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Faster to use, but missing many features, the new Sonos app is a work in progress

Music Library in the updated Sonos app for iOS.
Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

How it started: Sonos releases the biggest update to its mobile apps in years, with an entirely revamped interface.

How it’s going: People aren’t happy that many of their favorite features haven’t survived the transition.

That pretty much sums up the state of affairs now that we’re about 3 days into Sonos’ new mobile apps for iOS and Android. The new version has some clear advantages, especially for those who regularly only use a handful of streaming services and don’t use deeper Sonos features like timers or alarms.

The Sonos subreddit is quickly becoming a space for unhappy users to vent their frustrations with the changes, even if they’re only a vocal minority.

I’m sympathetic to their concerns and share many of them. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the Music Library — which lets Sonos users play music from their private collection stored on a computer or network-attached storage (NAS) — is no longer searchable and has been seemingly demoted to the same level of importance as the line-in option for Sonos components that have an auxiliary port.

For its part, Sonos has somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged that the new app might not be the upgrade that all of its customers were looking for. The company told me by email the following: “We’re continuing to fine-tune the experience of the app and will be rolling this feature out in the coming months. This revitalization of the Sonos app is our most ambitious software update yet, and aims to address what our customers have been asking us for. It’s a huge undertaking, and we are taking the time and effort to ensure all features work seamlessly and meet both our standards and the standards of our listeners.”

But before this becomes a litany of complaints, let’s take a deep dive into the new design and give Sonos credit where credit’s due, while we also take careful note of what needs to be improved.

Smooth operator

An iPhone displaying the new Sonos iOS app in front of a Sonos Move 2 speaker.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Sonos had several priorities it wanted to address with its redesign. Chief among them was a faster overall experience that makes it faster to find the music you want and faster to control it on all of your devices.

As long as the music you want isn’t stored in your Music Library (see above), I think the new design succeeds.

In removing the bottom tabs from the previous design, and rethinking the organization of the home screen, you can now get to your favorites, the search function, and the full list of Sonos devices in your home with fewer taps and swipes.

Before, you had to perform a kind of mental order of operations by deciding which tab to start in. Are you performing a search? Start on the fourth tab. Found what you want, but not sure where it should play? Switch to the third tab and pick a room. Changed your mind and now you want to browse your music services? Switch again, this time to the second tab.

Now, the same decisions must be made, but everything is closer together and quicker to access.

The design also presents a lot more on the screen. I can see how some may find it a tad more cluttered, but I really appreciate the smaller thumbnails for Sonos Favorites, for instance. On the old My Sonos tab, these were huge and felt ungainly to manage. The layout was inconsistent — the Playlists section got large thumbnails, while the Songs section got smaller ones. The new design brings order to this chaos.

More responsive

I’ve also found that managing my Sonos devices is faster, with fewer hiccups. The app also seems to be more forgiving of my unorthodox use of speakers. I have two Ikea Symfonisk Bookshelf speakers in our garage and they’re plugged into power outlets tied to the garage’s lighting. When I turn off the lights, those speakers lose power.

The previous app hated this. It would constantly remind me that the speakers weren’t connected, and when I tried to adjust the app preferences to never display disconnected speakers, that setting never stuck. The moment I closed and reopened the app, the speakers would reappear along with their error message.

The new app happily ignores these disconnected speakers, giving me a clean list of the speakers and components that I can actually control.

More customizable

You’ve always been able to edit the content on the My Sonos tab, but having a single screen that incorporates all of that content, plus your Services and Sources, in any order you choose, makes the overall app experience way more personalized. Better yet, these choices are done at a device level, so just because you want to see your recently played content at the the top of your screen doesn’t mean everyone in your family needs to see it there too (or at all).

I think everyone will agree that being able to select one of your services as your “preferred” choice makes sense (especially since my preferred service can be different than my spouse’s). But in this case, I don’t think Sonos went far enough; we should be able exert control over the order on all of our services.

I don’t like the new search

Time for some constructive criticism. The previous app gave us a choice between Sonos’ classic search results and its “new” search. After a few days of using the new search, I gratefully reverted back to the classic version. Little did I know that I was about to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new search with the app update.

Why don’t I like it? Perhaps my searching habits are odd; I like to enter a query like “queen” and then filter the results by type. Yes, the obvious match would be the legendary band. But maybe I’m looking for a particular song, like The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen, or an album like Nicki Minaj’s Queen.

With the old search, I could quickly refine results by tapping on the appropriate category (artist, song, album, etc.), and Sonos would show me matches organized by source (including my Music Library).

