When Sonos said in late January that some of its earliest speaker models were going to lose full software support starting this spring, the backlash in the Sonos community was swift. Sonos customers on Twitter and Facebook fired off angry missives about the company “bricking” their older devices, compelling chief executive Patrick Spence to send an email to customers apologizing for the confusion and clarifying some of the company’s plans around aging speakers.
Then, in early March, Sonos said users could effectively trade in or “recycle” their old Sonos speakers without actually having to send in the old hardware; they could keep it running as is.
Now, Sonos is revealing even more details about how it plans to continue to support existing speakers while it paves the way for new hardware products in the coming months. Unfortunately, Sonos’ future workaround involves two distinct operating systems—as well as two different Sonos mobile apps.
Antoine Leblond, Sonos’ vice president of software, said in an interview that the company believes this is the right approach.
“The options we have are either stop supporting [the legacy speakers], or fork off the system in some way like this, where we can keep the newer products that have more capacity and more horsepower. Then, for the ones that don’t, we can at least maintain the experience,” Leblond says.
Starting in June, Sonos will roll out a new operating system for its speakers and a new consumer-facing app. The OS will be called Sonos S2, while the new app will become the most up-to-date version of the Sonos app. A second app, called Sonos S1, will be the “old” app and the one you’ll have to use if you’re trying to control four specific legacy product lines: the original Zone Players (later called Connect and Connect: Amp), the first-generation Play:5 speaker, an old controller called the CR200, and the Sonos Bridge.
The Sonos S2 OS and new Sonos app will support higher-resolution audio formats; will include more “personalization” features, including one that might support better different family member accounts on the same system; and will give users more options when grouping speakers into “zones” around the house. Sonos declined to share more details about the new app and OS beyond that, saying more info would be available as the software was closer to launching.
Any new Sonos hardware product that launches after June will only run on the S2 OS and will only be controllable with the new version of the app. And that’s where things might get confusing. By forking its software into two versions of the Sonos OS and app, Sonos has actually created a potentially complicated labyrinth of legacy products, current or new-ish products, and not-yet-released products that may not all work together on the same software system.
Sonos has tried to stress that the older products are still going to be supported, but it has made the distinction that they’re not going to get new software updates and therefore won’t get most new features, with the exception of bug fixes and security patches. You can still cluster legacy speakers together for multiroom audio. It’s when you mix old and new products that things get confusing.
So if you have a new version of the Sonos One speaker (2019), but you also happen to have an original Sonos Play: 5 (2009), you have a few options, none of which are ideal. First, you can remove the Play:5 from your Sonos setup, upgrade the Sonos One speaker to the S2 OS and new Sonos app, and get all of the latest features on your speaker. Second, you could “trade in” that Play:5, get 30 percent off of a newer Sonos product, and then do whatever you want with the old speaker—discard it, hand it off to a friend, or store it in your personal speaker museum. Or third, you could keep using the Play:5, only you’ll have to decide if you want to run two disparate systems and apps—one for that speaker, one for your newer Sonos One—or keep every speaker running on the less modern Sonos S1 OS and Sonos S1 app.
Once Sonos introduces new speakers later this year (and for argument’s sake let’s give Sonos the benefit of the doubt, even though Covid-19 is disrupting global supply chains), those new speakers will be required to run on the S2 software. So you’ll either have to ditch your legacy Sonos speakers and run all your newer ones on S2, or, again, have two disparate Sonos networks going in your home. You will not be able to plunk a newly released Sonos product onto an S1 network.
Leblond said the company has “jumped through hoops” to keep some of Sonos’ legacy speakers in rotation for a dozen years. “I will stand here and firmly believe that we’ve done more to do this than just about anyone else out there, in terms of supporting our existing older products for as long as possible. But it’s always been a part of reality, and I think we’ve always understood, that at some point we’re going to have to deal with the fact that you can’t just keep pushing more stuff onto these constrained products.” He added that Sonos has been working on a software solution to this dilemma for about a year now.
Leblond is right about one thing: In the still relatively new market for internet-connected home devices, it’s hard to think of many products that have been fully operational for 10 to 15 years. Sonos, however, has built its brand on a kind of seamless and simple audio experience. In recent years it has struggled to work with giants like Amazon and Google—the latter of which Sonos has sued—in order to offer voice assistant features across its speakers, and it had to settle for making customers choose between the two assistants.
Now it plans to roll out a bifurcated software system. It’s hard to know how well it will work at this point, but what’s certain is that Sonos’ customers will let the company know if it doesn’t.