When Sonos first unveiled its digital music systems for the home, this reporter called it the “iPod Home” that Apple had yet to conceive.
Sonos could play networked music libraries over relatively high-quality speakers; finally, someone had taken digital home audio beyond the concept of plugging a laptop or MP3 player into a home stereo. Before too long, these systems were capable of accessing free internet radio, subscription radio services, and on-demand music services, now including Deezer, iheartradio, Last.fm, Napster, Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Spotify, Wolfgang’s Vault, and others.
Sonos announced on Thursday that it will debut a free Android app that controls its suite of digital music products for the home at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, but the app won’t be available until the end of March.
So why is this even newsworthy?
Simple: because even though Apple has made strides with the “iPod Home” concept (Airport Express, Apple TV), Sonos still has its advantages. Mobile apps like this one (and the already-available Apple iOS app) make Sonos work better, for more people, at a lower cost. This free Android app effectively replaces Sonos’ own clunky remote, which costs $350 if you buy it separately — more than the far-better-designed iPod Touch ($229), which can run the free Sonos app.
Even better, you don’t need to look around for the remote when your remote is a smartphone app, because it’s probably already in your pocket or otherwise nearby.
However, the app revolution is a double-edged sword for Sonos. On the one hand, the company no longer has to rely on its own expensive, clunky remote controls. IOS and now Android smartphones and tablets are already perfect for navigating music libraries and services. On the other hand, the associated wireless technologies, Apple AirPlay and Google Fling, allow any music app developer to send tunes wirelessly to supported home entertainment systems – no Sonos-style hardware required.
When confronted, Sonos representatives usually claim that only its system is capable of playing music in multiple rooms without creating horrible phase cancellation problems, due to its sophisticated wireless mesh network. That may be true, but it only matters for people in large houses, ruling out non-billionaire city dwellers.
Sonos has another advantage over music apps equipped for the home with AirPlay or Fling, though. While those apps act as the source of music, Sonos allows your phone to work only as a remote control, leaving the heavy lifting to the Sonos devices.
This approach has a few key advantages: It saves battery life, which could extend the overall life of your phone; the music doesn’t stop if you make or take a call; and you can control it from multiple apps, remote, and desktop systems, allowing anyone in the home to queue up music in any room.
For many people, an AirPlay- or Fling-equipped home entertainment system solves the problem of delivering digital music files and services to the home. For more ardent music fans who can’t abide interruptions in their music; want to maximize the battery longevity of their smartphones; or wish to fill large houses with a multi-room audio system, Sonos retains its allure, thanks to — and in spite of — music apps.