Sonos, the purveyor of in-home digital music distribution systems that has earned a following over the last several years, has recently introduced Android compatibility for its Controller app. What does that mean? Basically, it has the potential to open Sonos to a whole new customer base — customers who don’t use Apple products and don’t care to spend $350 on the company’s purpose-suited Controller 200 handheld. Today, I’m here to take the new Android version for a spin.
But let's back up a bit. Configuring your digital music library so it can be easily accessed from anywhere in your home can be a daunting task — and even after hours of elbow grease and hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars, there's no guarantee you'll ever get it working exactly the way you want. Apple's AirPlay promises to make a big dent in that, particularly as the list of AirPlay-compatible peripherals and accessories grows by leaps and bounds over the coming months — but it's not for everyone. If you don't use an iPhone, an iPod touch, or an iPad, for instance, you're stuck controlling AirPlay with iTunes... and not everyone manages their media in iTunes, nor does iTunes support all the online music services you might use. Sure, products like Rogue Amoeba's Airfoil can help bridge the gap, but then you're starting to diverge from the "it just works" mantra that makes AirPlay so appealing.
Testing a full Sonos setup here (for the first time) made me personally appreciate what they're trying to do
That's where Sonos comes into play. First, a confession: I'm a pretty die-hard Squeezebox user — predating Logitech's acquisition of Slim Devices by several years — and I've currently got a Squeezebox 3 and a Boom set up at home. I've always pooh-poohed Sonos as an overpriced and underpowered product in comparison; for instance, a Sonos ZonePlayer 90 runs $350, while a Squeezebox Touch providing equivalent functionality plus a big color touchscreen (and WiFi support) runs $300. And if you wanted to place that ZonePlayer somewhere outside the reach of wired Ethernet, you're looking at another $100 for a ZoneBridge since Sonos' products don't use standard WiFi for wireless connectivity.
Of course, I don't want to turn this into a full Sonos system review — their products have been around for years and you'll find fantastic, detailed reviews all over the place — but I did want to take this opportunity to point out that testing a full Sonos setup here (for the first time) made me personally appreciate what they're trying to do. The Squeezebox line is all about tweaking and tinkering; Sonos is about plugging in a box and listening to your music collection literally 60 seconds later. It's completely painless and seamless. Like AirPlay, it just works. In fact, for better and worse, I'd go so far to say that Sonos has developed a bit of a reputation as the "Apple of in-home music."
The Android version is lagging just a bit in raw functionalitySoftware
And that brings me back to the new Controller app for Android. It's a free download from the Android Market, and pairing it with your existing Sonos setup is seriously drop-dead simple: you fire it up, and it'll instruct you to either press the Connect button on a ZoneBridge or press Mute and Volume Up on a ZonePlayer to pair it... and that's it, you're done. Your entire Sonos setup, your music library, and your configured online services (like Pandora, Rdio, and so on) are all immediately visible and available. Once I pressed Connect, it took maybe a second for the app to recognize that it had been paired. Impressive. (Of course, your Android device will need to be connected by WiFi to the same network as your Sonos rig for this to work.)
Once you've got the Controller paired for the first time, you'll never need to do it again — opening the app will just take you into the last screen where you left off, most likely the Zone (left), Music (center), or Now Playing (right) screens. They work exactly the same as on other platforms, and everything is very fast; adjusting volume using the slider at the bottom of the screen, for example, is absolutely instantaneous without any lag. Naturally, you don't need to keep the app open for the music to keep on playing — and whenever you need to adjust it, you can pop back in and make whatever changes you need.
Of course, if you've already used any of Sonos' other mobile Controller versions, none of this comes as a surprise — and unfortunately, the Android version is lagging just a bit in raw functionality. Notably missing, for example, is control of the sleep timer and alarm functions, which is a pretty big miss if you ask me since the ZonePlayer S5 makes a stellar bedside radio otherwise. Also, the Android app can't be used in landscape, which means there's no sexy CoverFlow-esque view of your library. And finally, as far as I can tell, you can't scrub tracks — another odd omission.
I suspect all of these issues will be cleaned up — this is, after all, Sonos’ very first Android release that we’re talking about here — and none are deal-breakers in and of themselves. They certainly shouldn’t be deciding factors for whether you should ultimately buy a Sonos setup, especially since you can still get to all of this functionality in the meantime by loading up the Desktop Controller app on your computer. Ultimately, this little experience has taught me that Sonos remains the easiest (though certainly not the cheapest) way to get audio piped throughout your home, and adding Android compatibility into the mix just makes the package a little bit sweeter.