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Sonos’s new Roam speaker has the clever UX you never knew you needed

Sonos’s new Roam speaker is trying to change your relationship with sound and the smart home.

Sonos’s new Roam speaker has the clever UX you never knew you needed
[Photo: Sonos]
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It’s opening day for baseball, and with fans back in the stands, the unmistakable sounds of Wrigley Field don’t disappoint. I hear the crack of the bat, and that comforting thwump of pitches hitting the catcher’s mitt. There’s the melody of organs, the screams of the crowd, and announcers offering colorful commentary.

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I also hear the birds chirping in my trees, and a neighbor’s lawnmower humming in the distance. I don’t actually have tickets to the Cubs game (pfft, I’m a White Sox fan anyway). I’m really sitting in my backyard, listening to it on the Sonos Roam. This little speaker has brought the atmosphere of the game to me in the way tinny AM radio never has.

[Photo: Sonos]
The Sonos Roam will be available April 20 for $169. At face value, the Roam is a portable, waterproof speaker that fits in your hand like a water bottle (read more about the industrial design here). That characterization means it’s one of a million other identical products in the category, from the discontinued Jawbone Jambox to the UE Boom to the Beats Pill.

But Sonos hasn’t distinguished itself as a speaker company. It’s a networked speaker company that has made its name in WiFi speakers that can blanket your home in continuous sound. Sonos’s audio quality has always been respectable (even if it’s not extreme audiophile equipment), but its real promise has been this easy UX. Just hit a button in the Sonos app, or even Spotify, and you can send music to a Sonos speaker in your living room, or bedroom, or both at once. Even while companies like Amazon and Google have released smart Wi-Fi speakers powered by digital assistants (Sonos is currently suing Google for alleged patent infringement on the topic), Sonos continues to grow about 15% to 20% a year. Once a customer buys one Sonos speaker, they are likely to buy more, according to Sonos. The more Sonos speakers you have, the more its networked premise pays off.

[Photo: Sonos]
I’ve tried a lot of Sonos stuff over the years, from its One speaker to its Ikea Symfonisk lamp to its Arc soundbar. They all work as advertised. But the Roam pushes Sonos user experience (UX) into a new, more experimental direction. And it makes the whole Sonos promise make more sense.

The Roam isn’t just a speaker; it’s also a little remote control. By pressing the play button on top of the Roam, you can grab sound from one speaker and take it with you. By holding a button on a Sonos speaker near the Roam, you can shoot the Roam’s audio to that speaker.

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[Photo: Sonos]
How does this “Sound Swap” technology work? When you press the button, the Roam asks other Sonos speakers in your home to put out ultrasonic frequencies that you can’t hear, but allows the closest device to sync up.

The Roam is a rare smart home product that eschews screens for more natural, physical gestures. And while that shouldn’t necessarily be a big deal in 2021, it is. Just about every smart home product you add to your house comes with its own app you use to control it. This hassle has led Google to update Android simply to manage these apps! If you don’t want to link all your products up through an always-listening voice assistant, like Amazon Echo or Google Home, that means you’re constantly juggling your smartphone screen to babysit your thermostat, lighting, doorbell, and kitchen appliances. Rather than having less to manage, smart home tech often gives us more to manage. Case in point: My favorite “smart home” product I own to this day is a $10 porch light bulb I got at Home Depot, which uses a simple light sensor to automatically turns itself on when it gets dark each evening. No internet or phone required.

[Photo: Sonos]
If you want, you can use your smartphone to pair Sonos speakers, or even Amazon and Google voice assistants. The Roam is quite user interface agnostic. But its physical interface is what’s so appealing to me. In that way, the Roam reminds me a lot of the smart home concepts we saw emerging out of design studios like Frog a decade ago, which dreamed of networking a home without always finding the nearest screen to do so. To turn up the sound of your speaker, Frog imagined you might simply twist your salt and pepper shakers like knobs on a radio.

Roam’s approach to Sound Swap doesn’t go quite so experimental. But still it’s, honestly, a little trippy.

For one, Sonos audio quality is so similar across its speaker line—with its resonant mids and fluttering highs—that the sound of the Roam and any other Sonos speaker blend seamlessly. It takes a moment to check, did this Sound Swap really work? Because the sound blends well, your portable Roam can be stuck into any corner to simply add more sound to any room it’s in.

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[Photo: Sonos]
But I was more surprised by the sensation of carrying this little speaker with me. On opening day, I brought it outside to hear the game, then to my office while I worked. (I may have even carried it into the bathroom, and that audio feed may have unexpectedly made my bathroom feel exactly like the bathroom in a sports bar.) It created the ambient sensation of baseball, like a TV was on in the background, without a TV anywhere near me. Could you do something like this with headphones and a smartphone audio stream? You could, but headphones close you off to the world. A little speaker leaves room for other sounds to work their way into your ears. You don’t have to tune out everything else to focus entirely on an audio stream. Instead, the sound is naturally another part of your whole environment. I imagine the Roam would be the perfect little podcast companion, allowing you to listen to a long episode in any space throughout your day.

The Roam didn’t always work perfectly. I found that holding the button just the right amount to activate Sound Swap could be tricky. Occasionally it had trouble pairing the sound with another speaker, and while that certainly may have been user error, I feel like there was an opportunity for Sonos to add some sort of feedback other than a few beeps that to me just mean . . . beeping. I also seemed to have drained the battery once, unintentionally, as the speaker sat on standby one night. Modern electronics have such polished, ultra-efficient standby modes that this was surprising. I can’t help but wonder if a firmware update could fix the issue down the line.

At $169, you can definitely get your hands on a cheaper Bluetooth speaker that still sounds pretty good. However, the Roam is a great little option for anyone who wants to dip their toe into Sonos UX without a huge splurge—and anyone who dreams of living in a smart home that feels a bit more like home.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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