Thoughts on smart speakers

When I walk into my office, I like to listen to classical music streaming from a commercial-free station. To do this, I used to fire up iTunes on my computer, go to my favourites and start the music.

Now I stream classical music in my office by pressing the play button on a SONOS PLAY:1 speaker. It’s faster. The sound is much better than my Mac’s internal speakers. These advantages, among others, make smart sound systems like SONOS the way we’ll all listen to music.

I’m enjoying my experiences with connected home technology. Two weeks ago, I published a post about an LED bulb I can control using Bluetooth. It changes lighting and intensity based on the settings you tap or swipe on a mobile app. I wouldn’t have thought I’d want to control lighting from a mobile app, but now that I’ve done it, I expect this is how we’ll all manage our lighting in the future.

Now I’m playing a speaker that I control via my WiFi network. Put enough speakers in your home and you can create customized sonic experiences for each room. (I suspect early adopters of technology already coordinate lighting and music to create moods for each room in the house. I’ll save that idea for another blog post.)

First impressions

The PLAY:1 is the smallest speaker in the SONOS lineup. It’s an unassuming dark grey and black box with rounded side edges and a few buttons on top. Yet the sound it emits is spectacular given how tiny this speaker happens to be.

Let me define “spectacular sound.” As a former cellist, I still recall the depth, the vibrations I produced using this large stringed instrument. A week ago, the aforementioned classical station played a lengthy cello solo piece that I’d heard before, only now it reached my ears via the SONOS. It was on low volume, and I was sitting near the speaker, yet the tones, vibrations, the “skidding” of the bow across the strings was unmistakeable. I could have been sitting next to the cellist doing his thing. Sound for my other digital music is just as rewarding.

I’d heard music from other SONOS speakers, but I reached a whole new appreciation for it in the quiet of my own home.

Technical background

SONOS markets audio speakers as well as home theatre and connectivity components. The PLAY:1 is the baby in the audio family. Its larger kin are the PLAY:3 and PLAY:5. SONOS markets a pair of PLAY:1s to accompany its Soundbar and Sub speakers for a surround home theatre setup.

Here’s a small design/branding detail that, for some reason, I still admire: SONOS is a palindrome, so on larger speakers that you can place on their sides or upright, you can read the SONOS name forwards or backwards, and it always looks exactly the same.

If you prefer the sound from your current system or speakers, SONOS has devices for you too. Should you need to cover weak spots in your WiFI network, SONOS has you, well, covered.

Setup

SONOS offers a mobile app that I installed on my iPod Touch. Kudos to SONOS for covering all the major operating systems – mobile AND computer.

Setup was straightforward enough, although the first time I took any given step, it usually wouldn’t work. It did work the second time, resulting in issues you overlook, knowing you won’t have to face them again in the foreseeable future.

Setup includes “tuning” the speaker for the room you’re in. SONOS calls this feature Trueplay. You start the Trueplay feature on your mobile device (not your computer – at least I wouldn’t use my computer for this) and move your device around the room for about a minute. The app repeatedly emits a loud tone via your device’s speaker that bounces back to the app through your device’s microphone.In doing this, the app builds an “acoustic profile” of the room. The app itself shows you a video (which I can’t seem to find online) of what you need to do.

End result? The audio is meant to sound the same no matter what room the speaker is in, or where in the room you place it (on the floor, hidden behind furniture, wherever you like). SONOS thoughtfully created an ad that clearly explains the effect.

Playback

To play music on a SONOS network, you must use the SONOS app. This app is sophisticated enough to direct different music to different rooms, provided you create groups of SONOS components by room, or your area of preference.

You can use the app as a client for many popular streaming services, from Spotify to Apple Musc to Google Play and so forth. The app also catalogs and plays your personal music collection.

Room for improvement

Everything works as advertised in the SONOS system. Music from my personal collection sounds better than streamed music, but I can still make out vibrations of instruments, the “tick” when a violin’s string is plucked, when I hear it on the aforementioned classical music radio station.

My only “beefs” (if you could call them that) are what technology developers would call “enhancement requests.”

The SONOS app recreates the features I use in iTunes or on my other devices. Frankly, I’d prefer using the apps I already know instead of loading another application on my devices. Maybe SONOS could limit its own software to configuration and being a bridge between the speaker and the music players I already know how to use. I suspect this would lessen the software development effort, presuming the requisite application programming interfaces exist. It would also reduce the learning curve, gentle though it may be, the SONOS app requires.

Oddly, the app also doesn’t seem to offer the option to shuffle a playlist, something I do all the time using other music management software.

I would also like to feed audio from streaming videos through the PLAY:1, whether I watch video on my computer or my iPad. Alas, the app doesn’t allow streaming audio from web browsers or video streaming apps through its speaker. The same shortcoming applies to audio during web conferencing sessions, like GoToMeeting or Skype.

Concluding thoughts

SONOS and similar systems are making inroads among audiophiles, and for good reason. Our music collections have largely migrated from physical to digital media. We play them back more often through smartphones than bulky sound systems. But we still want good sound, so our sound systems have to evolve with our media.

Price is still a factor, as it always has been with high-end audio components. But SONOS makes the technology accessible to a wide audience, from ease of setup to great sound to Trueplay tuning. The PLAY:1 reminds me of the old adage: quality only hurts once.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.