Speaker

Sonos Roam review: portable potential


The Sonos Roam is the most focused, calculated product from Sonos yet. It’s a small $169 speaker that’s meant to compete with portable Bluetooth speakers that people so often carry everywhere without a second thought. But it’s also designed to slot into Sonos’ multiroom audio platform and showcase the versatility that comes with it. In fact, excluding the co-branded speakers that Sonos makes with Ikea, the Roam is now the cheapest way into the company’s ecosystem.

The Roam supports hands-free voice commands, has Apple AirPlay 2, includes wireless charging, and features a rugged design that lets you use it practically anywhere. There’s a lot riding on this speaker; Sonos only releases a couple new products per year, so they all have to deliver. So let’s examine how the Roam stacks up against similarly sized speakers and whether it should replace whatever you’ve got now.

At 6.61 inches tall, the Roam actually stands shorter than popular Bluetooth speakers like the UE Boom 3 and JBL Flip 5. And at under a pound, it’s lightweight enough to toss into your backpack or tote. The Boom is bigger all around: you could pretty much fit the Roam right inside it. UE’s Megaboom 3 and the new JBL Charge 5 both increase the size advantage further, and they’re still close to the Roam in price. Going up from there, you get to the real giants like the UE Megablast. For this review, I’ll keep it simple and focus on speakers that resemble the Roam in size.

The Sonos Roam is a tad smaller than other popular Bluetooth speakers.

It doesn’t share the same cylindrical shape as those speakers.

The Roam retains what’s become the standard Sonos aesthetic, with hundreds of precision-drilled holes in the speaker enclosure. But this is not a cylinder-style speaker that shoots audio in all directions. The Roam has a curved triangle shape that naturally projects sound both forward and up when it’s laid horizontally. It comes in either black or white, and I’ve noticed that when the black one is in bright lighting, you can actually see a hexagon pattern behind the holes. That plate is there for structural reasons, but it’s not really visible on the white speaker.

Battery life tops out at 10 hours.

This is the first Sonos speaker to earn an IP67 dust and water resistance rating. By certification standards, that means it should survive up to 30 minutes in three feet of water. In practical terms, it means you can use the Roam in the bathroom while you shower and near pools without fretting about damage. It’s probably a good idea to keep it on a floaty if you insist on bringing it into a deep pool, though. This speaker doesn’t float. Yes, I checked.

The Roam has the best water resistance of any Sonos speaker.

I’ve also managed to drop my two review units a few times, and they’ve come away with only light blemishes and a couple nicks you really have to hunt for to notice. I chalk that up to clumsiness; there’s no built-in handle like the Move, but in general the curved triangle shape is easy to grip. Both sides of the Roam have silicone end caps to help with ruggedness. From what I’ve seen, it should be able to withstand a tumble off a bicycle and the wear and tear that comes with being a truly portable speaker.

It’s rated IP67 and has silicone at both ends to withstand bumps.

On the top (when vertical) or left (horizontal) is where you find the controls, which are actual clicky buttons beneath the silicone instead of the usual capacitive sensors that Sonos tends to use. Going with real, tactile buttons for this product was absolutely the right decision. They’re easy to feel for and hard to press accidentally. There are four buttons: play / pause, two for track controls, and a microphone button for enabling or muting the built-in microphones that are used for voice assistant commands with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

On the back of the Roam is a USB-C port and power button. Aside from wired charging, you can also juice up the speaker using any Qi-compatible pad that it’ll fit on. My Anker dual-charging station handled the task well. Sonos also sells a wireless charger that attaches to the Roam magnetically, but I didn’t get a chance to test that. The included USB-C-to-USB-A cable is nicely angled on the Roam’s side so that it doesn’t get in the way no matter how it’s oriented. Neither the cable nor the Sonos wireless charger are water resistant, so you’ve got to keep those dry. If you’re in a hurry, definitely go wired; Sonos says it takes “about two hours” for the Roam to go from 0 to 50 percent when charging wirelessly compared to “about an hour” when plugged in. Higher-power chargers can cut down on both of those times.

You can use either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant with the built-in mics.

Now onto the main agenda: sound quality. Sonos has built a favorable reputation with its past speakers, but the question is whether the company can make good on its name with a speaker this small and portable. What I’ll say is that the Roam is one of the clearest, most pleasant portable speakers I’ve used. Others like the UE Boom 3 can come off muddy and lack depth. There’s little about their sound and articulation that stands out.

The Roam seems to make a priority of ensuring that the texture and vibrancy of music comes through with maximum clarity. Vocals sound crisp, and strings in classical music come through lush without getting pitchy. Like other Sonos speakers, the Roam features automatic room optimization called Trueplay, and Sonos says it’s constantly adjusting to optimize sound for whatever environment it’s in. This does actually make a difference in an echoey bathroom, but it’s not some magic cure-all for an acoustically challenged room. (Auto Trueplay works with music both streamed over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.)

Let’s face it: while Sonos claims that the Roam “defies expectations,” it can’t defy physics. This is a relatively small speaker, and perhaps the best-sounding one in its size class, but it has weaknesses. At the top of that list is bass, which can’t quite match that of the Sonos One and is roundly defeated by the much larger, heavier Move. Even the barely larger JBL Flip 5 has more assertive bass that gets noticeably boomier than the Roam. It can go louder, too. Larger Bluetooth speakers like the UE Megaboom and JBL Charge 5 will almost certainly trounce the Roam at bass response, but I don’t consider that surprising.

Sonos’ speaker has some low-end resonance — you’ll feel the vibrations if it’s on a table — but it’s clear that the company has opted for balance over boom factor. The Roam can also only do so much when you’re using it in a wide open space outdoors with no walls for the sound to bounce off of. It’ll crank loud without much distortion but can’t reach the same fullness as the Move. It’s when you really turn up the volume that you’ll be left wanting some added oomph. A party speaker this is not.

