Last week, Sonos added Microsoft Groove support to its line of well-regarded, Wi-Fi-connected smart speakers.
This was my cue to buy my first Sonos speaker and see how it works with Groove.
If you’re not familiar with Sonos–I have a few friends who have invested many hundreds of dollars each into the expensive speakers–here’s a short explanation. Sonos makes several connected speakers and related hi-fi equipment. They work over Wi-Fi, can in many cases be paired to create stereo or even surround-sound setups, and are controlled through Sonos Controllers apps on Android and iOS devices, or by desktop applications on Windows or Mac.
Starting small, I decided to purchase a white Sonos PLAY:1 (it’s available in black as well), which is the firm’s physically smallest and, at $200, least-expensive speaker. Sonos also makes larger PLAY:3 ($300) and PLAY:4 ($400) speakers, which the company says offer bigger sound (of course) and stereo sound. The PLAY:1 is a mono speaker, but you can pair it with another PLAY:1 and, through the system’s software controls, configure them as a stereo set.
It’s an attractive and clearly high-end device, and one can immediately understand why the same audience that gravitates towards Apple’s devices also make up the bulk of the Sonos customer base. The PLAY:1 is also as simple as an Apple product, with very few hardware buttons and as minimal port selection.
This is good and bad. As a long-time user of various Nokia/Microsoft standalone NFC/Bluetooth speakers–we still use a Nokia Play 360 in the bathroom, and I travel with a portable Nokia MD-12 when on the road–I sort of appreciate the versatility of this kind of device. That is, you can pair them with any handset over NFC/Bluetooth (simple) or just straight Bluetooth (sometimes difficult), but you can also just plug-in a standard 3.5 mm audio cable. They work with everything.
Not so the Sonos. There are no Bluetooth or NFC capabilities here. The device is Wi-Fi (or Ethernet) only, and it can only be controlled via Sonos (or, on Windows phones, third-party) software. So you can’t just walk up to the PLAY:1 with any arbitrary handset and start playing music. Instead, Sonos creates a system, a walled garden of sorts, that is elegant and powerful but also a bit restrictive. (I suspect this type of thing never bothers the typical Apple user, and to be fair, the quality of this system is indeed high.)
So how does it work?
Basically, you plug-in the speaker and, using a Sonos app on Android or iOS, or a desktop application on Windows or Mac, you configure it as a new system or add it to an existing system. (Sonos users tell me routinely that these speakers are addictive, and that I will be adding to this one-speaker system over time. We’ll see.) You may in fact want to configure the system on multiple devices, since you also control what the speaker(s) play through the Sonos Controller software.
For people with music in many places, this can get interesting. I have music in Amazon MP3, Microsoft Groove, and Google Play Music. I also have subscriptions to Pandora and Spotify. Each of these services is supported by Sonos, and you can also access music that is located on the device you’re using to control the speaker(s) as well as music that is located on a media share of some kind on the home network. (Curiously, Apple Music is not supported by Sonos yet. So Groove temporarily has this one advantage over the industry darling.)
This kind of variety and support is excellent. You don’t get a single view of all of your music, depending on how you organize things, but you can in fact access all of it. Yes, you have to jump in and out of each music service/source. But that makes sense, and leads to some interesting possibilities.
For example, with Groove on my PC, I can access the music I’ve purchased from Groove (or its predecessors, Zune Music Store and Xbox Music Store). I can access music I’ve added to my cloud collection via my Groove Music Pass subscription. I can access music that I’ve copied to OneDrive. And I can arbitrarily access any music that is on my PC or anywhere else on my home network, since the Groove lets you configure where it looks for your local collection. All of this music is presented as a single, consolidated music collection in the Groove app.
In Sonos, I can access all of that music, too. But the Sonos Controller software also lets you construct a playback queue that includes music from multiple sources, which is actually really neat and not possible with just Groove, of course.
