Sonos Roam review: Into the unknown

A versatile, rugged, and great-sounding smart speaker that’ll fit into most situations.

The Sonos Roam sounds like the perfect product to release right now. A portable speaker that pulls double-duty as an honest-to-goodness member of the Sonos ecosystem and a run-and-tumble rugged Bluetooth thumper is exactly what the masses, most of whom have been stuck inside for a year, need for their hikes, park visits, and newly-vaccinated backyard BBQs.

At $169, the Sonos Roam is an affordable and attractive addition to the Sonos lineup, but middling battery life limits its outdoor appeal, while its small size makes it hard to fit into existing homes with other Sonos speakers.

Sonos Roam review:

Price and availabiility
Hardware and design
Sound quality
Battery life
Should you buy it?

Sonos Roam

Bottom line: The Roam is the perfect entry into the Sonos ecosystem and a great Bluetooth speaker to boot. While battery life could be better, it’s one of the most versatile portable speakers you can buy today.

The Good

Great sound for the size
Seamless transition from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth
Well-built and rugged
Has wireless charging

The Bad

Middling battery life for a Bluetooth speaker
Some standby battery issues at launch

$169 at Sonos

Sonos Roam: Price and availability

The Sonos Roam is available from April 20, 2021, in a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the UK, and most of Europe for USD $169 USD / $229 CAD / £159 / €179. Sonos products rarely go on sale except on Black Friday, so expect to be paying full price on the Roam for the foreseeable future.

It’s available in two colors, Lunar White and Shadow Black.

Sonos Roam: Hardware and design

Sonos has established enough of a design continuity that, upon looking at the Roam, you immediately recognize it as kin to the Move, Arc, Beam, and many other recently-updated numbered speakers from the company. Maybe it’s the solidity of the build or the perfectly-spaced perforated holes, but despite being only six inches tall and weighing under a pound, the Roam exudes quality.

Designed to stand vertically or laid on one of its three sides (one of them has four rubber feet to prevent scratches), the Roam has physical controls on its top inset in rubber, which is stretched on top of a hard plastic shell. An embossed Sonos logo runs vertically down the front (love that symmetry), while a lone power/pairing button buttresses a USB-C charging port on the back. The speaker’s bottom, also covered with rubber, belies a wireless charging coil that tops up the Roam’s internal battery with any of the best Qi chargers, though the company plans to sell a $49 magnetic dock that I haven’t played with yet. There are also a few LEDs built-in that indicate connectivity and battery levels.

The Sonos Roam next to the UE Boom 3.

I was genuinely surprised at the Roam’s diminutive size when I first saw it. The company’s other Bluetooth-enabled speaker, the Move, dwarfs this one in every dimension, and it even comes in smaller than many of the long-neglected Bluetooth speakers have scattered around my house. Sonos told me that the Roam’s primary purpose is to act like a real Wi-Fi speaker in any housebound situation while quickly converting to a Bluetooth one when the backpack comes out. Even the promo images can’t prepare you for how portable this thing actually is.

This is also Sonos’s first IP67-certified speaker, which means you can fully submerge it in water or blight it with dust without risking its internals. To test this new achievement, I took the Roam with me to the local playground, encouraged my daughter to throw the speaker into the muddy sandbox, and then helped her wash it in the sink when we got home. As expected, the hardy little thing survived her torment and continues playing on my desk next to me as I write this.

Sonos Roam: Features and sound quality

Last year was interesting for Sonos. After successfully launching the not-so-portable portable Move speaker at the end of 2019, it hit a rough patch at the beginning of 2020 that involved obsoleting some of its aging products, awkwardly moving to a new software platform, suing Google for a second time, and hitting an all-time stock low.

As people were forced to stay home throughout the spring and summer of last year, Sonos saw its products — especially that newly launched Move — sell in huge numbers as people discovered the benefits of connecting speakers over a mesh Wi-Fi network. In June, it launched the $699 Sonos Arc, timed perfectly for lockdowns and Hamilton on Disney+.

The Roam feels like the right product for Sonos to release right now.

