Technical Difficulties

Like a normal tech podcast, but broken.

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

Erik and Gabe go toe-to-toe over the Sonos Wireless sound system. Erik thinks it's expensive but worth it. Gabe thinks it's expensive and worthless. Who wins? You judge.

Wireless Is a Bit Problematic

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 0:00

Why Sonos?

Sonos provides multi-room music without relying on wires or your home WiFi connection. Since each unit is essentially a computer, once you start a stream from an internet source (like Spotify) you can shut off all the computers in the house and it will continue streaming.

You can group individual speakers and listen to different audio in different rooms, or have synchronized multiroom music without latency or interference. The Sonos music player app can pull music from, but operates independently of your iTunes library. You don’t need to have the iTunes app running, but you do need to have your iTunes library files available over the network.

Sonos plays four square surprisingly well.

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

It’s important to remember that if the music source you want is not in the Sonos corral of services then AirPlay from iOS and OS X is still probably your best option.

Why not AirPlay?

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 1:59

AirPlay is Apple’s WiFi-based audio streaming solution, and is normally tied to iTunes, Apple TV and iOS devices. It’s similar to what Sonos uses but specific to Apple’s hardware. While hardware manufacturers can license the AirPlay technology it’s not part of the Sonos system out-of-the-box.

AirPlay can integrate with Sonos, but it requires the line-out port on a Mac or an AirPort Express to inject the music into one of the Sonos nodes that supports line-in.

Out of the box, multiroom audio on AirPlay requires iTunes on a Mac. iOS devices can only target one AirPlay device for audio playback at a time. If you use an Airport Express as a bridge to the Sonos system, you can then send one iOS AirPlay output to multiple speakers in your house.

Producer’s Note

If you are willing to stray outside of the walled garden, Roku offers some nice music options and has many fans.

So Which Sonos?

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 3:28

One of the benefits of the Sonos system is that there’s a wide variety of speakers to choose from. Depending on your need and room size, you can opt for the tiny Play:1 or move up to a home theater configuration with a Soundbar and Subwoofer.

“Apparently they don’t like even numbers”

Producer’s Note

I assume the Play:1 is so named since it is really just one speaker (well, two if you split up the woofer and tweeter) and even Sonos says it “can” be paired in order to provide “true” stereo. Look at the picture and judge for yourself.

One or Two?

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

The current list of Sonos speaker options is impressive:

Play:1 Play:3 Play:5 Playbar Sub Connect Connect Amp Bridge

A few speakers from Erik’s extensive Sonos collection. The Coke can is provided for scale. Or because otherwise it’s all so… black.

A Musical Investment

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

Producer’s Note

The proprietary wireless network that acts as the backbone of the Sonos system is called SonosNet 2.0. Sonos has not revealed too much about its actual protocol, but on its informational page on this subject, Sonos calls it, “a secure, AES-encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless mesh network.” This latter bit indicates at least one main structural difference between it and WiFi, which operates on a hub-and-spoke model, as Erik describes it.

That isn’t to say that WiFi isn’t capable of creating a mesh where each wireless device acts as another node that extends the network. Applied to WiFi, this is called a Wireless Distribution System. WDS functions by setting each access point as either a main, relay, or remote base station. One of the drawbacks of WDS, and one presumes any mesh setup, is that the throughput is halved each time an access point has to pass data “across” itself, because it is simultaneously transmitting in two directions.

If I am allowed to speculate, I would guess that Sonos had to decide between the range benefits of a mesh system and the bandwidth conservation of hub-and-spoke. Having decided to maximize the former, they could only guarantee sufficient bandwidth by ensuring that they only had to account for their own data (audio and control signals). Hence, the private network.

A couple of other notes on SonosNet. First, it is definitely a WiFi network, and I know this thanks to a teardown by the wonderful folks at iFixit. It has 2.4/5 GHz 802.11a/b/g/n capability through a single Qualcomm Atheros chip.

An expert on embedded microprocessors reading this (man, I hope one isn’t….) may be able to guess my other note, because one of the significant improvements in the Atheros line of wireless LAN chips is the inclusion of multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO). This is the main upgrade from SonosNet 1.0 to 2.0.

MIMO is essentially an antenna design that’s advertised to improve data rate, range, and link reliability, although Gabe may wish to dispute these last two benefits. The antennas spread the inputs and outputs spatially, and this should mitigate the theoretical throughput limitations mentioned earlier. Sonos maintained backwards compatibility with 1.0 after moving to 2.0, and reduction in range (depending on layout) is said to be the only consequence of mixing Sonos generations.

“We went a little crazy”

The Sonos Negatives

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 7:50

Gabe only recently joined the Sonos party and he’s still feeling a bit cold. Multiple problems have discouraged him and diminished his opinion of the Sonos speaker pairing and grouping options. He’s also not particularly fond of the Sonos app that is required for streaming audio.

  • For Gabe, AirPlay has worked very well for podcasts and audiobooks
  • When using AirPlay as a multi-room solution, the humble AirPort Express is a great way to expand.

