I was round my mate Geoff’s house the other day. He likes his gadgets, does Geoff. Old gadgety Geoff.
His latest was a Sonos sound system. Working via your home’s wi-fi, it lets you play music from your iTunes library and also from sources outside your house, such as Spotify and LastFM. The sound was deep and loud and rich, and the remote control was insanely easy to use. (This part was critical. Geoff’s previous foray into this area involved a system so complex that finding a song – any song – would take him ages standing in front of a huge screen and jabbing buttons on a paperback-sized remote control. The impenetrable operating instructions effectively excluded the rest of his family from ever selecting their own music.)
When I can next justify it financially, I thought, I’m going to get one of these Sonos systems.
Then last week I started noticing their ad campaign. No easy matter, as the adverts are discrete and understated virtually to the point of invisibility. But they got me looking for a stockist in Basingstoke, where I was working at the time, so the campaign worked to that extent.
The instore demonstration was pretty compelling. The guy showed me how the remote worked, talked me through the various systems and explained how to get the best out of it. Although my iTunes library probably wouldn’t be up to the job, he cautioned. Why ever not? Well, apparently when you import CDs to iTunes, it rips them at a less than optimal setting. For purposes of speed, I guess. For the least compression and hence the best quality, I would have to import all my CDs again on the Apple Lossless setting. Hmm.
Another thing that perplexed me was the set-up of the speaker. I belong to a generation conditioned by everyone from hi-fi mags to the Melody Maker to position speakers six to eight feet apart. That was the way to replicate a live performance and the best way to enjoy any stereo effects created in the studio. Mono? Pah!
But here was a £350 system with only the one speaker. A backward step, surely? Not so, said the people at Sonos when I’d mentioned this very point on Twitter. Each Sonos system in fact included two speakers, left and right. You couldn’t separate them – separates are so last century – so the way to enjoy stereo sound was simply to buy two systems! You turn the left-hand channel off on one and place it to the right, and do the opposite with the other and bingo, stereo sound. (“You want to take a passenger on your motorcycle? No problem – just buy another motorcycle!”)
I thought about the number of times I actually sat down in the precise way recommended by speaker manufacturers and hi-fi buffs and realised that I didn’t any more. Not much, anyway. So the lack of true stereo might not be such a big deal after all. OK, I thought, I’ll take it. Just one problem – that store didn’t have one in stock in my choice of colour. (There are two: Apple white and Apple black.) But their Camberley store did have one. I got them to reserve it and headed back to the office.
During the afternoon, doubt started to creep in. £350 is quite a lot to pay for something which would involve me doing days and days worth of ripping. The ‘sound in every room’ sales schtick wasn’t that convincing either when I realised I pretty much had that already. And there was that whole back to mono thing. But on the other hand, the sound was truly amazing and the idea of using that chunky little remote control to summon up music from pretty much anywhere was difficult to resist. So I made a deal with myself. If I get work for next week, I’ll buy it. If not, I won’t.
I checked my emails. Yay! I had work for the following week. A couple of days, anyway. So that evening found me in the Camberley hi-fi store, punching my PIN into the terminal and looking lovingly at the box of music that was about to be mine. I checked with the salesman. “It’s got the manual in there, I take it?” Manuals are a waste of paper, he glumly told me. There’ll be a CD-Rom in the box. I nodded. I prefer manuals. This idea that a manufacturing process involving polycarbonates and aluminium and a reading process that required a £500 computer and a semiconductor laser was somehow better than printing a little booklet was unconvincing.
“And the remote and everything?”
He shook his head. “There’s no remote. The remote is optional.”
That sounded odd. How am I meant to operate it without the remote? He told me it was done via an app on my iPhone, iPad, Android phone or a desktop interface. All very well for me, as I’m never far from my iPad. But Mrs Bravenewmalden doesn’t have any of those things. Well, she’s got a PC but there was no way she, or anyone else for that matter, would be prepared to sit down in front of a computer just to skip ‘Octopus’s Garden’.
“How much extra is the remote control?”
What the salesman said next brought to a sudden end my brief flirtation with Sonos. “£280.” My jaw made a rich, room-filling sound as it crashed to the floor. No, that wasn’t a mistake. The remote represented 45% of the total cost of the system.
“So, that’s two motorcycles.Thank you sir. Now I suppose you’ll be wanting some handlebars, yes?”
5 responses to “Progress. At a price.”
I have the Sonos system and I (mostly) like it. (My complaint is mainly that it cuts out every once in a while which may have more to do with my wifi…)
Anyway, two things:
Thing the first is that you can buy a unit that hooks up to your stereo amp and thus put it through your regular system with proper stereo image, your own speakers and everything. Costs more than the “mono” unit of course. They also have one which acts as a receiver and again, you can connect your own speakers.
Thing the second is that you can buy an iPod touch for around US$200 and use that as a dedicated remote. Still not super cheap but still less than their remote.
I had Sonos when I lived in the UK and was really happy with it to begin with, but I decided to flog it on Ebay when I moved because the initial integration with Spotify was so flaky that I doubted they’d ever get it right (perhaps they have now). The iPhone app controller wasn’t 100% reliable either and I wasn’t the only one to experience these issues, so I’m sure you made the right decision. I think its astronomic price in some way provided false assurance that it would all be wonderful and problem-free, but this didn’t turn out to be the case for me.
It comes to something when losing the remote means checking your house contents insurance.
But will it sneakily broadcast your choice of songs via every social media channel you have? If not, it’s not worth paying for.
Wow. And timely too. I have been thinking about an upgrade of this nature, to the point where I visited my local Richer Sounds on Saturday.
I do keep my audio library in flac files, so the compression problem isn’t something I’d be concerned with. But I did wonder about the ‘single speaker unit’ thing.
I think I’ll just spend £300 on a top-end iPod docking station.