By Request: My Impressions Of Sonos
In October of 2016, as my New York Islanders were opening their season against their archrival Rangers — and sucking badly at it — I got word that my Dad had won a Bose SoundTouch 10 WiFi/Bluetooth smart speaker in a raffle. He had no use for it, so I found myself its owner. I still have it today, but I find myself using it more as a fixed Bluetooth speaker rather than anything else, thanks to an already bad user interface getting much worse, much less accessible. But that SoundTouch became my gateway drug, for I had always been an admirer of the Sonos products, but found no way to use them within my workflow. What do I listen to that would get be wanting to use something other than my computer and prosumer audio equipment, or my Bluetooth speaker? The SoundTouch taught me, even as its interface crumbled into inaccessibility.
Why did I like the SoundTouch anyway?
It was honestly really simple. Like many products, the SoundTouch is a whole home audio system, but I have found myself calling it a smart speaker. The reason I do so is because the speaker is playing the content by itself. Your phone is only a remote control, and is free to do anything you like, even answer a phone call. In a sense, it’s now the internet aware equivalent of your home’s stereo system, though mono in this case because the entry level speakers in this sector tend to be mono. The phone controls every aspect of the system, so no need to search for a remote — although some of these systems do come with one. However, you are bound by the limitations of the ecosystem you select. Whether it’s the SoundTouch, LG MusicFlow, or my personal favorite, Sonos — the focus of this story — The ecosystem’s limitations impact your enjoyment.
If I thought the SoundTouch was good, getting a Sonos Play:1 for Christmas disabused me of that notion immediately. Sonos blows it away in nearly every conceivable way. It plays more things, for example Apple Music — the only smart speaker to support it, has a far better and more consistent user interface, and packs a much heavier punch for a smaller speaker — This $200 speaker can project 40 HZ into the room!
So what’re the limitations?
The Sonos products are a closed ecosystem that likes to have open components. That means that you can do a lot of things within the system, but you have to do them Sonos’s way. That means either finding programmatic solutions via their API, or purchasing more equipment if you wish to hook up other hardware such as an existing set top box. For my current needs, my Play:1 does the trick with the occasional use of a tool called AirSonos, which I suggest you google. That allows me to use my Sonos as an AirPlay output device, although it doesn’t always seem to work…More on that if I can be bothered to do more tests.
If I can be bothered to do more tests, because outside of Audible books, Sonos plays basically everything I want it to. Unlike most smart speakers, for instance, I’m not limited to what’s in its internet radio directory, I can add any custom URL — no ogg, though — as long as I’m willing to use the desktop tool to do it first. If I tell it where my library lives, I can play all my locally stored music on my computer — including Ogg and Flac — From anywhere I have a phone. In essence, except for files in spurious locations that probably should not be indexed by a media library — my internet radio shows come to mind — I can play anything I want. AirSonos, most of the time, will fill in the gaps.
But wait…No Bluetooth?
No. And that’s intentional. Sonos is, at its heart, a HiFi company who wants to remain a HiFi company. Sonos is not Bose, a company that once was considered the premier HiFi company in the world but who has become more interested in lifestyle products that make sound rather than audio fidelity. As such, Sonos eschews Bluetooth all together in favor of WiFi. Sonos wants no part of Bluetooth fidelity issues, poor range in the large homes Sonos is designed for, and imperfect setup process and control. It’s especially not interested in its speakers playing sounds they aren’t intended to play…Look ma, no alert sounds!
But why not Chromecast?
Honestly, I’ve found Chromecast to be a waste. I have a Chromecast Audio myself but it ends up not being used because most of the time, it doesn’t support anything I actually want to play. The only thing I want to play that Chromecast will play while maintaining the same mobile-only control ideas is internet radio stations in TuneIn’s directory. Yes, I could play Spotify or other services of that ilk, but not Apple Music, the service I’ve found with the most complete catalog. Control is also imperfect because of the fact that volume, by its very nature, is never in sync with the speaker you’re plugged into. Sonos’s advanced power management capabilities — the system only uses between 4 and 8 WATS in its completely transparent standby mode — can’t be equaled in any way when using Chromecast connected to a system you already own. Sonos is simply a more elegant solution, and that elegance leads to yet another point in Sonos’s favor. I can teach anybody to use this. If I was living with someone who just wanted to play something from their phone through the Sonos, they don’t have to turn on an existing stereo system, adjust to whatever input the Chromecast is hooked up to, and then have fun. Oh wait, you left it on? Well you just burned electricity you shouldn’t have. This is why Sonos is more expensive…the company thinks of almost everything.
Ultimately, I believe Sonos has deserved its plaudits, and has managed to hit a happy medium of extensible and walled garden. And the sound quality continues to impress me although I have little experience with the higher end systems in a home theater configuration. In a few months, I hope to at least listen to what the new Playbase sounds like…Has Sonos actually created a usable soundbase? When I find out, you’ll certainly know.