Playing Multi-Room Audio After Sonos

Update: Sonos seems to have changed their tune from yesterday, when they said that you wouldn’t be able to use “legacy” devices together with new devices. Here’s what they’re currently saying on Twitter:

Sonos backtrack


Back in the day, Sonos was the only solution for playing multi-room audio. The company’s innovative mesh networking system meant that you could launch audio on your system and direct it to any of a number of speakers, all throughout your house.

Yesterday, Sonos made an announcement that they will no longer be providing software updates to “legacy” devices. And if you have a system which uses both old and newer devices, you cannot update the software of the newer devices. The reasons for this are obvious: the older devices lack the resources – CPU and memory – to manage newer features. And given the mesh networking system Sonos uses, every device needs to be running the same software.

While the company has not stated what features would need more resources, I suspect that they are going to head toward high-resolution audio, which, as it is in many cases, would actually not offer any real benefits given the hardware used. But this will also prevent older devices from getting updates that may be needed for them to remain compatible with streaming services, if they introduce changes, which is certainly likely over time.

There is a great deal of anger among Sonos users, many of whom have been championing the brand for years, and who have, over time, accreted numerous Sonos devices to provide music in their homes. While Sonos is offering 30% discounts to people so they can upgrade to new hardware, this is seen as an insult by many users who have spent thousands of dollars on their systems with the belief that this was durable equipment. After all, speakers last a long time; but software doesn’t. In addition, the way Sonos proposes to recycle these devices is wasteful. And one person I know pointed out on Twitter that he had hard-wired his family’s home just five years ago, and all of his devices will become obsolete. With a setup like that, it’s not easy to just replace the speakers.

I don’t think it’s impossible for Sonos to offer software fixes so older and newer devices can work together. Older devices would not have access to all the same features, but they should still be able to play music, which really isn’t that complicated. But the company clearly does not want to go that route, which is a shame. This sort of planned obsolescence is not what people expect.

So what’s next for those wanting a multi-room audio system? I have a number of Sonos devices: a Sonos Amp in my office, a pair of Sonos One speakers in my bedroom, and a Sonos Beam soundbar connected to my TV. I don’t use these for multi-room audio – each one is a device for listening in a specific location, and I never play them in sync – but this approach shows the way forward.

When I bought these Sonos devices over the past year or so, I was careful to choose devices that support Apple’s AirPlay 2, which allows you to stream music to one or more devices in sync. AirPlay 2 provides features similar to what Sonos offers, in that you can group devices and have them all play the same music, in sync. While AirPlay is a proprietary protocol developed by Apple, it is available to other companies so they can make compatible speakers and TV sets. (The addition of TVs is recent.) From the Music app on my Mac, or from any app on an iPhone or iPad, I can choose one or more speakers to play my music. You can use AirPlay on a Mac, on Windows (in iTunes), and on iOS or Android devices.

Airplay menu

Sonos’ apps allow you to play music from a local library, or from a number of streaming services. With AirPlay, you stream from your device and control music from each service’s app. So rather than centralize all your playback in a single app, you may need to use more than one app. But you can do the same thing as you can with a Sonos system, and you are not limited to speakers from a single manufacturer. And you can stream to an Apple TV, to which you can connect any non-networked speaker or receiver, offering even more flexibility.

(It’s worth noting that there is a hard limit of about 60,000 tracks; beyond that, Sonos cannot handle your music. It loads the music in your selected folder alphabetically, and, on my iMac, it only shows music up to Pink Floyd, but nothing after.)

While this solution doesn’t help people who have invested heavily in a Sonos system, it is a way forward that has less of a platform lock-in. But given the reach of AirPlay 2 currently, it’s hard to imagine that it will be short lived. The main difference here is that there is no mesh networking requiring all the speakers to have the same software. You can currently stream to AirPlay 1 speakers without any problem, though you can’t use them with the same multi-device sync features. But they still work; they don’t become obsolete because they don’t have the latest version of AirPlay.

What Sonos needs to do is to get their developers to update their software so older devices can work, but with limited features. If not, it’s time to look elsewhere, and the wide range of AirPlay 2 compatible speakers and receivers is a good place to start.

The Next Track, Episode #167 – Tuning the Perfect Music Listening Room

Chris Connaker of Audiophile Style renovated the attic of his house and turned it into the ultimate listening room. He then tuned it using amazing speakers, acoustic treatment, and DSP (digital signal processing). He explains how he went about this, and how the room itself is perhaps the most important element in an audio system.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

What’s the Point of “Disliking” Music on Apple Music?

