Sonos: The Gadget I Can't Live Without

After sure, but steady progress Sonos' wireless music system is now in 1 million homes worldwide, is it the gadget that you just can't do without?
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After sure, but steady progress Sonos' wireless music system is now in 1 million homes worldwide, is it the gadget that you just can't do without?

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This has been a big month for Sonos. After six years of quietly transforming the way people enjoy, share and rediscover their music collections, they've finally passed a major milestone. As they put it - they're now playing music in a million rooms around the world.

OK, so compared with Apple's terrifying expansion and gradual domination of humanity's gadget obsession, a million units is pretty small potatoes. But Sonos has never seemed to be about scoring record sales or laying waste to the home stereo market - they just enjoy making great products that people love. They're the gadget equivalent of the small family-run restaurant that you have to book two weeks in advance. The kind that turns down the offer of larger premises because they worry that they wouldn't be able to offer the same level of service if they had three times as many covers.

When Sonos first launched, critics applauded the system's ease-of-use and Apple-worthy user interface, arguing that if you were going to kit out your home with wireless music, you might as well go for the best-in-class. The drawback, as with most things, was the prohibitive pricing. When I took the plunge in 2006 after some extensive home renovations, a three-room starter kit set me back just short of two grand. Since then, the range has expanded gradually, offering ever more affordable options. Now the S5 (with built-in speakers) and its underweight sibling, the Play:3, mean that there's no need for buying any speakers and cables. Even with integrated speakers, the sound is rich, clear and can fill a room like Michelle McManus in a photo-booth.

When Sonos first launched, critics applauded the system's ease-of-use and Apple-worthy user interface, arguing that if you were going to kit out your home with wireless music, you might as well go for the best-in-class

Aside from the product innovations, and regular software updates that beam wirelessly to the various units, Sonos also won plenty of goodwill when they launched their iPhone, iPad and Android controller apps. Whereas other electronics company might understandably charge for a piece of software that effectively negates the need for their proprietary controller unit, Sonos gave it away for free. So now, when we have a friends over, anyone with a smartphone can simply download the app and start commandeering the music.

Sonos is the perfect solution for a party - it's like pass-the-parcel meets the world's greatest jukebox. Pour the drinks, get round the table and take it in turns to add a track to the playlist. The only groundrules are that no-one's allowed to jump the queue or remove someone else's choice. If your collection is as broad and eclectic as mine, you'll be amazed at the random choices other people will make. This summer, we went from R.E.M to Lady Gaga to E.L.O, via Bugsy Malone and Bert Kampfert. You won't find that kind of tracklisting on Now 78.

Of course, there are other, more affordable wireless music systems out there. But with limited functionality and overly fussy designs, nothing really comes close to the simplicity of Sonos. Seven weeks ago, when Apple released their OS Lion update, Sonos suddenly stopped working. To cut a long and desperately tedious story short, Apple decided to change the file sharing permissions in their new operating system. And since Sonos takes the files directly from your hard drive (assuming you're not using a Network Attached Storage device), this meant that the entire system was locked out of the music folder.

As the technicians were busy working on a fix, the company was regularly in contact to apologise profusely for the inconvenience and give an idea of when the problem would be solved. It's not that I was completely without music, since last year Sonos finally launched its collaboration with Spotify. So that's several million tracks still readily available at the touch of a... well, a touchscreen.

Don't get me wrong, I love Spotify. But those seven weeks in my own personal audio wilderness made me realise that, of all the ridiculous gadgets and gizmos I own, Sonos is the only one I couldn't live without. I know, I know -#whitepeoplesproblems. Even so, what gadget could you never be without?

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