A smart speaker showdown is brewing as Google takes centre stage in a battle with Sonos, the king of multi-room audio.
For 15 years Sonos has set the gold standard for multi-room audio, offering impressive wireless speakers which make it easy to fling music to the far corners of your home. You can tap into your home music library or a wide range of subscription music services, controlling everything from your computer, smartphone or tablet.
While smart speakers from the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple might be easier to use — responding to spoken requests such as "Okay Google, play The Rolling Stones" — so far these smart rivals have posed little threat to Sonos in terms of sound quality.
Sonos has a loyal fan base and anyone with an ear for quality would never abandon even a pint-sized Sonos Play:1 speaker in favour of a Google Home or an Amazon Echo, with the latter likely to appear in Australia soon when Amazon finally plays its hand.
A New Headline Act
All this changed last week, with Google and Sonos raiding each other's territory on the very same day. As Sonos announced support for Google and Amazon's smart assistants at its New York launch, Google unveiled the Sonos-style Google Home Max speaker in San Francisco.
The $US399 Google Home Max, which will be coming exclusively to America at first, borrows heavily from the $749 Sonos Play:5 design. The Home Max features touch-sensitive controls and can sit flat or stand on its side. Like Sonos, you can configure two Google speakers as a stereo pair and calibrate them to the acoustics of the room.
Along with streaming your home music library and subscription services, both the Sonos and Google Home speakers feature a rear auxiliary input. You can also play music directly from your handheld gadgets; Sonos achieves this via the Sonos app, whereas the Google Home Max supports Bluetooth and Chromecast streaming.
At the same time Sonos has unveiled a new Sonos One speaker with a built-in six-mic array so you can tell it what to do. It supports the Amazon Alexa smart assistant out of the box and will add Google Assistant and Apple Airplay 2 streaming next year. This one is actually launching in Australia, at the same $299 as the existing (and similar-looking) Play:1 it replaces.
Sonos intends to add a feature that lets any Alexa-enabled device control its range of speakers, even older ones that don't support voice commands themselves. We've been waiting for Google Home to add similar support for controlling Sonos speakers, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out now the two are finally in open competition.
After a quick hands on with a Google Home Max stereo pair in San Francisco, I'd say Google's new high-end speakers can certainly hold their head high alongside the Sonos Play:3 and perhaps even the Play:5, although I'd obviously want to reserve final judgement until I get them in a room side by side.
If Google Home Max can win over music lovers then Sonos has a real challenge on its hands, hoping that its broad support for Google, Amazon and Apple can secure it a place in the homes of music lovers.
Adam Turner attended the Made By Google launch in San Francisco as a guest of Google.