on the same speaker at the same time, and you’ll have to switch to Sonos or stay with Google .
This is not true if you use Alexa. Apparently, Amazon is less restrictive in licensing and doesn’t mind if Sonos shares its voice real estate properties.
Everything takes less than 2 minutes, and the app then invites you to try the new instrument, saying “Hey, Sonos, play music.” After a short pause, the assistant does just that. In my case, the speaker was on a paused playlist before adding Sonos Voice Control, so it simply resumed playback.
Set a default music service
Like Alexa and Google Assistant, you can request streaming music services by name using Sonos Voice Control. But setting a default service means you can make orders much shorter. Instead of saying, “Hey, Sonos, play Sting on Amazon Music,” you can simply say, “Hey, Sonos, play Sting.”
Once you’ve set up Sonos Voice Control on at least one speaker, you can return to settings > Services and voice menu, tap Sonos voice controlthen tap Default service. This shows you the list of supported services. Unfortunately, not all services will work by default.
When I tried it, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Deezer, and Sonos Radio were (naturally) available to me, but a few others, including Tidal, Stitcher, and SoundCloud, and Spotify, SiriusXM, and Plex were colorless, with the words “incompatible” next to them.
Talking to Sonos
For Sonos Voice Control, the company enlisted the help of actor Giancarlo Esposito, who spent many hours in a recording studio, uttering a variety of phrases and words into a microphone. Contrary to what you might think, this was not to give Sonos a library of predefined answers from Esposito that would be played back at the right time. Instead, those recorded snippets provided the sonic DNA for a fully virtual version of Esposito’s voice.
Armed with that data and a great contribution of machine learning, Esposito has effectively become the voice of Sonos Voice Control and will probably not need to record another word to keep the system running. It’s one thing for a company like Amazon or Google to create a synthetic voice for their assistants from scratch, but it’s completely different when you hear a real, recognizable human voice - especially one with Esposito’s warm, soothing tones. (More options will come later, Sonos said.)
I’ve read a lot of reviews about using female voices for our AIs, and indeed all three major voice AI companies - Amazon, Apple and Google - use female voices as defaults. I will not intervene in one part of that debate or the other, but I will say this: Sonos could not have made a better choice for its voice assistant.
Mostly quick answers
In general, using Sonos Voice Control produced quick responses, whether I asked for a new song, whether I had the system pause or resume, or whether I changed the volume levels. But some orders took longer than expected.
For example, using voice commands to group speakers, such as “Hey, Sonos, add Roam,” would result in a delay of about 5 to 7 seconds as the system reconfigures. The same thing happened when you asked for the opposite to happen, “Hey Sonos, bundle everyone,” which also took some time. I really appreciate that you can refer to either the speaker model (Roam) or its location (bathroom) and it works in any way.
Interestingly, the system uses a short sound to indicate that it heard you or successfully completed an order, but it is not consistent and sometimes you do not hear it at all. For example, “Hey, Sonos, play The Rolling Stones,” produces a ringtone, followed by “Sounds Great,” and then starts the music. But saying, “Hey, Sonos, ungroup them all,” he gave me a 15-second delay, during which the music volume dropped to almost zero, and then I received the ringtone. And saying “Hey, Sonos, pick it up” produced an instant increase in volume, but no sound.
Command and control
Sonos Voice Control was not designed as a general voice assistant, so virtually all available controls refer to Sonos features, such as music playback and speakerphone management. A notable exception is “Hey, Sonos, what time is it?” which produces “It’s three-oh-nine pee em” (or whatever time it is).
If you try to get out of the comfort zone or if there is a general error, you will get a short two-tone error sound.
Sonos offers almost every option you can ask for. You can group and ungroup speakers, ask Sonos what song is playing, and direct it to play a variety of content from streaming music services. It will report the battery levels of Move or Roam, which you can request by name. In Roam, I said, “Hey, Sonos, what’s the battery level on My Move?” and replied, “The move is fully loaded.” You can even set the volume levels on some speakers, for example, “Hey, Sonos, set the Kitchen to 25%.”
It’s not perfect, though. During my testing for a few hours on launch day, some errors occurred. I couldn’t get Sonos to play music from any service except Amazon Music, which is the one I set as default. He said, “Hey, Sonos, play Red Hot Chili Peppers on Apple Music,” it caused a great deal of confusion. I received an error tone followed by “Apple Music is not configured on your system. Go to the Sonos app to add it. ” And yes, Apple Music was already in my system.
The same thing happened when I tried Deezer. Other music services I have on Sonos have turned out to be completely incompatible, such as Tidal and Spotify. When I tried, I was told, “Sorry, Tidal / Spotify is not yet available for Sonos Voice Control.”
Sometimes the system misinterpreted what I was asking for in a very funny way.
I also discovered an error that the commands issued to a voice activated speaker simply would not work - not because the system was malfunctioning, but because I changed the active speaker on the System tab of Sonos, which I suspect meant Sonos Voice Control. I thought I wanted to control the active speaker, not the speaker I was talking to.
When I tried to pause the music playing in the bathroom, saying “Hey Sonos, pause” to the bathroom speaker, I was informed that no music is playing at the moment. Sure enough, the active speaker in the app - the speaker in the dining room - doesn’t play anything. I guess the lesson here is to always mention the speaker you want to control in your voice command.
Some commands were simply hit and missed. Twice, I managed to successfully get the system to play Sonos Radio HD stations by name. But other job postings were met with error messages such as: “An error occurred while trying to render that content. Please use the Sonos app. ” When I asked, “Hey, Sonos, play chill beats on Sonos Radio,” I was sent to TuneIn and tried to play a post called Chill out.
Sometimes the system misinterpreted what I was asking for in a very funny way. Amazon Music has a post called All the 70s. When I said, “Hey, Sonos, play All Seventies,” I assumed I wanted to play music on “all” of my speakers, so he grouped them all together. Then, realizing that more was needed, he added: “There was an error trying to play that content. Please use the Sonos app. ” Right now I’m starting to feel a little sorry for Esposito. He struggled to give me what I wanted in the end.
In another attempt to play an Amazon Music station, I said, “Hey, Sonos, play 70’s gold” (no, I don’t know why I was apparently obsessed with 70’s playlists today) and the system started playing the top songs of a band called Mellow and Sleazy. Have you ever felt that an AI is trolling you?
Mistakes aside, and given how early we are in this new feature, I expect Sonos to work feverishly to deal with them, Sonos Voice Control is a useful, friendly and easy way to do almost anything you want with a Sonos system.
But since that’s all you can do with Sonos Voice Control, you can’t change it with Alexa or Google Assistant - that would be far too limiting. And while it’s possible to run Alexa and Sonos Voice Control side by side, it’s unfortunate to be forced to choose between Sonos and Google.
It’s also a problem for Sonos. No matter how good Sonos Voice Control is, you can already control a lot of Sonos features from Google Assistant, and I assume that many people who use Google on Sonos smart speakers do just that. If there is a choice between having a limited Sonos control, but all that Google can do and an excellent Sonos control and no Google, I have the impression that I know in which direction most people will go.