Sonos: For Those Who Want (Their Audio System) to Rock

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I’ve been reading and hearing about Sonos for a long time.  For much of this time, I have resisted taking the plunge, because I thought I could manage and listen to my music via my Mac, and because Sonos equipment is expensive.  But the more I heard and read, the more my excuses and counter-arguments starting to sound like the stubborn rationalizations of Mac-resistant Windows users.  But as we know, when it comes to good tech, resistance is futile.  So the idea of a Sonos system found a place in my contemplation, and began to slowly grow.

The death of an inexpensive Woot-purchased soundbar I have been using had me thinking about a more robust replacement, and when Sonos announced this week that a separate wireless network (via a wired connection to your router) is no longer required (it is never a good idea to have two competing wireless networks in one location), I took the plunge.  I bought a Sonos Playbar  and two Sonos Play:1’s from Amazon.  After 30 minutes with the Play:1, I knew I was onto something good, and purchased a Play:5 to serve as my primary audio system.

Yes, Sonos equipment is expensive.  No argument in the world is going to make it sound like a bargain.  When you consider how robust and elegant the hardware and associated software is, and when you realize that going all-in on Sonos equipment renders you free of some legacy audio equipment (receivers, amplifiers, CD players, speaker wire, MP3 players, etc.),  the price seems a little less insane.  A little.

So here’s a summary of my Sonos experience so far.

First, the hardware is powerful, well-built and beautiful.   Very Apple-like.  Setup is easy (basically, you turn on your first device, open the Sonos app on your iOS device, connect it to your existing wireless network, and follow the instructions).  Adding additional devices is even easier.  You can listen to devices individually in full-stereo pairs or in large groups (e.g., whole house), and you can easily manage devices throughout your house.  You can play what you want, when and where you want.

And if you want, there are devices that will integrate your existing audio system into your Sonos setup (though I have not tried them).

While I am still in the infancy of my Sonos experience, the sound quality is very impressive.  Wirecutter, maybe the most reliable online source for gadget testing and reviews, chose Sonos as the best whole-home audio system:

Sonos is flexible, easy to use, integrates into your current system and works with a huge array of services and content providers. It has been around since 2004, and that time has let the company build up its product to be better than anyone else’s. It also sounds fantastic.

Eventually, I intend to have a system of paired devices for a full-stereo set up.  However, listening to a single Play:5 (as I am doing now for most of my music) sounds excellent.  In fact, the single Play:1 I’m using in my downtown office sounds great.

Second, the associated software is intuitive and robust.  Initially, I managed all of my Sonos activity via the Sonos app on my iPhone.

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Eventually, I downloaded the Sonos controller for my Mac (there’s a Windows version too), and found it to be another great way to manage my Sonos system when sitting at my desk.

There are tons of integrated music choices.  I immediately added Spotify (my primary music source; that link is to my curated Rancho Radio, try it), Amazon Cloud Player, Google Play Music and Pandora.  There are numerous other choices as well.  An added bonus is the integration of a virtually infinite number of terrestrial and online radio stations.  I quickly added NPR, WNCW and, amazingly, WCRE, the local radio station in the small town where I grew up.

One of the questions I had when considering Sonos was the ability to have and manage systems at different locations.  Happily, Sonos permits this, and switching between setups at various locations happens automatically, based on your location.  I have a system at home, I will sometimes take my Play:5 to and from the farm, and, at least temporarily, I’m using a Play:1 in my downtown office.  It’s pretty awesome.

One of the unexpected benefits of my Sonos experience is that I find myself listening to music a lot more than I did previously.  Before, I had to stop what I was doing on my Mac or iOS device, open the Spotify app, charge, find and connect to a speaker (if listening via my iPhone)  and start listening to music that would play in lieu of the audio component of whatever else I was doing on my computer or iPhone.  Since I’ve begun using Sonos, I often have music playing wherever I am, with only the volume to change depending on where I am and what I’m doing.

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No review would be complete without a wish list of additional features, but I had to dig pretty deep to come up with one for Sonos.  I wish the Play:5 (which has a line input) would accept Bluetooth connections.  It would be awesome if you could access and play your music from more places in the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.).  And I wish your Sonos playlists would sync across locations (e.g., I wish a Sonos playlist I create at home on my home system would be available via the Sonos app on my iPhone at the office or farm, at least for non-local music).  There may be a way to do this, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

While Sonos has dispensed with a wired-connection requirement for most setups, you still have to attach a Sonos device (a player or an available Sonos bridge) directly to your router to set up surround sound for your television via the Playbar and a Sonos subwoofer and/or Play:1’s.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to do this, but it would be nice to have the choice to do so completely wirelessly.  Finally, it would be nice to have better integration with some of the music services.  For example, I would love to have the option to automatically share the songs I play to Facebook, much like I can with the native Spotify app.  You can share what you’re playing to Twitter or Facebook, but the share is not embedded, like it is when you share to Facebook via the Spotify app.

