Sonos One Review: Amazon's Alexa Is Here, But It Still Has Some Growing Up to Do

I like my Echo. In my house, we use it to play radio stations, to get the weather, and to answer questions like “When was the Edo period?” One thing I don’t often use the Echo for is music. That’s because it sounds terrible. As good as Amazon’s Alexa voice service is, the Echo’s black tin can croaks out audio just a notch better than the 20-year-old Coby FM radio I keep in the garage. Amazon has taken steps to improve the Echo’s sound quality with a reboot last month, and companies like Lenovo have coaxed Alexa into nicer-sounding enclosures. But those speakers are still boring.

What I really want—what every audiophile I know wants—is an Alexa speaker that sounds as good as the best speakers in the house. In my house, those speakers are Sonos speakers. So join me while I raise a glass to the Sonos One, the company’s first music player with Alexa built natively into the corpus. This isn’t Alexa’s first sip of Sonos. Echo devices recently gained the ability to control Sonos hardware, but that requires adding an Alexa skill, which of course means there’s some loopy syntax you have to struggle with when all you really want to do is play some Chet Baker. Also, I know a few friends with an Echo Dot plugged into their Sonos Play:5, and while that gets things moving, it’s inelegant and you’re still using two devices.

This new $ 199 speaker takes the current Alexa-Sonos relationship and removes the complexity. You could think of it as an Echo with much improved sound. It does all of the Alexa things, but it’s foremost a Sonos speaker, so it does all the Sonos things too—it works as part of a multi-room system, it streams from scores of services, and it obeys the company’s controller apps. The One has some faults. Amazon world and Sonos world are two nuanced and complex domains, and any device that attempts to bridge the two is sure to stumble occasionally. But the key point remains: The One is a great-sounding Sonos speaker, and that’s reason enough to consider one. It also so happens that you can command it with your voice.

WIRED

If you’re already hip to the Sonos product line, you’ll notice the One looks almost exactly like a Play:1—on purpose, of course. But in order to incorporate voice services and the requisite six-microphone array, Sonos had to completely redesign the inside of the box. The resulting Sonos One, sonically, is perceptually the same as the Play:1. If you like the dynamics, volume, and clarity of the bookshelf-ready Play:1, this new Alexa-endowed version will please you as well. Speak as you would to your Echo (“Alexa, play KCRW.”) and that familiar robotic voice speaks back from within a Sonos shell.

By talking to the speaker, you can play or pause music, skip tracks, change the volume, or ask what’s playing. If you have multiple Sonos speakers, you can use Alexa to launch music in other rooms. “Alexa, play Chuck Berry in the bedroom.” I also succeeded in getting Alexa to group the One with another Sonos speaker that was already playing music by saying, “Play what’s playing in the kitchen.” That feature is undocumented, so I got a little jolt of surprise when it actually worked. Sonos told me later it’s an easter egg in the beta app I was using, but it’s nice to know more features are still in development. The One can do all the fun Alexa stuff too, of course. It can dim the lights or turn on your Dyson fan. You can ask it to start a dance party, play reggae, or play ’80s hits just like you can do with an Echo—except when you request it on the One, the music that comes out sounds much, much better.

TIRED

The setup process, which involves not only adding a new speaker to your Sonos network, but also adding Amazon Voice Service to your speaker, needs ironing out. There’s too much time spent switching between the Sonos app and the Alexa app during setup, and if you lose the thread, you have to start all over.

Once you get things humming, the limitations of the voice controls become clear pretty quickly. The Sonos One can do most everything Alexa can do, but it can’t do everything Sonos can do. So, when you ask it to play music, the Alexa living inside the One can only summon streams from the services Alexa supports. If you want to play something from your local MP3 library or one of the 80-odd services supported by Sonos (Apple Music, Google Play Music, Mixcloud, MLB.com), you have to pull out your phone and tap. Once the audio is playing, you can ask Alexa to pause it or turn it up. But unless it’s Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Sirius, or TuneIn, your phone is still required to get it playing in the first place. (Spotify is coming soon after launch, Sonos says.)

These shortcomings are things Sonos is racing to improve, of course. The bright and shiny end goal here is an easily installed speaker you can, if you want, control only by talking. But the One isn’t there yet. Each streaming service connected to your Sonos has to be understood and learned by Alexa in order for the voice assistant to be able to navigate it. That’s going to take time.

Again, this speaker sits squarely on a number of borders, and data and effort will get lost in the crossing as long as the various sides fail to understand each other perfectly. But until that work is done—by Amazon and by Sonos—you’ll need to assume an early-adopter mentality with regards to the One. You can take solace in knowing that bigger things are coming via software updates (like AirPlay support and Google Assistant, both coming in 2018). For now, however, you’ll just have to be satisfied with the simpler things.

Rating

8/10 – An excellent-sounding Alexa speaker that’s worth the $ 200, even if it has some growing up to do.

Tech

Tesla Fires Hundreds of Workers After Their Annual Performance Review

They’re not layoffs, the automaker says.

Electric automaker Tesla Motors fired hundreds of employees this week, including workers at its Fremont, Calif. factory and corporate managers, as it tries to solve production problems for its recently released Model 3.

