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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

10 Reasons why Sonos is great; 1 way to make it greater!

Posted on February 9, 2012 at 4:10 PM

Without a doubt, there is *a lot* to love about Sonos’ incredibly innovative audio distribution system. Sonos definitely turned the traditional rack-filled-with-stacks-of-black-boxes and single-point control location on its head with its system that is wireless and decentralized. It’s one of those systems that as you start describing it to people, and telling them all the things that it can do and all of the features that it has, YOU start getting as excited as they do. Honestly, Sonos makes it difficult to recommend a different housewide audio solution.

However, having installed, reviewed and played with the system on multiple occasions, I can without a doubt say ONE thing that would make the system even that much betterer. (And no, I’m not talking about adding 96/24 high-res audio support. Or about adding a dedicated in-wall/on-wall controller. Sure, those things would be nice improvements, but they aren’t fundamental game changers to the Sonos mind-think.)

Before I tell you the Sonos game-changer product, I’m going to list a few reasons why I think Sonos is so awesome-nos. (Or you can also read my Sound + Vision review from a few years back.)

1    Sonos understood the changing audio dynamic

For years, distributed audio was built around traditional – legacy – sources that involved CD changers, AM/FM tuners, plus maybe cable boxes or satellite tuners. These were mostly “dumb” one-way control items. Most systems offered only rudimentary play, stop, next disc, next station, preset 1 type of control. iPod changed all of that with metadata becoming all-mighty, all-powerful and all-important. Go on, try and control your iPod/Touch/Phone without looking at it. Not possible. You need that visual feedback. Sonos got that metadata importance early on and that network streaming – and feedback – was going to be crucial for house audio listening version 2.0.

2    It plays just about anything

When I first started ripping my audio files, I did it in Windows Media Center and turned everything into WMA files. I didn’t think anything of it. Until I got an iPod and found that I had to re-transcode everything into a format it would understand. There are lots of files types out there that aren’t MP3 and Sonos supports a gamut of then that includes just about any that a typical user is likely to encounter. All manner of lossy (MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, Audible), lossless (FLAC, ALAC) and uncompressed (AIFF and WAV).  No, it won’t play any DRM-wrapped files purchased from iTunes, but that is less of an issue since the store dropped DRM a while back. (However, if you have a large library of purchased music from the iTunes store, you should check out Autonomic’s Mirage Media Server. It can be an “authorized” Apple player and will handle all that stuff.)

3    It streams just about anything

The Cloud is a giant part of audio 2.0 and Sonos supports more Web streaming music services than any other system*. (*If you know of a system that supports more than Sonos does, please let me know.) While some manufacturers are all, “Yeah. We do Pandora. That’s right!” and others feel all tough because they add Rhapsody and them maybe go the extra step of adding Spotify, Sonos basically says, “Hey, we’re agnostic. We’re gonna do them all. You decide which one you like instead of which one we make you pick.” The list that Sonos supports includes: Spotify, Pandora, Sirius-XM, Tune In Radio, Slacker, Rhapsody, MOG, iHeartRadio, Rdio,, Wolfgang’s Vault, BBC, NPR, Aupeo!, Stitcher and all manner of thousands of Internet radio stations. The cool thing is that THEY KEEP ADDING SUPPORT. Maybe the next big thing hasn’t even happened yet. But chances are, when it does, Sonos will be there to support it.

4    It has the way-coolest interface

I have pretty much established my reviewer-ness based on looking at user interfaces over the years and then breaking them down and finding out what’s good, what works, and what blows. This is why I love Kaleidescape and Sooloos so much. Those guys developed an interface that is just way-cool and way easy to use. A homerun interface is one that you can just *hand* to someone and they can just intuitively figure it out and make it work. And I’m not talking about handing it to someone who spends their days living/breathing/sweating A/V gear, I’m talking someone like my mom. Who has trouble figuring out how to read a text message or charge her digital camera. Sonos interface is this interface. Oh, and the programming time it takes to make all that magic work? Zero.

