In 24 years of publishing and writing specialty audio/video content, I have never come across a situation like I have with this Sonos Connect review. The $350 Connect has been the central component of the most popular wireless music ecosystem for more than a decade. It has evolved nicely over the years, especially when you consider that streaming audio was a radically different thing than it is today back when the Connect first launched.
On January 19, 2020 (right about the time I finished my first draft of this review) Sonos dropped a bombshell. They were replacing the venerable Sonos Connect with a new product called the Port ($449). What's more, many of the existing Sonos Connects in the field would, the announcement let us know, soon be end-of-lifed, and no longer eligible for updates, along with a host of other Sonos legacy products.
Well we all know that products come and go in our rapidly evolving media landscape. That's just part of doing business in the mainstream consumer electronics world. But this announcement was a little different. Starting in May 2020, Sonos is apparently releasing a major software update that will be, in effect, a whole new world for Sonos users. That's cool as hell except you can't have the goodies without upgrading all of your Sonos Connects. App updates, new features, possible security updates... you're going to be on the outside looking in unless you trade in your old, less expensive Connects (at least those made before 2015) for Ports for a 30 percent discount.
Same goes for first-generation Play:5 speakers. (Do you know which generation yours is?) Same goes for numerous ZonePlayers. Same goes for all sorts of Sonos products that have kept pace with the times – right up until now. People predictably flipped out. Hashtags were created. PR spin kicked in. But the crazy train had already left the station.
I understand how people feel, as I have literally eight Sonos Connect devices, one to run each of my distributed audio zones. I spent about $3,000 to buy them all, plus the cost of programming, custom rack shelves, etc. It was a meaningful investment, and the transition between where I invested (with a good 12 years of history showing solid, stable, easily upgradable behavior) looks like it just went down the toilet.
The topic of how best to handle the upgrade path of AV components was a red-hot topic at last year's first-ever Sound United (the parent company of the competing HEOS platform) Dealer Event. We talked more about AV receivers than products like HEOS, but what was discussed was how to balance the need for new platform changes and performance upgrades while not hosing consumers who just bought, say, a $3,500 Denon or Marantz receiver the month before a new version comes out with even more technological gingerbread.
We concluded that there's a reasonable expectation that some new features should trickle out via firmware (or even hardware) upgrades, but at the same time, it is also reasonable that manufacturers have to at some point make a hard cut off-on how much they can update and support legacy products.
The problem with the way Sonos handled ending the product cycle for the Connect is that they made it a very abrupt cut off without a lot of support (or time) for legacy support. This "ripping off of the Band-Aid" hasn't been very well received by the Sonos community, resulting in a PR quagmire that a 30 percent discount on a more expensive replacement product isn't curing. There are a lot of historical examples of companies ending the life cycle of a long-term popular product. When Apple brought Steve Jobs back into the fold and rolled out his game-changing OS X operating system, there were a good 18 months of touch-and-go moments. Super-heavy or professional users (think: video editors, audio engineers, graphic designers) were encouraged to stick with the older OS for a while as software and hardware companies worked through updates and growing pains that come with launching a whole new platform. The issue Sonos is having is that after more than a decade of consumers buying product, all of a sudden, they need to make a pretty significant upgrade or they are all but frozen out of the new May 2020 platform updates. Apple was less harsh than that and as such didn't face the same consumer revolt.
Legacy Support for Sonos Connect
Sonos really screwed up on the way they rolled out the announcement for their hard-cut-off of some of their legacy product. There are a bunch of older products that understandably won't be supported anymore. What was much harder to understand was where and when their gateway product, the Sonos Connect was cut off. What I have learned is that any Sonos Connect sold pre-2015 is likely to be deemed "legacy" versus "modern," but the way you tell is to log in to your Sonos account. How long newer Sonos Connect boxes will work remains to be seen, but they aren't dead to the world as many on the Interwebs suggests. Nevertheless, the pulling out of the rug on Sonos enthusiasts was pretty much a bad idea and a mistake that could have been avoided if Sonos had approached this phase-out incrementally and with a little more heads-up.
Looking at the Sonos Connect (and Port) In Troubled Times in the Sonos Kingdom
As I hinted at above, the landscape of distributed audio has changed drastically in the past 10 years. In the long-long ago, before the days of Sonos, the opening "ask" was for you, the consumer, to start cutting open drywall and this was an absolute no-go for anyone who rented their home.
Today, with a few other players in the game, Sonos is the leader in wireless connected speakers over a mesh network. Sonos is also so mainstream that at one point they even bought an amazingly pricey Super Bowl ad to promote their distributed audio infrastructure. Sonos is sold pretty much everywhere at retail these days. Hell, they even have a partnership with IKEA.