If that’s the best I can come up with for wish list, you can tell that the Sonos system and apps are mature and well-designed.  It’s early, but so far I am a very happy customer, and one that will have to constantly resist the desire to buy additional Sonos equipment to add to my setup.

Or not.  Like I said, resistance is futile.

GoodSongs: Delaney & Bonnie, When the Battle is Over

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One of the many standouts on the Accept No Substitute album, this excellent Dr. John-written ballad was brought to Delaney & Bonnie by co-producer Leon Russell.  Lyrically, the song proved to be somewhat prophetic, given the material and professional problems between Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett.  The music is a mixture of funk, rock, and gospel, and moves with a wonderful grace and effortlessness. (via AllMusic)

Delaney & Bonnie and Friends was a very interesting and eclectic band, whose members included, at different times, Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Bobby Whitlock, Dave Mason, Rita Coolidge, King Curtis, and Eric Clapton.  That’s a pretty deep roster.

The song was featured in The Sopranos episode Mergers and Acquisitions.

Music Legends: Hank Ballard

Far too many genre-bending artists from the 50’s and 60’s have been vastly under-appreciated by the post-MTV (as in when there was M in MTV) generation.  One of them is the guy who wrote “The Twist,” among many other great songs.

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Hank Ballard (November 18, 1927 – March 2, 2003), born John Henry Kendricks, was a rhythm and blues singer and songwriter, the lead vocalist of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and one of the first rock ‘n’ roll artists to emerge in the early 1950s. He played an integral part in the development of the genre, releasing the hit singles “Work With Me, Annie” and answer songs “Annie Had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie.”  He later wrote and recorded “The Twist,” which spread the popularity of the dance and was notably covered by Chubby Checker.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Hank Ballard recorded a lot of great songs, but my favorite, and one of my all-time favorite songs, is “I’m Gonna Miss You.”

His cousin was another artist of note- Florence Ballard of The Supremes.

Calling All Mix Masters: Turntable.fm Rocks

Back in college, I was a DJ at one of the local bars.  It was a fun gig, and, at least in my selective memory, I had mad skills.  Mad skills, I tell ya!  I’d love to show my mix skills around the house, but my kids hate my Allman Brothers records about as much as I hated my parents’ lame Vic Damone LPs.

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Now, maybe I can find a willing crowd, thanks to Turntable.fm.  Turntable.fm lets you create shared listening rooms where you and your friends (or strangers, if you prefer) can take turns queuing up and playing songs.  You can search for songs already on the site (I had mixed results doing this, with some songs being incomplete) or you can upload your own.  The uploading process is fast and easy and, importantly, MP3 tags are recognized and processed accurately.  Once you upload songs, they remain in your playlist until you remove them.  There are limitations on how often artists can be played per hour, which indicates that the required licensing is in place.

I created the Rancho Room, dedicated to less known alt. country, southern rock, country rock, classic rock & whatever else sounds good.  Some old-timers will recall the original Rancho Room, a chat room I developed, circa 1995, where we had some hilarious times back in the day.  Anyone remember those collaborative stories we wrote?

The best way for social network fledglings to understand Turntable.fm is to imagine a shared, streaming radio station, with a rotating playlist created by the people in the room. I have no chance of getting enough friends in the room at the same time to create any kind of a real-time scene.  But what I – and hopefully others- can do is upload some good songs, play them for my own ears when I want to hear them, and maybe some other folks will stop by to listen.  If I can get a little traction, maybe some of my friends will create their own playlists and, who knows, if we happen to be listening at the same time, our songs will be meshed into a collaborative playlist.

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There’s a rating feature for songs, but I haven’t enticed anyone else to create a playlist yet, so I ‘m not sure how it works.  Once I get some of you onboard, we’ll try it out.

You can share your DJ status to Facebook or Twitter with a click of a button.

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I’ve tried a lot of socially oriented music apps, and some of them are fun.  But I haven’t seen any others with as much “fun” potential as Turntable.fm.  In a universe of half-baked ideas tossed haphazardly into the social networking space, I think Turntable.fm is really onto something.  I like this app.  A lot.

