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Portable speakers have always been the drug store sunglasses of the audio world. They’re useful and fun, but they’re often an impulse buy, chosen as much for their low price and ability to fit in a beach bag as for their sound quality or special features.
The Sonos Roam, the first truly portable smart speaker from Sonos, promises a lot more.
It's a full-blown multiroom speaker that can add Bluetooth pairing and other useful functions to your existing Sonos system. At $169, it's pricey, though not as expensive as other portable speakers in CR's ratings. (See the $400 Ultimate Ears Hyperboom, for example.)
The Roam doesn't go on sale until April 20, but we borrowed a pre-launch sample from Sonos to see how well the 7-inch-long, one-pound speaker works in a multi-room setup at home as well as when tossed into a knapsack for a trip to the park.
When the Roam is available for purchase, Consumer Reports will buy a sample at full retail price to test in our labs. After our trained evaluation team rates the model for ease of use, versatility, and especially sound quality, we'll report back with the results.
Living With the Roam
I found the setup to be a breeze. The Sonos app already on my iPhone asked me if I wanted to add the new speaker to my own Sonos system, which consists of a stereo pair of Sonos One smart speakers in my kitchen and a Sonos Beam smart soundbar in the adjacent living room.
With that one click, I was ready to start playing music from the Sonos app, where I could choose from a selection of streaming services, including my favorites, Tidal and Spotify. Since it was Opening Day, I picked a Baseball's Greatest Hits playlist with everything from Barbara Manning's "Dock Ellis" (about the Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter on LSD) to Steve Goodman's "A Dying Cubs' Fan's Last Request."
The Sonos app also offers Sonos Radio, so I listened to an entertaining deep dive into the roots of reggae featuring Pat Kelly's version of John Denver's country hit "Sunshine on My Shoulders."
However the next day, when I tried to listen to the Roam again, it was as though the speaker had amnesia. The device was nowhere to be found on my Sonos mobile app and pushing all the buttons on the device elicited no response.
A call to Sonos got to the bottom of the problem. Like the latest flagship smartphones from Apple and Samsung, the Roam ships with a charging cable but no brick. Absent any instructions on the printed Quick Start guide, I grabbed an Apple phone charger I had handy and plugged the Roam in.
It turns out the 5W Apple charger lacked the juice to charge the Roam, so the speaker simply ran out of power. I bought a 12W Apple iPad charger (a 10W charger is the minimum requirement) and the Roam was soon alive again.
Sonos says it will change its messaging to explain the Roam's charging requirements to consumers with more details to come later in the month. Sonos also has a $49 dedicated wireless charger for the Roam (which we didn't try) that will be available at launch.
With the Roam at full charge, I evaluated the Sound Swap function, which allows the Roam to "hand off" the music it's playing to nearby Sonos WiFi speakers, and found it to be quite fun. If you start a song playing on the Roam and press the Play/Pause button on the end of the speaker, you'll hear (assuming the music volume is low enough) a boop tone, followed by a brief sound effect reminiscent of the Star Trek Transporter. Moments later, the Roam turns off and your music pops up on the nearest Sonos speaker in your system.
Keep in mind that the system's idea of the nearest speaker may be different from yours. While standing within six feet of the Sonos Ones in my kitchen, I pushed the button and "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" started playing on the Sonos Beam soundbar in my living room.
A wall prevented me from seeing that the Beam was indeed the closest speaker, but WiFi ignores plaster and lath and activated the soundbar in the next room instead of the Ones I was looking at. Holding the button down again returned my music to the Roam.
Sound Swap felt like a cool trick, but moving my music from speaker to speaker is something I could accomplish—perhaps even more easily, albeit less magically—with a couple of taps in the Sonos app.
Less flashy but far more useful is Roam's ability to share its Bluetooth pairing with the rest of my Sonos system. Most Sonos speakers—the $400 Move being the single exception—are house pets, so to speak, and run on WiFi only. But Bluetooth is a valuable feature because of the way it allows you to venture beyond the range of your home network, to the park as well as the patio. Bluetooth can be useful at home, too, allowing guests to share playlists from their phones, for example.
The Roam's Bluetooth pairing is very straightforward—press the on/off button and wait for a tone. The Roam popped up in the Bluetooth settings in my iPhone and I was ready to go.
Adding Bluetooth to the rest of the system wasn't much more difficult. I just grouped the Roam with the Ones in my system via the mobile app while playing Bluetooth content. A few seconds later, I was able to fill my kitchen with baseball play-by-play from the ESPN app or concert clips from YouTube.
Technically you need to keep the Bluetooth content playing on the Roam to continue the streaming to your other Sonos speakers, but there's an easy work-around if you'd rather silence it—just turn the volume all the way down on either the Sonos app or the Roam itself.
Smart and Splashproof?
Like its bigger siblings, the Move and the Sonos One, the Roam is a platform-agnostic smart speaker that responds to voice commands. You can choose among Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Music through Airplay. Sonos has noted that the Google Assistant is a bit of a battery hog on the Roam, but the companies are working on an update to cure that problem.
The smart speaker functionality on the Roam was both easy and useful. If you're barbecuing in your yard and the playlist serves up your favorite song, you can just tell Alexa to turn it up.
If the Roam selects a cut you'd rather not hear, you can skip to the next track by voice command without washing the raw tandoori chicken from your hands.
Away from the house, the Roam performed like a wireless speaker should. The Bluetooth pairing was a piece of genoise and the connection was robust and reliable. The little speaker cranked out ample volume al fresco, but we'll leave a further assessment of the Roam's sound quality to our testers.
Sonos claims the Roam is IP67 waterproof, which means it can be submerged up to a meter for 30 minutes. I don’t own a pressurized dunk tank like the one we use in our Yonkers, New York, labs to test such claims, but I couldn't resist a more casual assessment.
I streamed Octopus's Garden by the Beatles ("I'd like to be, under the sea...) and submerged the Roam in a large metal bowl while the music continued to play, and during the bassier passages, the speaker literally spat water back at me. I used the speaker shortly after the admittedly shallow dunk and after a day of drying and it still worked fine and didn't, at least to my ears, sound any different.
Should You Buy One?
Despite the teething pains with the charger, there was a lot to like about the Roam. While it's a bit expensive for a portable, it did everything you'd expect (although I'll leave it to our testers to make the final determination on sound quality).
If you're simply shopping for a portable wireless speaker that doesn't look and feel like a toy, the Sonos Roam is certainly worth a look.
However, the Roam is really made for Sonos fans. Its easy integration with my existing Sonos speakers let me learn about reggae while working the grill. But upgrading my system with Bluetooth, too? That felt like a real bonus.
I found myself enjoying YouTube clips through my solid-sounding speakers instead of settling for the tinny presentation of my smartphone. The Roam might not match your sunglasses, but if you've got a Sonos system, this little speaker could help fill your summer with music.