Ever since Sonos brought out its ZonePlayer S5, in 2009, later renamed the Play:5, then the Play:3 in 2011, people have been requesting the company develop an outdoor speaker for its multi-room system. Once early adopters had filled their houses with the Wi-Fi speakers, and possibly hooked up legacy stereos and floorstanders using a Connect, it became obvious there was one large part of the home left uncovered – the garden.
For all the five-star reviews garnered by the Play speakers, and the not inconsiderable money it cost to assemble a whole-home Sonos system, it was frustrating to have to turn to a (usually much cheaper) standard Bluetooth speaker if, on a nice summer’s day, you wanted to listen to audio outside. It threatened to make a mockery of the whole premise for having Sonos.
The result of this is that every single time Sonos has teased a new product announcement, I have asked the same question: have you done the outdoor speaker? Many others kept badgering the company, too. So much so that the Sonos representatives began to politely roll their eyes or smile resignedly at the inevitable query before each launch. Hopes of an outdoors Play were dashed each time, however, as instead came redesigns, soundbars and soundplinths, digital-assistant integration, a collaboration with IKEA and more.
This time, though, it was different. This year we all guessed what was coming when Sonos set pulses racing by sending out an invite with an illustration of a person lounging indoors looking longingly through a window at the sun shining outside.
Then, uncharacteristically for Sonos, the Move, its new Wi-Fi and Bluetooth portable speaker, designed specifically to be taken beyond the confines of the house, leaked spectacularly. Not just confirmation that it was indeed a portable speaker, but its name, specifics on how it would operate, even multiple shots of the full final design along with the official lifestyle promo snaps complete with hands lifting the unit from its indoor charging stand to be whisked off into the great outdoors.
You have to feel slightly sorry for Sonos. Internally, the company must have been so tickled pink knowing it was finally revealing the very speaker so many faithful customers were crying out for; the speaker so often incorrectly predicted to be next that many had stopped mentioning it altogether, that huddled around Sonos meeting tables there must have been more excitement compared to previous launches.
Then, suddenly, thanks to zatznotfunny, anyone who cared knew in advance all about the one model Sonos really wanted to be a big, and guaranteed welcome, surprise. It’s happened to Apple and Samsung too many times recently, and you can clearly see the executives on stage fully aware that the big reveal has been spoiled before they even get to the slide officially unveiling the new phone, tablet, laptop, whatever – but they soldier on, grins fixed, pretending it’s all unexpected.
Much was the same at the New York reveal in August, laughably embargoed till September despite the comprehensive leaks, where no mention was made of the fact all assembled were fully aware of the Move speaker they had come to see in the wild.
But, despite the spoilt surprise, to Sonos’s credit the £399 Move is impressive as an outdoor addition to the multi-room ecosystem. And it’s a good thing, too, considering the price and how long the company has had to get it right.
For starters, much effort has been made to make the Move – available from September 24 – durable. You can drop the thing from a height with little concern for breaking the innards. Sonos boasts it managed to crack a concrete slab with the Move in its drop tests (which I can believe as the speaker weighs a hefty 3kg), yet the unit remained completely undamaged.
An IP56 rating means it can shrug off showers of sand or water. Sonos also, for good measure, shot waters jets from hoses directly at the Move and smeared its test units with substances including suncream, mustard, vaseline, vinegar, makeup and even bug spray to ensure the finish remained unblemished. They say you can do anything to the speaker apart from submerge it in water. So leaving it out after a party in a thunderstorm should be no issue. It can also handle music playback in temperatures ranging from -10°C to 55°C and charge from 0°C to 45°C.
The 240 x 160 x 126mm Move, currently only available in ‘shadow black’, gains its portability thanks to an on-board battery. This is good for ten hours of music, after which a two-hour stint on its nifty charging base will see it restored to full power. You can also charge it via a USB-C port. But given you are forking out nearly £400 for the speaker, you might be wisely concerned with the life of that rechargeable battery. It has a life of 900 charges, about three years of use Sonos predicts – after which you can swap out the battery via two screws hidden in the base.
The other challenge of portability has been solved by adding in Bluetooth 4.2 (sadly not 5) to the top of the Move, as well as shoehorning in four separate Wi-Fi antennae into the base, which Sonos says gives this speaker by some margin the most powerful Wi-Fi range of any of its products.