Sonos additionally has become a favorite method of many custom installers who want to install simple but very expandable distributed audio systems. That's how I got into the game with Sonos, as my last house used an expensive source component called Autonomic that did all of the audio streaming. It might have cost $2,000 or more for two zones of streaming, and we used it almost exclusively for Pandora. That wasn't the only high cost that Sonos addressed in the modern era.
Back in that era (six years ago), we used a Crestron SWAMP amp, which was a pretty bad-ass switcher for distributed audio, but it was both expensive and somewhat limited in terms of channels even for my old 2,500 square foot home. Beyond the thousands of dollars that went into my Crestron electronics, I had to spend another $1,500 for more channels of amplification for my outdoor system. Add in labor, and my distributed audio system was pretty pricey in the old house. That isn't the case with Sonos.
As you might have figured out by now, the Connect was the core component of my new Sonos system. It can be added to a traditional audio system to bring in Apple Airplay, another hardwired analog source (think: a phone, a record player, a legacy disc player) or any number of somewhat free or paid streaming audio services. In my case, we are using Amazon Music, Pandora, and Apple Music, but I could see expanding back to Tidal, which I canceled ages ago.
The way my installation firm designed the Sonos setup is to use a single Connect for each zone in my house (as well as outdoor zones). Middle Atlantic makes a rack shelf that can neatly organize three Sonos Connects in one rack width. We have a few of these going now, but even with nine (and counting) Sonos Connects, the costs are relatively low compared to the ways of the past.
Now, those readers who have followed my systems over the years know that it is hard for me to not go a little over-the-top, which for my distributed audio system starts with the amplification, as I popped for an Anthem MDX-8 eight channel power amp that brings Anthem Room Correction into play for my most important rooms.
In my old house, I used a pair of Sonance in-ceiling speakers that are literally invisible and designed to be covered by drywall skim coat, wallpaper, or some other material. I had no idea how much that I would love these speakers in the old house, so I bought several similar speakers from a high-end in-wall speaker company called Nakymatone. While much more expensive for labor, the idea that you can't see a speaker that sounds really good was too tempting to avoid. I gilded the lily by also installing in-ceiling subwoofers from Gray Sound to be used with the Sonos/Anthem/ Nakymatone system. These subs aren't fully invisible, but they only have a small port that looks like an in-ceiling light fixture, so they're pretty well hidden. This isn't the least expensive way to do your main distributed audio system, but my wife loves me for it.
Taking a Look at The Sonos Environment
The Sonos Connect is a pretty simple device, and I don't expect the new Sonos Port to be much different other than offering more flexibility and features. While perhaps not Apple or Kaleidescape good, Sonos' user interface is very easy to use and very easy on the eyes. I have been using it on my iPhone as a controller until my Crestron system is complete and programmed, at which point I'll switch over to a few Apple iPad Pros.
Setting up units is a pretty easy, do-it-yourself project with Sonos. You start by setting up an account online. Download their app on to your chosen device. Pick a Wi-Fi network and activate speakers. You then need to designate them to specific rooms, and at that point you are pretty much ready to roll. Sonos comes with streaming options that you can use out of the gate for free, but I recommend considering some of the better paid options. Amazon's new streaming is pretty good in the early going. Tidal has its upside too, as does Qobuz for the more meta-driven or audiophile listener. My wife and I like the low-resolution Pandora best, not because we like low-resolution music, but their algorithm is best for finding new, like-minded music in our experience. Simply type in a few songs to a playlist and use the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," and Pandora's AI will help you find more music without you having to worry about that task. If you have a big collection of your music that you want to access, I found using Apple's AirPlay 2 useful as I did with my former wireless gem, the Bowers & Wilkins Formation speakers. You can pull in all sorts of additional music from Apple via Airplay if you are so inclined.
Inside the app, you can search by categories like song, albums, artists, playlists, and more. It is an easy-to-use musical playground that is hard not to like from the first minute for many users. I was making a joke about Yoko Ono when my mother was visiting from Philadelphia during Thanksgiving, and within seconds I had some of the most absurd songs we've ever heard rolling thanks to Sonos and Amazon Music. Here's a video to enjoy if you dare... We were laughing our asses off.
Sonos offers a variety of speakers for you to choose from, ranging from traditional form factor "bookshelf" speakers to portable speakers to soundbars for your TV system, and even IKEA lamps. Their speakers are nicely designed and packaged but not what an audiophile could call "high end." But please don't discount their sound completely, though. Yes, your big Focals or MartinLogans likely sound better in your dedicated listening room, but a portable Sonos speaker by the pool in the summer or an above-the-fridge install in the kitchen can bring music to difficult-to-reach places that doesn't sound half bad.
