If you’re devoted to the practice of steeping yourself in music everywhere you go, you’re likely familiar with Sonos. Maybe the modular home speaker system has pumped tunes to every room of your house for years now. Miraculously, Sonos remains relevant after a decade in the space. (In fact, just this week, the company made a high profile poach of Xbox product officer Marc Whitten.)
But its longevity is both a blessing and a curse. The Sonos experience manages to “just work” in that rare, transcendent Apple type of way, but its core software—the Sonos controller app—has looked and felt like it’s stuck in 2009. With creative, crowd-funded experiments like Beep and Neil Young’s Pono finally showing some signs of life in the digital home audio department, can the original innovator stay relevant?
Thanks to a brand new app, yes. And just in the nick of time.
Catching Up With A Total Overhaul
This week, Sonos unveiled its reimagined app (version 5.0), now in public beta for Android users and slated for iOS “this spring.” To try out the new app, which functions as the system’s interface, controller and music catalog all in one, we’ve filled just about every waking moment over the past few days with tunes pumped out of a Sonos Play:5—mostly because it’s just that easy.
With a Sonos system, the app is central to the experience. The old Sonos software (a cross-platform app) is still perfectly functional, but for a forward-thinking company, it had grown surprisingly long in the tooth. The problem is just how attractive the mobile experience of apps like Rdio, Spotify or Beats has become these days—it’s enough to make an audiophile consider music app monogamy.
Service-agnostic sonic polyamory is core to the Sonos experience. Happily, the new app serves that cause with elegance. A new universal search bar scans every service you use for a given artist, track or album, which is awesome.
Sonos 5.0, which we’ve been using on our Nexus 7, is structurally similar to the old app, but just about everything is better. With a flat design (Jony Ive joke goes here), it looks bright, crisp and perfectly at home on an HD display. Gone is the sea of blue buttons. With a clean white backdrop, gestures and simple back buttons replace the old app’s clunky, click-happy, never-quite-intuitive navigation. The “playing now” menu is never more than swipe away, and that menu is now a big album image with a simplified set of controls.
The service’s massive collection of music services now boast nice, colorful square icons and everything feels less buried in menus in general. Previously, the only thing adding any delay to the process of instant-on music on a Sonos speaker was the app’s labyrinthine menu navigation. Now the controller app feels as responsive, sparse and seamless as the hardware. I’m no longer tempted to give in and plug a device running Spotify into my existing speakers out of sheer annoyance.
Still, it’s not perfect. I’m still confused by how Sonos handles playlists in all of the services that are nested inside the Sonos app. When you click a song in an intra-Sonos playlist—say, in Spotify or Rhapsody within Sonos—the app presents an “add to queue” pop-up menu instead of just, you know, playing the song.
More importantly, if you choose “play now” through that contextual menu to play a given song, the Sonos app shouldn’t prioritize its own queue over your playlist of choice, they should work interchangeably. Instead of playing the next song in your Spotify playlist once the first is done, however, Sonos mysteriously chooses to whisk you back to its own master queue. Perhaps the Sonos gods will answer my prayer—they seem to have done so with the rest of the app.
Better Than Ever—And Better Than Most Alternatives
While the rest of the digital music industry obsessively focuses on a mobile experience, Sonos was one of the few to step forward and remind us that the streaming revolution should shake things up at home, too. In quickly adding new music services to its vast umbrella (Last.fm, Rdio, Spotify, 8tracks, Pandora—you name it), Sonos gets top marks.
Its appeal over the years is twofold. One, it works better than Bluetooth. Two, unlike proprietary services that lock you into a walled garden with one music service, Sonos understands that we get music from different sources. And of course, its execution of a modular, always-on speaker system still works flawlessly. We’re happy to see the app, its massive sonic beating heart, get up to speed at last.
Images by Taylor Hatmaker and Sonos