Monthly Archives: December 2013

Music everywhere with Sonos

I’ve embraced Sonos as the way to enjoy music and radio in my house.

What’s Sonos?

I was late to the game too, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Sonos or don’t quite know what it does. Sonos is a company, and they make several powered speakers, that is, nice little units that contain an amplifier and speakers. They also make a product that allows you to connect your existing amplifier to the Sonos system.

The Sonos family of powered speakers and integration products. At the rear left is their subwoofer. The Play:3, Play:5, and Play:1 are grouped in the middle rear. At the front is Playbar for home theater. At the rear right are the integration products.

The Sonos family of powered speakers and integration products. At the rear left is their subwoofer. The Play:3, Play:5, and Play:1 are grouped in the middle rear. At the front is Playbar for home theater. At the rear right are the integration products.

One thing that’s cool about Sonos is that the powered speakers don’t need to be wired to a system. You put them where you want, and they connect wirelessly to a base station that’s plugged into your home wireless Internet router. Alternately, you can wire them to a standard Ethernet socket if you’ve wired your house. Sonos call their base station a bridge, and right now one of those comes free with any of Sonos’s speakers.

What makes a Sonos system cool, though, isn’t just that it’s portable and unwired. It’s that it sounds pretty darn good, and it integrates reasonably nicely with popular music services such as slacker and tunein radio. That means you can pay a few bucks a month and play a large library of music, and you can listen to a vast array of radio stations. You control this experience using your smartphone, tablet, or PC.

Playing music

It’s pretty simple to play music. You select the room you want to play — the available rooms are shown on the left in the image below. Then you select a source you want to play — you can choose from your own music library, or one of the streaming services, or a line-in input into one of the devices.

The Sonos Mac OS X application. Very similar to the Sonos iPad app. On the left are rooms, on the right are sounds sources.

The Sonos Mac OS X application. Very similar to the Sonos iPad app. On the left are rooms, on the right are sounds sources.

You can group rooms together to create a zone, and have the same source playing throughout part or all of your house. For example, I often put on the radio, and group together my bedroom, main living areas, garage gym, and outside patio so that I can listen to them as I move around the house.

I’ve got a turntable, and I’ve connected that to one of Sonos’s larger Play:5 systems; the smaller Play:1 and Play:3 don’t have a line-in input. I needed a pre-amp between the turntable and the Play:5, and picked up a reasonable one at an online store. With this setup, I can listen to vinyl throughout the house in the same way as I can listen to the rest of my music.

I sometimes plug other sources into another line-in socket in another Play:5. For example, when I want to listen to Major League Baseball, I fire up my MLB At:Bat app on my iPhone, and connect the iPhone to the Play:5. Then, I select the Line-in as a source in the Sonos app, and we’ve got baseball in the house. (Go Mariners!) The drawback is that if I want to adjust volume or settings, I have to walk to the Play:5 and fiddle with the iPhone.

What’s Great

Here’s the top five things I love about Sonos:

  1. Sounds good to great. I can’t get over how much sound is in the Play:1 for the size and price. The thing is about as big as a coffee tin, and it has nice bass response and looks good. The bigger Play:5 is a serious unit, and has five amplifiers and five speakers — when you pair two together to create a stereo system, and add a subwoofer, you’ve got a serious sound system (and it’s priced like one too — you’re talking US$1500)
  2. Music and radio everywhere. Buy a few units, put them around the house, and your life will be better. You’ll be better connected to the world through radio, and you’ll enjoy your music even more
  3. Easy to set up. When you buy a new speaker, you can use any Sonos app on any device to register the unit. It takes about two minutes to add the unit to your house
  4. Range. I can put speakers anywhere in my house — in locations where I don’t get wifi on my laptop or phone — and it works just fine. I can take one of them out in the yard, and all is well
  5. It’s an alarm clock. It’s easy to set up an alarm on any Sonos device, and choose a source. I wake up to KQED radio, and it gently fades in. It turns off after an hour (that’s configurable). The rest of my family uses this feature too

What Needs Work

Here’s where there’s room for improvement:

  1. It’s expensive. The Play:1 is the first sub $200 offering from Sonos, the Play:3 is $299, and it’s upward from there. The Play:1 is great value, but fitting out your house is an investment. Be warned: these things multiply, you’ll buy one or two, and you’ll be back for more
  2. The service integration is a bit clunky. I really like Slacker’s iPhone app — but you only get a fraction of the features when you use the Sonos app to stream the Slacker service. The Sonos folks use the APIs that these streaming companies provide, rather than the streaming companies integrating Sonos capabilities natively into their apps. You can also tell Sonos has no relationship with Apple — the music library integration is pretty clunky, it’s at the file system level
  3. The apps need a little bit of a rethink and redesign, they lack the beauty and simplicity of the hardware. The app paradigm is you select a room, then you select music. That isn’t always how you think — sometimes you want to dive into the music, and then select the room. You can do it, but it’s a little clunky (and sometimes you’ll surprise someone in your house with a blast of music). Still, I’ve seen tweens using it easily enough
  4. The apps or the network or something can be sluggish. I find that my iPhone is a little frustrating as the interface to Sonos — my iPad and Mac are much better. It sometimes takes a while for the iPhone app to find my Sonos system, and the app can be unresponsive to interactions sometimes. It’s also not a reliable device for streaming my music library
  5. It needs power. The Play:1 looks portable, but you need an electrical outlet

All up?

Pretty awesome. A game changer at my house. The hardware is amazing — and that’s what’s actually important. Software and music service integrations can be fixed, and they’re improving with every version.

See you again soon.