I just can’t “see” all of the music at the same time, of course. If I want to play music I’ve acquired from or subscribed to with Groove, as well as music in OneDrive, I can add Groove as a service to the Sonos controller software and do so. But if I want to access music on my PC, or elsewhere on my home network, that is a separate Music Library entry in the Sonos software. It’s all there. It’s just separate unless you make a playback queue.
To be fair, this won’t be an issue for many people. Services like iTunes (with iTunes Match), Google Play Music, and Amazon MP3 let you add your own music to a cloud collection and then you could just access it all from the one place. Microsoft lets you do this too, via OneDrive, but of course then you’re beholden to the limits of OneDrive storage. I actually have stupid amounts of OneDrive storage, so I could in fact take advantage of this. And probably should.
Anyway, I was able to configure Groove Music to work with my Sonos speaker. I am able to access this service from my Android phone (Moto X Pure Edition), my iPhone 6 Plus, and from my home PC. I find that the mobile app software is much simpler to use than the PC software, but of course the lack of an official Windows phone app is bothersome. (Sonos has actually completed such an app. It’s not clear why it is not yet available publicly.)
The app looks and works similarly on Android and iOS. Through a side-bar menu, you can access your Music Library, any media shares it detects on your home network, or any services you’ve configured. I added Groove Music, as mentioned, and also Google Play Music for comparison purposes.
My initial attempts at music playback from the Android version of the app were troubling, and while it showed that the music had started playing, I wouldn’t hear any song until about 7-8 seconds in. Switching to iPhone, it worked as expected, with no dead air issues. But over a few days, the problem went away on Android. And as I test the system today using music from multiple locations, there are no dead air issues.
Looking at Groove specifically, the Sonos software provides Collection, Playlists, New Releases, Tops, and Genre Radios items, which is curious. The first two relate directly to the same items in Groove, but it’s notable that Groove radio stations are nowhere to be seen. New Releases provides a store-type listing of new music, which makes sense, and with a Music Pass subscription you can of course play entire albums and songs from here. Tops provides top artist, album, and song lists, also fine.
But Genre Radios? As the name implies, this creates radio stations that are based on genres … which is a feature that is not available in Groove Music. (Groove radio stations are kind of dumb, and are based only on a single artist each.) And sure enough, they work just fine, though the music in a genre radio station is not added to the queue. It just sort of happens.
In Collection, you see artists, albums and songs lists as expected, and items you select have a wealth of choices. You can add music to a Groove playlist, your collection, browse the artist, and more. And there are Sonos-specific choices–Add to Sonos Favorites, Add to Sonos Playlist, and so on–that make it easier to find music you like, no matter what service it’s locked away in. (You can also toggle music crossfade.)
So far so good. I’m not convinced the music quality is quite as otherworldly as many claim, though the PLAY:1 certainly gets loud enough, and I suspect creating a stereo pair would improve matters. It does feature stronger-than-expected bass and clear, punchy sound.
But the real advantage to Sonos, from what I can tell, is two-fold. First, it allows you to create a multi-room solution that can be configured from a single place, which is pretty incredible. (I’ve experienced this only at friends’ homes.) And second, because it works with so many services–I’m sure Apple Music will be on board soon enough, Apple fans–you can mix and match playback regardless of where your music is located. (Not including straight Internet radio, of course.) For music fans, Sonos is understandably impossible to beat.
If you’re just using Groove Music, the weirdness of having to use the Sonos software to listen to your music is surmountable. That it’s not available on Windows phones is likewise understandable, but I’m curious what the crossover is between Groove users and Android/iOS users (small, I bet). Here’s a better way to look at it: The crossover between Windows users and users of some other service (Amazon, Google Play Music, Spotify, whatever) is huge. And with Sonos, you can mix and match, and put your music in OneDrive or on a media share and then access it all from the same place. And that, again, is pretty incredible.
I’ll keep, ahem, playing with it. And … yeah, I might need to get another one. You know, for testing purposes.