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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...