5    Control: Can’t beat ‘em, embrace ‘em

Sonos offers a handy little controller called the CR200 that looks nice and works really well. Except, you’ll probably rarely sell one. Because Sonos realized pretty early on that they could A) continue making a controller that would cost more than an iTouch and DO way less or they could B) embrace the iTouch and make a killer interface for it. I’m sure this made for some painful, sitting around the board room conversations – “We’re going to just *give up* on selling controllers?! Are you mad? MAD?!?!” – except it was the right decision. They still offer the CR200 for people that don’t have a separate control option and there are still benefits to it (the dedicated hard volume buttons for one, and that it isn’t likely to walk-off like an iPhone/Touch/Pad), but Sonos has embraced iOS and Android controllers in a way that sacrifices or limits nothing. Even better? Using Sonos on an iPad. The larger real-estate provides a huge array of info at a glance.

6    We’ll make our own Network, thanks

Most WiFi “Network streaming” systems rely on the existing Wireless in the home. There is often a lot of traffic on this wireless network, what with you streaming YouTube videos of monkeys peeing on themselves and watching the Madonna half-time show over-and-over looking for that perfect snarky comment. The result is often audio dropouts and spotty performance. Sonos realized that trying to survive on your network is like trying to live in the Wild West. Alone. And unarmed. With that scary looking guy from Machete chasing you. With a machete! Instead they said, “A-ha! We should get as far away from that whore-and-tequila-filled two-bit cantina of a network as possible!” They do this by creating their OWN, incredibly reliable and stable wireless-N network.


7    Scalable means no more forced to buy in 6-source/6-zone increments

In the past designing an audio system was usually a bit like triaging battlefield wounds. You would go through a system design with a client and pick all the rooms where they’d like to have music and inevitably there would be more than 6 or 12. So then you’d have to decide which rooms got mushed together into one zone. Which rooms get the lame volume control instead of the cool keypad. Or do they decide to buy an extra 6-zones to just add those 3 extra rooms on their own. Sonos is a one-box/one-room solution. Buy what you need. Want to add music in that spare exercise room? Sure. One more box. Want to add the garage later? No problem. It’s wireless. We can add it. Oh, and want to listen to 15 different Pandora streams at once? OK. As long as your Internet connection is up to it, Sonos won’t hold you back.

8    Scalable means you can pick the quality you need

Sonos has a host of components that make it easy to get exactly the level of quality you want in any given area. Small room, can’t add any new wires, just need some music or something portable that you can move around? Have a Play:3. Same thing above but want a little more oompf and some extra bass bombast? Make it a Play:5. Not good enough? Add two Play:3s or two Play:5s and mate them as a stereo pair. Twice the speaker equals some non-logarithmic-level increase in volume and output. Still not enough. Damn. You’re a complainer. Fine. Add a Connect:Amp and connect a pair of your favorite bookshelf or tower (or in-wall, in-ceiling, or whatever) speakers. Want better *still*? OK. Use a Connect and run it to any separate power amp you want. STILL need better? Use the Connect and send it’s coaxial digital output to a high-end DAC (may I suggest the PS Audio PerfectWave?) and then run THAT to your preferred amp and speaker combo. If you want better than that, just buy a Sooloos and be done with it.

9    But all of my music is on my iPod!

Fine. They have a wireless iPod dock. Sheesh. It also supports iTouch and iPhone, ya big baby.

10    But I just HAVE to listen to my (insert name of legacy source here)!

Yes, I can see how having streaming access to virtually every song in the known-universe, along with local access to all of your library of digital music would just not be enough. For those people that just HAVE to plug in something – OK, I concede that a cable box is a pretty nice house audio source – Sonos can accept an RCA analog input, digitize it, and then spit it out over the Sonos-net for your listening enjoyment. There. Happy?

