Sonos: Whats the Big Deal Anyhow?

I love my Sonos. I. Love. It.

Every now and then a company comes along and invents a transformative product that changes the status-quo. Founded in 2002, Sonos is an American company that brought “wireless audio” to the mass market. In 2005, two years before the first iPhone came out, Sonos introduced the ZP100, an amplifier that could play digital music files from a computer or networked hard drive. After changing the game, Sonos has helped lead the digital audio streaming revolution with its wireless speaker system. The company just went public, and I’m sure some people just became kazillionaires.

Many other companies have come to market with their own excellent wireless speaker solutions. Thirteen years after Sonos released its first product  Apple released its Home Pod. Amazon’s Alexa “smart speakers” have now surpassed Sonos in speaker sales, but that is not comparing apples to apples. Alexa, like Google speakers, is more of a “smart speaker” rather than a full-bodied audio solution. Besides, Alexa is now built in to the newer Sonos speakers, and Google will be baked right into Sonos in the near future. Anyhow, this is a growing space and now, more than ever, we consumers have plenty of exciting options to enjoy our music… with or without speaker wires.

A quick refresher: a “wireless speaker” isn’t completely wireless.

Speakers need power so most wireless speakers (except the few that offer battery power) actually do have a wire for power; all of Sonos’ speakers need to be plugged into an outlet. But a “wireless speaker” does not require a speaker wire as the amp and speaker are built into the same chassis (as opposed to the amp connected to speakers via speaker wires). This is handy because if running wire isn’t an option, we can now stream our music to multiple zones in the house – all you need to listen to “All the music on earth” (Sonos’ tagline) is a power outlet.

I love Sonos for the same reasons I love Apple. I like clean lines. It works reliably and is relatively simple and intuitive to use. Relative is the operative word here. Although Sonos is by no means as full-featured as many of its competitors, it does what it does very well. Other companies want their products to work with Sonos, so there is value-add in terms of functionality with other products. Sonos was the first to support Apple Music. It now supports Apple’s AirPlay and Alexa, and Google Assistant functionality is forthcoming. IFTT (If This Then That) now works with Sonos, Lutron, Logitech, Iport, 3rd party apps, etc. And even as Sonos innovates on the software side and it develops new hardware, its older hardware continues to last the test of time. Your Sonos will get better and work for the long haul.

Sonos also has one very important trick up its sleeve that, to my knowledge, no competitor does: Sonosnet.

Sonosnet is the dedicated and proprietary wireless mesh network that Sonos creates for its speakers. This means its speakers work wirelessly outside of the range of traditional Wifi. And, the more speakers you add, the better it gets. Think flexible placement. Think reliability.

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How to Find the Audio Sweet Spot

Linear frequency. Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Total Harmonic Distortion. Bit Depth. Sample Rate.

There a plenty of objective scientific ways to measure just how well an audio source and device can work together in a space to replicate the sound that was produced in a recording studio. Ultimately, the sound we hear is the result of several factors that can include the quality of the recording itself, the quality of the music source (ie. mp3 vs CD, tape vs vinyl, etc), the quality of the audio gear (ie. speakers, amps,etc) and the actual audio properties of the space you are in (i.e. living room or gymnasium). Luckily, we can control most of these factors to maximize our listening pleasure.

Home audio solutions for every room in your home.

For audio, controlling the variables is generally pretty straight forward.

A high-resolution audio stream versus a low-resolution will always sound better. Properly pairing a high-quality amp with quality speakers to best your space is not always as straight forward as it may seem, but doing it is a no brainer. If you want better sound, get better gear. This said, in my opinion, it is also true that there is diminishing return on value once you get to high quality; there are some people who see the point in breaking the bank for a marginal subjective gain in audio, and who are willing to pay a lot of money for it – I am not one of those people.

I am the same way about a lot of things actually. My wife and I will be shopping for winter tires soon and will be looking for the best reasonably priced high-quality tires that I can trust to keep my family as safe as possible. We refuse to buy crap and don’t just want good tires – we want excellent tires. We also don’t want the most expensive tires in the world, though I get that some people do. To me a $20-$30 dollar bottle of wine tastes way better than the $10 bottle of wine and while I suppose the $2,000 bottle may taste marginally better, there are a lot of other things I could do with my money. My sweet spot hovers in that space where high quality meets high value.

So what’s my point? There is an objective difference between good sound and bad sound and it is relatively easy to control for this. But the value we get from things and experiences are necessarily subjective. If you just listen to the news, go ahead and get the cheap stuff. If you are an obsessed audiophile, go ahead and put a second mortgage on your home.