This is a tricky topic to cover, since the Sonos Connect as it is more of a bridge to the Sonos platform, and as such the sound is drastically affected by the room, the speakers in the room, the subwoofer's implementation in the room, digital room correction in the room, and overall speaker placement. The majority of the listening that I did with the Sonos Connect was in my living room, where I have Nakymatone Echt "invisible" in-ceiling speakers, paired with the aforementioned Gray Sound in-ceiling subs.
On "Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel from the The Essential Billy Joel (Amazon Music), the track opens with a muted piano that sounds pretty cool but hardly audiophile-grade. Joel's voice beams on top of the mellow musical bed in the next salvo, which is much more pleasing to the audiophile ear. The bass, thanks to the Gray Sound, rounds out the overall dynamic window in ways that most crappy Bluetooth speakers couldn't dream of.
The icing on the cake is the melodically important sax that, like Joel's voice, also beams from the mix. One other note, I like the 10 CC 1970s-tastic electric piano vocal harmonies that keep that Yacht Rock-sounding groove cooking through a very well-made track from the old days.
While the Billy Joel version of "Just the Way You Are" is a true classic and has a lot to like from a critical listening perspective, the Barry White cover is just that much better. With inspiration from a playlist on Sonos via Amazon.com music, I hit the "magnifying glass" option and searched for songs-Barry-White, just the way you are and boom: there it is via Napster. From the All-Time Greatest Hits, I was able to song-style my musical session in ways I just couldn't do with a physical disc.
Barry White's funk-tastic arrangement is more modern sounding, complete with rich bass, even more present and deeper vocals. The backup singers are real and the arrangement is just lush. There is just nothing not to love here, and more importantly, Sonos can create musical connections that are very unique to your musical tastes.
Inspired by the recent loss of Neil Peart, the iconic drummer of Rush, I did a search again in Amazon Music, which seems to be my go-to source for music on Sonos via an "artist search." It is important that you drill down to see more from the artist, as Sonos shows you some but far from all of the options out there. When clicking on the artists, all sorts of options open up, but it was easy enough to click over to Moving Pictures and "Tom Sawyer," and soon I was rocking out.
It is easy to hear the genius of Peart on this classic anthem, especially when transitioning out of the artsy guitar solo at around 2:30. The roto-tom fills are (at good volume) a strong tribute to one of rock's best drummers. I flipped around to other songs like "YYZ," because who could pass up an instrumental song inspired by the Toronto airport code? Sticking with somewhat more modern Rush for my tribute, I easily navigated over to the Power Windows album and the very produced track "The Big Money," as it is just loaded with a huge drum sound, big reverb – big everything.
While playing in my office on my Stealth Acoustics LRX-83 invisible speakers also paired with a Gray Sound in-ceiling subwoofer, the impact wasn't what most expect from a distributed audio system as we've come a long way from the early days of wimpy in-walls that looked OK but sounded anything but. The space and detail on "The Big Money," as the song breaks down a bit before the 3:00 minute mark en route to an over-the-top guitar solo, shows not just respectable space but, when pushed to higher volumes, no sign of high frequency fatigue. Keep in mind: I say this when talking about speakers that a) you can't see, b) are physically mudded behind drywall spackle, and c) are firing down at the floor.
It goes without saying that Sonos' recent handling of their transition from the Connect to the Sonos Port is pretty well botched. Should people with a five-year-old Sonos system be pissed? Kinda, but it isn't as bad as it seemed out of the gate. More modern Sonos products offer the promise of new features and upgrades, while older, likely-depreciated products can be swapped with a 30 percent discount. If you are a feature hound, this might be a time for you to invest in more Sonos product if you are already all-in. I am just saying, Apple or Porsche or others aren't giving you this offer, and you might want to jump at it.
I had some issues along the way with my Sonos, though, that my installer has never experienced. Most specifically, the Sonos Connect, when installed in my fan-cooled and well-spaced rack, would inexplicitly go into standby. The unit wasn't cooking or anything, as I tested it for heat. A press of the button and it shoots back into action every time. But the fact that I've experienced this on at least dozen occasions and with a number of different Sonos Connect units (I have nine now) is a problem. Of course, you all know what an upgrade hound I am, so it's no surprise that I'll soon be replacing my Sonos Connects with Sonos Ports, so I will report in a soon-to-be-posted review how the Port works versus the Connect.