First AirPort Express Current AirPort Express

“There’s a cult around Sonos”

  • Since it creates its own network, Sonos can’t take advantage of a house “bathed in WiFi”. Instead it needs to connect with other speakers via wired connections or be in range of another Sonos element.
  • Gabe had some problems with Sonos ungrouping speakers randomly. Erik hasn’t had the same issues and suggests later that Gabe put a bridge between his distantly spaced speakers. In the coda Gabe describes his experiences with this solution.
  • Like all wireless solutions, Sonos has range limits.

“As the crow flies?”

  • On Gabe’s first try with Sonos, it didn’t pass the spouse test.

The Sonos Positives

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 13:45

  • As long as your files are available, you don’t even have to be running that bloated resource-hog iTunes to listen to your music.

Producer’s Note

Please note that Gabe and Erik’s views on iTunes do not reflect the views…never mind, they reflect the views of everyone.

  • Sonos can pull from any music directory
  • It’s ideal for Internet music (as long as your system of choice is supported)
  • The Sonos app is still compatible with first-generation iPads running older versions of iOS. It’s also available on Android, OS X, and Windows.

The Mobile and Desktop Interface

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 15:44

Selecting a Source Now Playing Screen Album Art View

Adding a Component Room Grouping Changing Groups

Sonos Desktop for Mac

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

Spotify

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 18:13

Producer’s Note

Gabe and Erik alluded to the issue of artist compensation, and it certainly is a complicated one. Spotify itself has an “Artist Services” page with a sort of FAQ set up to deal with this publicly. Their general point is that the free service, which does pay out advertising royalties, is used, “to drive users into our paid subscription tier,” where they assert that the users are “higher value” customers. The cynic might wonder, “more valuable to whom?” Spotify says they pay out nearly 70% of all of their revenue to rights holders, which was $500M as of the middle of 2013.

What does this translate into for the artists? Spotify points out that this is bound up in the contracts, but according to the Musicians’ Union, a London-based group which began pushing for a collective pay agreement this summer, the amount paid to artists is as little as 0.4p per stream (about $0.06). Radio compensation may be actually be much lower per listener, but the estimations in view here were a bit fuzzy.

Spotify would argue that this compensation, even if small, is much more than what is received in cases of piracy or other online streaming, and musician Zoë Keatin, who earned from Spotify a mere $808 in the first half of 2013, would likely agree. She is very open about her earnings and posted a Google Doc containing the whole picture. She made nearly 97% of her earnings from sales of her music on iTunes, Amazon and her own Bandcamp website but views Spotify as a discovery service.

As always, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but with Thom York of Radiohead pulling from Spotify his solo music and that of his new effort, Atoms for Peace, this issue won’t being going away anytime soon. Of course, Yorke is helping launch a rival streaming site called soundhalo, but I am not cynical enough to draw any particular conclusions about that.

  • Spotify is often more convenient, even when you own the music
  • There are some gaps in the catalog

“I listen to some weird music sometimes”

Sound Quality

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 21:29

  • Good, but not exceptional from the smaller-sized speakers.
  • A pair of Play:1s may be a better choice than a Play:5, with the caveat that the Play:1 does not have an aux-in port

Sonos Setup

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 22:24

  • Get it networked by plugging in a patch cable directly connected to your network or by using the Sonos Bridge
  • Press “volume up” and “mute”
  • Have either the desktop or iOS app open
  • You will have to create a user account on the Sonos website

Adding a Component from the Desktop

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

Alternatives

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 26:00

  • For many use cases, the Sonos may not be the right solution. If you want a very simple or portable audio solution, Bluetooth might end your search.
  • The Big Jambox has great sound, and while it is portable, its great sound comes at the cost of added size and weight: $299.99
  • “Baby” Jambox was a frontrunner in the portable speaker category, but there are now many other great entrants in this category: $149.99

Both Jamboxen

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

Producer’s Note

I find Bluetooth perfect for my uses, and as Gabe said it really does just work. Apple has been quick to incorporate lower-power revisions of Bluetooth, but it has yet to do much with the sound profiles themselves. I’m okay with that since I mainly listen to Technical Difficulties on continual loop with a Vim window open in front of me.

“Sonos is portable like an iMac is portable”

WoW at Panera

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

  • If you want multiroom, the only real Sonos alternative is a good receiver with wired speakers

“That requires running copper throughout the house…that’s kind of a pain”

Producer’s Note

Is he being ironic?

Troubleshooting Gabe’s Connectivity issues with a Bridge

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 33:09

  • Gabe experienced no more random ungroupings after adding the bridge
  • Setting the WiFi channel manually may also have helped.

Changing the WiFi Channel

Dr. Drang listening to Generational on an early wireless home audio system. US National Archives

Producer’s Note

Well, that’s all for this week. If you have anything that you’d like to add to or correct in the show notes you can find me on Twitter @potatowire or feel free to send an email to me at potatowire dot com.

Download Gabe’s iThoughts mind map on this week’s topic.