Sonos, long known for its more expensive internet-connected speakers, released an entry-level model called the Play:1 in October. I’ve been using two loaned Play:1 review units from Sonos for the last couple of weeks, primarily to listen to internet radio and subscription music from Rdio. After a slight initial learning curve, I quickly fell in love with the devices — but I also discovered some shortcomings that may be annoying enough to make me wait a bit longer before I buy my own Play:1.
The basics: What it is and what it does
Sonos has been a connected speaker pioneer, and the Play:1 essentially offers the same functionality as its bigger and pricier predecessors, albeit in a smaller and slightly less powerful package. The Play:1 is a connected wireless speaker that can be controlled with your mobile device or desktop speaker and paired with other Sonos speakers on the same network for synchronous playback.
Sonos speakers can either stream music from your local library — saved on your computer’s hard drive or a network attached storage drive — or access cloud music services; and the latter is arguably where these kinds of speakers really shine. Sonos currently offers support for a number of online music services, including Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Songza, Last.fm, Rhapsody and others, and access to a few thousand online radio streams via TuneIn.
The key difference between a Sonos speaker and a Bluetooth or even an AirPlay-eanbled speaker is that Sonos maintains its own connection to the internet. You can use your phone to tell the speaker which digital music stream to tune into, and then turn off your phone, or use it for something else — and the speaker is going to keep playing. It’s even possible to schedule streams, and for example begin each morning with an NPR stream, whether your phone is charged at the time or not.
The philosophy: features, not specs
Reviews of HiFi equipment usually feature a whole lot of data points: wattage, impendance, frequency curves — it might get home theater geeks and audiophiles excited, but confuses the heck out of the rest of us. Sonos doesn’t do anything like that. The company purposefully doesn’t talk about specs, and instead highlights the feature set of its connected speakers. It’s a bit Apple-like, if you will. Instead of confusing consumers with chipset speeds, Apple tends to highlight what you can actually do with an iPad.
As a consumer, I think that’s just the right approach. Sure, I took some acoustics classes in college, and I could probably make sense of most of these numbers if I Googled a bit — but years of covering technology have taught me that most specs can be pretty meaningless. More megapixels alone don’t equal better photos, and louder speakers don’t necessarily make your music sound better.
To my ears, good is good enough
And here’s another thing you need to know about my music consumption: I’m a “good-enough” kind of guy. I’m not necessarily going to buy the cheapest speaker possible, but I’m not above using a $50 Bluetooth speaker to occasionally listen to podcasts and radio streams in the kitchen. And when I really want an immersive music experience, I usually reach for my headphones (Sennheiser HD-280 pro, if you must know). That’s why I also haven’t bought a Sonos speaker before. The company’s Play:3 and Play:5 speakers, priced at $300 and $400 respectively, just seemed a bit too steep, not to mention the company’s $700 soundbar. Oh yeah, did I mention I’m cheap?
In other words: I may just be the best customer for an entry-level offering like the Play:1. And with that in mind, you also won’t find long diatribes on the sound quality of the device here. To my ears, the Play:1 sounded great when turned up a bit, and good but a bit thin when playing quietly. I placed the two speakers in two connecting rooms, so I paired them frequently to have the same music playing on both synchronously, which made for great carpets of sound filling the house.
However, I didn’t really make use of a feature that turns both speakers into a true stereophonic set because the placement didn’t lend itself to this kind of use. And with that, I occasionally asked myself: What ever happened to stereo?
The setup: this could have been easier
The Play:1 is a wireless speaker, but Sonos likes to operate its own wireless network to ensure that it can cover your entire house, and not fight with other resources bogging down your router. That’s why you either have to connect at least one Sonos speaker via Ethernet, or use a bridge — kind of a separate router for Sonos components. Connecting a bridge is easy enough, but it felt a bit like I was adding yet another device to my already crowded home network.
Getting your speakers to connect to the bridge, and then having them discovered by the Sonos mobile app, is also an easy, painless process. But I found that actually getting them to play some music was anything but. The Sonos app prompted me to register the speakers, but said little about the benefits of this step. I bypassed it, and subsequently was unable to access any online services. Attempts to do so left me in a loop, without any clear explanation of what was wrong. For about two hours, I really, wholeheartedly hated Sonos. More thorough documentation would have helped a lot.
