Although the best music setup in the house is the surround sound system in the TV room, the room in which I listen to music most often is the kitchen. I do so while cooking, while cleaning, and even occasionally while eating.
The music setup in the kitchen was as follows: an audio receiver, a CD player, and iPod dock / headphone jack (for my tablet) connected to two small speakers. All wired; no remote control access. Sound quality was OK, and I was sufficiently accustomed to docking my iPod (classic; no bluetooth, no wifi) or connecting my tablet via headphone jack that it didn’t seem especially inconvenient.
But the whole system was at the back at the kitchen, and I mostly worked at the front. Apart from the fact that it was a bit annoying to have to stop cooking and walk over to change the volume or song selection, I often just couldn’t hear the music properly once the fans and frying got going.
A first-world problem for sure. Nevertheless, for Christmas I requested some way to get my music playing closer to where I was cooking.
Much research ensued, and wireless seemed the way to go. But wireless meant somehow still playing my iTunes library despite my not owning any “modern” iDevices. And that certainly suggested Sonos as one option.
What is Sonos?
Essentially, Sonos is a family of wireless speakers and components that are all controlled by an app that runs on Android, iOs, and Windows. The key marketing features are:
- Easy setup. “It just works.”
- Access to “all the music in the world”: your owned music, streamed music, online radio—all available through one interface, combined in whatever way you choose.
- Full-house control; that is, ability to play different (or the exact same) queues of music in any room in the house that has a Sonos-connected speaker.
The main downside? Price. But, we figured that we could start with just one speaker—the new Play 5—for the kitchen. Then if we liked the Sonos app, expand from there.
The Sonos Play:5 just sat around in its box for about 2 weeks before we got the courage to try to set it up. (Yes, I opened my Christmas present early. Not like it was a surprise.)
And it started out well. Getting the Play 5 onto our wifi network was simple. Downloading the app on tablet and PCs—no problem. Linking in my Google Play, SoundCloud, LastFM, Spotify accounts (note that you need a paid account)—also a breeze.
The problem was the iTunes playlist, because I had a somewhat non-standard setup: music files on a NAS (network attached storage), iTunes music library (playlist data) on PC.
To get the thing working, Sonos needed two connection points: one to the music directory on the NAS, another to then PC iTunes library location. Retrospectively, that seems obvious, and in fact it wasn’t hard to do.
But figuring out that’s all we had to do required a lot of experimentation, caused a few tears, and took the better part of an afternoon. (And yes, I did read the documentation!)
Using Sonos: The things I fretted about vs. the reality
Ahead of time, I was a little concerned (and obviously only in between bigger worries about climate change and world peace and such) about the following regarding use of this system.
Fret: Would I have to start my PC, and maybe even iTunes, just to play my music in the kitchen?
Reality: No, not with my music setup. Sonos copies in the iTunes playlist data, so neither iTunes nor the PC have to be running. It’s just the NAS that has to be on for the music files to be accessible. And the NAS was already programmed to start when we got home from work and to be on all day on weekends. (It’s handy to be married to a handy husband.)
Fret: How can my Android tablet possibly control my iTunes playlist on a NAS it doesn’t even know about?
Reality: If you’re using Sonos, that “just works”. (The non-Sonos’ed can try the Retune app. Pretty cool! But iTunes does have to be running for that one.)
Fret: Would I still be able to use the Musixmatch lyrics app? (Because I kind of love that app.)
Reality: Yes. While Musicxmatch isn’t fully integrated into the Sonos app, it does work quite well in “Listening” mode.
Fret: Can I continue playing a music list where I last left off? (This matters to me. Don’t judge.)
Reality: Sonos absolutely, by default, picks up where you left off.
Fret: Will it play our local CBC radio station? Can you program it to start and stop automatically at a certain time? (Otherwise, we won’t be able to expand Sonos to our bedroom. CBC is our alarm clock.)
Reality: Yes, local CBC radio is one of the ba-jillion radio stations included. And yes, Sonos has timer functionality.
Fret: When you change your iTunes playlists, how much of a pain is it to get the update into Sonos?
Reality: Haven’t actually done that yet, but appears to be a single-click process you can perform on PC or tablet (allowing time for it to re-scan the files).
Fret: Does it keep track of play counts and dates?
Reality: No, it does not. This is the one disappointing item.
In iTunes I created “smart” playlists with criteria such as “High-rated songs I haven’t played in the last six months” and “Songs I’ve played fewer than two times each”. And I use those playlists a lot to avoid “I’m sick of this song!” syndrome.
But Sonos has nothing like that built in. However, it does integrate with Last.fm, which does keep track of what I’ve played, on both iTunes / iPod and Sonos. And research indicates there might be some geeky, scripty ways to make use of that data. I will be looking into that more later.
Features I didn’t even realize I wanted, but turns out I do
This one seems dumb, but I’m a bit obsessive about album art, and I loved seeing some of that blown up in size on my 12.2 inch tablet when I’d previously only viewed it as a thumbnail.
More significantly, the much more dynamic (compared with iPod) song queue is fun! For example, I can:
- Start with an iTunes playlist and add songs from Spotify or Soundcloud (or whatever)
- Combine various playlists into one queue
- See what songs are coming up, and edit the list if I want—without affecting the original playlists
- Decide I want to, say, switch to a podcast now, listen to that, then automatically return to my same spot in the music queue
- Save my current queue as a Sonos playlist for later reuse
But it’s a speaker. How does it sound?
Kids, this speaker sounds so good, I’d like to marry it and have its babies. 🙂