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.

Apple, AirPlay 2, and the AirPort Exress

ApexLast week, Apple released an update to the AirPort Express, the hockey-puck version of the wireless device. This device was discontinued earlier this year, and it’s surprising that Apple updated it. But this suggests that Apple is betting big on AirPlay 2 as a technology to maintain some amount of control over music playback. By ensuring a vibrant ecosystem for AirPlay 2, Apple stands to make money from licensing, but also to influence the way music is streamed in the home.

Naturally, Apple wants people to buy HomePods, but many people are already using the AirPort Express to stream audio to a variety of devices, from standalone speakers to full stereo systems. While more and more amplifiers and receivers support AirPlay, Apple certainly wants AirPlay 2 to become a de facto standard, inciting more manufacturers to include support, and to update existing products (if possible) to work with AirPlay 2.

One of the key features of AirPlay 2 is better multi-room syncing. Sonos pioneered this, and lots of people like their hardware, but even more so their software. Apple knows that they can nudge their way into this market; even Sonos is supporting AirPlay 2 or a couple of its speakers.

As yet, Apple has not provided an upgrade for the Apple TV 3, another device used for in-home streaming, in part because, like the AirPort Express, it has an optical audio jack. However, it’s more likely that people who were using devices for multi-room streaming depended on the AirPort Express, unless they were also streaming video to a TV. It will be interesting to see if Apple updates that device too.

iTunes 12.8 Brings AirPlay 2 Support to the Mac (and Windows)

Apple has released iTunes 12.8, for Mac and Windows, adding AirPlay 2 support to the desktop. When Apple released iOS 11.4, with AirPlay 2, the Mac (and Windows) was notably absent, meaning that you could stream music to a stereo pair of HomePods from an iOS device, but not from iTunes. This his (finally) been corrected.

Download iTunes 12.8 here, or through the Mac App Store app.

Apple, AirPlay, and “Tap-to-Radar”

Tap to radarI was listening to music last night, streaming from my iPhone to my HomePods. At one point, the audio started glitching, and when I looked at my iPhone, I saw this dialog. I was quite confused, and before I could do anything, it went away.

There are several problems with this dialog. First, I happen to know what a “radar” is; it’s the term used for a bug report in Apple’s developer bug reporting system. But most users won’t know what this means. I was not running a beta version of iOS on my phone, and I don’t use the same Apple ID for my personal data as I do for my developer account, so there’s no reason why anything using the term “radar” should display on my iPhone.

Second, why is this being shown to normal users? Is it some debug code that was forgotten when iOS 11.4 shipped?

Finally, it went away before I could even react; I was curious to see what would happen if I tapped Tap-to-Radar.

Perhaps it’s just another case of Apple not cleaning up the code in their OS releases. Has anyone else seen this, perhaps when using a beta version of iOS?

What AirPlay 2 Means for Your Listening Setup

Apple has finally released the AirPlay 2 framework for streaming audio and video on a wi-fi network to compatible devices. Announced just about a year ago at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, then delayed along with the HomePod, the first device to fully leverage this protocol, AirPlay 2 was released last week as part of iOS 11.4. It is not, however, available on macOS yet, nor on iTunes for Windows, and presumably a Mac update should follow soon.

If you’re used to using AirPlay, you won’t notice much of a difference, but there are some changes under the hood that should make your listening better. Here’s an overview of how AirPlay 2 works.

Read the rest of the article on Computer Audiophile.

Why Is AirPlay 2 Not Available for the Mac?

Apple released iOS 11.4 last week, which included AirPlay 2, the new version of Apple’s music and video streaming framework. And they yesterday released macOS 10.13.5, but AirPlay 2 is not part of this update. As you can see below, in the AirPlay menu in iTunes, the two HomePods in my bedroom show as two devices.

Airplay mac

But I have connected these two HomePods as a stereo pair, and you can see this in the AirPlay menu on the iPhone:

Airplay iphone

It’s surprising that Apple hasn’t rolled AirPlay 2 into macOS. You have long been able to stream to multiple speakers from the Mac, using iTunes, and that is new on iOS with AirPlay 2, but the inability for the Mac to be able to use AirPlay 2 and see a stereo pair of HomePods is surprising.

iWant: AirPlay Streaming from iOS Devices to Macs

AirPlay is very cool. You can stream from a Mac to various devices, such as an Apple TV, or to standalone AirPlay-compatible speakers. You can stream from an iOS device to an Apple TV or to standalone AirPlay speakers. But one thing I’d like, which currently isn’t possible, is to stream from an iOS device to a Mac.

The reason for this is, in my case, to play podcasts that are on an app on my iPhone, and not on my Mac, through my Mac and its speakers. There could be many other uses, such as playing someone’s music on your Mac when they’re visiting, or to view an iPad screen on a Mac while playing a game. You can do both of these to an Apple TV, so it shouldn’t be hard to do them to a Mac as well.

I wouldn’t use this feature a lot, but trying out Marco Arment’s new Overcast podcast app, with its great smart speed and voice boost features, I realized that, when I listen to podcasts in my office, I’d rather use that app than iTunes. So I’d like to just stream them to my Mac. The alternative is to connect an AirPort Express to my stereo, but that’s expensive for just streaming occasionally.

But you may even want to stream something from one Mac to another; again, since you can do this to an Apple TV, it should be trivial to do it on a Mac.

Update: I was reminded by a few friends that there are third-party apps that can act as AirPlay receivers on a Mac. I have one, X-Mirage, which I got in an app bundle, but never used. I’ll try it out.