Why is this important? Because the company appears to have a knack for releasing products at just the right time. The Roam is the ideal portable speaker — it’s easy to use, easy to charge, durable without looking overtly rugged, and, most importantly, it sounds pretty good.

Even if you don’t have existing Sonos speakers at home — and the company hopes the Roam will be a gateway of sorts — the Roam is easy to set up with the new S2 app. After charging and following some prompts, you’re able to connect it to various streaming services, including Spotify, Apple Music, and dozens of other options, along with Sonos’s own underrated hosted radio product that runs some excellent programming hosted by musicians like Thom Yorke and Brittany Howard.

Like other Sonos speakers, you can choose to play audio through the Roam alone or grouped in any combination you so which, including a stereo pair with another Roam speaker. The only thing you can’t do is use a pair of Roams as rear channels in a home theater setup, which is completely understandable.

I generally eschew the Sonos app entirely to control the half-dozen speakers strewn about my house; instead, I use Spotify Connect, which detects each individual speaker or grouping as long as they’re on the same Wi-Fi network. There’s also AirPlay 2 support for iPhone users too. I actually found the Roam to have the strongest Wi-Fi signal of any Sonos speaker to date, likely due to the upgraded 802.11ac-compatible chip inside it.

The Roam sounds fantastic for its size, but the speaker struggles to fill larger rooms or big outdoor spaces.

That same part enables the Roam to maintain a Bluetooth connection to a phone while it’s connected to a Wi-Fi network, allowing seamless handoffs and enabling a neat passthrough feature I’ll talk about later. While the Move needed to be explicitly connected to either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, the Roam makes no distinction, which is just as nice as it sounds.

Speaking of, how does this little thing perform? Well, it won’t change your life, but the two drivers, a tweeter and a midwoofer combine to create a fairly robust sound, a little boomy in the low-end but nothing too egregious. What really struck me, though, was the clarity in the highs and mids. Voices come through beautifully, speckled with warmth and full of life that I didn’t expect from a speaker this size.

Part of the success has to be laid at the encoding itself: this is the only portable speaker of this size I own that can play back high-bandwidth audio of Wi-Fi. Even the best Bluetooth speakers are limited by the standard itself, whereas you can blast lossless FLAC files through here if you want to, and they won’t be downsampled at all.

Playing back the same audio over Bluetooth reinforces the standard’s limitations, but even then, audio sounds full and clear.

In either mode, I’m astonished at the volume levels this little speaker can reach. Sonos has always put high-quality amplifiers in its products, and the two H-class variants here enable the Roam to reproduce sound accurately in as efficient a manner as possible. At maximum volume, there’s very little distortion with most pieces of music, and it’s far too loud for most rooms. Because the Roam employs Auto Trueplay, which debuted on the Move, the speaker automatically equalizes itself using its built-in microphones, so even at high volumes, output avoids the boominess and sibilance of most small Bluetooth speakers.

If you think about the scenarios Sonos is envisioning for the Roam — picnics in the park, maintaining energy during a hike or lounging by the pool — it’s only the larger open spaces, at maximum volume, where the Roam struggles. It doesn’t quite have the power to project across a wide-open area and falls prey to the falloff you’d expect from any directional speaker at this size.

Sonos rewards existing users with Sound Swap, but the feature feels a bit gimmicky.

Along with its regular retinue of platform-specific features, the Roam has a couple of interesting tricks up its sleeve, both of which are olive branches to existing Sonos users. The first, Sound Swap, allows you to "throw" whatever’s playing on the Roam to the closest Sonos speaker or group, which in most of my testing meant beginning to play something on the small speaker before sending it to my paired Sonos Ones on my office desk.

It works surprisingly well, and I imagine it will be useful for those moments where, after jamming to some tunes in the backyard, it’s time to bring the party inside to a living doom decked out with big Sonos speakers (in this dream scenario, alternate me owns a house with huge backyard and a pool and a living room big enough to host a party).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I got way more use from the ability to throw a Bluetooth signal to any Sonos speaker throughout my network. The feature lets you blast any audio source from your phone to a nearby Sonos speaker, with the caveat that whatever you’re playing needs to continue on the Roam itself (since it’s acting as passthrough).