You know the buttons you push at crosswalks? They give you the illusion of control, that you’re telling the stoplight to change color, whereas you know they really don’t. Most stoplights in cities are controlled by a system to keep them in sync; pressing a button doesn’t change anything.

The same thing happens on Apple Music when I “dislike” a track or album. I would expect that telling Apple Music what I “love” and what I don’t like will have some effect on my recommendations. I think that the “love” declaration does help the algorithm, but the “dislike” option does nothing. (It’s worth noting that on iOS, the term “dislike” is not used: the option is Suggest Less Like This.)

Case in point: recommendations in For You this morning:

Dislike

I listened to a Dick’s Picks the other day, so Apple Music recommends similar music. But I don’t like Phish. (Don’t @ me.) I had “disliked” this album some other time it came up in recommendations. Yet Apple Music still recommends it, and another Phish album (which I hadn’t previously disliked, so fair dinkum on that one).

It’s not just in recommendations that “dislikes” are ignored. In New Releases, I get lots of stuff that I don’t like, and if I explicitly dislike an album, I’d expect it to not remain in the list. Maybe it won’t go away immediately, but it should eventually be removed. I’ve got about two dozen new releases on my For You page, and I’ve disliked half of them (and I don’t know why I ever got many of these recommendations anyway), so I’d expect them to be replaced by something else.

HomePod vs. Sonos One Stereo Pair Comparison

I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was this:

What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly.

A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).

In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.

So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.

Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.

So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)

Bedroom

You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)

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Why There Are Split Tracks on Music Streaming Services

Streaming services pay labels and artists according to the number of times people play their tracks. Because of this, a 3-minute ditty gets the same (paltry) amount of money as a 30-minute movement of a Mahler symphony.

But the record labels have figured this out, and are changing the definition of the “track” to adapt to this new market.

Case in point, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s album Evening Star. I went to listen to it last night on Apple Music, and the second side of the original album, An Index of Metals, was broken up into six tracks:

Index of metals

Here’s the original track listing from Wikipedia:

Track listing

This isn’t new; I’ve been seeing it for a few years. Another example is Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep. I bought this album on the iTunes Store when it was released. It contains 32 tracks. Here’s the first two tracks of the original release:

Sleep orig

Here’s the same tracks on Apple Music:

Sleep sliced

To be fair, you can’t argue with the fact that labels and artists have come up with a workaround for an unjust system, but their solution lacks finesse. In the case of An Index of Metals, each “track” is from two and a half to more than seven minutes; in the case of Sleep, tracks seem to be as short as possible, with many of them less than two minutes long.

Surely no record label would do that with, say, a Mahler symphony, right? Well, good old Deutsch Grammophon seems to have adopted this model for a lot of their releases. Here’s one example. This release, one of the longer recordings of the work, at one hour and 45 minutes, is divided into 26 tracks. Here’s the first movement:

Mahler sliced

While this makes the label and artits a bit more of a pittance, it is a real annoyance for listeners who try to find their way in this morass of financially motivated cuts, and also for those who add this music to their libraries and want to play it later.

Again, I understand why they are doing this, but these labels – especially major labels – have the power to bring about change by negotiating with streaming services. It seems to me that there should be different payments per track according to their length. For example, less than 10 minutes would be paid a base rate, 10 – 20 minutes would be paid twice that, and 30 minutes or more would be paid three times the base rate. Yes, there are tracks that are as long as a CD, so maybe there should be more tiers, but splitting up the music, and confusing users, is not the solution to this problem.

My Shakuhachis

If you listen to my music podcast The Next Track, you certainly know that I have been playing the shakuhachi for a while. This Japanese end-blown flute is a fascinating instrument, and it is also a very esthetic object.

I currently own six shakuhachis, and I’ve posted a bit about them on my Honkyoku website. Have a read if you’re curious about the instrument.

The macOS Now Playing Music Widget Could Do So Much More…

With the new media apps in macOS, one thing I miss is the ability to use a system-wide controller to play and pause music, to skip tracks, and to change volume. There used to be a lot of these, and for many years I used Sizzling Keys, which has been “retired.”

The Now Playing widget in Notification Center’s Today View is a partial replacement, but it only offers limited features. You can pause or play music, skip ahead and back, and drag a playhead, but nothing more.