At the end of the day, the Turntable.fm experience probably depends on your ability (or lack thereof) to get a core group of users to populate your room.  You can probably solve this hurdle by creating a public room.  I’m hoping to limit my room to people who enjoy the same sort of music I do, so the Rancho Room is unlisted for now (fear not, you are invited).  I know a lot of people who love the same music I do.  Can I get them to try the service?  That’s a good question.  At least there’s no way it will end as badly as my 2005 Flickr experiment did.

One thing I don’t like is that users have to sign up and in before they can visit a room.  That seems like an unnecessary hurdle to growth.  Sure, people should have to sign up to create a room, and maybe to DJ, but folks should have the ability to visit without signing up.  An easy way to handle this would be to allow a limited number of “guest” listeners per room.  I also don’t like the degree to which the service is tied to Facebook.  If you have a Facebook Friend who uses the service, you’re in.  But what if I want to invite a (lower case) friend who isn’t on Facebook?  Does that work?  I could make this app rock, but these limitations make it harder than it should be.

So.  Do you like alt. country, southern rock, country rock and/or classic rock?  If so, come on in and take a listen.  If you like what I’m trying to do, drop me an email or Facebook message, and I’ll send you a DJ link (I have to have an email address to invite you to DJ, unless we are Facebook Friends).

Here’s my playlist, so far.

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As a songwriter, tech blogger and music fan, Turntable.fm lies at the crossroads of my interests.  I’m pretty excited about it.

Come on in, and take a listen.

Could Slacker Radio Unseat Pandora as the King of Internet Music?

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For the Love of Pandora

I have been a loyal and devoted paid user of Pandora Radio since it was first available back in 2005.  I use it almost every day, in one form or another.  In fact, I may even buy a new truck when it becomes available in-dash, just so I can get my alternative country music fix without having to suffer through the unbearable Mojo Nixon.

While Pandora’s Music Genome has pretty accurately mapped my musical tastes, Pandora is not perfect.  The biggest problem by far is that, thanks no doubt to the idiotic music label cartel, you can only skip 6 songs an hour, even if you’re a paid user.  Even worse, that hour seems to be of playing time, not just of the passage of actual time.  I use Pandora almost every night for the last part of my workout (more on this when I start my “Nerd on the Run” series later this month).  Often, I’ll try to skip a song for the first time that night, only to get the 6 song limitation message- even though it’s been over 20 hours of real time since I last skipped a song.  This is a horrible drawback to an otherwise awesome service.

The Once and Slacker King

Nothing is as good for consumers as choice.  I tried Slacker Radio a couple of years ago.   Even then, it had unlimited skipping for paid users.  I liked Slacker Radio, but I eventually went back to Pandora and stopped using Slacker altogether.

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It looks like that may change.

Today I read that Slacker Radio is about to release an on-demand streaming plan, called Slacker Premium Radio, and a related iPad app.  This app will reportedly give you on-demand access to Slacker’s entire song library and playlists.  This feature will work on the web, and with lots of mobile devices, including  iPhones, iPads, Androids and BlackBerries.

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With my renewed interest in Slacker Radio, I listened briefly to my classic rock station, Kent’s Vinyl, and The Rancho Room, my alternative country station.  I heard some good stuff, including excellent but obscure songs by Old Crow Medicine Show, Luna and the Scud Mountain Boys.  I also heard some ads, which is a no-go for me.  If I start using Slacker again, I will immediately buy a subscription.  Premium subscriptions currently cost $48 a year.  That’s a little more than Pandora’s $36, but it gives you both unlimited skipping and mobile station caching- the ability to cache your stations for offline play.

Web of Confusion

One thing Slacker badly needs to do better is explain the differences between their current and forthcoming offerings.  It seems there has been some manner of on demand streaming available since late 2008, under the same name: Slacker Radio Premium.  It sounds good, until you read this cautionary note: “Saved songs are based on licenses, not all songs are savable to your Slacker Library or Slacker Portable Radio Players.”

The most important question to ask when you hear the phrase “on-demand streaming” is “of what?”  The biggest issue with these services is their ability to provide access to the major label catalogs.  I assume this new service will be a meaningful expansion of the existing premium service, but we won’t know, well, until they tell us. Notwithstanding the web of confusion currently surrounding Slacker’s new service, I’m definitely interested and on the lookout for details.

Pandora’s Device Advantage

Hopefully this flurry of life by Slacker Radio will spur Pandora to make some significant improvements to its service, including unlimited song skipping.  Pandora is not without weapons in the battle for our ears.  It has a much bigger brand.  More importantly, it has made its way onto just about every online media box or service this side of Apple TV (bad call by Apple that will eventually make me all Boxee all the time).  Every newish TV and DVD player in my entire house will play Pandora.  As will a couple of my audio receivers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Slacker Radio on any of them.  To reach the top of the hill, Slacker will need to find its way onto more devices.

