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:
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.
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.