Now playing

It seems that this widget could easily be improved, at least adding a volume control, or, perhaps, add an Up Next button, like in the MiniPlayer, and allow users to rate/love music as well. (The MiniPlayer’s volume control is behind the AirPlay icon; you can adjust the volume for each device where you are streaming music, or for playback on your computer.)

Mini player

And, no, I don’t want the MiniPlayer visible all the time; with Notification Center, I can just use a hot corner to display it. I have the top-right corner set so when I move my cursor there Notification Center displays.

It’s possible that adding an Up Next button, and the list it displays, wouldn’t work in this location, which is designed for static elements, but there could be at least a volume control in the Now Playing widget. Because when you’re playing music other than through your Mac’s speakers, the volume keys on the keyboard don’t affect music playback.

Time Out: We Don’t Give Music Enough Time to Grow on Us Anymore

I know this dates me, but back in the day… Yes, back in the day, when I would buy new records – vinyl records, and later cassette tapes – a new record was a special occasion. I never had enough disposable income when I was in my teens or twenties to buy all the records I wanted. So when I did go to a record store – with the exception of trawling the used and cut-out bins in the stores in Greenwich Village where you could get a record for a buck – it was important to choose carefully what new albums I bought.

In some cases, the choice would be easy: new records from my favorite bands, records that I had been waiting for, some of which I had already heard at friends’ houses, or on the radio. But for others, I had to weigh the pros and cons. I might not have heard the records I was buying, but was led to them by their personnel, or by reviews. Often in the early 80s, I would buy singles by punk and new-wave bands, and then go on to buy albums. But those singles weren’t that cheap, because many of them were imports.

I read the British music press, and spotted the bands that sounded most interesting, then went in search of their hits. If I liked a hit, I’d buy an album. This is how I discovered bands like The Clash, The Cure, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, and so many more.

Every purchase added a new slice of music to a collection that was small enough that I intimately knew every record I owned; I had played each one a dozen times or more. It could take a while to appreciate some records: an artist who has changed direction, for example, or a new artist in a genre or sub-genre that I was just discovering.

One example I like to cite is Brian Eno’s Nerve Net. This 1992 recording was a departure from the Eno that I knew. I was of course familiar with Music for Airports and Discreet Music; or his four song albums of the 1970s, Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science. But Nerve Net was a kick in the teeth, a raucous, electronic album, which seemed to have nothing to do with Eno’s previous music. I had found it in a used record store in Tours, France, where I lived in the 1990s, played it once, then shelved it.

Over the years, I would buy every other Brian Eno album, such as his long ambient works like Thursday Afternoon, his collaborations with other musicians, such as Spinner (with Jah Wobble), and Wrong Way Up (with John Cale), but I just didn’t get Nerve Net.

I don’t know when I finally did get that record, but it is now one of my favorites. I appreciated it even more when it was reissued in 2014, along with My Squelchy Life, a record made around the same time that had never been released.

If I had heard that album at the time on a streaming service, I might not have given it another listen. But having the CD meant that every year or so I’d put it in my CD player and try again, until it finally made sense.

With streaming services, we have a smorgasbord of music which allows us to taste a bit here, taste a bit there, but never commit to taking the time to try to appreciate music that doesn’t immediately grab us. I’m as guilty of this as other people. I find that, even if I do discover a new album that I like, and I spin it a few times – I often play a new record that touches me three or four times in a row – I may simply forget it a week later. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I just have so much music, so much that I’ve lived with for a long time, so much music that is reflexive, that just comes to mind when I want to listen to a certain type of music.

(As I write this article, I’m listening to some live recordings by Bill Evans that I discovered around the same time as Nerve Net. This is music that I’ve lived with for more than 25 years, that I turn to at times when I want to feel the mood of late Bill Evans.)

This is a big problem for artists. While the “old” artists – those who made it big pre-streaming – will continue performing reunion tours, and re-re-releasing albums to a legion of fans who want something familiar, new artists will find it hard to reach the same level of critical mass. A few decades ago, you could pretty much keep up to date with every release on all the major labels, and many independents, in your preferred genre. Now, try to scratch the surface of new releases in any genre – and with more genres, and more genre-fluid listeners, the scope is so much broader – and you’ll be submerged.

It’s great that music is so much easier to make, record, and distributed. It’s great that music is easier to hear. But for people who really love music – beyond just listening to the hits – it is frustrating. There is too much music, and we have too little time.

As the new year approaches, perhaps some of us should make a resolution to spend more time with less music; to listen deeply rather than broadly. To discover and internalize new music that will stay with us for longer than the weekly new music playlist that shows up on the streaming services.