Adding and playing local content
Playing content stored locally on my mobile devices was a snap, although accessing my Macbook’s iTunes library was a bit more challenging, and involved changing file sharing settings on the OSX system level even though I already shared my library through iTunes. The advantage of that approach is that my computer will be sharing files with Sonos even if my Sonos or iTunes apps aren’t launched, but it was still a few extra steps that seemed to complicate the issue.
However, once the setup was done, playing local music was a bliss. I did occasionally play some content stored on my iPad, but also gave the Sonos access to my music collection stored on a network attached storage drive, which made it possible to listen to tracks even when my computer was turned off.
I spent a lot of time listening to my favorite Los Angeles radio station KCRW through the Play:1, and quickly learned to love its physical controls. The speaker not only features a volume rocker, but also a play and pause button, which is great if you want to take a break and quickly mute the music for a phone call, but also provides a way to start playback when you come back home after a day at the office.
I also tend to listen to KCRW a lot through the station’s dedicated iOS and Android apps, and occasionally, something strange would happen: The Play:1 would stream something different than KCRW’s mobile apps. This could be because Sonos gets fed by TuneIn, but the result was still confusing.
Also puzzling: Sonos allows users to sync their music across multiple speakers, and I often had my streams playing in perfect unison in the living room and my office den. But occasionally, I’d launch a KCRW stream on one speaker, then press play on the other, and have both devices play the same thing, but with a slight delay. That’s because both speakers were playing the same stream independently as opposed to in sync, and re-syncing them through the Sonos app usually took care of the problem. However, it would be great if Sonos speakers could detect that they’re playing the same thing, and automatically sync their outputs, or if there was a way to sync speakers through their physical buttons.
Streaming subscription music
Aside from radio listening, I also spent a whole lot of time listening to music from Rdio with the Play:1. Rdio is my music subscription service of choice, but I could easily also have used Spotify or Rhapsody, and listening to whole albums as well as my personalized Rdio station — kind of a mix of favorites and personalized recommendations — is great.
Except for one thing that kept bugging more and more the longer I used the Play:1: Sonos requires you to use its own app, as opposed to a service’s native app, to control playback. That’s okay if you just want to launch a radio stream, or play a couple of MP3 files saved on your computer or iPad. But it’s a serious shortcoming when you’re dealing with a subscription service that tries to differentiate itself from the pack with a whole lot of advanced features.
Take Rdio’s personalized radio stations, for example. The service has gone to great lengths to combine a Pandora-like experience with true on-demand listening. Users can listen to stations programmed for artists, stations based on the music their friends on Rdio listen to and personalized stations based on their own listening behavior. Each station can be adjusted to be more or less adventurous, and voting on tracks can affect programming in real time. Sonos has personalized stations for you and your contacts, but those are more or less static, and only offer the option to skip tracks.
While listening to Rdio via Sonos, I kept running into this issue of limited support for third-party features over and over again. A track that I really liked would come up, making me want to add it to a playlist. Unfortunately, the Sonos app doesn’t allow me to edit Rdio playlists. I could add a track to a Sonos-exclusive playlist, but then it would be inaccessible the next time I’m at the office. Sonos has done some work to integrate tighter with Spotify, but it’s frustrating that these features aren’t available for many other services.
Give me third-party app support!
All of this could be avoided if Sonos was integrated with third-party apps. That way, I could use the Rdio app to listen to Rdio, and apps from other music services to listen to their offerings. Sonos has said that it is working on making “play to Sonos” functionality available to third-party developers, which is great news — I just wish it was already there.
The lack of third-party playback also made me sometimes wish that Sonos had — wait for it — Bluetooth or AirPlay support, just so that I could extend playback to more sources of content. I’d be watching some YouTube-hosted podcast on the iPad in the kitchen, then go to the living room — and wish that I could just switch the audio output to the Play:1 speaker over there. I know that the folks at Sonos have strong feelings about Bluetooth, but as a consumer, I felt like the company’s quest for the perfect solution actually made the Play:1 less useful.
So how did I feel about the Play:1? At the end of the day, I have to admit that I loved it. If you’re like me and are looking for an easy way to listen to online music that won’t break the bank, the Play:1 is definitely worth a close look.
At the same time, my struggles with the proprietary nature of the Sonos ecosystem have thus far stopped me from going out and buying one. It’s great technology that also sounds good, but it could still be easier. That being said, the day that Sonos opens up play to functionality to third-party developers, I’ll be the first one to pick up one of these.