Sonos Roam misses a key skill but hints how its headphones will work

This week we got a new Sonos speaker, and I’m sure the irony of announcing the brand’s second-ever portable Bluetooth audio device when we can’t really socialise outdoors or go on holiday was lost on no one.
But by the time the new Roam actually ships on April 20 we’ll (hopefully) be able to enjoy restaurant and pub gardens, UK domestic holidays will be allowed (with restrictions) and if all goes well we’ll only have to wait a few weeks more for when up to 30 people can meet outside.

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It’s going to be quite a party, and Sonos could have brought out the ideal portable speaker for post-lockdown revelry. Yes, 2019’s Sonos Move is technically portable but it’s heavy. You know you’re carting around 3kg of audio kit. It’s also big – six times the size and seven times the heft of the slender 430g Roam.
You see, the Move was always meant to be a garden multi-room speaker, even though people do certainly take them further afield. Roam, with its ten-hour playback life, water-bottle size, Bluetooth 5.0 as well as IP67 water- and dust-proofing (you can dunk this thing in a metre of water for up to 30 minutes), is here to take on the best that UE’s superb wireless speakers can muster.

Then it will perform its part trick, slotting right into your existing Sonos home Wi-Fi multi-room setup when you bring it indoors, automatically switching between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. You can even plonk it on a magnetic charging plinth (sold separately – boo!) or on any standard wireless Qi charger.

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At £159 it’s also the cheapest Sonos speaker, if you don’t count IKEA’s £89 compatible SYMFONISK offering, yet somehow it has managed to include Auto TruePlay, the automatic sound adjustment tech already proven in the Move, a custom-designed woofer and tweeter driven by two Class H amplifiers, an adjustable EQ, Apple AirPlay 2 and voice assistants.
But what’s most interesting is what the Roam cannot do, at least not yet, and what it signals for Sonos’s future products.
As Roam is a portable, waterproof, Wi-Fi-enabled speaker, this means it can act as any other speaker on your Sonos network. Firstly, what is great about this is it solves the bathroom issue most have with Sonos multi-room as you can’t just stick up speakers connected to mains power willy nilly in bathrooms, quite understandably. Not only can you take the Roam into the bathroom, it can come in the shower with you.
But this lulls you into thinking Roam can operate like a Sonos One or One SL. It can’t. It cannot link with the Beam or Arc to offer TV surround sound like those other speakers can. This is exceedingly frustrating as two Roams would be ideal for most in this situation. No need to move around wired speakers for film night, just take these out of a drawer, place behind the sofa and you’re away. Then pop them out of sight once the credits role. Perfect.

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I put this very use case to Ted Dworkin, SVP product management and customer experience at Sonos, and the good news is he offers more than a glimmer of hope for movie lovers in the future from Roam.

Evolution of the triangular Sonos Roam design

“It’s a great scenario,” he says. “Why doesn’t this product do it? First, stay tuned. We’re in a state of continuous development and we have a powerful software and services platform. We continue to evolve the products.
“The first, second and third version of things tend to be additive in terms of what the capabilities of the system are,” he adds. “If you’re a cynic you’d say we’re holding back, and if you understand product development some things are harder than others and you roll them out when they’re ready.” Checking himslef, Dworkin says he cannot commit to an over-the-air update that will give this capability to Roam owners.
But he’s not saying it’s impossible. “We don’t support it [now]. We look forward to supporting it in the future, and when we do, it’ll come in the form in which it’s easiest and best to delivered to customers,” he says. “The most I’m going to tell you is that we’re excited for capability like that as we evolve the product.”

Patent images show two possible designs for Sonos’s wireless over-ear headphones
USPTO / Sonos

The all-new Sonos Swap feature allowing the Roam to seemlessly hand-off whatever it’s playing to the nearest Sonos speaker at the press of a button also tantilisingly hints at the much-anticipated and heavily rumoured Sonos headphones. The features on show here, such as auto switching between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and seemless hand-off from house system to portable audio device, scream Sonos headphones.
Indeed, the marketing videos for Roam show people walking in and out the house holding a Roam, when we know no one really does that in real life. But they would wearing headphones.
The financial gains to Sonos if it nails a pair of headphones are obvious, just look at how much Apple has made from AirPods alone. But, its a crowded market with many failures and also-rans. “If we decide to enter a category, we’re not going to fear entering it simply because it’s crowded,” says Dworkin. “If we decide to go and do something interesting in a new category, whether it be headphones or something else, we’re going to do something uniquely Sonos, it will sound fantastic, but it will also do interesting things, just as we’ve done with Roam.”
“Yes, we file a lot of patents. We have more than 2,000 patents right now. Yes, we’re going to continue to invent and we’re going to protect those inventions with patents. The way that system works is you do it before you produce the products commercially. And sometimes those products make it to market, sometimes they don’t.”
So not only do these patents Dworkin refers to point towards a design for the almost certain coming Sonos headphones, the Roam reveals much about how they might actually work, too.

The Sonos Roam is available for pre-odrer now at £159 or £203 with wireless charger.

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