See what I did there?
As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it turns out, by looking to invest in nicer speakers I ended up switching services and voice assistants along the way. I thought it’d be worth discussion as to why I decided to move to Sonos from the Chromecast setup we had, and some of the pros and cons I’ve noticed in the past few months.
Google stops playing (and sounding) nice
Something funny happened in the past year or so. Google, long known as the ‘open’ ecosystem, became a bit less so. With continued integration between the Nest and Google lines, it’s becoming less open and more of an ecosystem play with Google’s products. That’s fine, but it’s not why I initially bought Chromecasts, Google (now Nest) Hubs, etc. I was hopeful they’d give me the best shot of buying nearly any smart home product and they’d work.
Combine that with an increasing discomfort with Google’s data collection across more and more areas and mediocre sound quality on the Google Homes (and especially the Nest Hub & Home Minis), and I was interested in checking out a different approach to whole-home audio.
A few months ago I had posted an article about Google slowly locking down their smart assistant ecosystem and how I felt like it was time to explore a change. My home setup was a few Google Home & Minis, 2 Chromecast Audios plugged into existing speaker setups on our deck and patio areas, and a Google Nest Hub in our kitchen. We used Spotify for the most part, but I missed the feeling I used to have when using iTunes / Apple Music in years prior. Specifically, I’ve always been more interested in albums and Spotify is very playlist and “mood” centric. I think there’s a time an place for that but in general I was questioning the value of paying for Spotify despite its strengths compared to Apple Music.
Outside of the Google Home stuff, most of our “smart home” stuff is pretty platform agnostic:
- 2 Nest thermostats
- A bunch of Wemo and iHome smart plug
- MyQ garage door
- A Roomba
- A HomePod (obviously the biggest outlier)
I’ve mostly relied on using Homebridge via a Raspberry Pi to stitch everything together so that we can use HomeKit scenes to automate most of our scenes (morning, evening, leaving & arriving home). We don’t really automate a ton, but I like being able to make sure the garage is closed if we’re both not home for a certain period of time, the lights are off if we’re away, or they come on if we are home and it’s almost sunset. Overall, pretty basic stuff – I’ve grown kind of sour on most of the stuff “smart” home devices offer these days so we’ve kept things pretty simple at our new house.
If we were going to ditch the Google Homes, we needed something to replace them with something that provided great sound, integrated with whatever music service we wanted, and worked in multiple rooms. Enter Sonos.
Why did I choose Sonos?
I’d been thinking about getting Sonos speakers for years now, as I wanted to get something that was service and platform agnostic. Sonos nails that – they integrate with all of the major streaming services, podcast services, audiobook vendors and even offer multiple options for voice assistants (Google Assistant and Alexa). Throw in Airplay 2 support and it was a no-brainer to upgrade most of our Google Home devices with Sonos Ones. One of my favorite things about the Sonos ecosystem is that you can control the speakers via their app or most services’ default apps (Apple Music is an exception, no huge surprise there).
There was a catch with our house – we have outdoor speakers that wouldn’t be easy to hook up to a Sonos speaker. To get our deck wired up, we replaced the Chromecast Audios we were using with 2 Airport Express units that I bought off of eBay. They’re AirPlay 2 compatible, so I was able to plug them straight into the amps for the 2 outdoor speakers we have and we had an Airplay 2 optimized home. Instead of spending hundreds for a Sonos amp, I was able to get something “good enough” for around $45.
Comparing AirPlay 2 to Casting
Previously, we had an entire setup that was all Google Cast powered, so we could ask any speaker to play music and it’d start playing Spotify wherever we wanted. With Sonos speakers, we introduced some small trade offs for the additional flexibility and sound quality. Some of the key differences between Airplay 2 and Casting:
- Casting isn’t tied to your device at all. Airplay 2 still relies on a source to stream to each audio source, so that means if you were to stray too far away from your WiFi while controlling music it’d stop playing eventually. That’s not the case with Sonos, only Airplay 2 based streams.