While not essential to the enjoyment of the Roam, both of these features underscore the versatility of the speaker and take advantage of the network effect that Sonos has built for itself over the past few years.

Finally, the Roam supports both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa (though, like all Sonos products, not at the same time) in hands-free mode, but after enabling each to briefly test whether the company’s microphones have improved over the previous generation, I just as quickly disabled them. With Google and Sonos still deadlocked in a years-long patent dispute, I doubt the Roam’s smart assistant integration is anything more than a checkbox on a spec list and will be little-used, especially in homes that already have a dedicated smart speaker or display from Google or Amazon themselves.

Sonos Roam: Battery life

Sonos promises 10 hours of playback for the Roam, which isn’t particularly impressive for a Bluetooth speaker on its own, but my own experience was considerably more inconsistent.

Over the course of a week, I used the Sonos Roam every day to play back any number of audio sources, from podcasts to Spotify playlists to Sonos Radio and achieved around nine hours over Wi-Fi and a bit more over Bluetooth, which is close to the 10 hours the company promises out of the box. But that number is still fairly unimpressive compared to equivalent-sized speakers from companies like Bose, JBL, and Ultimate Ears.

More concern was the battery drain during standby. Sonos says that the Roam goes into a low-power sleep mode after a few minutes without playback, and the battery should last 10 days in that holding pattern, but I regularly woke up to the Roam completely drained after leaving it hibernating overnight during my testing period. Sonos acknowledges a pre-launch bug with Google Assistant that causes battery drain, but I factory reset the Roam and left Assistant disabled with no alleviation of the battery drain issue. I’ve reached out to Sonos, and they’re actively troubleshooting the issue, so I’ll update this review if I get some resolution, either through a software update or another review unit.

Battery life is underwhelming, but more concerning is the idle battery drain.

The good news is that charging the Roam isn’t particularly onerous. Using a 10-watt USB charger, the Roam charges in roughly 90 minutes and in just over two hours using a wireless charger of equal power. I’m also waiting to try the company’s $50 magnetic charging add-on for the Roam since placing a couple of those around the house will likely alleviate any battery anxieties, though in reality, any great, flat wireless charger should do the trick.

Sonos Roam: Competition

There really isn’t anything like the Sonos Roam available on the market right now, which makes the product so appealing.

The closest I’ve found is Ultimate Ears’ $180 Blast, which can connect to Wi-Fi and works with Spotify, Amazon, and a bunch of other cast-friendly streaming services. It’s also water-and dustproof, has built-in Alexa support and tactile controls, and lets you pair other Blast speakers together. It does sound a bit better than the Roam, but it’s also significantly taller and a bit wider and, vexingly, charges over Micro-USB.

Sonos Roam: Should you buy it?

You should buy this if …

You’re looking for an inexpensive way to get into the Sonos ecosystem
You want a high-quality, great-sounding portable speaker
You want the benefits of a rugged speaker without the traditional look

You shouldn’t buy this if…

You want room-filling, bass-heavy sound
You want a multi-day speaker

out of 5

With the Roam, Sonos deftly navigates the tension between product categories, just as it did in 2019 with the Move. This time around, though, the company is on a much firmer footing, having successfully transitioned to a new underlying software platform that lets it play around with combining Wi-Fi and Bluetooth audio and has a growing customer base that’s excited about getting back outside after a long hibernation.

The Roam isn’t a perfect product — I actually would have preferred something a little larger so it could get closer to that traditional Sonos sound — with middling battery life and a price that’s going to turn off someone who’s unclear of the ecosystem’s value proposition. But if you’d asked me a few months ago what I wanted from a portable Sonos speaker, the Roam’s feature set is pretty much exactly what I would have listed.

Sonos Roam

Bottom line: The Roam is the perfect entry into the Sonos ecosystem and a great Bluetooth speaker to boot. While battery life could be better, it’s one of the most versatile portable speakers you can buy today.

The Good

Great sound for the size
Seamless transition from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth
Well-built and rugged
Has wireless charging

The Bad

Middling battery life for a Bluetooth speaker
Some standby battery issues at launch

$169 at Sonos

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