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Cruise the portable speaker listings on Amazon and you’ll find yourself buried in thousands of options. Many of them come with sub-$30 price tags and thousands of positive (if somewhat questionable) reviews. In order to stand out from the rabble, the $169 Sonos Roam speaker offers true hybrid performance that offers almost all of the same audio and connectivity benefits whether you’re tied into the company’s trademark wi-fi based platform or simply streaming via Bluetooth. It’s that over-engineered approach that makes the Roam such a success.
What is it?
Roam is the second portable speaker offering from Sonos. Move was its first foray into this space and it arrived at the end of 2019, just as the COVID-19 pandemic essentially stopped people from going anywhere at all for more than a year. The Move was extremely well-designed, but it costs $400 and weighs 6.6-pounds. It’s like carrying around a gallon of milk that can blast Wu-Tang songs.
Sonos Roam, however, falls much more in line with what we’d expect from a portable speaker. It weighs just under a pound and it’s about the size of an Arizona iced tea can, so it easily fits in a typical car cup holder. It has an IP67 ruggedness rating, too, which means it won’t die when you inevitably spill that Arizona iced tea all over it.
Like with the Move, Roam connects to the Sonos wi-fi-based wireless music platform when you’re connected to your home network, then can connect to devices via Bluetooth when you’re out in the wild.
I took the Roam out of the box and immediately noticed how different it feels from other rugged portable speakers. There’s no rubberized coating on the main speaker body or cloth covering over the grate. It’s fully smooth plastic, which actually makes it a little slippery for a device you’re meant to grab and carry. There’s also no loop or hook on the outside to attach a strap or carabiner like you get with the UE speakers. That would have been a nice touch.
The end caps are rubbery and there are four raised buttons on the top to handle some basic controls. The tactile buttons are nice because you don’t necessarily have to see them to feel what you’re doing. A single power button on the back accompanies a USB-C charging port that doesn’t require a cover to make it waterproof. The Roam comes with a USB-A to USB-C cable, but not a power brick.
Ultimately, Roam looks like a piece of electronics or audio equipment, rather than a sporting good despite its rugged, waterproof nature.
Setting up the Sonos Roam
If you’re already using some Sonos gear, setup is predictably simple. It took roughly five minutes to accept Roam into my small setup, and that included downloading a software update. Connecting through Bluetooth was simple as well. The power button on the back of the speaker puts Roam in pairing mode and it synced to an iPhone with no problem.
Roam promises automatic switching between the two connections, which is particularly useful for me. My yard only has partial wi-fi coverage and I didn’t experience any hiccups while walking around in and out of wi-fi areas. I’d still probably be better off just switching over to full time Bluetooth to cut down the possibility of an issue during switching, but I give any gadget bonus points when it allows me to be lazy without consequence.
It was hard to know what to expect from Roam. After all, it’s so much smaller than the chunky Move, but Sonos has a reputation for obsessing over sound quality. To put it simply, the Roam sounds great in most settings.
Compared to some other portable speakers I’ve tried, like the UE Boom series, Roam has a very balanced sound. Speakers like this tend to try and do too much with too little when it comes to maximizing bass, which leaves things sounding muddy. Sonos seems to have accepted its low-end limitations, which makes the bass relatively punchy, but lacks a bit on sustain. That works for some tracks with tight bass hits like Action Bronson’s “Latin Grammys,” Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say,” and a variety of death metal tracks. Put on a track like ODB’s “Got Your Money,” however, and you’ll notice that the bass doesn’t sound as big and round as it does with a bigger speaker.
Like Move, Roam implements the company’s Auto Trueplay system, which analyzes sound performance and tweaks the levels for optimal sound. The same settings don’t work in a small bathroom as compared to a large yard. Roam can tell the difference and switch on the fly. It works, but it can’t fix everything. Stick Roam in a book shelf where it’s surrounded on almost every side and it will still sound boomy, but that’s the nightmare scenario for any speaker.
One thing to note: Auto Trueplay now works in both Bluetooth and wi-fi mode. Move only worked on your home network.
Because of the Roam’s triangular design, the best sound happens when you’re standing in front of the speaker. Get too far to the side or behind it and things get muffled. If you’re holding the speaker while it’s playing, you’ll clearly be able to feel more vibrations toward the side with the logo because of the way the guts are arranged. This doesn’t seem to affect the real-world sound performance, though, at least in my experience.
Overall, Roam sounds great. It’s loud enough for my roughly 75 x 50-foot backyard without issue. Because of the tight bass response, the music actually sounds clearer from far away than it would from a speaker with a punchier overall low-end.
The rest of the specs
With that smaller body, Roam also only offers 10 hours of battery life on a full charge. That’s relatively paltry compared to some speakers that can go well beyond that. That only really comes into play if you’re going to go several listening sessions between charges, though. In roughly two weeks of testing, it never gave out on me when I wanted to keep listening.
Roam does offer wireless charging, though, the wireless charging base is an optional accessory. I really like the Move feature that allows users to simply drop the speaker into a magnetic base and have it charge, so if you’re going to make the leap into Roam, the $50 wireless charger may be a worthwhile investment, even if it does seem rather pricey.
Who should buy it?
If you’re already a Sonos user and you’re looking for a portable speaker, then this is easy to recommend. It easily transfers from wifi to Bluetooth, it sounds great, and it’s actually easy to carry around as opposed to the Move.
If this would be your first Sonos speaker, then the extra cost may not be so easily justified. Roam allows users to simply “throw” the music to their home system by pressing a button on the portable speaker. So, you can walk in the door and seamlessly switch to whole-home listening without having to disconnect and reconnect. That’s a luxury, for sure, but that’s also part of what justifies the price increase over those $25 Amazon speakers. The over-engineering is the point.