But, let’s assume that great minds think alike. Here are some things to consider when finding the audio sweet spot:

· Find a knowledgeable professional like myself to consult with. Luckily there are countless audio solutions on the market but finding the perfect solution can be daunting. A non-commissioned professional will take the time to consider your budget, your space and how you actually listen to music to help you make the perfect purchase. A professional with help you deploy a properly designed solution.

· Get a subwoofer. I am not necessarily talking about pissing off your neighbours, but rather about filling in the low end of the audio spectrum that makes music feel real.

· Spend the extra pocket change required each month to subscribe to a high-quality streaming music service. The audio source matters. If you actually like listening to music but are streaming the free version of TuneIn Radio to save money… get a life.

· Do not listen to music through your television’s built-in speaker. Ever.

Here’s the thing: If enjoy listening to music, not only will you enjoy it more when it sounds good, but you will listen more often; bad sound creates ear fatigue. So find the sweet spot and get the gear that sounds good and is easy to use… then get on with your life and start listening to more music.

I’m always up for questions – call me today for a chat!

Until next time friends,

Jess

So, What is a Smart Home Exactly?

By Jess Rothenburger

There is a lot of talk about the ‘Smart Home’ these days. The term is thrown around loosely, and I am not sure a textbook definition even exists. Other terms, such as ‘Integrated Home’ or ‘Automated Home’, also exist, to further complicate the matter. 

 

In my opinion, at its root, a Smart Home is one that leverages some sort of technology to enhance how someone experiences living in that home. An enhanced experience can make a person feel more secure, or comfortable, or cool – and I don’t just mean temperature. 

 

By the above definition, the truth is you probably already live in a Smart Home and use smart devices every day. Think about it. Do you have a thermostat that keeps your house a set temperature or that can even change the temperature based on a schedule? Do you have an alarm clock? Does your oven beep when the chicken is cooked? Does your toaster pop the bread when it has turned into toast?

 

Our homes are already smart, and thankfully they are getting smarter. Do you remember when power locks and power windows were options in a car? The same thing is happening in the home. Multi-room audio systems, smart locks, smart thermostats, etc. are gradually becoming standard features. I happen to live with these and, frankly, I can’t imagine not having them in my house. This is a good thing. 

 

The Smart Home is here to stay, so it can be helpful to dissect what we actually mean by ‘Smart Home’. Here are some qualities found in today’s Smart Home systems that not only help us understand what we mean by “smart”, but that can help us differentiate among the myriad of offerings: 

 

CONTROL: Smart Homes are almost always controllable via your smart device. Some solutions allow for local control and others allow you to control your home remotely as well. Additionally, there is the option for on-wall control, touchscreen control, universal remote control and voice control. 

 

Ask yourself: What ways of controlling my smart home are important and most convenient for me? 

 

PROGRAMMING: Basic solutions allow you to set schedules and timers. (Turn my lights on ten minutes after the sun sets) Programming is telling your system to trigger an event when something else happens. (When I get home, turn up the thermostat) The more advanced the system, the more intricate and involved and intelligent this programming can be. Traditional smart home solutions can require a trained professional like me to install the system and to implement high level programming, but basic programming can be done by the homeowner across most platforms. 

 

Ask yourself: How ‘smart’ do I want my house to be? Am I prepared to get someone to help me, or would I rather keep it basic and do it myself?

 

AUTOMATION: To my mind, a truly automated system is one that has the capacity to unify a wide variety of sub-systems under one umbrella while having them communicate with each other; the sub-systems in your home can have a two-way dialog and one sub-system’s action can inform another’s. Automation may necessarily involve higher-level programming that works continuously in the background.  So, the lights turning on at sunset is smart.  Automation is when, for example, in the case your system detects C02, it knows to turn on the pathway lights to the nearest exit, turn off your circulating air, unlock the door, open your garage and send you and your loved ones a text message.

 

Ask yourself:  Do I need the convenience of basic programming, or do I need the peace of mind and added functionality that comes from a truly automated house?

 

CLOUD-BASED or LOCAL INTELLIGENCE: Some solutions leverage the power of the internet and the cloud to communicate between the smart devices in your home – this can be cost effective but result in a laggy user experience. And, if your internet is out, you are out of luck. Some products have physical or software attributes built-in so that devices can work together across a certain platform, like Apple’s Homekit.  Other solutions require a “hub” which is a locally connected network device that facilitates the communication between smart devices. Some hubs are application or product specific and others are designed to make several solutions work together. Traditional solutions involve a “controller” which is effectively a computer that can replace a multitude of hubs. Controllers also have more physical connections and attributes to be able to integrate the lights, TV’s, audio, security system, video cameras, intercom, etc. Importantly, a controller has the processing power to reliably control all of this quickly, securely and reliably. 