An estimated 400 to 700 people were dismissed this week, according to a San Jose Mercury News report published Friday afternoon. That’s between 1% and 2% of the company’s more than 33,000 employees. Former and current employees told the Mercury News that little or no warning preceded the dismissals.

A Tesla spokesman would not confirm that number but told Fortune that the move follows its annual performance reviews, which typically involve both involuntary and voluntary departures.

“Like all companies, Tesla conducts an annual performance review during which a manager and employee discuss the results that were achieved, as well as how those results were achieved, during the performance period,” a Tesla spokesman said in an emailed statement. “This includes both constructive feedback and recognition of top performers with additional compensation and equity awards, as well as promotions in many cases. As with any company, especially one of over 33,000 employees, performance reviews also occasionally result in employee departures. Tesla is continuing to grow and hire new employees around the world.”

Tesla insists that the losses are not layoffs and that it plans to backfill the positions. That’s likely accurate, at least for jobs in California. State law requires companies to notify employees of layoffs through its WARN notification system. There are no records of new layoffs from Tesla. About 200 Tesla and SolarCity employees in the company’s Roseville, Calif. offices were notified Aug. 30 that they would be terminated.

The latest cuts come as the automaker tries to fix bottlenecks on the production line for its Model 3, an all-electric model designed to appeal to the masses. Earlier this month, Tesla reported that it produced 260 Model 3 cars in the third quarter, of which it has delivered 220. That figure is far less than CEO Elon Musk’s prediction that Tesla would produce more than 1,600 of the vehicles by September.

In July, Musk tweeted a production update for the Model 3, saying the car had passed all regulatory requirements ahead of schedule. After announcing that the first 30 customers would receive the Model 3s on July 28, Musk wrote, “production grows exponentially, so Aug should be 100 cars and Sept above 1,500.”

Altogether, Musk said that third quarter production numbers for the Model 3 would be around 1,630 vehicles—a prediction off by 84%.

A Wall Street Journal report published earlier this month revealed that Tesla workers were assembling Model 3 vehicles by hand until at least early September. One of the “bottlenecks” Musk alluded to was a process that involved positioning and welding body panels by hand, rather than by precision robots, according to workers interviewed by the Journal.

Musk recently delayed the unveiling of an electric semi-truck until Nov. 16 so the company can focus its attention on production problems with its new mass-market car, the Model 3.

Tech

IRS puts Equifax contract on hold during security review

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has temporarily suspended a contract worth more than $ 7 million it recently awarded to Equifax Inc following a security issue with the beleaguered credit reporting agency’s website on Thursday.

Equifax, which disclosed last month that cyber criminals breached its systems between mid-May and late July and made off with sensitive data on 145.5 million people, said on Thursday it shut down one of its website pages after discovering that a third-party vendor was running malicious code on the page.

“The IRS notified us that they have issued a stop-work order under our Transaction Support for Identity Management contract,” an Equifax spokesperson said on Friday.

“We remain confident that we are the best party to perform the services required in this contract,” the spokesperson said. “We are engaging IRS officials to review the facts and clarify available options.”

The IRS is the first organization to say publicly that it is suspending a contract with Equifax since the credit reporting agency’s security problems came to light.

Atlanta-based Equifax said its systems were not compromised by the incident on Thursday, which involved bogus pop-up windows on the web page that could trick visitors into installing software that automatically displays advertising material.

Still, the IRS said it decided to temporarily suspended its short-term contract with Equifax for identity-proofing services.

“During this suspension, the IRS will continue its review of Equifax systems and security,” the agency said in a statement. There was no indication that any of the IRS data shared with Equifax under the contract had been compromised, it added.

The move means that the IRS will temporarily be unable to create new accounts for taxpayers using its Secure Access portal, which supports applications including online accounts and transcripts. Users who already had Secure Access accounts will not be affected, the IRS said.

IRS granted the $ 7.25 million contract to Equifax on Sept. 29, weeks after Equifax disclosed the massive data hack that drew scathing criticism from several lawmakers.

“From its initial announcement, the timing and nature of this IRS-Equifax contract raised some serious red flags … we are pleased to see the IRS suspend its contract with Equifax,” Republican Representatives Greg Walden and Robert Latta said in a joint statement on Friday.

“Our focus now remains on protecting consumers and getting answers for the 145 million Americans impacted by this massive breach,” they said.

Government contracts in areas such as healthcare, law enforcement, social services, and tax and revenue, are major sources of revenue for Equifax.

In 2016, government services made up 5 percent of Equifax’s overall $ 3.1 billion in revenue, accounting for 10 percent of its workforce solutions revenues, 3 percent of its U.S. information solutions revenues, and 7 percent of its international revenues, according to a regulatory financial filing.

Reporting by John McCrank in New York; additional reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington; Editing by Bill Rigby

Tech

Review: Office 365’s Delve, Sway and Planner fall flat

Microsoft really, really wants to own all of your office work, so it keeps finding new tools it hopes you will add to your Office 365 portfolio. (All require an Office 365 account to use.) The latest is today’s announcement that its Microsoft Planner mobile app is now available for iPhone and Android phones. Microsoft said on its Office Blog  that current Planner users can use this companion app to view and update their plans on the go. 

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