- Native iOS integration of Airplay 2 means that management of whole-home audio is much easier than it was from Spotify or the Google Home app (from control center or the Apple Watch now playing screen you can control any speaker that’s playing music)
- Google Cast allows you to create named groups to send music to, while Airplay 2 uses your house layout to dictate grouping. Invoking an entire floor is pretty easy on both platforms but if I want to only call on a subset of speakers I could name that subset with Cast, where on Airplay I’d need to ask for each room when invoking that subset. Hoping I can eventually use HomePod shortcuts integration to fix this.
- I use apps to invoke music way more than by voice now. This is actually a good thing because previously I’d typically ask for the same few playlists over and over. It’s similar to how I panic and order the same meal every time at a restaurant when pressed. Now, I find myself queueing up different albums and playlists all the time.
Add a dash of HomePod
Airplay 2 stuff won’t work with the Sonos system so I have to control them with my phone or iPad if I want to play music everywhere, but this really isn’t a big deal. If we ever want to go 100% into the Sonos world, we can always get something like the Sonos Amp, but I can’t really imagine that happening, to be honest. The only time we really need whole-home audio are if we’re having some sort of group gathering and want to play music everywhere. For now, if I want to play anything on our Sonos setup, outdoor speakers and my office don’t fit into the picture. But as previously mentioned, Sonos speakers are all Airplay 2 compatible, so if I want to play a song everywhere I just have to invoke the music from my phone, iPad or Mac.
Or a HomePod.
Another purchase I made about a year ago was a HomePod. They were on sale at Best Buy, so I picked on up, figuring I’d either return it or sell it eventually. The sound is fantastic, filling my office with very rich sound and serving as a HomeKit hub. Obviously, there are limitations to using a HomePod as well – currently it’s very ecosystem-limited. You can Airplay nearly anything to it but as far as native integration goes, it’s Apple Music or the highway. But it’s by far the best sounding speaker I own. It has smarts to auto tune itself for the room that it’s in, and it shows.
For a while, I just used it when I was working from home but once we made the Sonos switch, I started thinking more about moving to Apple Music. Originally, moving to Sonos wasn’t really about moving away from Spotify. That happened after messing around with the possibilities of an AirPlay 2 based whole-home audio setup. With HomePod + AirPlay 2 you can use your phone to control the HomePod and make that the primary audio source, sending music to the other speakers throughout the house. That way, you don’t run into most of the limitations that AirPlay 2 has compared to Chromecast. Since the HomePod is streaming music to all of the other speakers in our house instead of my phone, it’s really the best of both worlds. If Apple ends up allowing Spotify as a native HomePod integration later this year, it’ll be an even more elegant solution.
Google Assistant to Alexa
My original goals were to replace the Google Homes with better sounding speakers but leave nearly everything else in tact. However, one that original choice was set into motion I found myself making other tweaks as I went – integration with the HomePod, focusing more on Airplay 2, and then switching the default assistant on the Sonos speakers to use Alexa.
The reason is simply the cascading effects of moving to Apple Music. Alexa works with Apple, while Google does not. It’s still too early to have a ton of observations about Alexa vs Google Assistant but I will say that the UX of the Alexa app is light years better than the nested options hellscape Google has put out.
I’ve definitely added a little bit of short term complexity to how we were playing music in our house by making this switch. I know my wife has had a few instances where she throws her hands up with my constant experimentation with this sort of stuff. However, the trade offs have been worth it so far for me:
- Way better sounding speakers overall.
- More choices & service integration.
- I’ve been really happy with Apple Music as a Spotify convert.
- More music variety as a result of me invoking music via apps instead of voice.
- Moving to Alexa puts my tech eggs in more baskets, and reduces my dependence on Google.
- The previous setup was more streamlined compared to what we have right now. We could invoke music to any speaker via voice and it just worked.
I’ll be interested to see what Apple has in store for the HomePod as opening it up will further improve the flexibility of what we can play across the entire home. If Apple ends up releasing a mini version or one with a screen (my dream product), then we’d really be cooking.