Two Roams paired together can produce an excellent stereo soundstage — but only on Wi-Fi.

Using two Roams at the same time as a stereo pair brings out even more detail, and the bass also benefits from two of them playing together. There’s no beating proper stereo separation, and two Roams do a better job blanketing a bedroom or living room in music than one alone. Unfortunately, the process of creating a stereo pair can get tedious. You have to manually do it from the Sonos app every time. This makes sense since you have to select which speaker is on what side. But I’d love it if there were a button shortcut to more quickly form a stereo pair — or at least a prompt when you power on a second Roam that asks if you want to pair them instead of leaving both to their lonesome by default.

To the frustration of some Sonos customers, the Roam doesn’t allow you to use the stereo pair feature when listening over Bluetooth. This is also the case with the Move, but considering how much Sonos is hyping the portability of its new speaker, it feels like a fumble on the company’s part. Maybe this poses engineering challenges, but other Bluetooth speakers like the UE Wonderboom 2 can already link together as a stereo pair without needing an app to get there. Bluetooth stereo might be a compelling reason for some people to own two Roams, but right now the feature isn’t there.

The $169 Sonos Roam beside the much bigger, heavier $399 Sonos Move.

Sonos has at least introduced some new tricks with the Roam when using it around the house. The first is called sound swap, which lets you quickly pass off audio from the Roam to whichever of your other Sonos speakers is closest. You just hold the play button for a few seconds, and the currently playing music hops over. Repeat the process, and audio moves back to the Roam. This has worked well in my experience so far, and Sonos goes about locating the nearest speaker in a clever way. When you activate sound swap, all of your speakers briefly emit a high-frequency tone that your ears can’t hear — but the Roam can. When you venture outside, the Roam does a solid job automatically pairing to your phone once you’re outside Wi-Fi coverage.

The other new feature that debuts with the Roam is the option to play Bluetooth audio over your entire Sonos system. In the Sonos app, you can add your other speakers as a group with the Roam that’s playing the Bluetooth audio source. My turntable doesn’t do Bluetooth, but if yours does, this will be an easy way to play your records in multiple rooms — at the cost of fidelity, of course. There are other ways of integrating vinyl into a Sonos system if you care more about audio quality. I did test this feature using content from a friend’s phone over Bluetooth, and it played just fine across my other Sonos speakers. The Move can’t be updated with this feature because the Roam has a new antenna that can connect to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi simultaneously. The Move only supports one or the other at a time.

But even with these new capabilities, there are still those occasional times where a Sonos system falls out of step. Maybe music playback inexplicably starts seizing up, or maybe the volume controls in the app you’re casting from — like Spotify — stop working. Even after shifting to its new S2 platform, Sonos hasn’t completely ironed out the blips when its mobile app goes on the fritz or seems to momentarily lose control over everything. The bugs are rare, but they happen.

A useful, delicious size reference.

What’s worse in the case of the Roam is how poorly Sonos handles moving between Wi-Fi networks. Everything works just great at home, but if you want to use the Wi-Fi features of Roam at someone else’s place or when traveling, it’s a real headache. The process of adding another “trusted network” in the Sonos app didn’t always work in my experience. I hope this is something Sonos will focus on more now that it’s selling a speaker that’s portable in a way that the Move never was. Music on the Roam sounds best over Wi-Fi, and it’s also needed for features like AirPlay 2. Bluetooth is right there as a fallback, but the Roam really has to get friendlier with guest networks.

The estimated battery life of 10 hours is also on the low side: the UE Boom 3 gets 15 hours and JBL’s Flip 5 hits 12. Wireless charging helps make up for this to an extent. It’s pretty rare among Bluetooth speakers, and you can play music as the Roam sits on the charger replenishing its battery. But I still wish Sonos could’ve eked out some extra playing time. The company says you can reach up to 10 days of standby time, but that strikes me as optimistic. My review units have held their charge for quite a few days, though.

There’s also a battery drain bug if you set up Google Assistant on the Roam that Sonos warned reviewers about, and it’s bad enough that the company is encouraging customers to power the speaker down when it’s not being used to conserve juice. Sonos says it’s working with Google on a fix and that customers using Alexa won’t encounter the same issue. The beamforming microphones generally picked up my voice commands without obvious mistakes the vast majority of the time, and aside from the Google battery bug, both voice assistants worked as expected.

The Roam’s many features make it among the best portable speakers at its size.

It’s best to think of the Sonos Roam as a personal speaker. It’ll do fine on your desk pumping out the soundtrack to your day. It can handle picnic duty for a small group at the park or come for a ride-along on your bike. And yes, it shines in the shower. But if you’re leading a dance class or trying to entertain guests at a barbecue, these are the types of situations where the larger Move easily wins out and proves its worth. Think of it this way: the more people that will be listening, the sooner you’ll turn to a speaker that isn’t the Roam.

But even with that understood, the Roam has a lot going for it. When in the comfort of your home, features like AirPlay and voice assistants do make it feel more capable than other speakers that are equally small and easy to carry. That and convenient wireless charging are where the $170 price gets easier to accept.

The Roam can fill in any nook of your living space — the bathroom, the garage, wherever — that doesn’t have another full-time Sonos speaker in it. On the go with Bluetooth, it’s easy to use and kicks out clear, satisfying sound for its size. Sonos needs to work on keeping the Roam’s smarts together when you’re on different Wi-Fi, and stereo pairing over Bluetooth should’ve been a feature on day one. But neither is enough to sink the overall value of Sonos’ latest speaker. As long as you don’t expect miracles from its compact size, I think you’ll end up happy.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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