In the new search interface, results are always grouped by streaming service, with each service doing its best to guess what you’re looking for. Needless to say, “queen” brings up the British mega band right away. But if that’s not what you’re after, you need to dive into each service’s deeper search results. At that point, you’re down the rabbit hole and switching to a different service’s results means backing your way out.

And even though your preferred service will always be the first set of results, there’s no way to set the order of the remaining results. And annoyingly, if not surprisingly, Sonos has set its own Sonos Radio service as the No.2 result.

Part of my negative reaction to the new search has to do with my historical praise for Sonos as a company. I’ve said repeatedly that Sonos’ software is world-class and that its universal search is second to none. I guess it stings a little to know that this may no longer be true.

Volume is just a number

Redditors were quick to note that Sonos has made a small, but important change to the volume slider for the currently selected speaker. Before the update, a changing numeric value (from 1 to 100) was displayed above the slider, taking the guesswork out of choosing a precise level. Now, it’s gone.

Well, not entirely gone, but it has been buried. If you tap the new group icon, you’ll see the current speaker and all of your other components as a list. The volume sliders in this view have numeric displays. Let’s hope this change was inadvertent on Sonos’ part.

A move that seems quite intentional by comparison is the removal of the EQ shortcut that used to live beside the numeric volume indicator.

Wake up, never

If you’re among those who like to use the alarm feature built into the Sonos app, you likely experienced a rude awakening when you opened the new app. Alarms are gone, and so are the sleep timers.

I don’t know if previously set alarms will continue to work (I hadn’t set any before the update), but one thing’s for sure — you can no longer create or modify them from the mobile app.

There is a workaround: Even though Sonos wants us all to migrate from the native Mac and Windows apps to the company’s new web app, the native apps still work (for now), and they still let you access the alarms and sleep timers.

It’s anyone’s guess as to when alarms and sleep timers will return to mobile.

Cue the culling of the queue

One of my favorite Sonos experiences from the past few years was sitting around our living room with friends as we reminisced about our favorite tunes from high school. As each person shouted out a new track, I searched for it and added it to our play queue. By the end of the evening, we had a fantastic, nostalgia-laden queue that I immediately saved as a Sonos playlist.

If I tried to do the same thing in the new app, I’d be out of luck. The Clear, Edit, and Save buttons that used to grace the bottom of every Sonos Queue screen are gone.

Perhaps more frustrating is the absence of queue-related options when you tap the three dots next to a track or an album. Play Now, Play Next, and Add to Queue have disappeared — only Save to Sonos Favorites and Replace Queue remain.

‘The app is effectively broken’

So far, I’ve covered the big, obvious problems with Sonos’ app redesign. However, as annoying as they are, they don’t prevent people from using their Sonos systems. That’s not the case for blind and visually impaired users.

After I initially wrote about the difficulties blind people were having with the redesign, Christopher Danielsen, National Federation of the Blind director of public relations, reached out to me via email to express his deep frustration with Sonos.

“Accessibility isn’t a ‘feature,'” Danielsen said. “Please understand that for blind users, the app is effectively broken. Unless you are a pretty motivated and experienced screen reader user, you likely won’t be able to get it to work at all.”

At issue is how the new design works with Apple’s VoiceOver accessibility feature. “Selecting a streaming service and speaker may take [sighted users] seconds; it literally now takes me well over a minute,” Danielsen points out. “[Sonos] has betrayed us and broken our trust. The company knowingly delivered an app that blind users can barely operate, if at all.”

Blind usability advocate Jonathan Mosen has written a lengthy post on his site cataloging the concerns, along with an earnest plea for Sonos to fix them.

Others have noted a plethora of error messages as they try to use the app. There have been reports of people who can no longer access their Music Library if it’s stored on an NAS, and Android users say they’ve lost the ability to use the Sonos widget on their phone’s home screens.

Why, Sonos? Why?

A possible leaked image of the unreleased Sonos headphones.
Schuurman/Sonos

The sentiment that keeps popping up in many of these complaints is sheer incredulity. Why would Sonos release such a major update with so many obviously missing features?

My guess is that the company became a victim of its own promises.

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence has said repeatedly that the company’s next big product (which most observers agree will be Sonos’ first wireless headphones) will be released by June. That only three weeks away.

If this new product relies on features that could only be delivered via a completely redesigned app architecture, Sonos may have decided that it was more important to roll out the new app with plenty of time before the product launch than to ensure each and every feature from the old app made the transition.

I can only imagine what the meetings were like in the final days before the new app launched as staff argued over the list of features that wouldn’t make the cut.

Despite this decision, I have confidence that Sonos will listen carefully to these concerns. It may take a few weeks — or even months — but eventually, we’ll have a Sonos app that delivers all of the benefits of the new design and the beloved features that are currently missing.

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