New Sonos Digital Assistant May Protect Consumer Privacy

"Hey, Sonos" processes your voice commands on the smart speaker itself, instead of in the cloud

A kitchen setting with a Sonos speaker and a word bubble saying "Hey Sonos, move the music here". Image: Sonos

The audio company Sonos has introduced a new digital voice assistant with a twist that could help protect consumers’ privacy.

Available June 1 via a free software update, Sonos Voice Control (aka “Hey, Sonos”) can be used to control the speakers and soundbars in a Sonos multiroom music system. But unlike the voice commands for Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple’s Siri, those for Sonos Voice Control are all processed on the smart speaker or soundbar itself, instead of being relayed to company servers. That means the things you say to your device stay on the device, instead of being transmitted to the cloud and, maybe, sometimes, listened to.

“Sonos Voice Control is processing everything locally,” says Jeff Derderian, vice president of product program leadership at Sonos. “There’s not even a place to send anything. That pipeline isn’t even there.”

More on Speakers

According to CR’s advocates, this represents a modest but significant step forward in digital privacy.

“It’s definitely preferable if your voice commands don’t leave your house,” says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. “If Sonos devices are smart enough to understand what you’re saying, you’re less dependent on the Sonos cloud and have fewer reasons to be worried about your privacy.”

This could mark the beginning of a shift toward devices that rely less on remote platforms and do more data processing right in your home. “It’s a good trend when your smart home can run itself,” Brookman says.

Remember, however, that information about your music or podcast choices may still be transmitted to content providers like Amazon Music and Pandora for ad targeting.

Voiced by Giancarlo Esposito

Actor Giancarlo Esposito, known for his work in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Mandalorian,” provides the voice of “Hey, Sonos,” which might be reason enough to give it a try. More voices will be added later.

Sonos Voice Control, which will be available June 1 in the U.S. and later in 2022 in France, is supposed to be designed for convenience as well as privacy. At launch, it will support Sonos Radio, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, and Pandora, with other services to follow.

The setup is straightforward, using the company’s smartphone app. There’s no audible tone after you say “Hey, Sonos,” and when you’re repeating a command like “next track,” you don’t have to repeat the “Hey, Sonos” wake word. Hey, Sonos is also designed to respond to natural-sounding commands like “turn it up” rather than the stilted syntax often required by other digital assistants. In addition to straightforward commands for volume control and track selection, Sonos Voice Control enables you to move music from speaker to speaker throughout your home and add songs to your music library.

The new digital assistant works only with Sonos smart speakers and soundbars with a built-in mic array. (You can do something like mute a Sonos Five wireless speaker using a voice command directed to another Sonos smart speaker in your multiroom system.) Modes with Bluetooth capability, like the Sonos Move and the Sonos Roam, can also be controlled with “Hey, Sonos.”

Sonos smart speakers like the Sonos One and soundbars like the Beam are designed to offer both Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. But Sonos Voice Control can be installed on a device that’s already running Alexa. So you can say “Hey, Sonos, shuffle songs from my Prince Rarities playlist,” and then follow that up with “Alexa, set a timer for 12 minutes.”

Things are a little less flexible with Google. You can use Google Assistant on another speaker in your multiroom system, but you can’t have “Hey, Sonos” and “Hey, Google” working on the same device.

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.