Sony's connected speakers take aim at Sonos, but come up short

When it comes to connected speakers and multi-room audio, Sonos is the clear leader in the clubhouse. Its devices are also typically more expensive than the competition. Sony, a name with a lot of home theater experience, is offering its own Sonos-like system with a collection of three speakers. The company's "SRS" line was announced earlier this year, and while the trio also features the larger SRS-X88 and SRS-X99, I've spent the past few weeks with the entry-level model, the $300 SRS-X77. With Sonos being the go-to name for gear like this, Sony has quite the uphill climb. That said, it at least makes a valiant effort.

Before I get to the SRS-X77, let me get this out of the way: I'm a big fan of Sonos' audio gear. I've used the Playbar and Sub in my living room and to play music and handle TV audio. I currently have two Play:1s in separate rooms to handle lullabies for my 15-month-old and audio while I work. It all looks good and sounds excellent, and Sonos is continually improving its devices through software updates. I don't mean to gush, but I say all of this to explain how I judged the Sony SRS-X77. In my experience, Sonos offers the best options for multi-room audio and connected speakers, so any company that tries to do the same faces quite the challenge.

The SRS-X77 has a minimal design that I really like. Aside from the WiFi antenna that pops up around back (more on that in a second), it's rather unassuming. That's by no means a knock on the device; I'm just saying it blends in well on a shelf. It's a similar aesthetic to what Sonos went for with its latest Play:1 colors, which are meant to complement other items you're likely to own. Likewise, Sony's speaker is a rectangle with no branding on the front. In fact, the only thing visible from head-on is the speaker grille that drapes that panel in silver. The same color continues on the sides with brushed aluminum, though the back is black.

All of the controls are situated up top on a glossy, black plastic that's a magnet for fingerprints. In fact, I found myself reaching for a cloth to tidy up every time I used the touch controls. Speaking of which, there's only one physical button on the top side for power. A tap of your finger allows you to adjust the volume, Bluetooth, WiFi and aux jack. Around back, from right to left, are the power connection, 3.5-mm aux input, Ethernet port and a USB socket, whose only purpose is to keep your smartphone juiced up while you're streaming music. In addition, you'll find WPS and reset buttons and a network on/off switch nearby. Up top there's that WiFi antenna that pops out and rotates up for added reception. When in use, though, it takes away from the otherwise streamlined design.

To its credit, Sony's SRS-X77 does offer something that Sonos doesn't: Bluetooth. While Sonos connects to your home WiFi network to stream music, Sony's speaker can employ both an internet connection and Bluetooth. This means that you can use the SRS-X77 as a computer speaker should the need arise. I found myself only using Bluetooth for that reason, or to play tracks when WiFi connectivity wasn't an option. In terms of sound quality, both performed admirably, but using an internet connection generally sounded better, especially since I typically stayed within range of my router. The Sony speaker also works well with AirPlay, Google Cast and Spotify Connect, and has NFC for easy pairing. The SRS-X77 also features a rechargeable battery, so you can use it even when there isn't a power outlet nearby.

While some may find the SRS-X77's design more attractive than the Play:1, it's the companion software where Sonos really shines. The Sonos controller app allows you to link all your streaming services and play locally stored music with ease, accessing it with a few taps. For the Sony SongPal app, each time you need to play or control music from Spotify, it boots you out to the streaming software. Unlike Sonos, the volume controls aren't situated right on the main player screen either, so you have to swipe or tap more than once to make an adjustment. After getting used to having all of the controls in one spot, especially volume, I found this pretty inconvenient. With Spotify specifically, when you're listening to a song, you have to tap the speaker's name at the bottom of the screen to pull up the Spotify Connect list where the volume control lives. It's either that or heading back into SongPal to adjust the level.

So, how does it sound? Quite good. In that regard, actually, I think the SRS-X77 manages to hold its own against the Play:1. There's a good deal of bass, and while it helps bass-heavy songs like Big Grams' "Drum Machine" shine, it's never overpowering either. Mids and highs are well-represented and make for some generally well-rounded sound. The audio is clear, with the quality staying consistent even at high volumes. Whether it's hip-hop, metal, bluegrass or the occasional podcast, the SRS-X77 handled everything I threw at it.

When listening on my porch in particular, I tended to prefer Sony to Sonos. It projects sound much better in such a wide-open space, so I didn't have to crank it up too much to hear Punch Brothers while sitting around the fire pit. In terms of the overall quality, though, the Play:1 is the better speaker. There's not a huge gap between the two, but the clarity you get with Sonos is hard to beat. It also handles bass notes a smidge better, too.

After spending a few weeks with Sony's latest, I'm not ready to give up my Sonos setup. If you're looking for alternatives to Sonos' pricey gear, the SRS-X77, at $300, costs $100 more than the Play:1. For the sake of comparison, LG's H-series Music Flow speakers start at $180, if you're on a budget. I haven't been able to test those gadgets, however, so I can't vouch for them other than to say they support Google Cast and multi-room audio. When you consider the extra cost with the subpar software experience Sony offers, the scale tips in Sonos' favor. In fact, if you're willing to spend $300, throwing in another hundred can get you two Play:1s for a stereo setup or audio in multiple rooms of your house. That being said, this speaker from Sony is one of the first I've used that puts up a fight against Sonos. Perhaps future releases from the company and others will continue to close the gap, but for now, the champion hasn't been dethroned.