For Millennials and Zoomers who live on their phones all day, every day, this next issue won't have any gravitas, but for this frazzled Gen Xer, I don't want to have my iPhone in my hand at all times. It is the same reason as a total Apple fan boy, I literally refuse to buy an Apple Watch. My wife has the fancy Hermes Apple Watch (thanks to her loving husband at Christmas), including backup bands for different style looks. It allows her to keep track of emails, texts, and other flows of information while in meetings. For me, I get too many emails. Period. I hate text messaging for any meaningful commentary, and when it comes time to listen to music, I actually resent picking up my phone. Somehow, when I do it to change a song while my wife and I are talking at night with the music on, she responds by picking up her phone and the conversation is sidelined.
The new Apple iPad Pros that I bought (referbs from Apple at a good price) are designed to settle that. These iPads will give me a control panel for lights, HVAC, shades, music, and more without having email or text on them. I had this in my old house and it was much better. A good iPad stand is key for success here, as is a good way to charge the iPad. For others looking for a less expensive or perhaps smaller solution, a used iPad Mini could do the trick. Don't get too old of a unit, but a generation or two back isn't going to hurt you. And a few key apps like your Ring Doorbell, August door locks, Ecobee Thermostat app, and whatnot won't kill you. It is the constant contact going throughout every waking hour of the day that I object to, but there are clearly ways around it that are simple and won't break the bank for those on the Sonos platform.
While there are basic tone controls available on the Sonos Connect, the only way to access Sonos' Trueplay room correction software is if you connect Sonos In-wall or In-Ceiling Speakers manufactured by Sonance, or when using Sonos wireless speakers in a surround sound setup. This is unfortunate and exclusionary, especially given that the whole point of the Connect (and now the Port) is to allow you to bring the Sonos ecosystem to your own choice of speakers.
Comparison and Competition
Does Apple AirPlay 2 count as competitive ecosystem since it is part of the Sonos Connect? I would argue that it does, in that you can buy less-Sonos-connected devices like other wireless speakers, as well as AV receivers and preamps, as well as home automation systems, that support AirPlay 2 without the need to add Sonos to the equation. What you miss out on when you do so, though, is Sonos' intuitive and ecumenical app.
HEOS from Sound United (the parent of Denon, Marantz, Polk, Definitive Technology, Classé Audio) is likely the closest and best competitor as far as wireless music networks go. In the way that Sonos has "Works with Sonos" partners, whereby you can make Onkyo, Integra, and Pioneer Elite AV receivers and preamps part of the Sonos ecosystem, I like the seamless integration of HEOS with Marantz AV preamps and Denon AVRs. They have their own speakers and different methodology of connectivity, which competes nicely with Sonos and, depending on your overall rig, could make more sense.
If, on the other hand, you're more invested in Yamaha gear already, you may be more interested in that company's MusicCast wireless ecosystem. MusicCast isn't quite as refined as Sonos according to our reviewers with hands-on experience with the system, although its simplicity may be a strength or weakness depending on your needs. MusicCast is also supported by a massive offering of hardware, though, including preamps and integrated amps, AV receivers and a number of soundbars, and even a handful of turntables.
For NAD fans, there's also Bluesound, aka BluOS, an ecosystem that's comparable to Sonos on its standalone offerings, but also supported by hi-fi and home theater gear from NAD. BluOS has a decidedly more audiophile bent than any of the other solutions, and is also Roon Ready, but I don't have any hands-on experience with it so I can't compare it directly to Sonos in terms of functionality.
I also don't have direct personal experience with DTS Play-Fi, but I know some reviewers have had issues with connectivity. With HEOS and Sonos, that isn't an issue, so I would gravitate towards them instead. With that said, I've seen Play-Fi work very well with Paradigm and MartinLogan products at tradeshows and I know reviewers who have made Play-Fi work for them.
Sonos in general is a game changer in the world of distributed audio for everyone from the entry-level consumer to the high-end custom installation buyer. The ecosystem has evolved nicely over the years with a bunch of unique speaker options, a rock-solid network, and a really compelling UI. Your grandparents can use Sonos. They likely could set it up, too, which is amazing. Custom installers have, in many ways, abandoned their old, clunkier ways of doing distributed audio, often to sell lower-profit margin Sonos, simply because it's what people want.
Did Sonos screw up the announcement about sunsetting some legacy products recently? Without question, they did. Should they remain on the Internet hibachi forever for it? No, they shouldn't. There are only so many Sonos Connects left out there, and the ones made after 2015 still have a lot of life left in them. I would likely suggest you not buy a Sonos Connect over a Sonos Port right now, especially if you want the newest, best hardware for another long run of distributed audio success. Even so, the Sonos Connect was a game changer in its era. I will get my grimy hands on a Sonos Port as soon as possible and report back on how different the new unit is. My guess is: it will be sometime after the May 2020 end-of-life update for legacy products when we'll likely see the Port begin to show its merits. Time will tell.
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Read IKEA Symfonisk Table Lamp/Sonos Wireless Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.