I kept hearing the arguments from industry colleagues that Sonos was so great and that I had to give it a shot. I knew it didn’t sound as good as it could and because I take pride on educating myself and staying open minded about products and technologies, I decided I had to give it the ol' Pepsi Challenge.
Setting up Dueling Systems
First, I modified a Sonos: Connect that I borrowed from a friend and placed it in my home system right next to an Autonomic media server. Both devices were run through identical systems. For example on the main floor of my house, we have an Anthem MRX510, a Crestron DM8x8 HDMI matrix switch, and a Crestron Swamp 24x8 (including built-in DACs), playing through Crestron and Paradigm in-ceiling speakers.
This GUI for the home system used in the head-to-head match up was designed by Fregosa Design.
A Head-to-Head Demo
Next, any time someone came over to the house, I had music playing in multiple rooms, some rooms with Sonos and some with Autonomic. At first I would just wait to see if people noticed. Most industry people (manufacturers, employees, reps, other integrators) heard the difference right away and would tell me that I had to dial in the room better or check my speakers. Others would need a little prodding (“Do you hear any difference between the dining room and den?”) Most people would say that they heard a difference—some more so than others. There were a few of my wife’s friends who didn’t care and didn’t hear a difference; all they wanted was music in the background. Even this small sample size was enough for me to feel vindicated in my earlier theory that there would be a noticeable difference between the two setups.
Any time someone came over to the house, I had music playing in multiple rooms, some rooms with Sonos and some with Autonomic.
The Threat to Our Future
This brings me to the commercial Sonos ran during the Super Bowl. Some in our industry were thrilled that attention was brought to multi-room audio. But take a deeper look. The ad was focused on the Sonos brand and driving consumers to buy either at retail or direct from Sonos. It only very tangentially helped us by maybe having clients ask us about the ad so that we can then start the discussion of multi-room audio. From there we would have to sell them on more robust, better quality solutions.
I’m worried that Sonos is the beginning of the end of our industry. They will use us to grow their customer base and then take them as a direct customer. It is so easy to install and setup, especially adding another zone, that clients can do it on their own. Haven’t you noticed that Sonos requires registration to use the product? Have you seen the marketing emails they send to customers once they register? So once you set up a client and register their device, Sonos now has a direct line to them and markets directly to them, cutting out the integrator.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for Sonos, depending on the client or the budget, but if audio quality is of a concern (as it should be to all integrators), then Sonos is not the answer for our industry. Clients need to be made aware that they are not getting the quality sound they otherwise could expect. One of my friends, Mark Feinberg from Home Theater Advisors, educates his clients of that fact, and he still sells a lot of Sonos product. But, he makes his clients acutely aware that they are sacrificing audio quality and that they should only expect “decent sound” that’s fine for background music but not for critical listening or for anyone with a tuned ear.
We are integrators; we don’t take the easy way out. Sonos is the easy way out, both from a sales and integration standpoint. We need to grow our business through partnerships, education/training, and by exploring new product categories or product lines that are better and more profitable than what we currently carry. Think about the profitability and quality of each and every product line you carry and ask yourself if you can do better with some education and training. I promise you that the manufacturers and distributors who support our industry will help you get where you need to be.