 

Ask yourself: Do I need my smart home to do a few things pretty well most of the time, or is it crucial that my smart home do many things very well quickly and reliably? 

 

You can accurately guess that there are seemingly countless “smart home” solutions out there. Some are great and others are, frankly, crap. Getting clear on what works with what and which solution makes the most sense for you can be time consuming and frustrating. 

 

The smartest homes are those where the appropriate solutions meet your expectations and budget.  The smart thing for you to do is to consult with a home technologist so he or she can help you achieve the goal of making your home as smart as you want it to be.

What Kind of Music Listener are you?

By Jess Rothenburger

 

As a home technologist, a large part of what I do is deploying audio systems in people’s homes. In the past years I have learned more than I thought possible about audio, and I know enough to know how much I still don’t know. It’s fascinating, actually, but learning about audio can be a bit of rabbit hole. Without knowledge, discerning which audio product is the best solution for an application can be a real challenge.  So, an important part of my job is matching the solution to the needs of my customers and, in so doing, the first thing I ask is: What kind of music listener are you? 

 

In my experience, people can generally be categorized into three music listener categories:  

1) AUDIOPHILE  2) LOW-FI LISTENER  3) DISCERNING LISTENER.

 

Let’s dissect these people a little bit, shall we?

 

AUDIOPHILE: If you haven’t heard this term before, there is a good chance you are not an Audiophile. If you don’t own FLAC or MQA files, have a Dragonfly or know what a DAC is, you are not an Audiophile. Audiophile – it sounds like a bad word, doesn’t it? On the contrary, Audiophiles are, in my view, to be respected. Simply put, Audiophiles LOVE music and, importantly, they love finding the best ways to play recorded music as close to its original and purest form as possible. Quality over quantity. You can usually tell Audiophiles, because they will not only have high quality equipment, but they embrace any opportunity to show it off. They can have large music collections that include CD’s, Vinyl and 24bit/192khz digital music files. Audiophiles often also like to talk about music… the best mastering of albums, the virtues of vinyl vs. digital, types of speakers, etc. I guess, in a way, it’s a subculture. Personally, I am not a self-described ‘Audiophile’ but I do think Audiophiles are cool, and I enjoy speaking their language. I dig their enthusiasm and passion for music.

 

LOW-FI LISTENER: Low-Fi Listeners basically doesn’t care how music sounds, because convenience is paramount. If the music is free, great.  Low-Fi Listeners are willing to compromise on performance to achieve shape or colour or gimmick.  Quantity over quality. MP3’s, free streaming music services, crappy headphones and cheap Bluetooth speakers come to mind here. Low-Fi Listeners want the beats fast and dirty, sometimes loud but most always cheap. Definitely not my style, but hey, I get it. To stereotype, the quintessential Low-Fi Listener is… a teenager, or pathologically cheap (sorry, it’s true).  As a side note, there are many adults who self-describe as Low-fi Listeners who are actually NOT – they just haven’t had a chance to discover who they really are…. like the dude who “only drives standard” until he has driven an automatic for a week never to go back to the tedium of shifting gears all the time.  

 

DISCERNING LISTENER:  The discerning listener is probably you…. which means you are a healthy mix of the Audiophile and the Low-Fi Listener. If this is you, welcome to the club! We Discerning Listeners value convenience, form factor AND quality sounding music. We don’t obsess over the tech specs of how the music is being played, we just know if it sounds good or not. We can tell the difference between CD quality and low-fi streaming audio, but it may be hard for us to tell the difference between a CD and a 24bit/192kHz Flac file. When we listen to background music for more than 10 minutes our ears get tired when the sound is bad, but we turn it up when the sound is good.   Generally, we prefer high quality audio if it’s convenient and we can afford it; that said, we are not going to break the bank either, because there are many other things we can spend our hard- earned money on.  We want quality, quantity and excellent value. 

 

Whoever you are and whichever imaginary category you may fit into, there is no judgment here. Respect all around. If you are a Low-Fi Listener, there isn’t much people like me can help you with. If you are an Audiophile – let’s play!  

