When I'm not busy catching up on the latest music or working on my day job within the digital advertising industry I'm known for being a bit of a technology geek. I'm a big fan of Apple's various products due to the emphasise on design, humanity and usability, but I also love various pieces of technology - my Pebble smart watch, my espresso machine, my car. One area that I increasingly feel confused by however is the world of home audio... The idea of buying a home stereo these days feels a little antiquated, and yet so many of the other solutions - such as iPod docks and bluetooth speakers - lack finesse and flexibility.
The reality is that I haven't had the need to review what I use in a while - I'm in a two bedroom flat... If I want to hear something in the next room I just turn it up. I have an Apple TV connected to a stereo via the TV and so I generally just use that from my phone, iPad or laptop. I am hopefully on the verge of moving house however, and a system that enables more control and flexibility will be welcome in the new place.
As such I was very happy to be offered a Sonos setup to check out for review purposes - I've long considered buying one once my home was large enough to warrant it, so it was great to have the opportunity to try out the experience first.
The setup itself is largely very easy - I had two Sonos Play:1 units and a bridge. The bridge plugs into my router and the speakers go wherever I want, provided they are within range of my wifi. Installing an app on my phone enables a very painless syncing process and then I was pretty much ready to go - cueing up songs in both the living room and the bedroom simultaneously, or different songs in each.
The Sonos app on the iPhone makes it very easy for multiple people to add individual songs and this aspect led to me and my partner experiencing music in a way we wouldn't normally - more of a shared experience than the way you usually consume music. The result was collaborative and fun - it would be great at a (moderately sized) party. The process of cueing up songs across devices is made possible by the fact that all music is played through the Sonos app - there is no support for AirPlay or Bluetooth and so you can't just beam tracks from your app of choice.
This brings the first of my only two real criticisms. In addition to the music on my phone or computer, I can setup third-party services within the app, such as Napster or Spotify. The downside is that without hacking about you can only register one version of each service on your Sonos setup - this meant we had to choose between the two active Spotify subscriptions we have in my home, removing access to the playlists and history on whichever one wasn't used. As music becomes more socially enabled (everything I play on Spotify is already pumped through to Facebook and Last.fm) this becomes a bigger stumbling block. I don't want anyone else using my account, but I want to be able to access my hundreds of playlists when I am choosing music. Sonos need to sort it - it is almost enough to put me off buying my own set.
My second criticism is the difficulty in setting up music if you, like me, keep your main music library on a NAS drive (I.e. a harddrive connected to your network rather than a computer). Eventually I got it working, but I had to work with unfamiliar network protocols and rename the router first, which for some reason then required me to basically re-setup the whole device (I use an Apple TimeCapsule - this last point is Apple's fault not Sonos') . Once setup it works like a dream - I can access any music on the drive without having my laptop on, which feels like a revelation. It does, however, demonstrate how easy to use AirPlay is in comparison. When it comes to NAS support, plug-and-play this is not.
These criticisms are both quite specific, and for many users will be irrelevant. Those people should definitely consider getting a Sonos player as everything else is pretty great. The sound quality out of the players is fairly impressive - much louder and better quality than my Bluetooth speaker (a Jambox), albeit always needing mains power... The Sonos Play:1 could do with a bit more mid-range, but I imagine this is addressed in the more expensive units. Regardless, I was impressed - the speakers are definetly loud enough to irritate neighbours, if that is your desire. The apps are pretty easy to use, if a little ugly (no iOS7 update as of yet) and the ability to play music in multiple rooms at once was great. I used to find myself walking around playing music on my Jambox whilst I carried it - I don't do that any more.
It is worth noting too that the services on offer within the Sonos ecosystem are extensive. Most cloud services are available, including Audible and Amazon's Cloud Player. There are also services specifically built for music discovery - I spent quite a bit of time playing with Shuffler.fm, which pulls together music based on what is being covered by influential music blogs. I'd not used Shuffler before but I was impressed by the fact that there were a couple of new tracks I'd not heard yet ready to be played easily within my home system. It is worth noting that both Soundcloud and Mixcloud are notable in their absence however - hopefully they will be added at some point.
So would I buy? Probably. I would gladly pay more for AirPlay support, and if I find an equivalent system that does support it then I might give Sonos a miss. I use different apps for podcasts and films and videos on the go - AirPlay is great because it supports pretty much everything, including multiple Spotify accounts in a single home. As good as the Sonos app is, it will always lag behind the seperate music service apps from a usability standpoint - Sonos should just let me play whatever sound I want, whilst keeping their app as an optional route to manage things.
Sonos is very powerful though, and it represents pretty much the best solution for networked music. Niggles aside, this is the best way of listening to music in the home that I have found.