How this hybrid connectivity works is as follows: the Move acts just like any other Sonos speaker on your house system when it is in Wi-Fi range. It appears in the app like any other room unit and is controlled and grouped in the same way – and yes, you can stereo pair two Moves.
If you want to take it outside your home Wi-Fi then you press the dedicated button on the back to switch over to Bluetooth mode. The status light on the top changes to blue to signify the switch. You then use it like any other Bluetooth speaker. Only one device can connect to the Move at a time, though, which is probably wise if any of you have had control battles thanks to multiple user connections on a portable speaker.
However, due to the Move’s size and weight, it’s clear this is not a product intended to habitually venture far from the garden, despite its sand-proofing. I got the impression that Sonos believes few will ever really need the Bluetooth ability as, thanks to those new antennae, the Move should work in the vast majority of yards and gardens on the Wi-Fi setting, thus keeping it in the Sonos house ecosystem.
How does it sound? The two Class-D digital amplifiers coupled with an innovative downward-firing tweeter (which itself went through 62 iterations to supposedly perfect even dispersal of sound) and a mid-woofer result in, from our limited listen, typical Sonos sound, i.e. quality reproduction with clear high frequencies and rich bass. It’s also – crucially – loud, ample for outdoor barbecues, though you may need a stereo pair for your rowdier parties. If you can shout over the music, the four far-field mic array will kick in to wake up either Alexa or Google Assistant.
But perhaps the most impressive work on the Move has been affording the speaker the ability to adjust its own EQ on the fly. Those who have used Sonos speakers before will be aware of Trueplay, the acoustic calibration system that uses the microphones in your smartphone to tune individual speakers not only for the room they are in but also their exact placement in that room. It works well.
Trouble is, this existing system, impressive though it is, is absolutely useless for a portable speaker. After all, a portable speaker gets moved around, and each time you take it outside and plonk it down it will never be in the exact same place twice. This renders the usual Trueplay calibration worthless. But rather than just set a standard sound as is the case on many Bluetooth speakers, Sonos went away and developed ‘automatic Trueplay’.
With automatic Trueplay, Sonos has taken the vast amounts of anonymised data it collects from customer calibrations and combined these with its own data collected from sound-mapping numerous gardens, yards, decks and terraces to produce a feature that sees the Move constantly monitor its EQ to make sure it’s sounding right. Pick it up and put it down somewhere else, and within 20 seconds you can audibly hear the sound change as the Move realises its surrounding are different.
It’s not quite as accurate as normal Trueplay, but it’s darn close. If fact, you can easily see this changing original Trueplay so in the future you no longer have to walk around a room for five minutes waving your mobile up and down as your multi-room speakers bleep and hum. All the processing happens locally in the unit, nothing gets sent to the cloud, and apparently nothing gets stored other than the sonic correction itself.
According to Sonos, the particularly tricky part was getting the feature to run the auto-mapped surroundings from a Move through a combination of data sets with sufficiently similar markers from the vast numbers of rooms previously mapped through Trueplay, and then match this with new data collected by the outdoor-mapping team. This in turn informs the Move how to modify its EQ for its current location (until you place it somewhere else). This all means that what the end unit gets is actually an approximation of how it should be calibrated for its setting, but even so you can still hear the feature works surprisingly well.
The fact the Move seems to work so well for its intended use, i.e. garden tunes rather than beach missions (thanks to that heft and price tag), brings us back to asking why those loyal Sonos users have had to wait so very long for a speaker to fill such an obvious gap in the lineup? The answer apparently lies in the changing of the CEO guard at Sonos.
When founder and then CEO John MacFarlane announced in 2017 he was stepping down following criticism that the company had reacted slowly to the boom in smart speakers, COO Patrick Spence was anointed to take his place.
MacFarlane, unlike Spence, it has been suggested, was not the greatest fan of Bluetooth technology, at least in its then state of evolution. Indeed, Sonos is careful about the tech it employs, preferring to err on the side of caution and ensure performance stability. This is the very reason why Bluetooth 4.2 is used in the Move and not the relatively new Bluetooth 5.
Spence’s arrival has also brought a “change in corporate strategy”, I am told in WIRED’s briefing in New York. You don’t have to read to hard between the lines there, or indeed be good at math, to do the sums and conclude that its more than likely that only once Spence took over was the Move outdoor speaker project green-lit.
However, regardless of how, and when, the Move started life, it’s finally here. Better very late than never. Only now it’s going to be a lot harder guessing what will be Sonos’s next move.
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