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Sonos backlash: update issue reveals cold hard truth of smart tech

Sonos backlash: update issue reveals cold hard truth of smart tech
(Image credit: Sonos)

It’s fair to say that Sonos is in hot water with its customers at the moment. It’s always hard to gauge the extent of umbrage like this - disaffection is louder than indifference - but, judging by the 1000+ comments on the Sonos community post, and the reaction in the What Hi-Fi? Forums, there’s enough unhappy ‘legacy’ customers out to think Sonos could have done this better. As the company's CEO has now admitted.

Certainly, Sonos could have given more notice and been more clear about the implications (how will this work with a system of new and old products, for example). Or Sonos could have been more Apple about it - simply announcing the latest version of the software, saying which products are supported, and keeping quiet about the ones that aren't.

In all likelihood the backlash would have been just as strong because, in the end, it’s about expectation. Sonos has arguably made a rod for its own back, not just by claiming long-term support for its products – but by making products that people really love.

There are grumbles when our phones, TVs, tablets and laptops lose support but nothing more because we don’t expect them to last that long. Phones are built around short lifecycles through contracts, and that already shapes our expectations of longevity for not much more than 24 months - that is, if we manage not to smash them by accident first. That may sound crazy for devices costing hundreds but it's the reality.

The technology inside them - particularly TVs and laptops - dates too quickly to want to keep them around for much more than five years anyway. But audio - audio is different. Sound doesn’t date in quite the same way as video. A good piece of hi-fi equipment could be for life.

No other major company in audio has had to deal with technology upgrades to quite the same degree as Sonos. It’s the US brand’s advances in convenience, not audio quality, that have made it so popular. Sonos was the first to get multi-room right some 15 years ago when it launched the Sonos ZonePlayer and Controller, and it’s now become a victim of its own continuing success.

Let's be honest, few people complain about their defunct multi-room speakers made by LG, Sony, Panasonic, Denon, Samsung, Pure, Yamaha and whomever else has released a wireless audio product in recent years. No one complains, we'd argue, because nobody fell in love with them. No one built their homes around them. No one invested.

With Sonos, it’s been different but, while its customers have every right to be upset, how long can we really expect ongoing software support for anyway? Remember, these products won't stop working - they might just not get the latest bells, whistles and tweaks.

“Legacy products were introduced between 2005 and 2011 and, given the age of the technology, do not have enough memory or processing power to sustain future innovation.” That’s Sonos’s justification. There may be other factors mixed up in there too. There are costs to maintaining an ever-growing fleet of older models. Sonos may wish to focus more on developing the future and, of course, what company wouldn’t prefer its customers to buy more devices.

Anyone watching the trends in music streaming services and wireless headphones can’t fail to notice a drive towards audio quality with hi-res music. Even giants like Amazon have recognised its importance and, if Sonos wishes to keep its place at the table of the audio elite, it needs to go hi-res too. If its legacy products “do not have enough memory or processing power to sustain future innovation” such as this, then it needs to ditch them now.

Sonos backlash: update issue reveals cold hard truth of smart tech

(Image credit: Sonos)

Is it fair on Sonos customers? Not brilliantly — and we're not sure Sonos should be pushing people to build a system around the Connect without any caveat — but, as these things go in technology, even five years of support is not a bad run. 

Owners of a single Connect:Amp can’t complain too much but it’s hard not to empathise with Sonos power users who’ve invested thousands over the years. Sonos might do well to reach out to those customers and offer a better deal than the standard 30 per cent discount on new equipment.

Even then, though, such measures would not undo all the damage that this announcement has made. This is the first real blemish to Sonos’s reputation and it’s not so much that it’s happened now and to these products, it’s the uneasy knowledge that the company could do it again. Because this is not an audio company. It’s a technology manufacturer and that’s how tech businesses work. They innovate and move on. And ultimately, that's how we all like it and want it - or we'd never have got a product like Sonos in the first place.

That is the cold, hard truth of modern connected audio products, the smart home, and any device with a mini computer inside. We can't demand endless connectivity and relentless updates, and get annoyed when old devices can't keep up. Want a real, long-term solution? Well you could always keep it analogue – a pair of passive speakers never goes out of fashion, and nor do they run out of firmware updates.

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  • bobstcyr
    5 years is not good value from a premium product. If my google chromecast which costs $89 were to need replacing after 5 years I could swallow that. But Sonos is a premium priced product, and I bought my Sonos Connect 16 months ago not 5 years ago - I imagine there are people who bought it more recently than that. I also bought 2 play 5's, 2 one's and a beam. 16 months ago I invested $2700 dollars in a system to allow me to play music throughout the house with decent fidelity (I play mostly flac files from my CD collection burned onto a NAS) now to hear that I may no longer be able to do that because the company is no longer going to support their product. I'm stuck, because of the investment I've made in Sonos it wouldn't be easy or inexpensive to switch to another system but I'm reluctant to keep buying into a system by replacing the connect with the new port; My audio hardware has just become a subscription cost rather than and investment. That's just BS
    Reply
  • tonyE
    The truth about digital is that it's not a medium that foments long term ownership. The "music industry" wants us to move to a subscription model.

    I've been doing digital media servers since '97 and I can tell you that the only way to do this the long way is to use general purpose PCs and high quality DACS and ADDACs.

