Sonos says to throw the baby out with the bathwaterBy Brian Wines, president and co-founder of HTD
Updated Jan 30, 2020
Well, actually they recommend recycling the baby. Sonos has recently been in the news with the revelation that many of their older models of smart speakers will soon stop receiving software updates. While a follow-up to the announcement by the CEO clarified that those devices will continue to work as they do now and will be supported with bug fixes and security patches “for as long as possible”, there is still the concern that they will not work well with newer models (unless you dummy down the newer models) and that older models may need to be segregated, essentially resulting in two disparate systems in the same home. Even then, there is concern that future updates to music streaming services will not be supported in the older models.
Our perspective: At HTD, we make whole-house audio systems designed for customers who want their speakers installed in ceilings or walls, with speaker cables run from those speakers to a centralized location. As such, we have never really competed with Sonos speakers which, while not requiring speaker cables, are limited to being placed on a bookshelf, countertop, or mounted to a wall near an electrical outlet.
The customer base for a Sonos solution is immensely larger than for systems like ours because homeowners don’t have to worry about finding a way to get speakers in the ceiling and cable back to the central location. HTD systems assume those are either already in place or are being considered as part of a significant remodel or new home construction.
Sonos performs source selection for each speaker and keeps speakers playing the same source in sync on multiple speakers through the use of very good, proprietary software and their own mesh network. Because all of the speakers in an HTD system are connected to common equipment at a common location, they are by default able to play in sync without the need for any special software or network. Both systems are controlled from smart phones and tablets.
But another, less obvious difference in approach was highlighted by the recent Sonos announcement: should music streaming be “built-in”?
Sonos includes streaming as part of the convenience factor they promote: an all-in-one speaker, amplifier, mesh network, and audio streamer. At HTD we do not build music streamers into our equipment. We often refer to HTD systems as source agnostic because the type of audio source you connect is irrelevant- you can connect a separate music streamer, smart phone, TV, CD player, etc. and the system operates the same way giving you the ability to select which source you want to hear in each speaker and at what volume, all from your smart phone or tablet (and also from optional wall-mounted keypad controllers). From our standpoint, building-in a music streamer is akin to offering a home theater receiver with a DVD or Blu-ray player built-in.
As streaming technology morphs and improves and new, previously unthought of features such as voice assistants emerge, do you really want your investment in your home audio equipment held back by a built-in streamer? This is especially true considering the relatively low cost of separate music streamers (see our recommendation list).
When it comes to music streamers, the experience of what you hear is impacted primarily by the quality of your speakers, the performance of your amplifiers, and the detail and accuracy of the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) included in the music streamer. The DAC is necessary to convert the streaming digital signal into the analog signal required by all amplifiers.
In smart speakers, including those made by Sonos, the material cost of the final product is determined more by the speaker components, amplifier, and enclosure than by the built-in streaming chip and DAC. Speaker and amplifier technology tend to progress on a relatively gradual incline so what you buy now is likely to still be relevant in a decade or more. In contrast, streaming tech is relatively new and progressing quickly. And so, Sonos is forced to ask customers to discard the entire speaker because the hardware/software portion can’t keep up.
Why hamstring your entire system for the early convenience of having a streamer “built-in”?
Unfortunately for early Sonos adopters, the reality of this situation was put in sharp focus in January when the company made their announcement. The senior director of global communications and sustainability at Sonos was forced to admit that customers should recycle older models (some released as late as 2015) “because they truly are reaching the end of their useful life.” Needless to say, Sonos customers were not happy.
Our recommendation- invest in your home’s audio with good speakers, good amplifiers, and a system that allows you to select what you want to hear where you want to hear it. Add sources, including music streamers, that you can enjoy for years but also don’t mind replacing should new tech or new features come along that you really want.
By the way, just how inconvenient is it to add a separate music streamer? Use a cable to connect its audio “out” to an audio “in” on your home audio system. Then, plug it into an electrical outlet and follow the instructions to connect it to your home’s WiFi network. Actually, that last step is the same as for a built-in streamer. In other words, it’s really not that difficult, nor that different.
Yes, it would be more convenient if we were to build music streamers into our whole-house audio systems. It just doesn’t make sense to do so. Invest in the baby. Throw out the bathwater when it gets cold or dirty.