Can Sonos Become Google for the Music You Love? – Wall Street Journal
We can thank the iPod for the idea that our lives can have a soundtrack like the movies—the right song playing at just the right moment. But iPods constrained music to headphones. Now we want to live in perpetual party mode, filling every room in the house with any song. You’re the star, clapping along to the hit song “Happy” as you get ready for work.
A big redesign unveiled Tuesday by the wireless audio company Sonos comes closer than ever to that sonic dream. Its innovation: a fast, universal search that lets you play virtually any song—from your MP3 collection or over two dozen streaming music services like Spotify, Beats Music and Pandora—instantly, in multiple rooms.
Testing the new Sonos against the latest from Bose, Samsung and Pure, I found Sonos made it easiest to dump my remote and step away from my computer’s MP3 collection, instead becoming my home’s DJ with only a phone.
Sonos has been making wireless multiroom audio systems for a decade, and Bose, Samsung and Pure have followed in the last year with their own speakers that wirelessly sync with one another, streaming music from computers and the Internet. I never made the leap to Sonos because it was expensive and Sonos’s software, which you must use to play your music, was hard to operate.
I was loyal to Apple‘s
iTunes, the software hub many of us have long used to buy and manage music. Around the house, I beamed music from my Mac or iPhone to speakers attached to an AppleTV using Apple’s own wireless system, called AirPlay.
But there’s been a big change in how we’re listening to music: streaming a never-ending buffet of tunes over the Internet, instead of buying songs a la carte.
Ad-supported and nominally priced “radio” services like Pandora are most popular—and even Apple’s new iTunes Radio is gaining momentum—while $10-per-month options like Spotify and Beats let you stream new releases on demand. Some even suggest songs to suit your mood.
So what happens when you’ve got iTunes purchases, Pandora radio and Spotify on demand? Sonos figured it out. The clean, simplified redesign and search capability of the new Sonos app is like Google
for your music.
(The free app is available this week in beta for Android devices. All Sonos owners, including iPhone and iPad users, will get the mobile app upgrade later in the spring.)
The first time you install Sonos, it will scan your computer’s existing music collection and put all those songs and playlists into its database. Then it will ask you to log in to (or sign up for) streaming music services and Internet radio stations.
After you’ve done that once, a search box right at the top of the new Sonos app lets you find and play songs, artists and albums across all your different sources. You can build playlists without worrying about where a song comes from—no switching apps, inputs or other kludgy controls. Just click on a song and it plays.
Sonos’s competitors are also jumping on the streaming music bandwagon, but none yet support nearly as many services and no others do universal search.
Samsung’s Shape speakers ask you to search each music source one at a time, and the Bose SoundTouch’s otherwise elegant controls actually don’t let you search your collection at all. Pure’s Jongo speakers nicely integrate search of your existing collection with its own streaming service, called Pure Connect, but it doesn’t support outside services.
Using Sonos doesn’t mean you have to get rid of iTunes entirely. You can still use it to buy music and make playlists for both Sonos and your phone. Sonos even supports the iTunes Match service, which allows you to stream high-quality versions of songs you already own, including those ripped from CDs.
Sonos falls down a bit when your friends want to play something from their phone on your speakers. You can’t stream directly from apps like Spotify or Pandora—everything must run on Sonos’s software and wireless network, meaning you lose some of the native apps’ bells and whistles. For spontaneous social song beaming, competitors like the Bose and Samsung are better.
Yet in exchange for that inconvenience, Sonos’s music plays at high quality without interruption: Sonos creates its own wireless network that connects to your home router via a $49 wired hub. Its competitors all rely on your existing Wi-Fi. In my tests, congestion in my wireless network sometimes made all the other speakers occasionally stutter or slow to respond.
How does the music sound? None of these speakers will win over audiophiles who prefer vinyl and big stereo speakers. But I was impressed with some of what I heard. To my ear, Bose’s pricier speakers, the SoundTouch 20 system, had the clearest sound and biggest bass—I could feel each pluck of the upright in “So What” by Miles Davis.
But the quality on similar-sized speakers from the Sonos Play:3 and Samsung Shape M7 wasn’t far off; if anything, they handled pop tunes like Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason” more comfortably than the Bose. I didn’t like Pure’s Jongo T4 speakers, though. They sounded tinny. (A Pure spokeswoman said the Jongo T4 “should be competitive against” the Sonos Play:3.)
Sonos was also the least expensive. Its midrange speaker costs $300, the same as Pure, while Samsung charges $350 and Bose $400.
Each speaker system lets you stream different music in every room—no doubt, to ease domestic disputes—but you can also play one song in groups of rooms, or housewide in “party mode.”
And all four companies put physical controls on their speakers for volume or play/pause, so you don’t have to fumble for an app if you just need to turn off the music in a hurry. The Bose includes a screen to tell you what’s playing and six buttons for presets for artists, albums, playlists or radio stations, so you don’t have to use the app at all when you just want some music.
I’m sure Sonos’s competitors will move fast to work with more streaming services, but for now Sonos has a significant edge. Sonos’s big leap forward is an example of how today’s consumer electronics-makers can significantly advance their products with software. The result: Internet services baked into a smarter user interface. (TV, I’m still waiting for software to fix you.)
Wireless speakers are still expensive, but Sonos’s new software has finally convinced me it offers a better way to play music. The three-speaker Sonos system I tested brought sweet-sounding music to my living room, office and bathroom for about $750, and you can keep adding more rooms. If you love music, you should consider a Sonos investment.