 

If you are a Discerning Listener who wants high quality but doesn’t want to pay too much, please don’t be daunted by the gazillion offerings out there. There is an ideal solution for you, and people like me are here to help. Knowing what kind of listener you are is the first most important step.

To Wire or not to Wire? That is the Question

By Jess Rothenburger

When my father was a kid, he remembers anxiously waiting for his favourite radio show to come on after school – no Netflix back then. Today, my 3-year-old daughter has conversations and dance parties with Alexa, Siri and Google Home. I remember when the single phone in our house was attached to the wall in the kitchen and, after committing minutes to dialling the correct number, having to wrap the mangled phone chord down the hallway in vain hopes of having a private conversation. Today, I can control my home and complete important on-the-job tasks from the smart phone in my pocket. A quick Google search tells me that today’s smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969.

Now, we are entering the brave new world of voice recognition, artificial intelligence and the “Internet of things”. Our lives are becoming more interconnected whether we are at work, in our cars or at home. Yes, times have changed and no doubt the technology we use on a daily basis has improved immeasurably.

Wireless technology is an example of a modern luxury that has improved how we experience our homes. With it, we can stream 4k videos, transfer huge amounts of data, listen to music and perform countless technological miracles in our homes… without wires! Wireless media streamers. Wireless baby monitors. Wireless doorbells and video cameras…. even wireless speakers! It. Is. Awesome.

So, when you are renovating your home or building from scratch, should you even bother spending more money to run wires?

Counter intuitively, the answer to the above question is an unequivocal YES! Reliable and quality solutions (for example, security cameras, touchscreens, video doorbells, intercoms, audio systems, video systems, shading, etc.) require wires.

Having a professional pre-wire your house (including the proper pre-wire design) is, in my opinion, a no brainer because it is:
Affordable
Offers a reliable, high quality solution
Existing wireless devices work better when there are fewer wireless devices around
Running wires future proofs your home

Running wires is affordable. If I had a nickel for every time I have been in a gorgeous (and no doubt expensive) house where a customer wants a reliable security cameras system but can’t because the proper $50 wire was not run, I could retire early. The necessary design and pre-wire to make a new home ‘smart home ready’ can typically cost between $500-$1,500 depending on the size of the house. Having your equipment work flawlessly and having the option well into the future to install a desired solution is invaluable.

Reliable and high- quality solutions always work better with a wire. Low voltage wires transfer data and also provide power reliably. Wireless solutions, as handy as they are, often just don’t cut the mustard because of common issues like wireless interference and attenuation – as a function of the physical limitations of the space they are in, Wi-Fi devices often cannot get enough throughput to work reliably. And, obviously, a completely wireless device necessarily relies on a battery; in all my years of experience, I have yet to witness a dead battery change itself. Almost always, if the proper wire was run, the homeowner has the option to implement a solution that not only works better, it has a much higher uptime and looks better too. Don’t compromise on your convenience and comfort under the assumption that you’re initially saving on cost by not pre-wiring. Why buy a new car and put bald tires on it to save money?

Existing wireless devices work better when there are fewer wireless devices around. When it comes to wireless technology, less is more. Wireless solutions compete with each other and when too many devices are connected wirelessly you get problems that cause decreased data throughput and latency. The best and most affordable solution to this, with foresight, is to have all the devices that can work with a wire use a wire. Using the wireless equipment provided to you from your internet service provider, go ahead and stream a movie wirelessly, monitor your Wi-Fi video cameras, listen to music to on your Wi-Fi speakers, monitor the baby on the Wi-Fi monitor and turn on the microwave and see what happens. Save your Wi-Fi for your smartphone and the devices that require it, so they work reliably and provide robust performance every time.

Running wires future proofs your home. When you buy a car, you have to pay for the advanced features up front whether or not you would use them right away. If you want all-wheel drive now but can’t afford it, adding this later is not a realistic option. Luckily, when it comes to the modern ‘Smart Home’, you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can affordably choose the option to implement the solutions you really want when the time is right. The wrong time to wish you had a wire is when you are 20 feet up on a ladder in -15C weather, swapping out the dead battery on your wireless video camera. The wrong time to wish you had the wires is when you want that piece of furniture out (where your currently stereo sits) and wishing the speakers were in the ceiling. The wrong time to wish you had a wire is when you have the extended family over for Christmas and all the kids are wirelessly streaming “one last show” on Netflix before bedtime. Then, Uncle Bob decides to stream music in the other room and, crisis, the show won’t play and temper tantrums ensue.

Having a professional design and pre-wire your Smart Home is definitely the smart thing to do.