    I record my LPs into my network and over the years, as my front end gets better and the ADDAC gets better I go through cycles.. for the last few years, my LP recordings have been 24/96 WAV and my CDs have been ripped to Red Book and my DVDs are as ISOs masters and MP4 for playing over my home LAN.

    I also have over 100TB of NAS at home.

    If any one part of my system needs to be updated or replaced, it can be done easily. And I do not buy into that All In One Digital "Solution". Sorry, but that's the only way to do this.
    Reply
  • manicm
    WHF keeps harping on about hires support. I personally don’t think it’s necessary. That would not affect my decision to purchase a Sonos.

    The thing is everybody else has caught up with Sonos - see Denon and its HEOS architecture which is now quite mature, so my question would be; why do I need Sonos at all?
    Reply
  • gowiththeflow
    There’s no reason why the Sonos platform for legacy products can’t be sustained.
    It’s the constant “updates” and changes that are the problem.
    Updates to rectify bugs are not a problem, it’s the adding of new features and changing the app (mostly just for the sake of it) that’s the issue.
    The legacy Sonos equipment will continue to work just fine if Sonos leave it alone.
    Most users will be quite content with that and don't need or want changes.
    If they want to add new features to the newer products, then they can update those separately.
    The trick will be enabling old and new equipment to work on the same home Sonos network.

    We can only wait and see if Sonos’ backtracking on their announcement is genuine, or just a desperate attempt to save themselves from a self inflicted major PR disaster and big hit to their share value.
    Reply
  • manicm
    gowiththeflow said:
    There’s no reason why the Sonos platform for legacy products can’t be sustained.
    It’s the constant “updates” and changes that are the problem.
    Updates to rectify bugs are not a problem, it’s the adding of new features and changing the app (mostly just for the sake of it) that’s the issue.
    The legacy Sonos equipment will continue to work just fine if Sonos leave it alone.
    Most users will be quite content with that and don't need or want changes.
    If they want to add new features to the newer products, then they can update those separately.
    The trick will be enabling old and new equipment to work on the same home Sonos network.

    We can only wait and see if Sonos’ backtracking on their announcement is genuine, or just a desperate attempt to save themselves from a self inflicted major PR disaster and big hit to their share value.

    This is simply not true. What if some updates are desirable e.g. Apple AirPlay 2 which is superior to 1, are you saying you wouldn’t want it??

    One cannot remain simplistic just for the sake of it.
    Reply
  • cosimo193
    What this issue has highlighted the folly of investing in a proprietary, computer based, all-in-one product. When it's targeting the high-end hifi market, people would've expected hifi product longevity, which is why the reaction has been as it has. It's also highlighted either a design flaw (giving them the benefit of the doubt) or a deliberate plan whereby the computing part of the system cannot be upgraded separately to the audio part. After all, it's the processing system that's the issue here: that should, in a decent design, be totally separate from the audio domain stuff. This is why I'll be looking at other options, based on cheap processing hardware.
    Reply
  • tonyE
    How about the Tice Clock?

    I use two of them, with cheaters so I can run them out of phase. Both set to a 24 setting and with the display dimmed and facing outwards ( they should NEVER be visible to the listener because that adds some roughness to male vocals and Polish violas) from right behind the speakers.

    They add a iron menotrome pace to the system and deepen the soundstage so you hear Big Ben in anything recorded in a London Studio.

    Naturally, you need to run the Belt and Suspenders suspension on them.
    Reply
  • Balivernes
    I invested in Sonos for 4 rooms around 15 years ago, and, during those years, my Sonos setup outlived 1 NAD CD player, 1 NAD amp and 1 top of the range Cambridge Audio CD player (840c) that all failed beyond economical repair. I also had to repair at some expense my top of the range Cambridge Audio amplifier (840a). So, I absolutely do not buy the notion of intrinsic longevity of hifi devices.

    My Sonos setup never had the slightest glitch and still works perfectly. Thanks to constant updates, it now operates much better and much more flexibly than when I bought it initially. Sonos has clearly been my best hifi investment, on par with my Dynaudio passive speakers.

    So, while I was surprised by the first e-mail mentioning Sonos plans to treat my setup as "legacy", I am not shocked or disappointed. If ever I really want new functionality unsupported by my current devices, I'll upgrade the hardware, as long as I can do that gradually. Otherwise, I expect to remain a happy user of the functionality I have today, which is much more functionality than what I had originally paid for.

    I honestly do not understand the enraged reactions.
    Reply
  • DougK
    Some amps last a long time. I've got a Kenwood amp from 1990 and it still works perfectly. Doubt any Sonos product will ever be able to beat 30+ years!
    Reply
  • tonyE
    Funny, my ADS L810 and Kenwood amp come from 1976 and they still work.

    My tube stuff was build in the 80s and has been maintained.... works great.

    I got a closet full of classic analog components that work just fine. Big Marantz, Sansui, Quad Sansui, Akai... etc, etc..

    I think, wit the sole exception of phone cartridges and perhaps turntables ( OK, my Linn LP12 dates from the mid 90s but it has been maintened,) analog stuff lasts a long time because it's not tied down to an encoding fornat for the source

    Digital stuff, OTOH, is tied to ever evolving and changing formats.

    I got LPs that were pressed in the 50s, they sound great today. In fact, they likely sound better today than when they were released new.
    Reply