OK, so with all that awesomeness, how could they possibly improve on the system? Easy.

Make it play nicer with your TV.

OK, the thing about Sonos is, they have created a wonderful system. But it is also a not-so-wonderfully *closed* system where they are an island unto themselves. Once you buy your ticket and board the SS Sonos, you had better have all your gear packed, because you are sailing away from others. Sure, you're on a wonderful ship with all the music you could ever want, and sure you can take an output from the Connect and integrate it with your housewide audio system or home theater receiver and LISTEN to it, but you have absolutely NO CONTROL over it. This means that in a living room, the typical user will do something like this:

Step 1: Pick up smart universal remote control.

Step 2: Press “Listen to Sonos” on smart remote control.

Step 3: Let the system power up and switch to the Sonos input.

Step 4: Put down the smart remote control and pick up Sonos control.

Step 5: Select music he wants to hear on Sonos remote.

Step 6: Put down the Sonos control and pick up smart remote control.

Step 7: Adjust volume to appropriate level with smart remote control.

Step 8: Put down the smart remote control and pick up Sonos control. Use until they are finished listening to Sonos.

Step 9: Put down the Sonos control and pick up smart remote control.

Step 10: Turn system off or change to different activity.

The living room system is still the primary listening system in most people’s homes. This system often has a surround receiver and the best caliber speakers in the home and is the area where the system is used the most. It should also be the easiest to use, not the most complicated.

Now I totally get that Sonos has developed an amazing interface and that they want to keep that user experience level up. And they can only do this be ensuring that people live and play in their world. But, this using two separate controllers thing is difficult and frustrating for many users which is the exact OPPOSITE of the ease-of-use experience Sonos is looking to provide.

What I propose is a new component to the Sonos family; let’s call it the Connect:Theater.

With Connect:Theater you would have a regular Connect with the addition of an HDMI output and rear IR and RS-232 port. This HDMI connection would integrate easily to a modern A/V system and would carry not only the audio but an on-screen graphical overlay of Sonos’ interface. With a simple up-down-left-right-enter control scheme, users could use their existing smart remotes to fully control their Sonos systems. Browse your library, navigate your streaming services, link zones together, all with nothing more than a moving a highlighted box around their TV screen. (Oh, and because the device now has a video output, they could easily enable photo streaming from the networked computer if they wanted to. Not that the system needs to do this, but it would be cool to have a photo slideshow view. But, you know, this is just something Sonos could add later if they chose to.)

Also, people like to throw up nice, big colorful “now playing” screens during parties, and this would enable that. Also, you could pass an iPad/Touch around and let people add music to a queue that would show up on the big screen for all to see.

To make it more “system” worthy, Sonos could bump up the quality of the DAC set in the Connect:Theater. Charge a $100 premium, but give it some killer 24/192 capable DAC that not only handles high-res music files, but tht gives a noticeably better sound quality. And make it in high-gloss black (with a defeatable front panel light) so it blends in with the rest of the theater gear.

With an RS-232 connection – and a set of IP control protocols -- the Connect:Theater would also make it FAR easier to integrate Sonos as an audio source as part of a fuller automation system. Right now, Sonos pretty much lives outside the rest of an extensive house system as well; say when you have a bunch of touchpanels up on the walls that control security and lighting and HVAC. (The notable exception to this is Control4 with the super impressive Extra Vegetables Sonos driver. This provides an incredibly workable solution to adding Sonos to Control4, and is highly recommended if you haven’t checked it out. Extra Vegetables Pandonos app with Sonos is THE way to get Pandora on your Control4 system and totally worth the price of the driver.)

With that one component addition, Sonos would make their system the ultimate go to source component for any room of the home. Allowing installers a simple and awesome way to integrate Sonos as part of larger systems and projects. And it is something Sonos could add with very little work or effort on their part which would make their already awesome system more awesome-er. So, what do you say, Sonos? Sound like a plan...?

Categories: February 2012, Music, Electronics