I know, for example, that it is much easier to listen to Pandora in my home gym, via my DVD player, than it would be to access Slacker Radio.  When I finish a DVD, it’s a two click process to bring up Pandora.  I would have to get off the treadmill and change all sorts of settings to get to Slacker Radio.

Either way, competition is good for us.  So let’s rock on.

About this Spotify Thing

Or non-thing, as the case may be.

First, some brief background.  I am a recorded songwriter, and a huge music fan.  I have hundreds of my songs available on the dreaded internet, for free.   I also have a huge library of purchased music on our family’s music server (where my kids ignore the Allman Brothers in favor of some Disney Channel media creation, but I digress).  Many thousands were legally ripped from the thousands of CDs that have spent the last decade stored in boxes in the garage.  Several more thousand were purchased (DRM-free) from Amazon (which is the only place you should ever purchase music, but more on that in a moment).

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As I’ve said a few times, I am bored beyond description by all the hoopla surrounding Spotify.  Either launch in the US, and I’ll take a look, or don’t.  But fish or cut bait.  Poop or get off the can.  Play your music or shut up.  There hasn’t been this much attention paid to something that doesn’t exist since Y2K.  Seriously, my kids don’t love me as much as some bloggers seem to love this vapor-service.

Paul Carr writes an absolute must-read (and I use that term rarely about things not written by me) article about Spotify and some other service called (stupidly) Rdio (is Ry Prker Jr. the singer?).  I haven’t used Rdio, and I probably won’t.  Partially due to Paul’s description and partially due to the indisputable fact that:

1.  I simply don’t want to rent my music.   I can understand renting a house.  They cost a lot of money.  I can sort of understand renting a car.  They cost a lot of money.  I rented a tuxedo a few times, because I was only going to wear it once.

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox Extension
I rented this fancy tux back in 1977

But songs cost around a dollar.  I don’t rent gumballs or stamps, so why in the name of all four Elvises (Presley, Costello, Grbac and Dutton) do I want to rent a dadgum song?  If I don’t know that I’m going to play it more than once, then I shouldn’t be renting or buying it.  You can preview songs, or enough of them to know if they suck or not, lots of places, for free.

2.  I’ve tried similar services, and while the are intriguing, they didn’t work for me.  When I first stumbled onto the dreaded internet back in the day, music files were in Real Media format.  That’s because we were all on dial up, and the pipes were the size of fishing line.  But I dutifully encoded all my songs (as in the ones I wrote) in Real Media format (that was a fun few days), put them up on a flashing (not flashy) web page and waited patiently for George Strait and/or Bruce Springsteen to discover them.  Somewhere along the way, I made the epic mistake of installing the Real Player on my Compaq 386.  It tried to take over the entire Risk board from the safety of my 200 MB hard drive.  It was horrifying and irritating.  After I finally succeeded in removing all of the remnants of that application…

I turned around and jumped back into the molasses by installing Rhapsody (when it was an on-demand service; it may still be- I have anything Real-related blocked by redundant firewalls guarded by rabid German Shepards with fully-charged Tasers in their mouths), so I could listen to music on demand.

3.  Rhapsody was sort of appealing.  I liked the catalog and it was easy to use.  What it wasn’t easy to do was cancel.  It would be easier to get Dave Winer to admit that he didn’t actually invent everything than it was to successfully cancel the Rhapsody service.  The almost as big problem was that, while I could listen to that big library while sitting at my computer, it was either technically or practically impossible to take the songs with you or burn them to a CD without, you guessed it, buying them.  I could rent to buy.  Like a fake leather sofa or an off-brand TV.  Awesome.  Not.

Anyway, after making about 300 calls, sending about a thousand emails, and seeking counsel with a Jamaican shaman, I finally got free of Rhapsody.  I promised never again.

Never.  Again.

So here’s the thing.  Music just isn’t that expensive.   If I want to hear a type of music, then I use Pandora, which with a little care and feeding can give you a really targeted playlist.  Targeted to your actual musical likes, and not bound by genre.  If I really like something and want to take it with me, I buy it at Amazon. Because you get unrestricted MP3s.  iTunes would be a decent alternative, except for the fact that iTunes, the application, sucks so bad.

At the end of the day, all I really want is for people to stop yammering on about Spotify.  At least until it launches.  Then we can go all Flipboard again, and claim it is the iPhone killer of the day.  Or something.  Everything has to kill something.

Until (and likely after) then, I’ll take my music now.  On my hard drive,  CD and/or iPhone.